Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life

Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life

Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life

Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life


Why are living things alive? As a theoretical biologist, Robert Rosen saw this as the most fundamental of all questions-and yet it had never been answered satisfactorily by science. The answers to this question would allow humanity to make an enormous leap forward in our understanding of the principles at work in our world.

For centuries, it was believed that the only scientific approach to the question "What is life?" must proceed from the Cartesian metaphor (organism as machine). Classical approaches in science, which also borrow heavily from Newtonian mechanics, are based on a process called "reductionism." The thinking was that we can better learn about an intricate, complicated system (like an organism) if we take it apart, study the components, and then reconstruct the system-thereby gaining an understanding of the whole.

However, Rosen argues that reductionism does not work in biology and ignores the complexity of organisms. Life Itself, a landmark work, represents the scientific and intellectual journey that led Rosen to question reductionism and develop new scientific approaches to understanding the nature of life. Ultimately, Rosen proposes an answer to the original question about the causal basis of life in organisms. He asserts that renouncing the mechanistic and reductionistic paradigm does not mean abandoning science. Instead, Rosen offers an alternate paradigm for science that takes into account the relational impacts of organization in natural systems and is based on organized matter rather than on particulate matter alone.

Central to Rosen's work is the idea of a "complex system," defined as any system that cannot be fully understood by reducing it to its parts. In this sense, complexity refers to the causal impact of organization on the system as a whole. Since both the atom and the organism can be seen to fit that description, Rosen asserts that complex organization is a general feature not just of the biosphere on Earth-but of the universe itself.


T.F.H. Allen and David W. Roberts

Two demands are being made upon the community of ecologists: that their discipline be increasingly in a predictive mode; and that ecologists be prepared as never before to move up-scale and consider large-scale systems. Leaps in the technology for data acquisition and processing make it feasible to deal with large-scale phenomena in relatively fine grain terms. These imperatives require, and these opportunities allow, ecologists to deal with complex systems. All ecologists are aware that there is much complexity in almost all ecological systems. So impressive is ecological complexity that one becomes convinced that there is something in the very nature of ecological material that is complex. However, it emerges that nature itself is neither complex nor simple. Complexity is a matter of how the observer specifies the system either explicitly or implicitly in the way questions are cast. What makes ecology complex is the challenge of the questions we dare to ask of nature. When the whole entity displaying the phenomenon is scaled much larger than the entities used as explanatory principles, then the system is complex. It is therefore the urgency of certain questions that presses ecologists into the realm of complex systems.

In complex systems, abdication of the scientists’ responsibility for spec- ification and scaling leads to confusion and contradiction. Complexity re- quires a strict and consistent epistemology. the paradigm of this series is that complexity is tractable but demands parallel description at many explic- itly specified levels. in the face of complexity it is essential to distinguish model and observables from the material system, and to recognize that the model must invoke a scale and a point of view. With that in mind, the books in this series explore many facets of ecology broadly defined.

The first two books in the series, Life Itself by Robert Rosen and . . .

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