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Out of Control

Some ideas are reeled into our mind wrapped up in facts; and some ideas burst upon us naked without the slightest evidence they could be true but with all the conviction they are. The ideas of the latter sort are the more difficult to displace.

The idea of antichaos -- order for free -- came in a vision of the unverifiable sort.

The idea was dealt to Stuart Kauffman, an undergraduate medical student at Dartmouth College some thirty years ago. As Kauffman remembers it, he was standing in front of a bookstore window daydreaming about the design of a chromosome. Kauffman was a sturdy guy with curly hair, easy smile, and no time to read. As he stared in the window, he imagined a book, a book with his name on it in the author's slot, a book that he would write in the future.

In his vision the pages of the book were filled with a web of arrows connecting other arrows, weaving in and out of a living tangle. It was the icon of the Net. But the mess was not without order. The tangle sparked mysterious, almost cabalistic, "currents of meanings" along the threads. Kauffman discerned an image emerging out of the links in a "subterranean way," just as recognition of a face springs from the crazy disjointed surfaces in a cubist painting.

As a medical student studying cell development, Kauffman saw the intertwined lines in his fantasy as the interconnections between genes. Out of that random mess, Kauffman suddenly felt sure, would come inadvertent order -- the architecture of an organism. Out of chaos would come order for no reason: order for free. The complexity of points and arrows seemed to be generating a spontaneous order. To Kauffman the depiction was intimately familiar; it felt like home. His task would be to explain and prove it. "I don't know why this question, this ill-lit path," he says, but it has become a "deeply felt, deeply held image."

Kauffman pursued his vision by taking up academic research in cell development. As many other developmental biologists had, he studied Drosophila, the famous fruit fly, as it progressed from fertilized egg to adult. How did the original lone egg cell of any creature manage to divide and specialize first into two, then four, then eight new kinds of cells? In a mammal the original egg cell would propagate an intestinal cell line, a brain cell line, a hair cell line; yet each substantially specialized line of cells presumably ran the same operating software. After a relatively few generations of division, one cell type could split into all the variety and bulk of an elephant or oak. A human embryo egg needed to divide only 50 times to produce the trillions of cells that form a baby.

What invisible hand controlled the fate of each cell, as it traveled along a career path forking 50 times, guiding it from general egg to hundreds of kinds of specialized cells? Since each cell was supposedly driven by identical genes (or were they actually different?), how could cells possibly become different? What controlled the genes?

Françoise Jacob and Jacques Monod discovered a major clue in 1961 when they encountered and described the regulatory gene. The regulatory gene's function was stunning: to turn other genes on. In one breath it blew away all hopes of immediately understanding DNA and life. The regulatory gene set into motion the quintessential cybernetic dialogue: What controls genes? Other genes! And what controls those genes? Other genes! And what...

That spiraling, darkly modern duet reminded Kauffman of his home image. Some genes controlling other genes which in turn might control still others was the same tangled web of arrows of influence pointing in every direction in his vision book.

Jacob and Monod's regulatory genes reflected a spaghetti-like vision of governance -- a decentralized network of genes steering the cellular network to its own destiny. Kauffman was excited. His picture of "order for free" suggested to him a fairly far-out idea: that some of the differentiation (order) each egg underwent was inevitable, no matter what genes you started out with!

He could think of a test for this notion. Replace all the genes in the fruitfly with random genes. His bet: you would not get Drosophila, but you would get the same order of monsters and freak mutations Drosophila produced in the natural course of things. "The question I asked myself," Kauffman recalls, "was the following. If you just hooked up genes at random, would you get anything that looked useful?" His intuitive hunch was that simply because of distributed bottom-up control and everything-is-connected-to-everything type of cell management, certain classes of patterns would be inevitable. Inevitable! Now here was a germ of heresy. Something to devote one's years to!

"I had a hard time in medical school," he continues, "because instead of studying anatomy I was scribbling all these notebooks with little model genomes." The way to prove this heresy, Kauffman cleverly decided, was not to fight nature in the lab, but to model it mathematically. Use computers as they became accessible. Unfortunately there was no body of math with the ability to track the horizontal causality of massive swarms. Kauffman began to invent his own. At the same time (about 1970) in about a half-dozen other fields of research, the mathematically inclined (such as John Holland) were coming up with procedures that allowed them to simulate the effects of a mob of interdependent nodes whose values simultaneously depend on each other.