Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology. Ricard Sole, Brian Goodwin. Basic Books.

Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology Book Cover Signs of Life: How Complexity Pervades Biology
Ricard Sole, Brian Goodwin
Basic Books
December 26, 2000

Dear reader, be warned: the book in your hand is about the glorious complexities of biology, it contains mathematics – even some displayed equations! – and not all of the high-school variety. Some of it is downright difficult, though the hard parts are sequestered in text boxes so you can read right past them if you wish.

Why should you subject yourself to this challenge? Quite simply, because Signs of Life is one of the most stunningly original books you’ll come across for a very long time. It’s no less than a glimpse into the future of the life sciences. Ricard Sole and Brian Goodwin, colleagues at the world-famous Santa Fe Institute, take you on a tour of biology such as you’ve never seen before.

The authors touch on every major field of biology, from molecular genetics and neurobiology, through animal behavior and ecology, to evolution, extinction and even economics. At each level, they describe well-known phenomena that today’s standard theories, steeped as they are in a kind of worship of the gene, are powerless to explain. Yet various tools of complexity theory can model them quite nicely. Signs of Life, then, is about explaining the unexplainable – more precisely, using new ideas to think about things today’s ideas can’t help us with. For instance:

  • It’s generally believed that cells with identical genomes and identical environments will lead to identical lives. But they don’t. Why?
  • How to such simple creatures as ants and termites manage such complex behavior as building huge nests and moving in swarms? And why do certain ant nests show pulses of activity that are not apparent in any individual ant?
  • Classical ecology tells us that if to strongly competitive species try to occupy a common resource or territory, “competitive exclusion” will drive one of them to extinction. But if this is so, why our natural ecosystem so diverse?
  • Why did all the basic body plans of the animal kingdom appear in a single geological era, and no new one since? Was this inevitable, or grand accident?`

Signs of Life will show you an entirely new approach to the problems of understanding living systems. It applies the mathematics of order and disorder, of entropy, chance, and randomness, of chaos and nonlinear dynamics to the various mysteries of the living world at all levels. Less a set of answers and a guide to thinking about living systems, this lively book sets the agenda for biology in the coming century.

Ricard Sole is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering at the Polytechnic University in Barcelona, External Professor of the Santa Fe Institute, senior member of the NASA-Associated Center of Astrobiology, and head of the Complex Systems Research Group. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.

Brian Goodwin is a Scholar in Residence at Schumacher College and a member of the Santa Fe Institute. His previous books include Temporal Organization in Cells, How the Leopard Changed its Spots, and, with Gerry Webster, Form and Transformation. He lives in Devon, England.