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Work Meets Life

Work Meets Life: Exploring the Integrative Study of Work in Living Systems

Robert Levin
Simon Laughlin
Christina De La Rocha
Alan Blackwell
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Work Meets Life
    Book Description:

    The work performed by living systems ranges from photosynthesis to prodigious feats of computation and organization. This multidisciplinary volume explores the relationships between work and the study of work across many different levels of organization. By addressing how work gets done, and why, from the perspectives of a range of disciplines, including cell and evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, electrical and computer engineering, and design, the volume sets out to establish an integrative approach to the study of work.Chapters introduce the biological work of producing energy in the cell; establish inherent tradeoffs between energy and information in neural systems; relate principles of integrated circuit manufacture to work in biological systems; explore the work of photosynthesis; investigate how work shapes organisms' evolutionary niches; consider the human work of design; describe the effects of job satisfaction and dissatisfaction on work-life balance; and address the effects of environmental challenges (stress) on how humans and animals do work. Finally, editors and contributors draw these studies together and point to future developments.Contributors Alan Blackwell, Gillian Brown, Christina De La Rocha, Kevin Laland, Simon Laughlin, Robert Levin, Michael Lightner, Steven Maier, Joseph Rosse, Stacy Saturay

    eISBN: 978-0-262-26584-3
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Robert Levin
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Robert Levin, Simon Laughlin, Christina De La Rocha and Alan Blackwell
  5. Introduction: A Fresh Perspective on Work
    (pp. 1-10)

    This was a favorite and emphatic saying of one of our fathers—a dictum by which he steered his own professional work and by which he engaged with those with whom he worked. Those of us who have worked together and engaged with each other in developing this volume have done so not because we believe that the study of work in various areas is in need of new answers, but instead because we believe it is in need of new questions—new questions that can be asked now because of advances in knowledge in a range of scientific disciplines,...

  6. 1 The Ancient Patterns of Work in Living Systems
    (pp. 11-38)
    Robert Levin

    Work is a process or set of processes. Every process involves one or more steps, each one of which shapes and bounds what emerges from that process. Any biological (or nonbiological) work process requires energy, and the work that is done with energy produces change: change in the organism performing the work and change in whatever system on which the organism is performing work.

    This chapter focuses first on one of the most fundamental—and surprising—ways in which energy and the capacities to induce change through work are connected in biological systems. The characteristics of this energetic process, like...

  7. 2 Energy, Information, and the Work of the Brain
    (pp. 39-68)
    Simon B. Laughlin

    This chapter continues the themework meets lifeby considering the energy used by nervous systems. Nervous systems process information using basic mechanisms of intracellular and intercellular communication that are elaborated to transmit and process signals in rapid, reliable, and far-reaching networks. A nervous system’s primary function is to direct work. The work a nervous system directs is mainly in the form of muscular activity, but it extends to a range of activities, such as secretion and changes in body structure (e.g., sexual maturation), and includes learning and memory.

    This chapter complements the widely accepted principle that nervous systems use...

  8. 3 Performance–Yield Trade-offs in Work in Manufactured and Living Systems: Design Centering Looks at the World of Work
    (pp. 69-96)
    Michael Lightner

    Ever since organisms began working at the dawn of life (chapter 1), they have found themselves in a series of constant trade-offs between one aspect of their existence or another: food and safety, growth and safety, speed and accuracy, size and mobility. These trade-offs have become evident to generations of biologists, some of whom have asked the question, how well does nature reach a balance between these competing demands? Manufactured products and systems are likewise characterized by trade-offs: cost and speed, durability and weight, complexity and yield, yield and performance.

    In living systems, the concept ofyieldis widespread: How...

  9. 4 The Impact of Photosynthetic Work on Earth, Climate, and the Biosphere
    (pp. 97-112)
    Christina De La Rocha

    The wordworkinstantly brings to mind human things—farmers, office workers, factories, and the like—and why not? The work human beings have carried out has raised cities, created civilizations, explored other planets, extended life expectancies, constructed road and communications networks, diminished the world’s forested area by half (Bryant, Nielsen, & Tangley, 1997), and started to alter climate. Yet human work is not the bulk of the work carried out on Earth each year. Human work is a small fraction compared to the work carried out on Earth by plants and algae, whose work of collecting energy and creating...

