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Incomplete Nature [Paperback]

Terrence W Deacon
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Book Description

March 26 2013 0393343901 978-0393343908 Reprint
Terrence W. Deacon offers radical new explanation of how life and consciousness emerge from physics and chemistry. As physicists work towards completing a theory of the universe and biologists unravel the molecular complexity of life, a glaring incompleteness in this scientific vision becomes apparent. The "Theory of Everything" that appears to be emerging includes everything but us: the feelings, meanings, consciousness and purposes that make us (and many of our animal cousins) what we are. These most immediate and incontrovertible phenomena are left unexplained by the natural sciences because they lack the physical properties-such as mass, momentum, charge and location-that are assumed to be necessary for something to have physical consequences in the world. Deacon argues that this is an unacceptable omission. We need a "theory of everything" that does not leave it absurd that we exist.& #8232; Incomplete Nature begins by accepting what other theories try to deny: that, although mental contents do indeed lack these material-energetic properties, they are still entirely products of physical processes and have an unprecedented kind of causal power that is unlike anything that physics and chemistry alone have so far explained. Paradoxically, it is the intrinsic incompleteness of these semiotic and teleological phenomena that is the source of their unique form of physical influence in the world. Incomplete Nature meticulously traces the emergence of this special causal capacity from simple thermodynamics to self-organising dynamics to living and mental dynamics and it demonstrates how specific absences (or constraints) play the critical causal role in the organisation of physical processes that generate these properties.

 The book's radically challenging conclusion is that we are made of these specific absences-such stuff as dreams are made on-and that what is not immediately present can be as physically potent as that which is. It offers a figure/background shift that shows how even meanings and values can be understood as legitimate components of the physical world.

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"...rich and far-ranging book...Deacon writes well and with extraordinary breadth of scholarship." BBC Focus "Contains many rewarding thoughts about life and mind and their place in nature." Nature "In his approach to the question of how sentience emerged from 'dumb' and 'numb' matter, Mr. Deacon mobilizes some radically new ideas." The Wall Street Journal "Unprecedentedly comprehensive..." Psychology Today

About the Author

Terrence W. Deacon is a professor of biological anthropology and neuroscience and the chair of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emergence: how mattering happens Dec 31 2011
By Gary Fuhrman TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you have a deep desire to understand how life emerged from a nonliving material universe, and how sentience emerged from life, and human-style consciousness from sentience, then this book is for you. Deacon deploys the full range of concepts which have already been developed by writers such as Charles S. Peirce, Gregory Bateson, Maturana and Varela, Ilya Prigogine, and Stuart Kauffman to explain how physical principles can lead to biological principles and thence to the realm of psychology and even spirituality. But rather than merely summarize these contributions and add his own, Deacon builds his account of emergence from the ground up, beginning with the basic question: How is it that we find ourselves in a universe where things and actions have meaning and value for us, where intentions can make a physical difference? In the course of rethinking this kind of question, he fills in many of the gaps left open by previous accounts, and thus tells us a more complete and lucid story of emergence than anyone has done before -- which is ironic in a way, in view of his conclusion that living beings are radically incomplete, and consciousness emerges from this incompleteness.

Some of us are content to fend off this kind of question with the belief that the Creator's purposes preceded the creation, and now pervade it in some mysterious way. But taking purposefulness for granted prevents us from getting to the bottom of it. Deacon appeals to perfectly ordinary experiences, informed by the purely physical concepts of energy and work, to explain how purpose could arise unintentionally -- spontaneously, but not instantaneously. He does find it necessary to introduce some new conceptual tools along the way.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An absolute must! April 25 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I have little doubt that this book will prove to be a turning point in scholarly understandings of matter, mind, information, embodiment, and communication. Moreover, it is written in such accessible language that highly complex concepts become intelligible to non-experts. I such enjoyed reading and re-reading the book that I am ordering additional copies to give as gifts to friends. Please note that although accessible to wider audiences this is a serious academic book of outstanding rigous/quality; it is not a washed down popular culture treatment of the issues it tackles.
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65 of 74 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How to Equivocate Convinvingly Jan. 21 2012
By Aaron Rutledge - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I've read this book three or four times over the past two years, and every time I read it I become less and less impressed with it. Deacon's thesis is that life and the mind can be integrated into scientific theory by introducing the concept of constraint. In other words, constraints are the missing link, the last frontier that show us how matter turns into mind.

