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This nonfiction book reads like drama, and educates its reader in the new science of spontaneous order. Waldrop tells the tale through the eyes of participating scientists, whom he introduces by tracing development of their important ideas, going back as far as the 1940s. But most of the action occurs during recent years, 1985-90, at theSanta Fe Institute in New Mexico. The reader gets caught in the excitement of meetings at that new Institute, as scientists from several disciplines meet and discover their mutual hunger for this science.
This book updated my education in the science of life in a few important ways. Notably, researcher Stuart Kauffman has shown a way that self-replicating molecules can originate in primordial soup. Kauffman's way, autocatalytic sets, is more believable than an earlier theory which relied on random recombination of ions following lightning jolts. Under certain circumstances, in the presence of catalysts, it is likely that molecules will be created in self-sustaining cycles, as A —> B —> C —> D —> A. He also showed that the complexity and size of the molecules created in these cycles is likely, in favorable circumstances, to increase. This shows a plausible origin for life.
Another important new concept for me was that these self-replicating cycles can start only in a specific environment. As explained by researcher Christopher Langdon, artificial life occurs where matter is neither solid, with all molecules bound in rigid order, nor fluid, with all molecules moving independently, but rather in a special state in between in which molecules can cluster and maintain patterns of relationship with some high degree of probability — but not with certainty — because fluidity, the possibility of change, is the source of novelty, including self-replication.
The action of simple artificial life was demonstrated by a computer model of flocking birds. Each spot on the screen of the computer model, called a "boid" by creator Craig Reynolds, followed three simple rules (p. 241):
1. It tried to maintain a minimum distance from other objects in the environment, including other boids.
2. It tried to match velocities with boids in its neighborhood.
3. It tried to move toward the perceived center of mass of boids in its neighborhood.
While none of these rules said "form a flock" nonetheless flocks did form. And the flocks behaved in ways remarkably reminiscent of flocks of real birds. In flying past obstacles, for instance, a flock would sometimes divide and then recombine after flowing past the obstacle.
Waldrop's book maddened me when it got into economics. A few of the major characters were economists — but not of libertarian flavor. Waldrop portrays these economists as leading a revolution as, in the 1980s, they challenge mainstream economics by questioning its mathematical modeling and assumptions of equilibrium. Of course the Austrian economists favored by libertarians have been challenging these assumptions and preaching spontaneous order for sixty years or more — a contribution which Waldrop and his economists overlooked almost entirely. Among economists credited I recognized only one Austrian, Schumpeter, who received a brief passing nod.
In my view the economists at the Santa Fe Institute seemed to be doing what leftists always try to do: justify state action. They could do some things right: acknowledge the fallacy of economic equilibrium; explain how state-induced economic stagnation toppled the Soviet Union; marvel at the power of spontaneous order. But they could not, for the most part, bring themselves to acknowledge that laissez faire is better than state planning. They clung relentlessly to the notion of a mix of government planning and private choice. The way a tick clings to a dog. As the book closed they had not yet found their justification for state action. But they had hope as they were receiving continuations of their federal grants.
Optimistically now, we libertarians can find confirmation of our basic principles in this book. Life, it seems, emerges and flourishes, not in response to any central plan, but when individual agents are constrained by simple rules governing only themselves and their interactions with others. This smacks of self responsibility and property rights.
It seems possible that this new science
may someday produce a proof that our ideal, bottom-up rule-based action,
is an optimal scheme for life. It promises to strengthen our hand. D
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