- In this thought-provoking book, Denis Noble formulates the theory of biological relativity, emphasising that living organisms operate at multiple levels of complexity and must therefore be analysed from a multi-scale, relativistic perspective.
- Noble explains that all biological processes operate by means of molecular, cellular and organismal networks. The interactive nature of these fundamental processes is at the core of biological relativity and, as such, challenges simplified molecular reductionism.
- Noble shows that such an integrative view emerges as the necessary consequence of the rigorous application of mathematics to biology. Drawing on his pioneering work in the mathematical physics of biology, he shows that what emerges is a deeply humane picture of the role of the organism in constraining its chemistry, including its genes, to serve the organism as a whole, especially in the interaction with its social environment.
- This humanistic, holistic approach challenges the common gene-centred view held by many in modern biology and culture.
- Denis Noble is Emeritus Professor of Cardiovascular Physiology and Director of Computational Physiology at the University of Oxford, UK. He is the current President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society.
- 'Among its many merits, this remarkable book deserves to become a classic text in the philosophy of science. Almost alone among philosophers of science, Noble is a practising scientist; and unusually among practising scientists, he is an accomplished philosopher. His book brings out, with unparalleled clarity, how the scientific endeavour involves not only empirical inquiry but also conceptual structure. Noble shows how, on the negative side, popular presentations of sound biological results may be vitiated by bad metaphysics, and how, on the positive side, science and philosophy may extend the boundaries of knowledge by a unified epistemology. He ends, however, with a salutary warning that there may well be a limit to the human capacity to know the answers to ultimate questions.'
→ Sir Anthony Kenny, University of Oxford
- 'I think this a marvellous book. Denis Noble emphasises that genes, organs and systems dance to the tune of the organism and its social and physical environment. He sets the relativity of biology in a remarkable scientific sweep, ranging from cosmology to human belief systems. He reminds me of another great biologist, C.H. Waddington, to whom Noble pays handsome tribute. Writing with clarity and charm, Noble attempts to break down silos of knowledge inhabited by scientists who fail to come out and engage with others. … Broadening minds in an era of intense specialisation is more important than ever. Noble deserves to be successful in his desire to do just that and I hope that he will be.'
→ Sir Patrick Bateson, University of Cambridge
- 'In my view Dance to The Tune of Life is a 'must read'. In it, Denis Noble lucidly deconstructs how and why reductionism came to prominence in biology and led to the current state of molecular Humpty-Dumptyism. His central idea that there is no privileged level of causation is the first conceptual step to putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.'
→ Michael J. Joyner, Mayo Clinic, Minnesota
- 'Denis Noble is renowned for his mission to reintegrate the physiological sciences with mainstream biology, including evolutionary theory. His new book combines clear exposition of basic principles with many valuable examples. He gives the reader, general or expert, a completely new view of life.'
→ Yung E. Earm, Seoul National University, South Korea
- 'Dance to the Tune of Life is one of the most fascinating and impressive books I have ever read. Denis Noble, a world-renowned physiologist and systems biologist, has revolutionized our traditional notion of the nature of life. The title Dance to the Tune of Life mirrors the essence of the argument of the book. The life emerges from numerous biological processes at different scales and levels. Such actors and actresses, stage properties, and stage are not separately present they act together in harmony, dancing to a tune with a music performed by an orchestra, an organism. By describing his research experiences and achievements on the cardiac rhythm evolutionary biology, medicine, and philosophy, Denis has not only provided us with very modern knowledge of the biological reactions and their network but also described to us the nature of life. I believe that this book impacts everyone involved in biomedicine.'
→ Yoshihisa Kurachi, Osaka University, Japan
- 'Having demolished the 'Selfish Gene' fiction, Noble in this marvelous book moves both science and philosophy from an antiquated 'either/or' static model to an 'and' model. 'Dance' shows elegantly and brilliantly that from the miracle of the ancient symbiosis of mitochondrial bacterial remnants in human cells, through the rock-solid interrelationship between genes and the feedback from the environment in all senses - from the core phenomenon of functional epigenetics, to the universe itself and our place in it - that we are, at heart, inter-beings, co-arising.'
