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The Music of Life: Biology beyond genes [Paperback]

Denis Noble
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
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Book Description

14 Feb 2008
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 replication 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.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (14 Feb 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199228361
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199228362
  • Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.3 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 252,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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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)

highly evocative essay (Steven Poole, The Guardian)

About the Author

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.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
For humans at least, to live is to experience. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Small in size; big on ideas 16 Dec 2008
Denis Noble describes his short book, "The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes", as a polemic. It is, in fact, a clarion call for a rethink to the reductionist dogmas that currently plague--and hinder--so much scientific thinking, particularly in the field of biology and, most especially, genetics. Professor Noble is not, of course, alone in making this call (see, for instance, Stuart Kaufmann's "Reinventing the Sacred" or "Evolution in Four Dimensions" by Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb) but he presents a particularly clear-sighted argument which few others have so far matched. His is a far-reaching and eminently readable disquisition, attacking first the popular metaphor articulated primarily by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene" (and promulgated endlessly--usually incorrectly--by science popularists ever since) that genes are the engines of evolution and each genome a comprehensive "program of life". Throughout his book, Noble turns that view around with a different and far more accurate metaphor, presenting the genome as a database from which the organism can select in order to call upon an elegant modularity of gene expression in a bewildering display of inventiveness of response to environmental and physiological conditions.

Along the way, the author uses a series of music-related analogies to extend his metaphor and piece together the various fragments of his argument into a coherent look at the biology of the organism as a fully functioning system, operating on and at many levels.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An important book 30 Dec 2011
The Music of Life is a short polemic proclaiming systems biology and the need to move away from dogmatic reductionist thinking. All in all, he does a good job of showing us the flaws in the reductionist approach. He also discusses the role of language and metaphor in science (which is more deeply engrained than I realised), inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the Buddhist take on the 'self'.

He argues strongly against genetic determinism, showing nicely that the genome is not some sort of 'blueprint' or 'book of life'. Part of me thinks this book came out twenty years too late. Any modern biologist would not doubt the importance of viewing life at multiple levels or the importance of epigenetics; and his constant insistence that what he was saying is 'shocking' was just annoying.

Throughout the book, Noble uses the metaphor of music. I thought this was this largely unhelpful and I often found his description of the straight biology easier to follow than the metaphorical description that preceded it!

Nevertheless, this is an important book because the vast majority of molecular biologists are reductionist. This is not just a choice of the way to study things, more it seems engrained in how many scientists think about life. I think most scientists will accept Noble's arguments (there is nothing particularly novel or revolutionary here) but they will still go back to the lab and do reductionist science and think in terms of genes making proteins that perform functions in isolation: all things that Noble has tried to dispel. We do need more systems biologists (physiologists) integrating things at all kinds of different levels. At the moment, they are massively outnumbered by traditional molecular biologists.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Life, the universe and everything? 18 July 2008
I found this book really fascinating - it clearly explains some very complex research and has an underpinning philosophical thesis which is very thought provoking. In some ways this book is autobiographical because Denis Noble is at the later stage of his career and thinking back to how his research interests have changed from being reductionist through examining the individual components of the body, to the development of a systems approach to living beings. His points of reference include the Chinese language, buddhism and large concert organs and these help to illustrate some of the philosophical questions he is exploring in the age-old quest to explain life, the universe and everything! I'm going to re-read the book and ponder it further.....
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5.0 out of 5 stars Puts Biology back into Biology 8 July 2009
By Andrew Dalby VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Denis Noble's book describes the "new" biology that has come to be known as systems biology. In the book he argues for a paradigm change in biology. This book should be read by all potential systems biologists as it shows how the term has been hijacked by those who secretly still subscribe to the reductionist paradigm and who cannot trully embrace how biology used to be.

In the book Prof Noble makes a plea to look at biological problems across levels and to take a pragmatic middle out approach. He is not against reductionism but his point is that if you reduce too far you can go below the scale where the biological property actually exists!

The book uses the metaphor of music and this is compelling although I find the last two chapters much less convincing than the rest of the book. This is more about thinking and how we need to think in biology than the science itself and he makes a powerful case that the dogma of the molecule has not lead us in the right direction.
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