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


  1. interesting blog

    Right! One needs to ask the more difficult question first: Where do complex dissipating structures come from? or, to wit: how did we get that far from equilibrium in the first place....?

    Not sure what 'construction of constraints on the release of energy' is supposed to mean. Sounds to me like a paraphrasing of Schrödingers 'negative entropy' (viz. free energy).

  2. Thanks. You wrote: "Not sure what 'construction of constraints on the release of energy' is supposed to mean". Yes, at times Kauffman presupposes knowledge of physics which sometimes is only briefly explained. The 'construction of constraints on the release of energy' is 'explained' in Note 1, but too short! The cylinder of a fossil fuel car directs the force of an explosion in only one direction so that it can be used for the motion of the car. Without the cylinder you would just have a pointless and very dangerous explosion! In a similar way cells channel energy in to biosynthetic pathways and create useful molecules in stead of only heat.
    Obviously, there is very much more to say about the book... I hope to write another page for my website.

  3. funny, that kauffman mentions the similarity between cylinders/fossil fuel and biosynthetic pathways in cells, rather than the differences!

    Any exapmples or mention of other constraints, e.g. the 'constraints' of the periodic table (viz chemistry), or the constraints of language, aka syntax/grammer, or ...

  4. Yes, funny if you view it in that way. Kauffman uses the famous extended cannon ball example to illustrate the constraints, non-propagating and propagating work to illustrate what happens in a cell. It is already present in his INVESTIGATIONS (2000) book p.98-99.

    Other constraints? Notably, Kauffman suggests that if life did not stumble upon DNA or RNA, life could have originated anyway. So, it DNA was not discovered, that would be no constraint on the origin of life. Also, a few missing molecule species would not prevent the origin of life on another planet. You need diversity of molecules so that collectively autocatalytic sets could originate.

  5. You wrote: "What is common does not and cannot explain how organisms are different." Yet, Kaufmann's single one example of constraints stresses the very similarities.

    I think that's funny.

    So, the word 'constraint' doesn't seem to make very much dfference: everything goes, constaints all over the place, constraints all the way up and down!

    The second law implies that entropy somehow must have started very low, some time ago, before present. As far as I know there's no theory to account for that simple fact.

  6. I am not sure if I understand you about constraints. Kauffman uses cannon ball and explosion car as examples for what life does. That does not mean they are the same. You can hardly 'explain' life with something dissimilar to life. You can hardly 'explain' a cell by pointing to another cell. You can only illustrate, illuminate with a similarity. Starting from the similarity you next can point out the differences. Kauffman: "A locomotive is a large machine with many constraints on the release of energy. It takes work to build a locomotive." (71/359). A locomotive uses constraints to do work, BUT cannot construct his own constraints. Life can. Life does. Constraints make ALL the difference. No constraints, no work. I hope that clarifies the matter.

    About entropy at the time of the big bang: did you do research about that topic?

  7. A great subject, evolution vs entropy, as we have discussed many times by email.

    You write: "Life is a river flowing uphill." Be careful with this metaphor.

    I would suggest a different metaphor: we are in a boat that goes upstream (evolution), on a river that goes downstream (entropy). We can only do that by dissipating energy (either mechanical or muscular, or by using sails). Where does that energy come from? Ultimately from the sun, which dissipates its matter into energy, and that energy is captured by plants, which we eat. Or it generates wind in the earth's atmosphere.

    So life as found a way to capitalize on this tremendous flow (loss) of energy coming from stars. Life is the exception to the rule, that proves the rule (that in the end entropy wins).

    Now of course, where did the boat come from? Neither the river nor the wind creates the sail boat. Perhaps at the molecular level, energy flows change matter into different forms/structures and push it to higher organization. And once that is done, evolution by selection took over.

  8. You wrote "Constraints make ALL the difference. No constraints, no work"

    Unless you can specify 'constraints' i.e. unless you can specify whát constraints you are talking about and specify hów they work, to wit, how they make ALL the differences they make, the catch phrase is empty ('constraints' sound good, indeed).


    entropy can't increase unless it started low from the beginning. That is a logic implication. It's also an accepted conundrum in physics, because it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure the level of entropy of the universe of some 14 billion years ago.

  9. Hi Frank,
    Yes, indeed a metaphor is just a metaphor: a poor substitute for the real thing. Kauffman describes life as a three-fold closure (constraint, work task, catalytic task closure *). But that requires several chapters to explain. Even that are abstract theoretical concepts.
    Your proposed metaphor could be updated as follows: living individuals are like a boat that goes upstream, AND going upstream costs energy and work, AND the boat needs constant repairing which requires work and energy. But I am afraid it still is a poor metaphor for the reality...

