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Chaos and Life

Chaos and Life: Complexity and Order in Evolution and Thought

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Chaos and Life
    Book Description:

    Why, in a scientific age, do people routinely turn to astrologers, mediums, cultists, and every kind of irrational practitioner rather than to science to meet their spiritual needs? The answer, according to Richard J. Bird, is that science, especially biology, has embraced a view of life that renders meaningless the coincidences, serendipities, and other seemingly significant occurrences that fill people's everyday existence.

    Evolutionary biology rests on the assumption that although events are fundamentally random, some are selected because they are better adapted than others to the surrounding world. This book proposes an alternative view of evolving complexity. Bird argues that randomness means not disorder but infinite order. Complexity arises not from many random events of natural selection (although these are not unimportant) but from the "playing out" of chaotic systems -- which are best described mathematically. When we properly understand the complex interplay of chaos and life, Bird contends, we will see that many events that appear random are actually the outcome of order.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50155-2
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, General Science, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-IV)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. V-VI)
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-XII)
    Dick Bird
  5. Prologue: THE DAWN OF MAN?
    (pp. 1-2)

    About a hundred thousand years ago, perhaps as many as a hundred and fifty thousand or as little as fifty thousand, the first man was born. In the eyes of his parents he must have been an ugly baby, an outcast from the brood and from the tribe from the moment of his birth. He was lucky to survive, for monstrous births were not generally suffered to live in that time and many more like him would have perished, and would in other times and places perish, by accident or design, and without further consequence. He was different from his...

    (pp. 3-22)

    Life, it is often said, is just one damned thing after another. It would be hard to think of a better description of iteration. Iteration is a ubiquitous phenomenon and the operations of the world are for the most part, if not entirely, iterative. Rivers flow day after day in almost (but not quite) the same channels. Winds blow in apparently repetitive seasonal patterns; planets rotate, revolve, and wobble in their orbits; some clocks have hands, which rotate too. Living things reproduce themselves from generation to generation in an iterative way and they grow by the division of their cells,...

    (pp. 23-41)

    It may seem odd to say that biology is facing a crisis. At a time when the successes of molecular biology are proclaimed in every quarter, surely biology has never prospered more? What criticism, it might reasonably be asked, can be made of the science that is apparently the most successful, that is the basis of the boom industry of genetic engineering, that has led to the understanding of the cause of many genetic illnesses, and that is the great hope for the future of medicine? The answer is: none. However, biology has done few, if any, of these things...

    (pp. 42-54)

    Although in one way Darwin’s greatest book was about the idea of species, in another way it was dead against it. Darwin made the idea of species central to his theory because it showed the power of natural selection, which could produce two types of creatures so different that they would be unable to interbreed, yet were both descended from a common stock by a continuous process, the changes having resulted purely and simply from natural selection. On the other hand, The Origin of Species is one long argument against the very idea of species: the word species is derived...

    (pp. 55-71)

    As we discussed in chapter 1, iteration is the most basic process that can be found in the world. Now I want to explain how this process is expressed. Two of the phenomena in which the iterative process is most clearly marked are the operation of deterministic chaos and the production of fractal geometry. Fractals and chaos are intimately linked: chaotic systems are controlled by iterative processes, and fractal forms are the outcome of iteration. Together these are the two most important keys to unlocking the iterative processes of nature and they are also essential tools in removing some of...

    (pp. 72-96)

    It is a paradox that chaos and stability, far from being opposed, are intimately linked together. In some ways they are even aspects of the same concept.

    One of the most fundamental questions that we can ask about any system, complex or otherwise, is whether it is stable or unstable. For some systems this question is easier to answer than for others. If we are looking at a static system such as a pile of plates, it is easy to say that if the biggest are at the bottom and they get smaller as they go up, then the pile...

    (pp. 97-123)

    Life is a complex phenomenon—the most complex known in the world—and in order to explain the forms of life we must find a process that is either equally complex, or is simple, yet capable of producing great complexity. For the last 150 years it has been the accepted view that the chance patterning brought about by the forces of natural selection, mutation, or some combination of the two are such a process, but as we saw in chapter 2, there are several problems with this view (the neo-Darwinian synthesis). It is now becoming clear that the complex and...

    (pp. 124-149)

    The idea I am suggesting is that the developing organism is capable of working out mathematically what shape it “ought” to be and using the results of those calculations to control cell growth; in other words, that there is a biological computer in each cell in your body and in that of every other living thing. Because this computer is constantly at work in every cell, the organism is a massive parallel processor with a power as yet undreamed of in the laboratories of IBM or Intel. If this idea is correct, then even a simple organism is a computer...

    (pp. 150-171)

    Assuming a mathematical hypothesis of evolution as a starting point for thought and experimentation, what are its consequences?

    The hypothesis fits in well with the course of evolution observed in paleontological and other evidence, which, rather than taking place gradually, appears to proceed in steps of a noticeable size—so-called saltatory evolution, or evolution by jumps. This evidence of sudden change supports the evolutionary model that its proponents, Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen J. Gould, call “punctuated equilibrium”; long intervals of stasis interrupted by brief periods of rapid change. Evidence from the paleontological record has been reviewed by Eldredge...

    (pp. 172-201)

    In the first chapter I argued that the concept of randomness is central to the present worldview in science and that in order to progress we must change that view. This means we must reexamine the concept of randomness. In popular science the ideas of randomness and chance mean something that is the result of a process that has no pattern and is therefore completely unpredictable. But neither of these ideas—unpredictability or lack of pattern—is part of the mathematical definition of a random distribution (which is simply one that has an equal probability of occurrence of all classes...

    (pp. 202-220)

    We now approach the heart of a great mystery. If living things are gigantic parallel processing computers, then what is it that they are computing? Well, as we have seen, they are computing their own shapes. But this does not wholly answer the question, for why should those shapes be what they are and no other? The answer given by Darwinian evolutionary theory to this question is that there is no answer, because they are supposed to be the outcome of chance processes. In effect it says that the shapes of life are arbitrary and meaningless. But as we have...

    (pp. 221-235)

    If what has been said about the nature of mathematics and its relation to life is correct, then an entirely new view becomes possible both of the world and of life as part of the world. In particular, our view of living processes will change profoundly, and we will come to see life not as an accidental excrescence or something thrown up in a unique isolated backwater, but as the logical expression—one might say potentially the highest expression—of the processes that govern the world. In Heraclitus’ terms, life may be seen as the logos in its highest form,...

    (pp. 236-270)

    It is now time to try to gather the threads together and weave them into some kind of whole. Though it may seem to wander at times, the theme is always there. The most basic process in the world is iteration: iteration produces sequence and gives rise to the complexity of pattern that forms the world we perceive. Iteration is the process that governs chaos and generates fractals. Chaos is the dynamic that predominates, with linearity a special case, and fractal pattern emerges from chaotic regimes. The highest expression of these patterns and processes in our world is biological organisms....

  18. NOTES
    (pp. 271-294)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 295-322)