Deacon starts the book by noting that things like mind, meaning, morality, and purpose are all "missing" from the scientific worldview. We know that they are important, but science has nothing to say about them...yet. When you analyze the physical dynamics of the brain, you don't find experiences banging around inside the neurons. Instead, you find things like actions potentials, neurotransmitters, etc. So where are the experiences? Deacon says things like experiences, meanings and morals are "absential". We intuitively know they make a difference, but when we look at the physical world we never see them "there". The word "absence" is vitally important here, and it will come up again in the discussion of constraints. Deacon will ultimately try to tie two very different notions of absence together in order to provide an "explanation" of consciousness. What follows in my review is unavoidably complicated, which reflects the complex nature of the topic at hand. I'll attempt pull everything together at the end of the review to show where I think Deacon succeeds, and where he fails.

Enter the concept of constraint. What is a constraint? Constraint is a way of conceptualizing limitations, restrictions or absences(!). Railroad tracks constrain the movements of a train, government regulations restrict the actions of people and corporations, etc. Paradoxically, it turns out that constraints are the origin of regularity and patterns. To continue with the railroad metaphor, the railroad tracks limit the movements of the train to one particular path between two points. This limitation is actually vital to keeping the train on schedule. If the train was able to randomly take any path from point A to point B, then it would almost certainly never arrive on time. So the restriction imposed by the tracks is part of what enables the regularity of the train's schedule.

So how does this concept of constraint apply to physical systems and how does it help solve the problems of life and mind? It's actually a fairly complicated story (and Deacon does not explain it very well), but the story starts with the idea that every physical system has its own intrinsic dynamical tendencies. What does that mean? Take the familiar example of an ideal gas in isolation. Left to its own devices, such a system will tend toward a state of greater entropy until it reaches the state of maximum entropy. This is the system's intrinsic dynamical pattern, meaning that it does this all on its own without any influence from outside sources. This is actually quite interesting when you think about it. This means that change is a fundamental aspect of our physical universe, and all physical systems exhibit a particular "type" of change that is intrinsic to the type of thing they are. This is analogous to Aristotle's concept of a formal cause, meaning that the "form" or "type" of the object determines how it behaves in isolation. Deacon coins the term "homeodynamics" to describe the dynamics of systems in isolation, and uses the word "orthograde" to describe changes that are intrinsic to what a system is.

In the real world, physical systems are almost never in isolation. When systems interact they do "work" on one another (via the application of force). The types of "work" that systems do on one another is determined by their "orthograde" tendencies. In other words, a system's intrinsic dynamics is what allows it to apply force to another system. When work is applied to a system from the outside it imposes "constraints" on that system. The forces imposed from the outside actually counteract the system's natural tendencies and force it to behave in ways that may not be natural to its homeodynamics. Deacon coins the term "contrgrade" to describe this type of change. Thus forces cause constraints to arise in a system and, as we'll see, these constraints can lead to structure and regularity.

In the end, the application of constraints are a function of work done on the system by the application of external forces. The forces place constraints on the system's natural dynamical tendencies. Sometimes, so much constraint is imposed that the resulting dynamics is highly structured and redundant. Think of highly patterned structures such as crystals, rocks, etc. These structures are able to temporarily defy the second law of thermodynamics because of the constraints they exhibit. These constraints originated from some application of force (and a resultant transfer of energy) in the distant or recent past. That energy source is no longer present, but the structure remains until it finally degrades. Deacon coins the term "morphodynamic" to describe highly structured natural systems that result from high levels of constraint. Morphodynamics can only arise via contragade change.

One interesting thing to note is that morphodynamic systems exhibit their own form of "orthograde" dynamics that is quite distinct from the "orthograde" dynamics of the systems out of which they are composed. In this way, Deacon has constructed a "ladder" of emergence. The logic goes something like this:

1. System A is in isolation and exhibits its own natural orthograde behavior.
2. System B is in isolation and exhibits its own natural orthograde behavior.
3. System A and system B collide.
4. System B applies force to system A and vice versa.
5. The force applied by system B imposes limits/constraints to system A, and vice versa.
6. These limits/constraints impose restrictions on system A's degrees of freedom, and vice versa. This results in contragrade behavior.
7. These limits/constraints may dramatically increase the regularity of system A's behavior (think of the train track metaphor), thus leading to morphodynamics.
8. The result of the interaction of system A and system B is, thus, itself a new system (system C). The constraints imposed on A by B (and vice versa) are intrinsic to system C and define system C's orthograde dynamics.
9. So now we have a new system (system C) that is in isolation and exhibits its own natural orthograde behavior.

