a Science of Creativity



Stuart Kauffman

    ... theoretical biologist. One of the world’s leading thinkers in the field of complex systems, Dr. Kauffman received a MacArthur “genius” award and is an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, which he helped found. Winner of awards including the first annual Herbert Simon award and author of the widely admired books, At Home in the Universe, and Investigations, Dr. Kauffman is also Chair of Investigations Group, Inc. He is the founding Director of the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics at the University of Calgary.

Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:



Stuart Kauffman thinks he’s found a usable definition for “life.” And he’s pretty sure the character of the other ideas he’s investigating is fundamentally revolutionary. Confident we now face a radical kind of ignorance, Dr. Kauffman thinks he’s found a new physical concept, that in fact, he may well have stumbled across a fundamental limitation of the way we do currently science. And he thinks we're on or near the threshold of a general biology, one that can be applied throughout the universe, not just here on earth.

Dr. Kauffman is a theoretical biologist, an early MacArthur “genius” and one of the founders of the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Systems. His ideas urge us beyond science as it is currently done, toward a general biology which he says would also lift physics and chemistry up to an entirely new level. The fundamental puzzles Dr. Kauffman confronts with awe, enthusiasm, confusion, and reluctance in his book Investigations, could re-shape science.

Are there general laws that govern the outlines of the evolution of any biosphere? Stuart Kauffman thinks so. Why is the universe complex? We really don't know, says Dr. Kauffman, but thinks his ideas at least represent some very good early science. He believes this is a universe so driven toward increased diversity that he proposes a Fourth Law of Thermodynamics: "The diversity of ways of making a living that organisms can achieve, tends to increase over time." This also may apply, he believes, to the formation of geological bodies, the evolution of galaxies -- the universe.

While a deep understanding of his ideas is grounded in statistical mechanics and a grasp of Darwin’s pre-adaptation (or Gould’s exaptation), suffice it to say the biosphere is creative, doing things we cannot see ahead of time. Innovation is real in the universe, says Dr. Kauffman, changing the way the universe unfolds. Our story, he thinks, is one of confronting something that is forever becoming. What it will end up being, however, we can never say ahead of time.

This drive toward complexity, Dr. Kauffman believes, is also true in technological evolution and in the econosphere. Dr. Kauffman is the founding scientist of Bios Group which uses complexity science to solve complex business problems. Businesses too, he says, are busy making their livings in a world that they co-construct. We cannot say ahead of time what the next adaptation -- or technological revolution -- will be, but businesses, like organisms, can learn to adapt.

It is utterly profound, Dr. Kauffman says, that we do not deduce our lives. We live them. We cannot predict. But we do adapt. What at first may seem terrifying -- that we cannot predict -- is really what life has been doing on this planet for the past 4.8 billion years.

The revolution? Humans finally confronting deep creativity.

Stuart Kauffman started with wondering about autonomous agents. That led him to what he thinks may well be a definition of life, but at least has allowed him to specify an autonomous agent that can be constructed and tested in the next 20 to 30 years.

At that point, since we will be unable to predict, we will finally, truly confront creativity. It’s then that humans -- autonomous agents all -- will most need new stories. We will need them to make sense out of the universe we will be co-creating.


[This Program was recorded January 31, 2000, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.]



Conversation 1


Stuart Kauffman tells us how dramatically the stories we tell ourselves are changing as the biological metaphor makes its way into the mainstream of business life. He illustrates today’s odd mix of science and narrative. Admitting to “physics envy,” Dr. Kauffman explains dramatically different results when one’s premises are based in physics and/or in biology. He describes his life-work.



Conversation 2


Explaining what a theoretical biologist is, Dr. Kauffman uses examples to compare biology’s problems to those of physics. He poses problems and questions facing theoretical biologists. He proposes that a spontaneous source of order in the biosphere may be as central to cell development as natural selection is. He narrates how differently his contemporary work is critiqued than was the case with the theories of earlier scientists. Dr. Kauffman speculates on why theory in biology has a particularly tough row to hoe when it seeks to establish general laws. He describes the origin of his book, Investigations, articulating the most puzzling conclusion he reached in the work.




