11 September 2020

Stuart Kauffman: A World Beyond Physics. Review.

A World Beyond Physics

I did not foresee for a moment how the subject of my previous blog The difference between physics and biology is masterfully argued in Stuart Kauffmans' latest book A World Beyond Physics. I added the book title to my previous blogpost without knowing how relevant the book was. 

This blog is not a complete review of A World Beyond Physics. I will focus on the 'beyond physics' part of the book. Building on his previous books (f.e. At home in the universe) Kauffman significantly extends his collectively autocatalytic set theory, includes several examples of real world chemistry; defines life in a new and profound way; solves the origin of life (in theory); attacks Dawkins' selfish genes and the overemphasis on genes and DNA in evolution; rejects the RNA-world because nobody has shown in 50 years that it works; explains why biology cannot be reduced to physics and why evolution is open-ended and unpredictable. Kauffman is not an anti-Darwinist. However, his account of the origin and evolution of life on earth skips the origin of RNA, DNA and the genetic code. If restricted to the Origin of Life, especially to the origin of protocells, then this omission may be a superb move. It shows how proto-life could exist without genes (in theory) [5]. A very intelligent, insightful and visionary book. There is a rare video of a 2017 lecture of Kauffman where he summarizes the ideas in A World Beyond Physics. If one wants to get familiar with Kauffman's worldview, watching both the lecture and reading the book is recommended. 

The book title is 'A world beyond physics' and this is also the title of chapter 11. That chapter contains sections such as 'Entropy and Evolution'; 'Beyond Law: Biology Cannot Be Reduced to Physics'. The first chapter is titled 'The World is not a Machine'. This chapter contains a section titled 'Beyond the Second Law'. One can find the beyond physics theme throughout the book. He is serious about it. The book is not just an update of the current status of Collectively Autocatalytic Set theory.

Especially relevant is the section 'Entropy and persistent self-construction' of chapter 6. It starts with:

"A deep issue is how the biosphere builds up complexity in face of the second law of thermodynamics. This law states that in a closed system, disorder or entropy, can only increase. ... In plants, photosynthesis builds up glucose molecules from carbon dioxide and water. Fine, but if the second law degraded this order faster than it was created, no order could accumulate! How does order accumulate?" (207/359)
Indeed, the scientific problem of life is not how to destroy order or release heat, but exactly the opposite: how to create order in the first place. Please note: in face of the second law. Apparently, the Second Law doesn't help us. On the contrary.  Life is a river flowing uphill. Life is against the flow. Explaining how and why plants dissipate energy is the easier part. But, explaining how plants with complex photosynthetic machinery originated and is maintained in the first place: that is the more difficult question. Where do complex dissipating structures come from? One needs a theory to solve that problem first. Life does not follow from physical laws. Newton and Einstein and all subsequent geniuses, yes, they did explain the universe, but they did not explain life [4].

Kauffman develops a theory of life in which the concept 'constraint' plays a central role. It's too complex a story to summarize it here [1]. He concludes that life is characterized by the construction of constraints on the release of energy in non-equilibrium processes. Those constraints do work and this work is used to construct yet more of the same constraints. This is the harnessing of energy to build up further order. "The constraints, in other words, channel the release of energy into work, not just entropy increase" (p.69). Nowhere Kauffman says the release of energy is important, let alone the driving force of life. This channeling of work is part of how life "beats" the Second Law. Due to constraints, entropy still increases, but more slowly. This is how life surges upward in complexity and spreads this order despite the Second Law." (p.70).

The most characteristic property of life is the continuous 'fight' against disorder (Second Law) in as many ingenious ways as there are species. So, if a physicist claims that the thermodynamic function of organisms is dissipation of heat [2], he highlights what is common between the living and the non-living. However, the difference between living and non-living is lost. The difference is the most important part of the equation. What is common does not and cannot explain how organisms are different. It is the difference that frustrates a straightforward application of physical law to organisms. 

To illustrate the problem: consider a bird and a cannon ball.  