This is the logic of emergence up to the level of morphodynamics. It explains how ordered behavior (system C) can emerge out of disordered behavior (Systems A and B). System C is a novel system with its own orthograde dynamics. System C's existence is born of constraints. System C can go on to have interactions with other systems for as long as it persists, and in the process it will transfer constraints to create yet another new system. System C's behavior cannot be "reduced" to the behavior of systems A and B because the difference is defined by what was constrained (i.e. what is now absent). Thus emergent behavior is not "something more" but rather "something less" that what was originally present. So although system C is dynamically irreducible, it is nonetheless nothing more than physical processes.

This is actually an incredibly brilliant solution to the problem of emergent behavior. However, I have since discovered that the idea is not original to Deacon. While his account of it is certainly idiosyncratic, there have been at least a couple of other authors who said very similar things before him. It is not clear whether he was aware of those authors' work before he published his, but he certainly did not reference those authors, so let's hope he was just unaware.

In any event, the same trick can be used to make the jump from non-life to life, except the explanation is now even more complex. Deacon calls the next level of emergence "teleodynamics". We already saw how morphodynamics is the emergence of order out of disorder. However, life is more than just order. It also has a teleological aspect to it. In other words, not only does it exhibit order, but it takes actions in order to preserve that order. life is fundamentally self-preserving, and it will even make changes to itself (i.e. adaptations) in order to accomplish self-preservation.

I'm not going to go into the details of how the jump from morphodynamics to teleodynamics is made. The summary is that two or more morphodynamics systems become "coupled" in such a way that the dynamics of each system are symbiotic and mutually supportive to the continuance of the interaction. This review is already too long so I'll say no more on the topic, except to say that I found the account to be quite convincing. I would say that Deacon has succeeded in defining life in the abstract and showing in detail how it emerges from non-life, even if he wasn't the first person to offer such an account.

Deacon then goes on to recast various other concepts in terms of constraint. He presents constraint-based treatments of work, information, signification/semiosis, evolution, sentience and, finally, consciousness. It is particularly when Deacon tries to make the jump from semiosis to sentience that his account starts to flounder. This is where his fundamental equivocation comes into play. Remember that Deacon defined things like consciousness, morality and meaning as "absential" phenomena, implying that they are not present when we examine physical systems at any level. We know they make a difference but we never actually "see" them anywhere in the physical world. Constraints are defined very similarly. A constraint defines what is not present in a physical system but could have been. So constraints define what is absent (but could have been present) in physical systems.

Deacon's grand thesis, then, is that consciousness, morality and meaning are literally constraints in physical systems. If we are to believe Deacon, then consciousness is defined literally as a set of physical states that could have occurred, but did not. This is an equivocation on the word "absential" as he used it in reference to consciousness, meaning and morality earlier in his book, and it's not clear how reducing consciousness to constraints solves anything. In fact, it is a bit disingenuous of Deacon to make this claim, especially considering how he spent the first part of the book taking materialists to task for trying to reduce consciousness to physical processes. But Deacon is in fact attempting to perform the same reduction, but instead of targeting "actual" physical processes, he is targeting "potential" physical processes. If the reduction doesn't work for actual physical states, then why should we accept that it would work for physical states that are merely potential?

So Deacon's work is both brilliant and frustrating. I do think that Deacon (and others before him) has found the key to unlocking the riddle of emergence, and for that alone I would recommend this book to anyone. However, as far as science is concerned, emergence is intrinsically about behavior. What emerges from the interaction of systems is novel behavior, nothing more nothing less. So if you are inclined to believe that consciousness and sentience can be explained in terms of the behavior, then you will probably find Deacon's argument convincing. However if you think that there is an aspect of consciousness that is intrinsically and irreducibly subjective, then you are not likely to be satisfied.

Ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves whether they can accept or understand consciousness as an objective phenomenon. The smell of roses, the taste of blueberry cobbler, the radiant gleam of the setting sun: you either accept that these things are in some sense irreducibly "real" in their own right, or you don't. Deacon seems to have placed himself on the side of those who don't, and as such, I doubt this book will be seen by all as the final word on what consciousness is.
143 of 176 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars As Game Changing As Origin Of The Species Nov. 13 2011
By Taowin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If it were a snake it would have bit us. It's sitting right under our noses. It's the unifying insight behind the two biggest breakthrough clues toward solving the biggest remaining scientific mystery. Grateful and greatly encouraged by the breakthrough clues we ran with them, ignoring their underlying and unifying insight, the insight that made them both possible. We ignored the underlying insight until Deacon's book, whose 600 exquisitely reasoned and written pages I'll attempt to summarize here.

