Stuart Kauffman

American biophysicist

Stuart Alan Kauffman (born September 28, 1939) is an American theoretical biologist and complex systems researcher who studies the origin of life on Earth.

Stuart Kauffman, 2010.

Quotes edit

  • Stephen Jay Gould is extremely bright, inventive. He thoroughly understands paleontology; he thoroughly understands evolutionary biology. He has performed an enormous service in getting people to think about punctuated equilibrium, because you see the process of stasis/sudden change, which is a puzzle. It's the cessation of change for long periods of time. Since you always have mutations, why don't things continue changing? You either have to say that the particular form is highly adapted, optimal, and exists in a stable environment, or you have to be very puzzled. Steve has been enormously important in that sense. Talking with Steve, or listening to him give a talk, is a bit like playing tennis with someone who's better than you are. It makes you play a better game than you can play. For years, Steve has wanted to find, in effect, what accounts for the order in biology, without having to appeal to selection to explain everything—that is, to the evolutionary "just-so stories." You can come up with some cockamamie account about why anything you look at was formed in evolution because it was useful for something. There is no way of checking such things. We're natural allies, because I'm trying to find sources of that natural order without appealing to selection, and yet we all know that selection is important.
    • Kauffman in: John Brockman, ed. (1995) The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution, p. 64-65. (online)
  • Francisco Varela is amazingly inventive, freewheeling, and creative. There's a lot of depth in what he and Humberto Maturana have said. Conversely, from the point of view of a tied-down molecular biologist, this is all airy-fairy, flaky stuff. Thus there's the mixed response. That part of me that's tough-minded and critical is questioning, but the other part of me has cottoned on to the recent stuff he's doing on self- representation in immune networks. I love it.
    • Kauffman in: John Brockman ed. (1995) The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. p.209 (online)
  • The strange thing about the theory of evolution is that everyone thinks he understands it. But we do not. A biosphere, or an econosphere, self-consistently coconstructs itself according to principles we do not yet fathom.
    • Attributed to Kauffman in: Jared Lobdell (2004) This Strange Illness: Alcoholism and Bill W.. p.123
  • It would be a triumph to find universal laws of organization for life, ecosystems, and biospheres. The candidate criticality law is emergent and not reducible to physics alone.
    • Stuart A. Kauffman (2010) Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. p.40

The origins of order: Self-organization and selection in evolution (1993) edit

Stuart Kauffman (1993) The Origins of Order : Self Organization and Selection in Evolution,
  • The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli is said to have remarked that the deepest pleasure in science comes from finding an instantiation, a home, for some deeply felt, deeply held image.
    • p. vii
  • The onset of evolutionism brought with it the concept of branching phylogenies. The branching image, so clear and succinct, has come to underlie all our thinking about organisms and evolution.
    • p.5
  • Living systems exist in the solid regime near the edge of chaos, and natural selection achieves and sustains such a poised state.
    • p.232
  • Evolution is not just "chance caught on the wing". It is not just a tinkering of the ad hoc, of bricolage, of contraption. It is emergent order honored and honed by selection.
    • p. 644

At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1996) edit

Stuart Kauffman (1996) At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.
  • It is not necessary that a specific set of 2000 enzymes be assembled... Whenever a collection of chemicals contains enough different kinds of molecules, a metabolism will crystallize from the broth.
    • p.45 as cited in: Gert Korthof (1998) "Kauffman at home in the Universe: The secret of life is auto-catalysis". Book review, 20 Oct 1998 (online)
  • Life does not depend on the magic of Watson-Crick base pairing or any other specific template-replicating machinery. Life lies ... in the property of catalytic closure among a collection of molecular species
    • ** p.50 as cited in: Gert Korthof (1998)
  • If biologists have ignored self-organization, it is not because self-ordering is not pervasive and profound. It is because we biologists have yet to understand how to think about systems governed simultaneously by two sources of order. Yet who seeing the snowflake, who seeing simple lipid molecules cast adrift in water forming themselves into cell-like hollow lipid vesicles, who seeing the potential for the crystallization of life in swarms of reacting molecules, who seeing the stunning order for free in networks linking tens upon tens of thousands of variables, can fail to entertain a central thought: if ever we are to attain a final theory in biology, we will surely, surely have to understand the commingling of self-organization and selection. We will have to see that we are the natural expressions of a deeper order. Ultimately, we will discover in our creation myth that we are expected after all.
    • p.112
  • One of the most important presuppositions of Darwin's entire thesis is gradualism, the idea that mutations to the genome can cause minor variations in the organism's properties, which can be accumulated piecemeal, bit by bit, over the eons to create the complex order found in the organisms we observe.
    • p.151. as cited in: A. Kay (2006) The Dynamics of Public Policy: Theory and Evidence. p.43

The Adjacent Possible: A Talk with Stuart Kauffman, 2003 edit

Stuart Kauffman (2003) In: "The Adjacent Possible: A Talk with Stuart Kauffman" at, March 11, 2003
  • In his famous book, What is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger asks, "What is the source of the order in biology?" He arrives at the idea that it depends upon quantum mechanics and a microcode carried in some sort of aperiodic crystal—which turned out to be DNA and RNA—so he is brilliantly right. But if you ask if he got to the essence of what makes something alive, it's clear that he didn't. Although today we know bits and pieces about the machinery of cells, we don't know what makes them living things. However, it is possible that I've stumbled upon a definition of what it means for something to be alive.
    For the better part of a year and a half, I've been keeping a notebook about what I call autonomous agents. An autonomous agent is something that can act on its own behalf in an environment. Indeed, all free-living organisms are autonomous agents. Normally, when we think about a bacterium swimming upstream in a glucose gradient we say that the bacterium is going to get food. That is to say, we talk about the bacterium teleologically, as if it were acting on its own behalf in an environment. It is stunning that the universe has brought about things that can act in this way. How in the world has that happened?
  • As I thought about this, I noted that the bacterium is just a physical system; it's just a bunch of molecules that hang together and do things to one another. So, I wondered, what characteristics are necessary for a physical system to be an autonomous agent? After thinking about this for a number of months I came up with a tentative definition.
    My definition is that an autonomous agent is something that can both reproduce itself and do at least one thermodynamic work cycle. It turns out that this is true of all free-living cells, excepting weird special cases. They all do work cycles, just like the bacterium spinning its flagellum as it swims up the glucose gradient. The cells in your body are busy doing work cycles all the time.

External links edit

Wikipedia has an article about:
  • An online chat with Stuart Kauffman on a complexity organization website.