Skip navigation
Hardcover | $30.00 Short | £20.95 | ISBN: 9780262014120 | 272 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 37 b&w illus.| January 2011

"“University Presses in Space” showcases a special sampling of the many works that university presses have published about space and space exploration."

Work Meets Life

Exploring the Integrative Study of Work in Living Systems


The work performed by living systems ranges from photosynthesis to prodigious feats of computation and organization. This multidisciplinary volume explores work across many different levels of organization. By addressing how work gets done, and why, from the perspectives of research in a range of disciplines, including cellular and evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, electrical and computer engineering, and design, the volume sets out to establish an integrative perspective on understanding work in living systems, including humans.

Chapters introduce the biological work of producing energy in the cell; establish inherent tradeoffs between energy and information in neural systems; relate principles of integrated circuit manufacture to work in biological systems; explore the work of photosynthesis; investigate how work shapes organisms’ evolutionary niches; consider the human work of design; describe the effects of job satisfaction and dissatisfaction on work-life balance; highlight ways that physiological trade-offs can affect postindustrial workers and their work; and address the effects of environmental challenges (stress) on how humans and animals do work. At the beginning and end of the volume, the editors provide a framework for this exploration and draw from it integrative reflections.

About the Editors

Robert Levin is Director and Fellow of the Center for the Integrative Study of Work (CISW) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Scholar-in-Residence in the university’s Graduate School.

Simon Laughlin is Professor of Neurobiology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge; a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge; and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Christina De La Rocha is Professor in the Marine Environmental Sciences Laboratory (LEMAR) of the European Institute for Marine Research (IUEM) at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale, Brest, France.

Alan Blackwell is Reader in Interdisciplinary Design in the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge.

Table of Contents

  • Work Meets Life
  • 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
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2011
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • MIT Press books may be purchased at special quantity discounts for business or sales promotional use. For information, please email or write to Special Sales Department, The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142.
  • This book was set in Stone Sans and Stone Serif by Toppan Best-set Premedia Limited. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Work meets life : exploring the integrative study of work in living systems / edited by Robert Levin ... [et al.].
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01412-0 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Biological systems. 2. Work. 3. Bioenergetics.  I. Levin, Robert.
  • QH313.W67 2011
  • 571—dc22
  • 2009037133
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • To those who showed us how to work,
  • To those who taught us of their work,
  • To those who helped us by their work.
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • ix
  • Acknowledgments
  • xiii
  • Introduction: A Fresh Perspective on Work
  • 1
  • 1 The Ancient Patterns of Work in Living Systems
  • 11
  • Robert Levin
  • 2 Energy, Information, and the Work of the Brain
  • 39
  • Simon B. Laughlin
  • 3 Performance–Yield Trade-offs in Work in Manufactured and Living Systems
  • :
  • Design Centering Looks at the World of Work
  • 69
  • Michael Lightner
  • 4 The Impact of Photosynthetic Work on Earth, Climate, and the Biosphere
  • 97
  • Christina De La Rocha
  • 5 Niche Construction and Human Behavioral Ecology
  • :
  • Tools for Understanding Work
  • 113
  • Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown
  • 6 The Work of Designers
  • :
  • Cultures of Making and Representation
  • 133
  • Alan Blackwell
  • 7 Working on the Edge Today
  • :
  • Dissatisfaction, Adaptation, and Performance
  • 149
  • Joseph Rosse and Stacy Saturay
  • 8 Do Energy Allocations Affect Work Performance?
  • The Working Energy/Take-Home Energy Trade-Off Hypothesis
  • 165
  • Robert Levin, Kevin Laland, and Stacy Saturay
  • 9 Responding to the Challenges of the Environment
  • :
  • Stressors, the Brain, and Work
  • 187
  • Steven Maier and Robert Levin
  • Reflections: On Exploring Work in Living Systems
  • 203
  • Contributors
  • 227
  • Index
  • 229


“A refreshingly new gaze.” “A genuinely integrative work.” “Provides a coherent but rich and complex narrative.” “An entirely new way of talking about work.” — KN Farrell, American Journal of Human Biology

"Work Meets Life succeeds admirably.” “Prepared with intellectual honesty.” “Work Meets Life is an exemplary collaboration of minds.” — JS Turner, Metascience

“Ambitious...” “A broad view of work in living systems.” “Novel and thought-provoking.” — JE Niven, Integrative and Comparative Biology

“[A] rewarding read .Goes beyond the classical concepts of work as defined in physics.” — DC Eustice, CHOICE

“This collective work as a whole is breathtaking in its aspiration, and it successfully delivers.” — DD Pennington, BioScience