The biggest remaining scientific mystery is how to close the explanatory gap between the hard and the soft sciences, between energy and information, between physical forces and living desires, between a values-neutral physio-chemical universe and the values-driven bio-psycho-social universe--in a word, between clockwork physics and ever-game-changing life.

In other words, why can we talk about a living creature's intentions, preferences, desires, appetites, adaptations, functions, and purposes, but not a rock, a planet's, or an atom's? What changed, making information and intention cause matter to behave so differently, the way it most obviously does with life? And precisely how do intentions change things?

The two biggest breakthrough clues are evolutionary theory and information theory, and the overlooked underlying insight is about where to look for what life does differently--not in things themselves but in differences, and in particular differences between behaviors that do and don't persist, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Darwin discovered how differential survival, the proliferation of some lineages and the disappearance and absence of others yielded game-changing adaptations over time. Life doesn't require a creator-thing, or an improver-thing in order to evolve. Instead, it requires a difference between the lineages that stay present and the lineages that become absent.

We have embraced Darwin's breakthrough but haven't embraced what it tells us about where to look to finish solving science's greatest mystery. Instead, we treat differential survival as a creator-thing, for example when we say that natural selection designs a trait. And we treat DNA as an improver-thing, a magically powerful yet merely physio-chemical-thing that improves organisms.

Information theory may be less familiar to you than evolutionary theory but its consequences are everywhere. Pioneered by Claude Shannon, information theory made modern computers possible and gave us such essential and commonplace terms as bit, megabyte and pixel. Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs came up with a simple functional definition of information, as again, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent.

Pick a card, any card. Before you pick there are 52 possibilities. After you pick there's one. The step-down from 52 to one--the difference between what could have been picked, and what turned out to be picked is a measure of the amount of information gained in the process. Information is not a thing. It's a narrowing of possibility.

Again, though we ran with Shannon's breakthrough, we ignored its underlying insight. We treat information as a thing in computers, in the bit, the hard drive or the memory chip.

We are very thing-oriented.

We are so thing-oriented that, though it has been over 150 years since thermodynamic theory showed that energy is not a thing but a difference, we still treat energy as a thing. Put a frozen pizza in a hot oven and the temperature difference equalizes. And yet we still talk as though we're pumping some heat-thing into the pizza. We pump an energy-thing into our gas tanks and in and out of batteries.

We are so thing-oriented that we ignore how a whirlpool is not a thing but a remainder, a difference between what remains present and what becomes absent as turbulence cancels itself, leaving only a "least discordant remainder."

Complexity and self-organization theory provide a breakthrough understanding of such self-organizing processes but again we have run with the breakthrough, forgetting the underlying insight. A whirlpool is not a self-organizing-thing, because it's not a self-thing and it's not, as complexity theory suggests a process, that gravitates toward an attractor-thing.

The key in all of these cases, argues Deacon is to pay attention to the "constraint dynamics" that produce these differences between what remains present what becomes absent. Heating a pizza is "constraint dissipation," the equalization of differences. The formation of a whirlpool is "constraint propagation," the compounding growth of differences, as the more turbulence cancel each other, the less discordant the remainder, which cancels even more turbulence.

Life is a different kind of constraint dynamic in which constraints constraint, maintain and preserve themselves. Deacon shows step by careful step how with life real selves emerge, not as things but as constraint begetting dynamics, producing from its origins, lineages that in self-regeneration, impose new constraints upon their environments.

And in the process Deacon's approach provides a backdoor solution to the problem of free will. It's not how life becomes unconstrained, but how it becomes the source of novel constraint, acting in novel upon the world as it does in us humans especially, but to some extent in all adaptive traits, organisms and lineages.

The burden is on scientists to show in strictly classical physical terms how informational, intentional behavior emerges from energetic behavior, not at the origins of the universe, not at the origin of the human mind, not at the origin of sentient organisms, but at the origin of life. At the origin, differences between what remains present and what becomes absent become constrained in new ways, constraints that create, preserve and maintain themselves, in ways Deacon explains.

Embracing the full implications of the underlying insight that with life there is a change in how differences happen, Incomplete Nature provides a clear step-by-step description of how intentional dynamics really emerge from physical dynamics--how informational dynamics really emerge from energetic dynamics.

