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Salthe's basic assumption is that the world is unlimitedly complex. Biology and some other sciences, such as geology and applied physics, have become entangled in this complexity with, the author writes, "as little ability to negotiate it as a fly in a spider's web." He argues that biological nature in particular is undercharacterized in our representations, and because of that so is the rest of nature.
The book first describes the principles of hierarchical structure and discusses the process of discovering the relevant aspects of the hierarchy of nature. It then brings in the concept of self-reference and moves onto an interpretation and explanation of organic evolution in this framework. While Salthe's focus is in biology, the outline of a hierarchy theory he presents is asserted to be a "philosophical machine" that can be applied as a hermeneutical tool to many fields of inquiry concerned with change in complex systems.
Felt by the author to also be a response to Jacques Monod's "Chance and Necessity," this book is a significant statement on the hierarchical organization of the surface of the earth. It is provocative reading not only for biologists but also for anthropologists, sociologists, geologists, and scientists interested in general systems research.