→ Samuel Shem, New York University
- 'Denis Noble is a pioneer in understanding human physiology through quantitative studies linking behaviour across multiple scales of biological organization - from proteins to cells, tissues, organs and organ systems. These studies have led him to characterize biological function in terms of a Principle of Biological Relativity: there is no privileged level of causation in biology, because living organisms are multilevel open stochastic systems in which the behaviour at any level depends on higher and lower levels, and so cannot be fully understood in isolation. This engaging book defends this view in depth, and thereby also provides strong support for an extended synthesis of evolutionary theory that goes beyond the Modern Synthesis of Neo-Darwinism. It is highly recommended as a thoughtful study of the kind of complexity real living organisms display.'
→ George Ellis FRS, University of Cape Town, South Africa
- 'In this elegantly written and personal book world-renowned physiologist and systems biologist Denis Noble effectively argues for a fundamental revision of the theory of evolution. Against the reductionist, gene-centered approach of Neo-Darwinism, which has dominated biology for more than a century, Noble passionately pleas for a more integrated approach. Massively supported by recent postgenomic and epigenetic empirical research, Dance to the Tune of Life deepens and synthesizes ideas Noble earlier developed in "Noble (Denis) - The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes" (2006) and subsequent writings. Just like Newtonian physics underwent a major transformation in the beginning of the 20th century due to Einstein's general theory of relativity, the life sciences are facing a no less fundamental transformation. Noble's book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand this transformation.'
→ Jos de Mul, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
- '… enlightening … The illustrations are both vibrant and clarifying, giving this title a sparkle that compels you to imagine how each concept fits into the larger scheme. I commend this author for relishing the subtle reminders of what makes this inquiry important. It's a best read.'
→ D. Wayne Dworsky, San Francisco Book Review (San Francisco Book Review)
- '… a very informative read … Noble's Dance to the Tune of Life is an illuminating account of why philosophy is necessary in doing science.'
→ Sepehr Ehsani, Metascience
Preface – page ix
Acknowledgements – xv
- The Universe and the Principle of Relativity – 1
- The Sky at Night – 1
- Early Cosmologies – 5
- The Copernican Revolution – 7
- Galileo: Father of Modern Science – 9
- The Earth from a Billion Miles – 11
- Newton’s Laws of Motion – 12
- Nineteenth-Century Certainties – 13
- Quantum Mechanics – 15
- Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity – 17
- Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity – 20
- Can We ‘Feel’ the Consequences of Relativity? – 21
- Hubble’s Deep Field Views – 23
- Conclusions – 24
- Biological Scales and Levels – 30
- The Sense of Scale – 30
- Scales and Levels – 32
- Atoms and Ions – 35
- Molecules – 39
- Molecules as Systems – 42
- Networks – 46
- Organelles – 47
- Cells – 48
- Tissues – 51
- Organs – 54
- Whole-Body Systems – 55
- The Organism as a Whole – 63
- Beyond Organisms – 64
- Conclusions – 64
- Biological Networks – 69
- Networks are not Diagrams! – 69
- How Do Complex Structures Form? – 74
- Biological Oscillators and Attractors – 77
- Circadian Rhythm – 78
- Cardiac Rhythm – 83
- Gene Expression Patterns – 87
- Synchronisation of Oscillators: Brainwaves – 89
- Chance at the Heart of the Cell – 91
- Conclusions – 93
- Nature and Origin of Cells – 97
- The Medical Histology Class – 97
- Cells as Carriages – 98
- The Simplest Cells: Bacteria and Archaea – 102
- Bacteria – 102
- Archaea – 106
- Eukaryotes: The Largest Organisms but the Smallest
- Domain – 107
- The Cell Cycle – 108
- Meiosis – 112
- RNA and Other Early Worlds? – 113
- How Cells Form Tissues – 114
- The Nearly Cells: Viruses – 115
- Tree, Networks or Rings of Life? – 115
- The Death of Cells – 117
- Conclusions – 118
- Blind Chance and Natural Selection – 121
- Charles Darwin and his Predecessors – 121
- Darwin on Lamarckism – 124
- The Rise of Neo-Darwinism Leading to the Modern Synthesis
- Evolution and Genetics
- The Modern Synthesis
- Schrodinger and What is Life?