Deacon's approach offers an unprecedentedly comprehensive attempt at a physical science of all informational, intentional and meaningful behavior, a theory of everything" that "does not make it absurd that we exist," a theory that might complete our incomplete theories of consciousness by naturalizing in physic science the incompleteness we experience in life's infinitely innovative capacity to produce Darwin's 'endless forms most beautiful.'

In the past century, quantum physics and general relativity expanded physics in two directions, shrinking the status of classical physics to that of a special case operative under special conditions. Deacon's approach suggests that by understanding the physics of intention, the kind of work we living creatures do, we may be on the verge of a third expansion, a physical science of mattering that expands our scientific accounts of what is physically possible to encompass what has heretofore only been physically familiar.

Imagine the consequences for science and society of having a physical explanation for functional, meaningful and conscious behavior no less scientific and accessible than our explanation for lightning. I believe Deacon provides just that.
110 of 137 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mind Did Not Not Emerge Dec 28 2011
By Sevens - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author talks about - and to some degree - explores self-organization/morphodynamics; he outlines how systems that are (then) far from equilibrium can spontaneously "create themselves" (not a quote). Ever more complex systems pave the way to, are substrates for and mark steps toward life (and mind). Biological cells are pretty complex. To create them, self-sustaining (autocatalytic) systems (constituted by chemical processes) are necessary which need to progress to autogen(ic) status; autogenic status is characterized by the ability of the system (cell) to repair itself and to replicate itself. Essentially, in order to reach the complexity required for life, (gradual) progress has to be made. Each increase in complexity, each increase in sophistication of systems needs to be protected so that it can be build upon. Very much simplified: imagine a self-assembling sandcastle that needs to protect itself against the onslaught of mindless children who are out to destroy it. Mr. Deacon offers concepts for how that could work (not for sandcastles).

However, while he discusses all sorts of things (prominently: complexity theory, self-organization/morphodynamics, thermodynamics, teleodynamics, intentional/ententional [the latter a term he creates] phenomena, information theory and emergence) it does not converge into progress. At least not to me.

Ententional phenomena (elements that are not directly physically represented, such as purpose and thoughts) seem to be what he assigned a fundamental role to. But a focus on that theme is only present in the book's first half and does not amount to a conclusion, to a new insight, to something to work with.

The focus then shifts to constraints. Constraints prevent things. They cause things to not happen, they cause them to remain absent and to only be what (otherwise) could have been. Incidentally they cause/allow for other, alternative things to happen. (Naturally, they play a role in organization/morphodynamics.) I have a feeling that this doesn't sound like much of a great insight. It wasn't to me. I don't see what can - in respect to the emergence of mind/consciousness - be gained through that, allegedly new, perspective. For one thing, constraints are physically there. They aren't absent/absential features. For another thing, defining things negatively (a banana is a fruit that is not any fruit other than a banana) is not a new invention. I do not see anything resembling the paradigm shift and revolution Mr. Deacon postulates (and the publisher advertises).

In my view, this book doesn't revolutionize the concept of emergence; nor does it revolutionize (or particularly further) the understanding of the human mind. It enlightens few things. But it was interesting to read since it addresses interesting topics (of course that's a subjective assessment -- the second paragraph provides a short list, the first paragraph a minimally detailed example). The author's language could be called convoluted. Nonetheless, he remains modest. His insistence on having outlined something astounding is strange. There's a - let's say small - chance that somewhere in his text an idea is encoded and encapsulated that I could not access with my breadth and level of knowledge. In consequence, I plan to read his previous book (The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain) and, through different authors, to further explore the topics he addresses. The impressions described here are based on having read the full book and are strong enough to warrant a review; I will modify and mark it should I arrive at a new/improved understanding. Criticism is welcome.
96 of 126 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sermon or Argument? Nov. 22 2011
By Lew Mills - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Let's start with my confession: I don't think I get it. So, I could be wrong about this. Now, here's my problem with this book.

I can't tell whether it is an argument or a sermon. As a sermon, it works! Pretty much. It gives you that feeling like "sitting in church, being touched by the sense of something enormous and enigmatic, much larger than yourself." And even if you can't follow all of the citations / scripture that have been recited, it moves you to appreciate something you might not otherwise come around to feel.

But as an argument, it is tough going. Deacon's explanations run through one highly abstract notion to another at reckless speeds. Swooping between evolutionary biology and quantum physics in a few paragraphs, and then back, and then into 19th century philosophy for cover, leaves the reader in a vertiginous delirium. Like a great church service, it feels expansive and uplifting. But has it explained something?

