Manfred Eigen:
STEPS TOWARDS LIFE (Oxford University Press, 1992)

Home | The whole bibliography | My book on Consciousness

(Copyright © 2000 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

This short monograph, written in a maddeningly difficult and redundant language, deals with chance and the origin of life.
Chance is a theme in Quantum Theory (Heisenberg's principle) and in Thermodynamics (a state of order is actually realized by scores of random fluctuations) and in Darwin's evolution (amplification of variation by natural selection), i.e. it is the driving force of both physical and living systems. Physical systems are what they are because chance shows us one of the many possible realities. Biological systems are what they are because variation occurred by chance and was amplified by natural selection until it originated new species. So much so that Monod claimed life is pure chance.
Eigen's purpose is to revise Monod's apotheosis of chance from a firm mathematical perspective. Eigen therefore reduces life to complexity and complexity to information. The theme of the book becomes the origin of information through natural selection, the rise of information from non-information. What Eigen finds is a bias in the generation of mutants that contrasts with Darwin's absolute neutrality: evolution is "directed" towards optimization of functional efficiency. Eigen agrees with Monod that information emerges from random fluctuations, but he thinks that evolution does not act blindly. Evolution is driven by an internal feedack mechanism that searches for the best route to optimal performance. Eigen found that the distribution of mutants is asymmetric, and tends to favor the "best" mutants (from a survival point of view). Life seems to know where to look for best mutants. As a matter of fact, Eigen discovered a feedback mechanism, inherent in natural selection, that favors (or accelerates the search for) superior mutants. Selection is not blind because it is driven by this internal feedback mechanism. Evolution is inherently biased towards the "best" possible solution to the survival problem, and this gives the appearance of goal-directedness of evolution.
By employing his "hypercycle" technique, Eigen speculates how living cells and bodies may have come to be, starting from molecular tools: cells first learned to self-replicate and then to surround themselves with protective membranes. A hypercycle within a compartment (such as the cell membrane) constitutes the optimal solution to the problem of surviving.

Permission is granted to download/print out/redistribute this file provided it is unaltered, including credits.