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Life Is Inevitable in a Creative Universe
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Stuart Kauffman

      Stuart Kauffman is a member of the Santa Fe Institute. He is an experimental and molecular biologist who is widely acclaimed for his work with self-organization and the science of complexity as applied to biology. A recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, Kauffman is also a physician (though he no longer practices) and author of At Home in the Universe, written for a general audience and published by Oxford University Press in both hardcover and paperback.

Excerpts3:25 secs

      Expect Life in the Universe. It's not a surprise, not a fluke, nor a statistical improbability. Life is inevitable, believes Dr. Stuart Kauffman in conversation with Paula Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Kauffman is an experimental and molecular biologist at the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Adaptive Systems, a MacArthur Fellow and author of At Home in the Universe, published by Oxford University Press in both hard cover and paperback.

      "Complexity breeds solutions, joyfully expanding possibilities," says Dr. Kauffman who sees the Universe as forever new, coherent, and transforming. "The more creative we are, the more creative we can be. If we are indeed all deeply linked to each other and everything else on the planet, that's a wellspring of hope."

      Dr. Kauffman is a very careful traditional scientist. He also challenges many assumptions which have been taken for granted for centuries. For example, he describes the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- all natural systems wind down -- which has commonly been cited as a cause for despair. "But the Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies in an equilibrium state. And we've now demonstrated the Universe is in a radically NON-equilibrium state. The Universe is not falling apart. It's enthralling, creative, participating. And life is a natural outcome of a creative universe. We are part of an unfolding universe of increasing complexity in which living things have co-evolved with other living things, mutually make livings together, are functionally coupled and mutually unfolding."

      Dr. Kauffman clearly states his premises -- established, accepted scientific orthodoxies. Then he ventures into the territory of his hopes for and vision of the proto-science which is now unfolding. He's relentless in distinguishing one from the other, "science" from "proto-science."  "Proto-science" is one of the most exciting and least talked about parts of science. "It's where questions are formulated, new ideas emerge which can later be formalized and tested. It is a joyous enterprise."

      Those who say we are at the end of science are just wrong. All kinds of deep questions remain for us to confront. The answers to those questions touch technology, the economy, individual possibilities -- life. Science has a long way to go, we're just cracking the beginning."

      Dr. Kauffman's work and that of his colleagues in a range of disciplines from chemistry to economics further convince him that our world is profoundly unpredictable: we cannot know the outcome of our actions. Therefore, we would all do well to "Do your best; you can never predict the outcome."


   A later conversation with Dr. Kauffman (with full audio), focusing on work presented in Investigations, is available here.   

Two programs recorded in March, 2008, center on Kauffman's Reinventing the Sacred are available here and here.

Conversation 1


Dr Kauffman explores how all life is „functionally coupledš in "Darwin‚s tangled bank." He weaves together the two strands of science which are the narrative and the functional, looking for the lawfulness of what is unfolding. He carefully describes the universe as "non-ergotic," first describing a physical system which is approximately at equilibrium, then makes a powerful demonstration using physics and mathematics that the Universe is "vastly far from equilibrium."

Stepping from science to „proto-scienceš (where questions are not yet formalized so that they can be studied and tested, where scientists can only begin to formulate key questions.) Looking at the biosphere, he describes the „chemically adjacent possibleš and suggests that the Biosphere may be busy expanding into a similar „adjacent possible.š

He suggests that what is at work governing how the biosphere is expanding may also be at work in other „self-reproducing systemsš including humans and bacteria and algae. He suggests that the Universe has also not explored all possible kinds of people, legal systems, economies or other complex systems. He begins a discussion of how these ideas apply to the economy, noting that the ways homo sapiens „make a livingš have blossomed.

Conversation 2

Dr. Kauffman applies the idea of self-reproducing systems moving into an adjacent possible to economics. He shows how as humans have proliferated, making and using different technologies, there has been an expansion of possibilities which appears to be similar to organic growth.

He picks up on Bill Russell's suggestion that the Santa Fe Institute, where Dr. Kauffman is a Fellow, is an example of "diversity" engendering new ideas and describes how ideas flower at the Institute. "The more ideas one has, the more possibilities there are for recombination." He suggests much the same process drives growth in technological diversity.