- Neo-Darwinism and the Central Dogma
- The Language of Neo-Darwinism
- The Language of Neo-Darwinism as a Whole – 150
- Conclusions – 152
- Biological Relativity – 160
- A Personal Journey – 161
- Ultimate Reductionism: Mathematics? – 163
- Introduction to Spinoza – 164
- Spinoza’s Way Out of the Cartesian Paradigm – 165
- The Essence of Biological Relativity – 168
- Conceptual and Empirical Interpretations – 171
- Open and Closed Systems – 173
- Why Spinoza’s Constraint is not Sufficient – 174
- Forms of Causation – 176
- Conclusions – 181
- Dancing Nucleotides: Natural Genetic Engineering – 187
- Pipes and Templates – 187
- Summary of the Problem – 189
- The Weismann Barrier is Relative, not Absolute – 191
- Genetic Variation is not Random – 194
- Misinterpretations of the Central Dogma – 197
- Mobile Genetic Elements – 200
- Natural Genetic Engineering: Genome Reorganisation – 201
- Significance of Symbiogenesis and Co-operation – 204
- Conclusions – 207
- Epigenetics and a Relativistic Theory of Evolution – 214
- Epigenetics Viewed from Physiological High Ground – 214
- Epigenetic and Other Lamarckian Inheritance – 216
- Niche Construction and the Active Role of Organisms – 222
- The Origin of Species? – 224
- Are Genes Followers Rather than Leaders? – 228
- Isn’t a Lot of DNA ‘Selfish’ ‘Parasitic’? – 228
- The Speed of Evolution – 229
- Respecting the Principle of Biological Relativity – 232
- A Biological Relativistic View of Evolution – 232
- Conclusions – 237
- The Relativity of Epistemology: The Meaning of It All – 247
- Why? Questions and Goals – 248
- The Third Way – 250
- Science and Humanity – 251
- Science and Common Sense – 252
- Is Naive Theism the Only Alternative? – 254
- Contextual Logic – 256
- Selfish Genes and Altruism – 260
- Relativity of Epistemology – 262
- Ultimate Purpose? – 264
- Postscript – 268
Glossary – 270
Index – 276
A colour plate section can be found between pages 174 and 175
In-Page Footnotes ("Noble (Denis) - Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity")
- These are somewhat more substantial than the ones on the back cover, though by the same reviewers.
Cambridge University Press (1 Dec. 2016)
"Noble (Denis) - Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity"
Source: Noble (Denis) - Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity
Preface (Full Text)
- The central message of this book is that living organisms are open systems. That refers to all parts of organisms. All the molecules, organs and systems dance to the tune of the organism and its social context. Those molecules include the sequences of DNA we now call genes.
- How do all these components of life dance together in harmony?
- When did their billion-year dance begin?
- What makes them dance?
- Why is their dance relativistic?
- What do we mean by a gene’?
- What do we mean by ‘life’?
- How can ‘life’ depend on ‘dead’ molecules?
- And what is Biological Relativity?
- The answers to these questions form the subject of this book. We will also address the question of meaning. Could all this really happen as a consequence of ‘blind chance’? And what could that commonly used phrase possibly mean? What, indeed, do we mean by ‘meaning’? Could meaning itself be subject to a relativity principle: a relativity of epistemology?
- If these questions fascinate you, then read on.
