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Another Take: At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman

Given the length of postings and the previous presentation of this work in class I will endeavor to keep this posting to a minimum.

I admit that I was left somewhat unsettled by the class presentation of Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe. The book was already held in such high regard by so many members of the class that I was surprised to hear (what I felt) were glaring inconsistencies with the rest of the literature encountered so far in the course. I was also intrigued by the tone of some of the quotes from the book which bordered on the spiritual—even religious. It left me wanting for clarification. A few days later I found myself in a local bookstore browsing their pint-sized science section and was surprised to find this book staring me from the shelves. Noting the serendipity I picked it up.

I found in my reading that the presenter cannot be held to fault for my initial perception. In fact he did a good job of reporting what is there. The fact is that the book almost begs misquotation. Kauffman’s insistence on mining old ideologies and long debunked philosophies to find the language with which to tackle his subject results in a text that yields pages of useful blurbs which, if quoted selectively enough, read like an endorsement of creationism. It exists as one of those annoying texts that provides equal ammunition to those on both sides of an argument. Stepping back from this assessment I concede that Kauffman is onto something quite profound here.

The issue at stake is the origins of life in the universe. Kauffman has set out to shrink the universe, or at least the universe of possibilities that has given rise to life in order to show that we are not as unique as we may have previously thought. In fact we, and all life in the universe, exist as the end result of the iteration of physical systems, laws and mathematic truths that have existed since the beginning of time. In short, life is an assured inevitability. To paraphrase Kauffman, life more or less condensed out of the handful of attractor states that simple physical systems are drawn to. The existence of these attractors within the topology of possible states (state space) of a given physical system ensures that the super-vast majority of possible states will attract to the remaining handful of attractor states.

For example, in his now familiar light bulb experiment working with Boolean networks whose nodes each take 2 inputs in order to determine their next iterative state Kauffman showed that a network with 100,000 bulbs and a thus “[state space] of 2^100,000, hence 10^30,000, would settle down and cycle through a tiny, tiny state cycle with a mere 317 states on it. This means that the calculated probabilities against the formation of life are largely irrelevant since they tell us absolutely nothing about the behavior of the physical system in question or the way that it behaves. As shown above, given a simple system governed by simple rules we can begin at any state within the effectively infinite state space and will soon find ourselves in one of just 317 configurations. We can rest assured that the vast odds against life emerging anywhere in the universe condense in much the same way since the basic reaction networks underlying all life are only slightly more complex than the model proposed by Kauffman’s light bulb model.

Here, I concede somewhat the appeals to the divine that Kauffman keeps feeding us throughout the text. If we are indeed the result of basic physics playing itself out over billions of years, iterating through simple rule sets, then the exact nature of the “rules? that govern the universe as a system become the occupation of a necessary deity. However, if the same principles of self-organization are at work on the system of basic forces as are theorized for our living systems then we may just as well be living in a godless universe. Perhaps Kauffman can be forgiven his dizzying endorsement of seemingly conflicting ideologies earlier in the book.

It is this collapsing nature of possible states that I found the most profound revelation of this book. After all, as a composer, I deal with these attractor states on a daily basis. If we sit down at a piano and play a random selection of 3 keys to produce a chord we enter a state space of 658416 (88*87*86) possible chords. If we are to place bets on the likelihood that the note collection will be, say, a G-major chord we may be surprised to find that the probability is exactly one in 288. In fact, one of every 24 randomly drawn three-note sets will prove a major chord in some key—probably not good enough odds to sit in with your local jazz trio, but still remarkably high. This sort of distillation of probability is only possible through an understanding of the mathematic framework underlying the musical system.

I think Kauffman is advocating for this kind of approach to the question of the origins of life as well as in related fields. We must first understand the behavior of the underlying system and its attractor states before we can deem outcomes impossibly unlikely. More and more often we will find that complex systems tend to inhabit small regions of their possible state space. Perhaps it is the interactions that happen within this relatively miniscule portion of the total state space that will prove most consequential. ~~J



I was interested to read your take on “At Home in the Universe.? Your discussion of the musical system as a self-ordered system similar to Kaufmann’s logical network of light bulbs is a point well made, and adds to the force of his argument. The only one of your assertions I might take issue with is that “the calculated probabilities against the formation of life are largely irrelevant…? I say that because I think Kaufmann intended those calculations to disprove a theory of life based solely on random mutation and Natural Selection. In other words, he meant them to indicate that Darwinism by itself is insufficient to explain life, and that something like a theory of system self-organization is needed.

I really don’t think the book is ever close to advocating creationism. Kaufmann does indeed express an emotional need for something beyond the accidental randomness of Darwinism, but I don’t remember that he goes much beyond that in espousing a religious view.

Lastly, I too was impressed with the light bulb network phenomena, but we may differ as to how surprising that is. To me it is no more impressive than the familiar systems of mathematics, like Euclidean geometry, which also show great internal order based on a few simple rules. Such order is equally astounding when you think about it. However, theorems of Euclidean geometry are inconsistent with the theorems of non-Euclidean geometry, which stems from slightly different premises and also exhibits internal order. It appears that each geometry corresponds to a different set of real world phenomena, one Newtonian and one Einsteinean, so I think it makes a difference that the light bulb network phenomena may not prove to be strictly analogous to the human genome. There is certainly order in the biological world. I’m just not sure that its a mathematical necessity.

I'm curious: Which bookstore?

I think the religious tones of Kauffman stem from a parallel that he explicitly sets up, between the phase space of boolean networks and autocatalytic chemical sets in primordeal pools. They're certainly a part of what he's trying to say, and one of the things that makes his otherwise abstract book so exciting (and find-able in bookstores).

Granted, I don't know much about math, but I'm not sure if I agree completely that the 'order' of Euclideian geometry is a similar kind of 'self-organization'. There's very little randomness in geomerty, I would guess.

The amazing thing about life, as Kauffman sees it, is that order (think of a circle) can emerge out of nothing... (he says, "order for free")... like alchemy, that out of millions of possible states for his boolean networks, on a small, microscopic fraction of them ever emerge into the 'scene' of the world.

(Don't know if this added anything to the discussion. ... Probably didn't?)

The bookstore was Micawbers in St. Anthony Park. Its an independent bookstore specializing mostly in book-club fodder.

Good comments. Perhaps I'm overly-impressed by the attractor phenomenon. I suppose when all is said and done these attractor states really serve to explain the normal order of things. They "drain the lakes" in the space. They do little to explain ouliers that may occur through very small changes in the rule sets.