Life Itself


Life Itself
A Comprehensive Inquiry into the Nature, Origin, and Fabrication of Life

 by Robert Rosen


Ordering Details(1991) Columbia University Press; ISBN 0231075642 (hardcover) [Amazon] [Columbia U. Press]

(1991) Columbia University Press; ISBN 0231075650 (paperback) [Amazon] [Columbia U. Press][top]



From the Publisher

“Drawing on the languages of organizational theory, cybernetics, and category theory, Rosen questions the classic machine metaphor of life. . . . Once formulated, Rosen uses his concept of life to revisit relational biology, molecular biology, evolution, and chemical sequences.”

“Dr. Rosen presents a most fascinating book…. Followers of Rosen’s work will find Life Itself to be new and exciting, as I did.”
–David W. Roberts, Utah State University

“Iconoclastic and occasionally brilliant…Life Itself is well written, fascinating…”
–Steve Pacala, University of Connecticut, Storrs

What is life? This is perhaps the most provocative and significant question our minds can address. It provides the soul and central impetus to the science of biology, which studies life through the example of living organisms.

How we answer this question, and how we seek an answer, crucially influences every aspect of human thought and human action. For four centuries, it has been believed that the only possible scientific approach to this question proceeds from the Cartesian metaphor -organism as machine. Therefore, organisms are to be studied and characterized the same way “machines” are; the same way any inorganic system is. This strategy, derived from Newtonian mechanism, is embodied in reductionism: break what is complicated into simpler pieces, understand the pieces themselves, and reconstruct organisms from this understanding.

In Life Itself, Robert Rosen argues that such a view is neither necessary nor sufficient to answer the question. He asserts that life is not a specialization of mechanism, but rather a sweeping generalization of it. Above all, Rosen argues that renouncing mechanism does not mean abandoning science. A radical alternative is proposed, drawn equally from experience in biology, physics, and mathematics; an alternative which draws attention to a new class of complex systems, which are radically different from mechanism.

Life Itself provides the context within which an effective answer can be found to satisfy the basic question with which we began: What is life?

1. Prolegomenon     
2. Strategic Considerations: The Special and the General     
3. Some Necessary Epistemological Considerations     
4. The Concept of State     
5. Entailment Without States: Relational Biology     
6. Analytic and Synthetic Models     
7. On Simulation     
8. Machines and Mechanisms     
9. Relational Theory of Machines     
10. Life Itself: The Preliminary Steps     
11. Relational Biology and Biology    

About the Author
Robert Rosen is Professor of Physiology and Biophysics, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University. He is the author of thirteen other volumes, among them Fundamentals of Measurement, Anticipatory Systems, and seven volumes of
Progress in Theoretical Biology.

From the series Complexity in Ecological Systems Series


From the Prolegomenon

“Why could it not be that the “universals” of physics are only so on a small and special (if inordinately prominent) class of material systems, a class to which organisms are too general to belong? What if physics is the particular, and biology the general, instead of the other way around?

    If this is so, then nothing in contemporary science will remain the same. For then the muteness of physics [with regard to the question: what is life?] arises from its fundamental inapplicability to biology and betokens the most profound changes in physics itself. This situation is, of course, nothing new to physics; it happened when physics was mostly mechanics and had no apparent room for accommodating phenomena of electricity and magnetism; it happened again when the combined arsenal of nineteenth-century physics spent itself helplessly in assaulting phenomena of spectra and chemical bonding. But just as today’s armies are equipped only to win yesterday’s wars, we cannot expect contemporary physics to successfully cope with problems other than those with which it has already coped.

    As we proceed, we will find a great deal of evidence, of many kinds, that leads to just such an unfortunate conclusion. And thus, we find another basic reason why biology is hard; it is hard because we are fundamentally ill equipped. This is a far cry from being merely ignorant; it is rather that we are misinformed.”


Chapter Excerpts

Chapter 1:    Prolegomenon

“The physicist perceives that most things in the universe are not organisms, not alive in any conventional sense. Therefore, the physicist reasons, organisms are negligible; they are nothing fundamental, nothing new to physics; rather, organisms are to be understood entirely as specializations of the physical universals, once these have been adequately developed, and once the innumerable constraints and boundary conditions that make organisms special have been elucidated. These last, the physicist says, are not my task. So it happens that  the wonderful edifice of physical science, so articulate elsewhere, stands today utterly mute on the fundamental question: What is life?”

Chapter 2:    Strategic Considerations: The Special and the General     

“I shall begin with a brief consideration of the concepts of generality and universality. Specifically, what does it mean to say that a theory is general or universal? Or that a proposition is generally or universally true? Is it true that, say, Set Theory is more general than topology, or that Lattice Theory is more general than Group Theory, or that mechanics is more general (universal) than thermodynamics? Or that physics is more general (or less general) than biology? What sense, if any, can we give to such questions?”

Chapter 3:    Some Necessary Epistemological Considerations

“We shall thus accept this view, that entailment relations can exist between phenomena and that their study comprises causality; hence science and causality are to that extent synonymous.