I started out to read this, "just far enough to see if he was making sense." At one third of the way through, I still couldn't tell where it was going. It sort of did make sense, but I decided to bail out for this reason: I didn't think that this style of argument was going to lead to answers that I was interested in. Following his logical path through a dozen twists and turns, all at a dangerously ethereal level of abstraction, was going to leave me with little confidence about where I finally arrived. There were no anchors where I could say, "OK, I'm with you so far, because this makes sense to me." I was just being enjoined to hike along his logic trail for a few more miles before I would see promised sights.

I might come back and finish the book. It was a dazzling voyage. But I want to leave the reader of this review with an alternative, which I think covers nearly the same territory: It's Gregory Bateson's "Mind and Nature." I think the style of that book teaches more, while being less didactic. Also a terrific sermon, Bateson's book really does have all of the pieces in it to arrive to see the sights it promises, with many spectacular views along the way.

Meh? I could be wrong.
27 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mind did not emerge either June 3 2012
By James W. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was excited about the book because it appeared to be one of those books yet to appear, doing three things: carefully laying out the grand challenge (how do we understand the division between living and non-living matters, each with and without meaning, values, and purpose, in terms of known laws of physics and chemistry?), solves the underlying problem on the fundamental level, and look at the consequences and ramifications in terms of our understanding of biological evolution, consciousness, ethics, etc. Schneider and Sagan's 'Into the Cool' is an example of an attempt, in which I think the authors have the very plausible central idea but bungled in the execution.

My enthusiasm waned as I progressed over the chapters, but I did persevere till the end. I have to agree with another reviewer that his writing style is convoluted. Earlier chapters 1-9 are Okay and you may like some of them if you are unfamiliar with the subject matter. An important point is that contrary to common beliefs, Darwinian explanation of natural selection does not solve the problem of what life is, because why organisms strive for survival and reproduction is not clear. Classifying natural processes into homeodynamic (non-organizing), morphodynamic (self-organizing), and teleodynamic (living) ones seems to be a promising idea, if the criteria can be made precise in physical and thermodynamic sense. Morphodynamics involve Benard convection-like emergence of patterns, a reasonable distinction because many well-studied examples of such self-organization now exist. What makes teleodynamic ones different is the central question, which should also explain the emergence of 'values.'

This proposal eventually comes in chapter 10: basically the idea is that it is through a symbiosis of autocatalysis and self-assembly. Autocatalysis amplifies production of chemical species but is transient because of diffusion. Self-assembly can provide containment (think "cell walls") but requires supply of building blocks. They complement each other to form 'autogens.' Whether this is really possible needs to be judged based on physics and chemistry; the author is scant on details: is there a model system of autocatalysis of relevance in metabolism/biochemistry that produces polymeric building blocks? Can one build a proper thermodynamic/kinetic model demonstrating the symbiosis? More importantly, however, the question of how this proposal explains the emergence of values is not made clear. I tried hard to figure out what exactly was being proposed regarding this question in the subsection "The emergence of teleodynamics" of Chapter 10, but all I could suspect was something like this: the two agents of symbiosis do things "for" the other agent. It is this emergence of end-directed nature that we should trace the origin of values to. Please let me know if anyone can do better that I did figuring out what the author is trying to say here. I couldn't help thinking he did not nail this down in his mind either and was just trying to gloss over with long convoluted writings and discussions.

The rest of the book of course hinges on how well this crucial argument has been delivered and bolstered, and needless to say I was disappointed, but the writing style (reminiscent of essays written with length requirements to be fulfilled) didn't help either. I agree with another reviewer that the book reads like sermons, not persuasive arguments. There was only one part I recognized with factual inaccuracy though. He criticizes the gene-centric view and the RNA world theory (the section "The replicator's new clothes") first by replacing RNA with DNA, and then argues RNA sequences without proteins do not constitute information. RNA/DNA are copied by polymerases (not PCR machines), which are normally proteins, but certain RNA sequences can fold and act as polymerases. These RNA sequences are "about" replicating just as modern polymerase genes are, and therefore constitute information. DNAs do not fold so needs to be 'compiled' by mRNA and ribosome into proteins, so they likely evolved as a more stable system of record that requires an overhead. Guess what the compiler (ribosome) is made of: RNAs, because they had to make first proteins when proteins didn't exist yet.
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