    Your metaphoric question "where did the boat come from?" equals how did life originate? Kauffman makes a serous effort to answer the most difficult question science has to answer...

    *) if you google that you will see that other theoretical biologists also have worked on that...

  10. A. wrote "... the catch phrase is empty ('constraints' sound good, indeed)."
    Of course you are right. In science there is no place for empty phrases. But, Stuart Kauffman is a professional theoretical biologist with publications in peer-reviewed journals. He can't get away with empty phrases. In this review I cannot give a full explanation of the concept. See the above example of the cannon balls for an illustration of the concept of constraints.
    Here is another: boil a pan with water, nothing interesting happens. No work is done. But integrate it in specific devices and you have a steam engine! The boiling water is unconstrained, the boiling water in the steam engine is constrained and does useful work.

    if you did not see it already, here is an article about your other question:

  11. thanks a lot for the link

    shouldn't it be possible then the to define constraints in terms of entropy E.g. as some measure of the limits of 'the number of possible arrangements of the state of your system'? Or as the tendency away form 'the most likely state'? Or in terms of anti-gravity, or anti-singularity for that matter...?!

  12. Possibly. It has something to do with entropy, sure.
    Kauffman quotes Peter Atkins: "Work is the constrained release of energy into a few degrees of freedom".
    example: cylinder and piston. The cylinder = boundary. Without the boundary conditions that serve as constraints on the release of energy in a non-equilibrium process, no work is done.
    the increase in entropy is less than were the constraints not there. The constraints channel the release of energy into work, not just entropy increase.
    So the entropy increases, but more slowly.
    I find this rather clear. NO mystery there.
    This is all in chapter 3. If you don't have the book, just buy the eBook: it costs almost nothing and no trees are sacrificed!

  13. sorry, but 'no mystery there' doesn't answer my questions....

  14. Hello Anonymous, I did especially for you a search in the book, and cited a few relevant passages and suggested you to read them in context in the book. I don't know whether it was helpful, whether you read the book. I don't know if your questions are directed at me or to Kauffman. In fact, I don't know anything about you, I don't know your name, I don't know your background, I don't know why you asks these questions, I don't know what you want. And above all: you use very few words! finally, I am certainly not an expert in anti-gravity and anti-singularity! I am not a physicist. I am just a biologist...

  15. Thanks a lot for your information- you've been very kind

    If these relevant passages are all you could find in Kauffman's book, then to me it definitively doesn't qualify as a MUST READ.

    I think there's a lot more to say about constraints etc - as I alluded to above, but then there's still a lot of mystery.

    Of course, I directed my questions to you- this is your blog, isn't it? And I did ask them, because I am interested in the subject - that's how I found your blog btw- and I wanted to know what you had to say, after having read Kauffman.

    I tried to be as succintly as possible, so I do apologize if that didn't work

    Names and background are not relevant, I think. Only questions count- or they don't.

    So, if you allow me one last try: Kauffman's book is about LIFE not about PHYSICS, meaning that it's about evolution as well. For me that raises the question: how do constraints come into existence, where do the come from, in short, how do they EVOLVE?

  16. There are some 50 hits in the search results for 'evolve' in Kauffmans book. It is too much trouble to quote all occurrences!
    If I would give examples, I would risk you declare them irrelevant.
    So that would be a waste of time. Especially when you seem unwilling to read the book anyway.
    To me, it does not make sense: you are interested in the book, but doesn't want to read it.
    My advice: read it (and others!), and learn from it what there is to learn. It doesn't solve all your questions. But there is no book in the world that does.
    Science doesn't solve immediately all the questions one can ask. But there is progress.
    Kauffman is a smart and intelligent man. I gained new insights from the book, despite reading his previous books. I hesitated a year ago when it appeared, fearing it was a repetition of his previous ideas. But there are exciting new ideas. For me.
    Did you do any research yourself on the questions you ask?
    Scientists don't ask others for answers, they do their own research to gain insight. If you are not a professional scientist, the only thing you can do is reading their books and articles.
    I hope all this makes sense to you!

  17. I do know Kauffman, so I don't need explanations, I think

    And I know what scientists do, that's why I you asked questions.

    But of course you are entitled to dodge them - it's your blog.

    To answer your's: 'constraints' are central in AI and programming; and constraints even have their own paradigm: CSP. Constaints play a central role not just programming languages but also in natural languages- we call them syntax/grammar: to produce information, or meaning, i.e. to make it 'work'. To make the difference, say: Language makes all the difference in the world. Has indeed created a different world.

    No further questions ..?


Comments to posts >30 days old are being moderated.
Safari causes problems, please use Firefox or Chrome for adding comments.