- You will not need to know a lot of science to understand the book: what you will need is a new set of eyes. I will encourage the reader to adopt the eyes and mind of an inquisitive explorer. The scientific knowledge you need to know will mostly be in the book. If you already know a lot of science, you may need to relearn what you thought you knew. Because the central message is that twentieth-century biology went up the wrong street in the interpretation and presentation of its many impressive discoveries.
- The reason is that some very influential twentieth-century biologists presented a simplistic gene-centred view of biology using memorable metaphors and brilliant writing to encourage you to adopt their view. And in this they were very successful. Hardly any biological discovery today is presented in the popular media without reference to the discovery of this or that gene ‘for’ something or other.
- This book will show you that there are no genes ‘for’ anything. Living organisms have functions which use genes to make the molecules they need. Genes are used. They are not active causes.
- This book will show you that there is no complete programme in our DNA. Programmes, if useful at all as a concept in biology, are distributed across scales in the organism.
This book will show you that there is no privileged level of causation, which is a central statement of the theory of Biological Relativity.
- It will also show you that we are now far from certain what a gene is, and that many of the confusions and misrepresentations of biology arise from mixing up different definitions of genes and genetics.
- We don’t know when DNA first evolved. But it is virtually certain that it already existed two billion years ago. It seems likely that it must have existed for at least a billion years before that. There are fossils of the simplest cells that go back to over three billion years ago.1 So, if genes dance, then they have been doing so for billions of years, in fact for most of the period of the Earth’s existence, which is about 4.5 billion years.
- For the Fainthearted
- In spite of the sub-title of this book, don’t be afraid if you are not mathematically trained. I promise you that, with the sole exception of Einstein’s iconic equation e = mc2, there are absolutely no equations in the main body of the book. Science could not function properly without mathematics. But, even in the most mathematical areas of science, and biology is rapidly becoming one of those, it is usually possible to explain the concepts in common language, once they have been distilled down from the abstract world of equations.
- To help you through some uncharted territory, like the Bellman in Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, remember that ‘what I tell you three times is true'. I have deliberately included a certain amount of repetition in the different chapters, usually by expressing the same concept from a different angle or in a different context. Don’t be alarmed if you think you have read something before. I turn some basic ideas in biology upside down. That takes a certain amount of getting used to. As you read on you may come to welcome those nice reminders of a point that is already half-appreciated. We are all used to this phenomenon in other ways. When we first see an unfamiliar object we easily mistake it for something else, and have to look again. That is even more true for unfamiliar concepts.
- As an example, the fact that organisms are what we call open systems is employed in several chapters, from different perspectives. It is by appreciating the full extent of the development of this concept that a reader can come to understand its profound significance.
- Although this book is critical of the simplistic way in which twentieth-century biology was often presented, my purpose is certainly not to minimise the phenomenal experimental achievements. It is rather an appeal for scientific humility. We are all prisoners of the cultures in which we find ourselves. Particularly in its theoretical aspects, science cannot be immune from culture even though it often challenges common and received ideas. Perhaps the ultimate principle of relativity is the relativity of knowledge, of epistemology’. That is the title of the last chapter. As you journey from chapter to chapter, fasten your intellectual seatbelts. The ride through the book may jolt many of your present assumptions about the nature of living organisms.
- The Sub-Title of the Book: A Challenge for the Future
- The first complete draft of this book was finished in 2015, the centenary year of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. That was not the initial reason for the sub-title, but it is a nice and appropriate coincidence. But, before the reader should judge me for being so presumptuous, let me hasten to add that what is developed in this book is more like a sketch when compared to the beautiful mathematical expressions of Special and General Relativity. Furthermore, I very much doubt whether the principle of Biological Relativity could be so expressed. We may not have the appropriate mathematics for an evolutionary process that has been as much a history as a phenomenon that could be predicted mathematically, except over relatively short time scales. Many biologists follow the lead of Stephen J. Gould in thinking that if the evolutionary clock could be set back to any point in history, the process would not follow the path that it has.