Again, expressing his "hopes," not describing "done science," Dr. Kauffman describes the frontiers on which science is growing, intuits where important questions can be asked, begins a discussion of "Where does life come from?"


Dr. Kauffman poses the question "Is life to be expected?" and offers two quite different sets of responses, reminding us that no one knows which answers are correct and we do well to take a skeptical stance: "Is life almost impossible?" or "Is life nearly inevitable?" He describes how the Watson/Crick model has been applied in response to the first question. He uses Nobel Laureate Melvin Calvin‚s idea of cells as "collectively catalytic" (to which Dr. Kauffman adheres) to expand upon the second. He describes "stunning" new experiments which, taken together, move toward an understanding of "collectively autocatalytic sets' as part of finding out what the implications are if we can create a system with many collectively autocatalytic sets.

Conversation 3


Dr. Kauffman builds on the ideas about „collectively autocatalytic setsš presented in Segment Two. He addresses the question, "What if we can make autocatalytic sets by design in the next 5 to 10 years?" Allowing himself to set aside a range of caveats which have yet to be proven, he agrees that what he is talking about describes a who range of emergent systems, reminding the listener there is a great deal of scientific work to be done, things which can be proven or disproven experimentally by making complex systems. If it is true that it is relatively easy to create collectively autocatalytic sets and amplify complications, that suggests that the origin of life is very much expected. He finds this "profoundly exciting."


He then explores a subject with which he is currently struggling, namely "What is an Autonomous Agent" (as compared with simply a physical system, like a bacterium.) "His suspicion is that an Autonomous Agent must be autocatalytic, able to do work and able to reproduce. He describes the computer-based work he and others are doing/have done to generate possible answers to his questions, starting at the level of a microbial community. He expands this perspective into the realm of economics, describing expressions of autonomous agents which are "useful," "non-predictable" but "natural." He sees "functional, integrated wholes which are always unfolding."


Again reminding us of the difference between his „hopesš and what is yet to be proven, Dr. Kauffman explains Per Bak's concept of "Self-Organized Criticality" and applies to models of ecosystems the "power laws" Bak describes. (Joseph) Schumpeter's "gales of creative destruction" may also come into play, as does "punctuated equilibrium." The work of others suggests that what is being described also fits actual observed extinctions and lifetime distributions of species, genera and business firms. Simply put, "We cannot predict future details." Dr. Kauffman then combines the ideas of self-organized criticality with the concept of adjacent possible in describing ecosystems and technological advancements, to find complex systems "forever new, transforming and unpredictable." He "hopes" that we are on the way to finding deep and profound laws that govern these processes.


He describes his current work around the question, "How does matter and energy organize itself?" and poses his grandest hope that "Autonomous Agents tend to arrange work and coordination so that they are expanding into the adjacent possible as fast as they can get away with it. That begins to feel like a creative universe." Is he at the very edge of science? " Science begins with the ideas."

Conversation 4


Dr. Kauffman summarizes the preceding hour's conversation. He notes that much of what he proposes devolves from Per Bak's idea of self-organized criticality, with autonomous agents advancing into the adjacent possible. If this is all true, he suggests that all we can do is to "Do Our Best, because we cannot know what the outcome of our actions will be." He gives an example of a telecommunications company trying in vain to predict the future. "We can only be short-term wise, for we will all 'strut and fret upon the stage, and then be seen no more.'"


Asked to revisit his ideas of Man the Wise (homo sapiens), Man the Toolmaker (homo habilis et al), Man the Playful (homo ludens)," Dr. Kauffman aligns himself with Man the Playful, describing the joys of science, rejecting as "just wrong" assertions that science has come to an end. "There's so much to be discovered. If the biosphere really is creative, advancing into the adjacent possible, there are wonderful things to be learned. It means that the biosphere is building itself up, not just running down."


Dr. Kauffman again reminds us that the Second Law of Thermodynamics explicitly holds at equilibrium and, as he described in detail in Segment One, the universe is in a vastly non-equilibrium state. "Science has a long way to go. We are just cracking the beginnings."

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