Common buzzard ©GK

Cannon balls


Are they both subject to gravity? Yes and No. Cannon balls obey the law of gravity, no doubt. Birds also have mass and are somehow subject to gravity. But birds do not behave like cannon balls. The trajectory of a cannon ball can be calculated perfectly, but the trajectory of a bird is impossible to calculate. Even better: consider the chaotic movements of a butterfly! There you have the problem. The application of physical laws to organisms is very complex, if not impossible.

So, it makes no sense to claim that biological species are governed by physical laws, when exactly those physical laws are circumvented by life. 

In Kauffman's own words: "In short, I will claim that no law at all entails the becoming of the biosphere; and that therefore, we cannot reduce biology to physics. The world is not a machine." (Chapter 9).

Chapter 11: "The aim of this chapter, indeed the driving purpose behind this book, is to show that life, though rooted in physics, surges beyond it into myriad unprestatable [3] ways of making a living in the world." (p.294).

So, in this book Kauffman gives more than one reason why biology is different from physics, how life differs from non-life and why this is relevant. I hope I have given just enough information in this short blog post to stimulate readers to check it out for themselves.

Finally, it is still possible that somehow dissipation is a factor in the design of organisms, or even the driving force. A physicist may propose a revolutionary theory about life. However, it is not sensible to do that without profound knowledge of the most fundamental properties of life. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman recently made a strong case that the biological world is A World Beyond Physics.


  1. His example: An automobile constrains the motion of many parts but does not construct new constraints. Life does! (p.73). In the absence of the cylinder, the hot gas would expand in all directions. In its presence the gas expands only along the cylinder.
  2. Physicist Karo Michaelian, see previous blog.
  3. Kauffman uses the word 'unprestatable' many times, it means possible forms of life can not be enumerated in advance.
  4. Organisms are made of atoms and those atoms are created in stars.  That is absolutely true and very interesting stuff. Ultimately, life depends on the Big Bang. Kauffman does not elaborate the connection between life and the universe in this book. It is the subject of Big History and Astrobiology books.
  5. Later I find out that in the chemoton model of Tibor Gánti there are no enzymes. So it appears that both Gánti and Kauffman define simple forms without enzymes and genes.


PS: I included a few page numbers in the text. These are relative page numbers of the eBook edition which has 359 pages on my Kobo eReader. 


Previous post about the subject

03 September 2020

Nocturnal bird migration at full moon

10 dark spots on the surface of the full moon are in fact 10 birds!
f/8.0 1/3200 sec. ISO speed 800. 1 Sep 2020 22:49
One stop underexposed; some contrast enhancement added.
1000x1000 pixels. Sony A6400; 70-350. Manual focus
Width and height of the Moon itself: 783x779 pixels

What is the probability that birds appear in front of the full moon in a series of only 10 exposures? Close to zero, I would say. I only discovered them the next morning on my computer screen. One or two seconds earlier or later and they would have disappeared into total darkness. 

If the birds flew a few degrees higher of lower, I would miss them too. You won't spot them in the dark. If the birds flew directly towards the moon it would be harder to make sense of those clustered strange speckles. Luckily the birds did a nice fly-by. It looks like they are flying in one straight line. But they could fly in a V-shape. One cannot tell the difference. In reality the group could be bigger than ten. If there were only one or two birds in front of the moon, I would probably have missed them. If they were still further away from me, they would have been too small to notice at all. I doubt if the chances would be higher if they were significantly closer to me. It would be a hit or miss. At least, it would be less likely to see them all ten together.

Detail. 362x227 pixels (not scaled up)

There is just enough detail visible to conclude that they must be birds. Some have their wings up and some down. These black spots are darker than anything on the moon. I am not sure what species it is. It could be geese. Sheer luck that they entered my exposure. Thanks birds! Have a good trip! To whatever destination!

The position of the moon must have been southeast and the birds must be flying to the south or southwest (location: The Netherlands). They appear to be ascending. This seems unlikely to me. It could be caused by the orientation of my camera. I did not pay attention to that when taking the pictures.