- The extension of the principle of relativity to biology, as outlined here, is therefore more a set of signposts to a path. It opens up vistas that others better equipped than I might follow wherever they may lead. This is a challenge to younger scientists. I wrote the book while having the privilege of being the President of the International Union of Physiological Sciences. I believe it could be the union of those sciences with the relevant branches of physics, engineering and mathematics that could lead the way forward in the future.
- Chapter Guide
- Chapter 1 introduces the general principle of relativity as it developed in the study of the universe. Understanding the steps by which the idea of relativity was reached will prepare you for application of the general principle to biology, which is the core of the book.
- Chapters 2-4 contain the background knowledge of biology required to understand the later chapters. Chapter 2 is a complement to Chapter 1 since instead of reaching out to the larger scales of the universe as a whole it reaches down to the microscopic and molecular components of our bodies. It will guide you through the various levels of organisation from molecules to the whole organism. Chapter 3 then introduces the processes that characterise life in the form of networks of interactions. I will give some examples of networks that involve multiple levels. Multilevel interactions form a central aspect of Biological Relativity since causation is then not restricted to one level and is necessarily bi-directional. Chapter 4 shows how these components and processes work in the smallest living things - single cells. The great majority of organisms on Earth are unicellular, and even multicellular organisms go through a single-cell stage when they reproduce.
- Chapter 5 outlines the current widely held theory of evolution (Neo-Darwinism) and analyses its main conceptual problems. You will learn that it is a gene-centric, molecular-oriented view of biology. By focusing on genes and molecules it cannot answer the question ‘what is life?’ Moreover, it was not Darwin’s theory of evolution.
- Chapter 6 explains the central principle of Biological Relativity. You will learn that organisms are alive precisely because their processes operate at and between many different scales and levels. The molecular and other components are constrained by all levels, including the environment.
- Chapters 7 and 8 describe the experimental findings that enable an integrative relativistic theory of evolution to be developed to replace Neo- Darwinism. Chapter 7 focuses on the ways in which the genetic material, DNA, has been rearranged during evolution. Chapter 8 focuses on the epigenetic and related mechanisms by which the genome is controlled.
- Chapter 9 returns to the questions asked in Chapter 1 and develops a form of relativity of our knowledge of the universe: a relativity of epis-temology. It is through this idea that we arrive at answers that science can give to the big questions about the universe and ourselves and to an understanding of the limits of those answers.
- Chapter 10 is written as a brief postscript that summarises the central argument of the book.
- Each chapter begins with an easy way in, often using stories from my personal experience. As you read on, you will see the relevance of the story to the main message of the chapter.
- You might initially wonder how such a diverse range of topics hangs together since the book begins with the fundamentals of physics and cos-mology, yet ends with the fundamentals of biology and the limits to our knowledge. You will discover, perhaps surprisingly, that there are many links between these various threads. The insights of Chapter 1 inform important conclusions in many of the subsequent chapters, and the general principle of relativity informs the whole book.
- It will be clear from this introduction to the various chapters, and how they link together, that this book is not a textbook of the systems approach to biology. My aim is rather different. It is to contribute to the new trends in biology that have become evident during the first decade or so of the twenty-first century by creating a coherent conceptual framework within which those trends and their experimental basis can be understood. In any case, there is no need for me to write a textbook since an excellent one has been published already: Capra and Luisi’s (2014) The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (Cambridge University Press, 2014). At various points in my book I will cross-reference this text to guide readers to the relevant parts of their book. Their vision of the systems approach is very similar to mine.
- Notes and glossary. The glossary is an important part of the book. Some key words have significantly different interpretations and definitions used by different writers. These include reductionism, Neo-Darwinism, Darwinism, Lamarckism and epigenetics. When you first encounter these words, you may benefit from consulting the glossary entries on them.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)