Work in Living Systems

Work Meets Life: Exploring the Integrative Study of Work in Living Systems

Edited by Robert Levin, Simon Laughlin, Christina De La Rocha, and Alan Blackwell, MIT Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-262- 01412-0, xv + 250 pages, US$32.

This book is a four-editor, ten-contributor text with an interesting collection of nine essays (and one summary “reflection” section) regarding the relationship of work and life from a variety of viewpoints. These viewpoints are the products of thinking sessions among the authors, who come from fields such as electrical engineering, biology, psychology, neurobiology, marine research, management, and entrepreneurship. The authors are from academic institutions in England, France, and the United States.

A review of the text is best done by reiterating its goals and studies proposed as outcomes of this work, found at the end of the book (page 226):

  1. To integrate an understanding of how work in living systems gets done with research in other domains concerned with living systems.
  2. To integrate a better developed knowledge of how work gets done in living systems with knowledge and challenges of human work and employment. With regard to this point, we strongly emphasize the term integrate with rather than apply to.
  3. To integrate the knowledge gained in these first two activities with the fundamental challenge of integrating human work with the work of other living systems in a continuingly viable community of life, and work, on Earth.

Each chapter opens with an overview of the content therein, followed by the chapter content and then by several pages of references for further reading. Most chapters are single authored but are the product of editing and communications among the various authors. The chapter titles range from succinct, such as “Energy, Information, and the Work of the Brain,” to verbose, such as “Do Energy Allocations Affect Work Performance? The Working Energy/Take Home Energy Trade-Off Hypothesis,” but they are generally descriptive of what is to be covered. The overall content is quite varied; it is likely that the reader will learn something new in most chapters. The interesting material in Chapter 1, for example (for some), covers the first, second, and third laws of thermodynamics and how this relates to osmotic gradients and possible common ancestors of life on earth. A discussion of the cost of powering the brain to enable work done is nicely intertwined with a discussion of information transfer, rate limitations, and wiring efficiencies (Chapter 2). The area of design and the concepts of design centering and design collaborations are touched upon in two different sections of the text.

This is not a classroom text. It is a series of thought-provoking and informative essays that might be useful for many in our audience. It is recommended as a single chapter per day (maximum) as the content generally needs to be digested before a new chapter is begun. Some humor might have helped; for example, two quotes from Thomas A. Edison: “The chief function of the body is to carry the brain around” and “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work” are relevant to several of the chapters.