Conversation 3


Assuring us that science is our most reliable way for finding out how the world works, Dr. Kauffman elaborates on what he thinks may be a fundamental limitation to how we do science. He leads us into the heart of the puzzle he puts forth in Investigations. He maintains “inalienable wholism” is native to biology, assuring us that to know the function of an organism’s part, one needs to know the role that part plays in the organism’s environment. Explaining Darwin’s pre-adaptations/Gould’s exaptation, Dr. Kauffman illustrates. He wonders: Can one finitely pre-state all context-dependent, causal consequences of parts of organisms that might become an adaptation in the environment? Declaring the answer is “No!” Dr. Kauffman describes the radical kind of ignorance which results. He suggests monumental consequences for how we do science, flowing from of our (unproven) inability to predict.



Conversation 4


Dr. Kauffman explains why he thinks we’re on or near the threshold of a new way to think about life, a general biology which is not terrestrially-bound. He elaborates, suggesting fundamental conceptual and experimental questions -- investigations -- that he thinks could dominate and shape science for the next 20 or 30 years. Giving a quick review of the generally understood laws of thermodynamics, Dr. Kauffman proposes a Fourth Law for self-constructing systems like biospheres. He shows how his idea of the “adjacent possible” supports a Fourth Law, describing an experiment with which to demonstrate his idea.




Conversation 5


Dr. Kauffman’s candidate Fourth Law: "The diversity of ways of making a living that organisms can achieve tends to increase over time." He suggests the mechanism, then turns to ask, “What lies behind making something an organism?” Dr. Kauffman describes how diversity builds on itself. He gives a nod to Per Bak and self-organized criticality. Dr. Kauffman summarizes his second Investigations puzzle: What must a physical system be, such that it can act on its own behalf in an environment? and leaps to his own answer. He defines “autonomous agents” (nowhere to be found in today’s physical sciences,) and gives examples. He describes finding his way to his definition of life. He describes work cycles, gives an example and elaborates. He describes a new class of chemical reaction networks; generalizes; explains why he’s confident we’ll make such a system in the foreseeable future; and describes the technological revolution he is confident they foreshadow. He suggests that constructing a general biology will lift physics and chemistry to an entirely new level.



Conversation 6


Articulating what he wants in a theory encompassing a general biology, Dr. Kauffman examines the concept of “work.” He translates his ideas into a biological example. He describes what he believes is a new physical concept -- closure that propagates -- wonders what it is, and proposes the answer -- “organization.” He explains. He presently has only inadequate ways to mathematize his idea, he says and explains why. Dr. Kauffman assures us innovation is real in the universe and expands. Utilizing Maxwell’s demon, Dr. Kauffman defines life. He relates Darwin’s pre-adaptations (exaptations) to the biosphere and beyond. He explains profound implications to the fact that we do not deduce our lives, we live them. He extends this idea to business.



Conversation 7


Mindful of the dangers of a scientist evaluating his own work, Dr. Kauffman summarizes what has bemused him in Investigations. He shares his gut feeling that there is the hint here of something fundamentally revolutionary.




Related Links:

Investigations and At Home in the Universe are published by Oxford University Press.

Information about the Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics ... and an earlier discussion we had with Dr. Kauffman, mostly about At Home in the Universe.

Psychiatrist Charles Raison and Stuart Kauffman talk about possibilities which are not constrained by natural laws.

In another conversation with Dr. Kauffman, we explore the relationship between science and the unknowable.

The Santa Fe Institute, of which Dr. Kauffman was one of the founders, continues to explore our world from a less traditional perspective.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.



We were delighted when, during our visit to Santa Fe to record this program with Dr. Kauffman, he introduced us to his friend and colleague, the remarkable physicist, Per Bak.

Stuart Kauffman’s inspiring work led us to do a rare second “Paula Gordon Show” about the time Investigations was published. That remarkable second encounter was the genesis of a new venture, the non-profit corporation, Investigations Group, Inc., of which Stuart Kauffman, Ethan Kauffman, Bill Russell and Paula Gordon are the founding Board members. We are all eagerly anticipating opportunities to work with distinguished colleagues and friends to begin to follow the lead set out by Dr. Kauffman in Investigations. Stay Tuned.



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