Back Cover Blurb
- What is Life? This is the question asked by Denis Noble in this very personal and at times deeply lyrical book. Noble, a renowned physiologist and pioneer of the field of systems biology, argues that we must look beyond the reductionist gene’s eye view of life to answer the question. The genome is not life itself1. To understand what life is, we must make a radical switch of perception and view it at a variety of different levels, with interaction and feedback between gene, cell, organ, system, body, and environment. It emerges as a process, no more and no less than the ebb and flow of activity in this intricate web of connections. This, Noble argues, is the music of Life.
- ‘A beautifully written book... After the great successes of molecular biology, the time has come to re-assemble the organism. Denis Noble tells us why this needs to be done. He also tells us how we should go about it. Strongly recommended.’
→ Sir Patrick Bateson, F.R.S., Emeritus Professor of Ethology, Cambridge
- ‘Noble presents his case for the systems approach with elegance and a simplicity that hides unnecessary detail.... The book can be recommended to anyone, novice or professional, interested in systems biology and the foundations of life.’
→ Eric Werner, Science
- ‘[A] highly evocative essay’
→ Steven Poole, The Guardian
- ‘Intelligent, authoritative, and realistic... a strong argument in favor of systems biology’
→ Yair Neuman, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
- Denis Noble, CBE, FRS, is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology at the University of Oxford. He was Chairman of the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences) World Congress in 1993, and Secretary-General of IUPS from 1993-2001. His previous publications include the seminal set of essays The Logic of Life (Boyd and Noble, OUP 1993), and he played a major role in launching the Physiome Project, one of the international components of the systems biology approach. Science magazine included him amongst its review authors for its issue devoted to the subject in 2002.
Amazon Book Description
- What is Life? Decades of research have resulted in the full mapping of the human genome - three billion pairs of code whose functions are only now being understood. The gene's eye view of life, advocated by evolutionary biology, sees living bodies as mere vehicles for the replication2 of the genetic codes.
- But for a physiologist, working with the living organism, the view is a very different one. Denis Noble is a world renowned physiologist, and sets out an alternative view to the question - one that becomes deeply significant in terms of the living, breathing organism. The genome is not life itself. Noble argues that far from genes building organisms, they should be seen as prisoners of the organism.
- The view of life presented in this little, modern, post-genome project reflection on the nature of life, is that of the systems biologist: to understand what life is, we must view it at a variety of different levels, all interacting with each other in a complex web. It is that emergent web, full of feedback between levels, from the gene to the wider environment, that is life. It is a kind of music.
- Including stories from Noble's own research experience, his work on the heartbeat, musical metaphors, and elements of linguistics and Chinese culture, this very personal and at times deeply lyrical book sets out the systems biology view of life.
Introduction – ix
- The CD of Life: the Genome – 1
- Introducing the Silmans3 – 1
- DNA-mania – 3
- Problems with genetic determinism – 6
- Origin of the appeal of genetic determinism – 11
- Life is not a protein soup – 15
- Mapping the alternative metaphors – 17
- The Organ of 30,000 Pipes – 23
- The Chinese Emperor and the poor farmer – 23
The genome and combinatorial explosion – 27
- An organ of 30,000 pipes – 31
- The Score: is it Written Down? – 33
- Is the genome the ‘book of life’? – 33
- The French bistro omelette – 35
- The ambiguity of language – 39
- The Silmans4 return – 39
- The Conductor: Downward Causation – 42
- How is the genome played? – 42
- Is the genome a program? – 43
- Control of gene expression – 46
- Downward causation takes many forms – 48
- Other forms of downward causation – 49
- Where is the program of life? – 51
- The Rhythm Section: the Heartbeat and other Rhythms – 55
- Beginnings of biological computation – 55
- Reconstructing heart rhythm: the first attempt – 56
- The integrative level of heart rhythm – 61
- Systems biology is not ‘vitalism’ in disguise – 65
- Nor is it reductionism in disguise – 65
- Other natural rhythms – 67
- The Orchestra: Organs and Systems of the Body – 74
- Novartis Foundation5 debates – 74
- Problems with bottom-up – 75
- Problems with top-down – 78
- Middle-out! – 79
- The organs of the body – 82
- The virtual heart – 83
- Modes and Keys: Cellular Harmony – 88
- The Silmans find some tropical islands – 88
- The Silmans6’ mistake – 92
- Genetic basis of cell differentiation – 93
- Modes and keys – 96
- Multicellular harmony – 97
- A historical note on ‘Lamarckism’ – 99
- The Composer: Evolution – 101
- The Chinese writing system – 101
- Modularity in genes – 103
- Gene-protein networks – 104
- Fail-safe redundancy – 106
- Faustian pacts with the devil – 109
- The logic of life – 111
- The grand composer7 – 112
- The Opera Theatre: the Brain – 113
- How do we see the world? – 114
- At Aziz’ restaurant8 – 119
- Action and will: a physiologist and a philosopher experiment – 122
- Explanatory shift between levels – 125
- The self is not a neural object – 128
- The deep-frozen brain – 131
- The resurrected self? – 132
- Curtain Call: the Artist Disappears
In-Page Footnotes ("Noble (Denis) - The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes")
Footnotes 3, 4, 6:
- I agree with this – and will probably agree with much of the book.
- I’m slightly suspicious of “downward causation”, but it depends on precisely what’s meant, but I’m opposed to Functionalism, and any idea that “we” might be software or “information” rather than material beings of a particular biological sort, and a “systems view” seems sensible.
- I do, however, consider explanatory reduction to be important, and a goal in all scientific endeavour whether or not it is achievable in practice.
- This is Noble’s term of art for imaginary alien beings with silicon substituted for carbon.
- Novartis is a “Big Pharma” company, but one which has a foundation with debates that Noble has taken part in.
- See Novartis Foundation.
- I’d feared this might be “God” – but as the Chapter title implies – it’s “Evolution”.
- Much of this book was conceived, it seems over “wonderful Indian curries”.
- Presumably it’s this one: Aziz Restaurant, Oxford.
- These are supposed peoples on one of the moons of Jupiter, who appear to have religions similar to those on Earth, but closer inspection reveals that their “god-concept” is close to that of Buddhists.
- I need to read the book to be sure of what he means here – but he quotes Wittgenstein’s “that whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent” approvingly.
OUP Oxford (14 Feb. 2008). Paperback.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)