  10. 5 Niche Construction and Human Behavioral Ecology: Tools for Understanding Work
    (pp. 113-132)
    Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown

    Living organisms are far-from-equilibrium (strongly out-of-equilibrium) systems relative to their physical or abiotic surroundings. They can only survive and maintain their far-from-equilibrium status by constantly exchanging energy and matter with their environments. Organisms feed on molecules rich in free energy and, in the process, generate outputs largely in the form of molecules that are poor in free energy. The energy harvested is used to do work. Such work is necessary to allow organisms to produce and maintain order, both inside their bodies and in their external environments. Thus, in order to survive, organisms must act on their environments and, by...

  11. 6 The Work of Designers: Cultures of Making and Representation
    (pp. 133-148)
    Alan Blackwell

    This chapter is concerned with a particular kind of contemporary human work: the professional work done by designers. This choice might at first seem an overly specialized area of work for exploration. However, design is a useful focus in several respects. In this chapter, along with exploring the work of design as an interesting area in itself, we offer the possibility of treating design work as a “model system” for studying professional human work, just as a fly’s eye (chapter 2) and a chip foundry (chapter 3) have served as model systems in exploring different aspects of work in living...

  12. 7 Working on the Edge Today: Dissatisfaction, Adaptation, and Performance
    (pp. 149-164)
    Joseph Rosse and Stacy Saturay

    These three vignettes highlight the key themes of this chapter. The first theme is that dissatisfaction with work can have significant effects on performance in the workplace. Being dissatisfied can affect the productivity of individual employees and of work groups, thereby affecting profitability and the wealth of shareholders. This effect on corporate performance is often recognized—at least tacitly—by managers, though this awareness is not always followed by effective actions. The audit of police arrests illustrates this effect and is particularly interesting because it also shows how dissatisfaction of workers can have a more generalized effect on those outside...

  13. 8 Do Energy Allocations Affect Work Performance? The Working Energy/Take-Home Energy Trade-off Hypothesis
    (pp. 165-186)
    Robert Levin, Kevin Laland and Stacy Saturay

    Complex knowledge-based work in modern organizations seems a world removed from the work of foraging for energy sources that is observed in other organisms, in ancestral humans, and in some hunter-gatherer and foraging societies today. Indeed, the development from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial work has been depicted as freeing both workers and organizations from physical and biological life-history constraints (Rabinbach, 1990), such as the continuous need to forage for energy sources simply to survive in a harsh environment (Prosser, 1986). The ongoing effects on knowledge workers in modern organizations of biological processes, such as competing requirements for physical energy...

  14. 9 Responding to the Challenges of the Environment: Stressors, the Brain, and Work
    (pp. 187-202)
    Steven Maier and Robert Levin

    Workandstressare two words that seem to be paired together frequently. Understandably, in our day-to-day work lives, we are often concerned with issues of job stress and life stress and how these seem to affect each other. In this chapter, we want to start by taking a step back from such concerns—as important as they are—by examining stress and work from research that starts with a different perspective.

    In doing so, we can place a common notion such as “job stress” into a much broader, better defined, and more useful framework. This framework places stress into...

  15. Reflections: On Exploring Work in Living Systems
    (pp. 203-226)

    After a long exploration and a long journey, how might one begin to sum up and open up what one has seen? Part of what explorers endeavor to do is to open up new country. We hope that our contributed chapters have given you that same sense of exploration that we experienced in developing this volume. In this chapter, we hope to open up new country for further exploration.

    If one returned from a scientific exploration, there would be several ways to describe what one had seen to open up country. One could describe broadthemesthat emerged over the...

  16. Contributors
    (pp. 227-228)
  17. Index
    (pp. 229-249)