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Susan Stepney

Jack Cohen

The collapse of chaos

The aim of science is to explain what goes on in the world using the simplest underlying rules. But chaos theory shows how simple rules can lead to complex behaviour, whilst complexity science shows how relatively simple behaviour can emerge from complex systems. The combination of these should lead us to question whether the simplicities we deduce about the world should really be used as evidence for a simple underlying mechanism. This is the subject of The Collapse of Chaos by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart. The book has information about fractals, theories of everything and such, but much of it looks at DNA and the part it plays in determining the nature of living things.

The authors argue against reductionism, and in particular the idea that DNA is a sort of blueprint for the organism. I didn't find the arguments that convincing though. For instance, there is the claim that DNA is not like a computer program because the development of organisms depends on their environment - but so does the execution of computer programs. And the idea that the same DNA might lead to totally different species seems to be the same as suggesting that you could have the same source code which would produce a Java compiler if compiled by a Java compiler and a Pascal compiler if compiled by a Pascal compiler. I wouldn't buy that, and the DNA idea seems even less credible.

This is a long book and I feel it might have been better as two books - one on reductionism and DNA and one on the relationship between complexity and chaos. But it is written in an entertaining way and you may well find it worth reading for some of the thought provoking ideas that it contains, even if you disagree with them as I do.  |  Chronon Critical Points  |  Recent Science Book Reviews