    I turn now to the last of our preliminary considerations, namely, the establishment of relations between the two entirely different kinds of entailment we have been considering. I have talked about inferential entailment in internally generated formalisms, governed by inferential rules that generate new propositions from given ones. And I have talked about causal entailment, relating phenomena arising in the ambience or external world. My final task is to show that these two entirely different modes of entailment are themselves related. The assertion of this relation is embodied in the concept of Natural Law; the crucial instrument in establishing the relation is the concept of model.”

Chapter 4:    The Concept of State     

“I shall therefore now turn to an analysis of Newtonian particle mechanics, from the point of view I have been in the process of developing. As I have asserted several times already, every mode of analysis of natural systems practiced in contemporary science finds its roots here. In particular, its modes of encoding and decoding have become synonymous with science itself. Yet as we shall see, Newton was not being entirely accurate when he said “hypothesis non fingo.” We will not find one but many gratuitous hypotheses, which as I shall argue, continue to profoundly limit the scope of contemporary physics and serve in particular to make biology unreachable.”

Chapter 5:    Entailment Without States: Relational Biology     

“In any case, I can epitomize a reductionistic approach to organization in general, and to life in particular, as follows: throw away the organization and keep the underlying matter.

    The relational alternative to this says the exact opposite, namely: when studying an organized material system, throw away the matter and keep the underlying organization.”

Chapter 6:    Analytic and Synthetic Models     

“In particular, we can require of our formal world that synthetic and analytic do coincide. This is, of course, a very special world; it is defined by a property that, as we have just seen, is not satisfied in general. It is therefore, degenerate. And we can ask what this very special world is like.

    In brief, it is a world in which [the system under study] S itself is already linear in some sense; indeed, a very strong sense. It is tantamount to mandating that S itself is, in effect, an inherently syntactic structure. In such a world, every world can be expressed as a direct sum of fixed “atoms” or summands. We will see later the dire consequences of assuming, at the outset, that synthetic and analytic models coincide (see chapter 9). We merely remark, at this point, that presuming anything like this about S is tantamount to placing the most severe restrictions on causality itself, in effect, forcing causal relations to themselves be constrained by something that is itself uncaused.”

Chapter 7:    On Simulation     

“As noted at the outset, it was in fact the rise of Newtonian mechanism, and its success in celestial mechanics, that provided the credibility for an entirely different view of the world, the “modern” view. In that new view, there is no room for a distinction between animate and inanimate; indeed, the distinction itself disappeared. It was only then that a need for an explanation of life became manifest; indeed life was now to be explained in terms of the same mechanics that had previously explained the motions of the comets, the planets, and the stars, for there now was no other accepted mode of explanation.

    Hence the allure of the machine metaphor. For if we could understand machines mechanistically, then we could understand organisms in precisely the same way. If nothing else, there is a most satisfying parsimony in this picture; biology in principle mandates nothing new. Hence no one has ever looked for anything new.”

Chapter 8:    Machines and Mechanisms     

“As we have seen, a contemporary physicist will feel very much at home in the world of mechanisms. We have quite deliberately created this world without making any physical hypotheses, beyond our requiring the simulability of every model. We have thus put ourselves in a position to do a great deal of physics, without having had to know any physics. That fact alone should indicate just how special the concept of mechanism really is. It is my contention that contemporary physics has actually locked itself into this world; this has of course enabled it to say much about the (very special) systems in that world, and nothing at all about what is outside. Indeed, the claim that there is nothing outside (i.e., that every natural system is a mechanism) is the sole support of contemporary physics’ claim to universality.”

Chapter 9:    Relational Theory of Machines     

“Indeed, if there should be a material system that is not a mechanism, all that contemporary physics can do about it is to tell us what properties it cannot have. And indeed, from its perspective, what must be absent seems devastating. For instance, such a system cannot have a state set, built up synthetically from the states of minimal models and fixed once and for all. If there is no state set, there is certainly no recursion, and hence, no dynamics in the ordinary sense of the term. There is accordingly no largest model of such a system. And the categories of causation in it cannot be segregated into discrete, fixed parts, because fractionability itself fails.”

Chapter 10:    Life Itself: The Preliminary Steps     

“My claim is that organisms lie at the other extreme as far as entailment is concerned. Their abstract block diagrams manifest maximal entailment; in particular, if f denotes a component of such a system, the question “why f?” has an answer, in terms of efficient causation, within the system. Unfortunately, this much entailment is simply not compatible with the idea of mechanism; therefore it can no longer be interpreted or understood in purely syntactic terms. Organisms then must manifest an inherently semantic character when viewed from the standpoint of mechanisms. As with the parallel situation of formalization in mathematics, this fact only gives trouble if we insist on believing that syntax exhausts the world.”

Chapter 11:    Relational Biology and Biology    

“But complexity, though I suggest it is the habitat of life, is not life itself. Something else is needed to characterize what is alive from what is complex. Rashevsky provided this too, in his idea that biology was relational, and that relational meant (as we stated it) throwing away the physics and keeping the organization. A rough analog would be: throwing away the polypeptide and keeping the active sites. Organization in its turn inherently involves functions and their interrelations; the abandonment of fractionability, however, means there is no 1 to 1 relationship between such relational, functional organizations and the structures which realize them. These are the basic differences between organisms and mechanisms or machines.”


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