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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.2 (2002) 307-309

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Book Review

Cosmic Evolution:
The Rise of Complexity in Nature

Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. By Eric J. Chaisson. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2001. Pp. xii + 274. $27.95.

Eric Chaisson's Cosmic Evolution draws from a rich scientific palette to paint a colorful explanatory model of the ascending complexity in nature. It attempts to answer the question originally ascribed to Leibnitz: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" In this case the "something" is nothing short of all matter. Chaisson claims that there is developmental continuity between the relatively simple structure of galaxies and stars and the more complex life forms, spanning from the primeval broth of swarming microorganisms to the astonishing complexity of the human brain. If ever there was an ambitious project, surely it is this: to explain the fundamental ground of cosmic evolution, not least of all human existence and consciousness.

The attempt to explain the nature, origin, and perhaps destiny of the universe is as old as humankind itself and has informed the content of myth, religion, and philosophy. Chaisson, astrophysicist at Tufts University and author of numerous popular science books, diverges from Leibnitz in ably deriving his argument not from any metaphysical theory, but from the quantifiable formulae of non-thermodynamic physics and the big bang theory. In this sense Chaisson is in fundamental agreement with one of his heroes, Galileo, who proclaimed that Nature was a book written in the language of mathematics. Despite the scientific nature [End Page 307] of the work, however, Chaisson cannot completely escape the residues of metaphysics, especially in a work of this kind that synthesizes contemporary scientific knowledge to provide an explanatory hypothesis of primary origins.

Chaisson claims that his argument straddles the border between analytic reductionism and holism. Holism is necessary, he argues, to make adequate sense of the complexity in biology, a product of the mixture of chance and necessity. The tension between reductionism and holism runs like a thread throughout the book and demonstrates the difficulty that Chaisson faces in attempting to explain the enigma of the phenomenon of life through the prism of analytic science.Actually, Chaisson's claims in this regard are relatively modest. Chaisson acknowledges that his theoretical discussion about the nature of evolution is quite general, and his real strength lies in the rich scientific data that he provides to support his argument for the essential continuity between life and matter. This mathematical and scientific evidence is central to the book and is depicted in a clear lucid style. At the same time it makes initially daunting reading for someone like myself who possesses a smattering of the reader's assumed undergraduate knowledge of natural science, and especially statistical and deterministic physics. Nonetheless, despite the overall scientific structure of the book, Chaisson like Darwin before him cannot avoid the mythic element in his attempt to explain the evolution of the cosmos.

Energy is the key scientific and numinous concept that Chaisson uses to unlock the riddle of cosmic evolution; or to be more precise the free energy rate density (Fm) measured in units of energy per time per mass (erg s-1 g-1). According to Chaisson, energy provides the common underlying factor unifying all the elements of the cosmos. All elements of the cosmos utilize energy to generate various levels of organizational complexity.Thus, for example, the free energy density of the sun (the star which supplies all of the energy for the biological evolution on Earth) is only 2 erg s-1 g-1, while that of a human brain is 150,000 erg s-1 g-1. Note the free energy density is not a unit of actual energy, but of the relation of energy usage to mass over time.Thus, the human brain uses a relatively greater amount of energy than the galaxy. An analysis of energy flows therefore provides the opportunity to map the evolution in complexity of the cosmos.

The major riddle that Chaisson's theory claims to resolve...


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