Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology

Synopsis

Signs of Life applies the mathematics of order and disorder, of entropy, chance, and randomness, of chaos and nonlinear dynamics to the various mysteries of the living world at all levels. This book is an entirely new approach to understanding living systems and will help set the agenda for biology in the coming century.

Excerpt

Grasping the nature of life is like catching a whirling eddy in a stream: the moment you have it in your hands it disappears and leaves you with the matter but not the form. For centuries biologists have been seizing life in different forms, holding it briefly, and then seeing it disappear as the collective belief, the energy that maintains the form, dissipates. We have had the organism as the expression of a vital principle, as a machine, as a complex chemical network, as a result of natural selection. None of these attempts to characterize life is wrong. Each gives a distinctive insight into the nature of organisms, but each is also limited. The latest vision sees the secret of life in the DNA coiled at the heart of every cell, organizing the dynamic activities of an organism like a conductor bringing coherent form from the orchestra. Now that we have looked deeply into this secret we see that it, too, is dissolving, or rather, exploding before our eyes. We are overwhelmed by what appears to be the sheer complexity of the information in the DNA and the problem of making sense of it. Information has meaning only within a context, and the living context still evades us.

Signs of Life is about this context, understood in terms of a new dynamics of living processes that has been taking shape in recent years. A remarkable burst of creativity in science is transforming traditional disciplines at an extraordinary rate, catalyzing movements whereby old boundaries are dissolving and newly integrated territories are being defined. The new vision comes from the world of complexity, chaos, and emergent order. This started in physics and mathematics but is now moving rapidly into the life sciences, where it is revealing new signatures of the creative process that underlie the evolution of organisms. A distinctive sign of life is the emergence of new order . . .

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