Re: Stuart Kauffman's _At Home In the Universe_

Steve Witham (
Fri, 28 Feb 1997 01:31:21 -0500

Eugene Leitl <> sez-
>I've picked up a copy of "At Home In the Universe" some weeks ago, and I am
>sorry to say I found it to be quite weak. [...]
> Where's the beef?! one might be tempted to exclaim.

(I love the combination of crude and proper language there.)

>A heavily watered down version of TOOO, nothing else. [...]

Well, I got something interesting out of it: after reading TOOO, there
were a couple questions I was really confused about (what exactly is the
"error catastrophe" and why is it important? and what does he mean saying
SO is opposed to selection?) and I dreaded rereading TOOO (huge) to try to
figure these things out (no guarantee).

So At Home functioned as a sort of fast-forward, for-dummies version of
stuff I remembered the details of. Got the answers to the questions and
a little more. Basically:
1) The error catastrophe is a problem that exists in a stupid
oversimplified model of evolution, a non-problem, straw-man.
2) Kaufmann defines SO in such a way that it's the mirror-image of the
"problem" he's trying to solve: "complexity." (He defines them both
as hierarchical structure, basically.)
3) He surprises himself by "solving" the "problem" with the "solution".
4) In At Home he sort of backs down and says SO is _complementary to_
selection, which is correct. It's an important (but hard to avoid)
aspect of living things and how genes code that makes it possible
for them to keep evolving to more complex forms.

I have to say, his work with "NK" networks and especially with the auto-
catalytic set model of early evolution is way way cool. Kaufmann is God.
But not a writer.

In TOOO, he both overhypes the main ideas and buries them in detail.

In At Home he dilutes and sugars them unbelievably. They guy is either
condescending or a lune in the philosophy lobes. But I got what I needed
out of it and gave it back to the guy I borrowed it from. TOOO stays on
my shelf.


--           Steve Witham
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