books that changed my life

My wife and I are moving out of state next month, so we’re unloading stuff we don’t want to transport. I’ve had to look at my book collection and cull the ones I can live without. In the process I realized there’s a small set of books that have framed my way of looking at the world and kindled passions that will continue the rest of my life. They’re the books that have old yellow stickies sprouting from between the pages, yellow highlights and scribbles in the margins. I donated about 60 books to the local library, but these I’ll keep to the end.

Eric Jantsch, The Self-Organizing Universe: Scientific and human implications of the emerging paradigm of evolution, 1979.

Actually, I found this book after reading James Gleick’s, Chaos. Chaos was an unusual best-seller in ~1987 I guess because we all experience “chaos” (in the colloquial sense) in our lives, and people evidently were looking for some insight. A lot of readers never finished the book because it explored the physics and mathematics of chaos, not necessarily the common term. Nevertheless, Chaos made the term “butterfly effect” part of our vernacular. It was a good introduction to chaos theory, but by the end of the book I was wondering: “With chaos being so pervasive in nature, how is it we see order and organization?” Jantsch’s book tackled that conundrum.

Basically, Jantsch presented a framework for how the world organizes via hierarchical systems from the fundamental dynamics of the micro (atomic forces, molecules and basic physical properties) through simple living entities, complex organisms, ecosystems, and social systems. It is a set of concepts that are a theory of organization from basic dynamics up through the most complex things we know, living systems and our own societies. Here’s how Jantsch defines systems:

The notion of system itself is not longer tied to a specific spatial or spatio-temporal structure nor to a changing configuration of particular components, nor to  sets of internal or external relations. Rather, a system now appears as a set of coherent, evolving interactive processes which temporarily manifest in globally stable structures that have nothing to do with the equilibrium and solidity of technological structures.

The mind-blowing idea that came through in this work is that there are processes that, when fed by external energy flows, can become so stable that we think of them as things. Especially in living systems, a lot of things are really just processes that persist as long as the right conditions exist and only that long. They’re called “process structures.” It looks like an oxymoron, but you can perceive some persistent processes as structures. When you get that, it tends to alter your notions of permanence and change. Some complex systems such as living organisms persist during what we call life, but when the sustaining conditions end the processes collapse and it’s all over.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding, 1987.

The authors of this book set out to show that cognition is not simply our eyeballs and brain somehow internalizing what’s “out there” but is absolutely contingent on our biological structure and processes. Moreover, cognition is a result of our experience and interaction with other people through language. Their notions are pretty trippy. The book’s cover art is a Salvador Dali painting. But the key for me is that they build their argument for how “knowledge” works from the ground up, starting with processes of self-organization at the molecular level. From there they describe how living things come about through a process of  “learning” clear up through humans with our shared knowledge and shared cognition.

Maturana and Varela’s key idea here is autopoiesis, self-organizing systems similar to Jantsch’s ideas.

Our proposition is that living beings are characterized in that, literally, they are continually self-producing. We indicate this process when call the organization that defines them an autopoietic organization. […] The most striking feature of an autopoietic system is that it pulls itself up by its own bootstraps and becomes distinct from its environment through its own dynamics, in such a way that both things are inseparable.

Werner Loewenstein, The Touchstone of Life: Molecular information, cell communication, and the foundations of  life, 1999.

Backing up all the way, Loewenstein goes about explaining the organization that enables the complexity of living things by starting with entropy and information theory. You can’t get more basic than the laws of thermodynamics!

Neither Jantsch’s or Maturana and Varela’s books deal in detail with how information in chemistry figure into their notions of self-organization, but it’s there. Loewenstein makes the idea of information the theme of his book and caries it through from the idea of macromolecules clear up through cells, intracellular information exchanges, inter-cellular communication, and special information structures like neurons. But what I took away from this treatise is that the molecular structures at the cellular level are information devices as surely as the laptop I’m using to write this post. We’re so used to thinking of information in terms of human language and symbols that it seems strange to think that the conformations of proteins, DNA chains, “messenger” RNA and the intricate interactions among them are just as informational. But the robust and growing science of bioinformatics is based on just such ideas.

Dennis Bray, Wetware: A computer in every cell, 2009.

Actually, I’m just finishing this one. It’s a very interesting look at the internal informational working of cells that give these basic units of living things a capability of awareness and appropriate responsiveness that deserves more attention and respect. Cells aren’t just bricks in the wall; they’re participants in some astute biology. Wetware brings together in the cell Loewenstein’s molecular informational processes and Maturana and Varela’s philosophical views of life processes as forms of cognition and learning.

What runs through all these books is the idea that the universe’s fundamental properties and rules allow the emergence of processes of great complexity; complexity sufficient to reach the level of life and at least one organism — us — with the capacity for self-awareness and splendidly subtle thought. That’s a truly amazing range of possibilities based on some very foundational laws. How this is possible is a chain of events that we can only partially explain at this point. The rest of the story requires details we’re only getting a glimpse of right now. It’s certainly a set of riddles that will keep me fascinated the rest of my days.


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