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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. He shows that far from the established view where the arrows of explanation all point downwards to the lower, ever more fundamental elements of cellular physiology (ending up ultimately at DNA as the primary explanatory element) there exists in reality a complex system of feedback pathways which enable the organism to act upon its own genetic material, altering the way that each gene is expressed in combination with others as a consequence of their whereabouts within the organism, or the conditions to which the organism may be subjected. Within this systems view of biological functioning, the complex pathways of interaction become the primary explanatory elements, rather than any of the physical components themselves.

This single insight provides several additional mechanisms for the operation of evolution through natural selection over and above the simplistic one of random gene mutation which is held in such high regard by today's neo-Darwinists, and reopens the door to the long-ridiculed notion of so-called Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. It also calls into question the wisdom of, for instance, neurologists seeking the physical location of "the self" within the prescient organism; within Noble's view of things, such concepts as "the self" cease to have any likelihood of an actual physical presence (as separate, identifiable entities within the organism) but instead become emergent functional properties of a level of operation of the biological system itself.

It should be clear by now that this book presents serious challenges to a great deal of current biological dogma and there will be many readers for whom this book is an eye-opener. It is an easy and entertaining read for anyone with even a smattering of science and regardless of whether or not you finally come to agree with Denis Noble, you can be sure you'll find what he has to say interesting and enlightening.
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on 30 December 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.

As Noble himself describes in his introduction, this book could have been called 'What is Life?' This would have been a more informative title and I think nicely sums up what this book is about. It is a very good description of life as a network of interacting genes/proteins/cells/tissues, with no level being a 'master regulator' of the others or 'determining' the others.

This book should be read by people interested in biology and certainly students of all life sciences. I would like to think it might inspire some physical scientists to entire biology, as they will be needed for systems approaches! I wouldn't recommend it to non-biologists who are looking for an account of evolution or molecular biology though - there are other popular science books that do it better. That's not a failure of this book; it's just not what this one is about.
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on 25 October 2006
I endorse Lars Petter Endresen's views whole-heartedly. The book is a brain-stretching delight: an impassioned attack on narrow thinking regarding evolution, whether from the general media or other, specialised scientists. There is a parallel with Damasio's "Descartes' Error", in that the author builds a clear and compelling argument for whole, integrated body systems being created through complexity, but whereas Damasio painstakingly builds the science, Noble charges through the book, scattering entertaining anecdotes, analogies and even Buddhist fables. Magnificent.
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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. He shows that far from the established view where the arrows of explanation all point downwards to the lower, ever more fundamental elements of cellular physiology (ending up ultimately at DNA as the primary explanatory element) there exists in reality a complex system of feedback pathways which enable the organism to act upon its own genetic material, altering the way that each gene is expressed in combination with others as a consequence of their whereabouts within the organism, or the conditions to which the organism may be subjected. Within this systems view of biological functioning, the complex pathways of interaction become the primary explanatory elements, rather than any of the physical components themselves.

This single insight provides several additional mechanisms for the operation of evolution through natural selection over and above the simplistic one of random gene mutation which is held in such high regard by today's neo-Darwinists, and reopens the door to the long-ridiculed notion of so-called Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics. It also calls into question the wisdom of, for instance, neurologists seeking the physical location of "the self" within the prescient organism; within Noble's view of things, such concepts as "the self" cease to have any likelihood of an actual physical presence (as separate, identifiable entities within the organism) but instead become emergent functional properties of a level of operation of the biological system itself.

It should be clear by now that this book presents serious challenges to a great deal of current biological dogma and there will be many readers for whom this book is an eye-opener. It is an easy and entertaining read for anyone with even a smattering of science and regardless of whether or not you finally come to agree with Denis Noble, you can be sure you'll find what he has to say interesting and enlightening.
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on 25 May 2013
I was a little disappointed with this book. It contains some good and thought provoking information on systems biology and on the expression and regulation of genes, but I found it rather slow moving and laboured. In my opinion, the author placed too much emphasis on using metaphors to explain the points he was trying to make (which, in fairness, he stated was his intent). I often found these confusing and I would rather have just had a presentation of his understanding of the mechanisms at play within a organism rather than discussions about, for example, what an alien would make of it all or how it was analogous to something in the world of music. Whilst I thought he over-explained some of the biological issues, when it came to other areas, which were more philosophical, he used specialist terms without any explanation of their meaning. Denis Noble is a philosopher as well being a notable biologist and this no doubt accounts for the philosophical approach taken to the subject, especially in the latter chapters. Notwithstanding these points, the book has stirred my curiosity to read more in the area of epigenetics. However, I felt that Prof Noble's book was more suited to those of a philosophical bent than those with backgrounds in the fields of biology and molecular biology.
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on 10 November 2011
This book was interesting, it opened my eyes to a non-reductionist view of life with some interesting examples but throughout it was peppered with references to other chapters in the book which was annoying. As a non-musician I found the musical metaphors unhelpful, though his reflections on the use of metaphor were very well thought through. If you're a musician (with an interest in biology), I'd recommend it, and if you have a reductionist view of evolution or life processes, read this book!
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on 31 December 2009
I was hoping for a brief, readable introduction to systems biology, and whilst it certainly was well written, I felt it was too light and didn't really get down into the real meat of these issues as I had been hoping it would. Denis Noble does make some excellent points about how the current focus on genes and organisms' evolutionary history has distorted our view of the organisms themselves, and his discussions of better ways of looking at organisms as dynamic systems rather than collectives of atomistic genes express ideas that badly need to be said more often. However I think the book could have been greatly improved if he'd spent longer explaining how this would actually work in practice. Towards the end of the book, the author changes tack completely and tries to tackle the mind-body problem, which is really too big for such a short section, and his proposed solution seemed a bit rushed and relied much too heavily on Buddhist concepts of the self and problems with the ambiguities of language.

On the other hand, if you actually happen to be interested in how Buddhist philosophy can potentially relate to science, feel free to add another star to this review as it discusses these topics in some detail.
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on 14 August 2006
I honestly really enjoyed reading the book "The Music of Life" - it is one of the most important books I have ever read. Denis Noble's analogy between life and music is an important one. Just as music cannot be understood by investigating single notes at a time, one cannot investigate life by looking at single genes only. The interplay between genes, between genes and proteins, and between proteins is just as important as the genes themselves.

What makes this book particularly interesting is the combination of state of the art knowledge in many totally different fields - it is rare to find a book with so many well founded and important philosophical implications of the scientific discoveries in our time. I had to read this book twice to really appreciate all the beautiful metaphors, and I would recommend this book to everybody that enjoyed Erwin Schrödinger's book "What is Life?" - this book is an update.
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on 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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on 5 November 2011
It has been popular to speak of the genetic program as a causal agent, a blueprint for human development. The theme of this book is to show that there is no such program.
Genetic determination fails to tell the whole story.
"In each gene, the chemicals are arranged in specific ways to facilitate the production of specific proteins." However, exactly how the genes are expressed or how the protein is made varies according the cellular environment, the age of the organ and what type, out of over 200 varieties, of cells in question. Finally, "there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and biological functions." Noble uses the first few chapters to provide us with an extremely clear picture, in an easy to understandable way, an alternative, a systems biology, explanation of cellular and organ development. Noble asks the following question: How do we use detailed knowledge of the small scale to understand the processes that "govern entire living systems?"

This book takes us on a fascinating journey of exploration seeking answers as to why a century or more of picking apart and documenting the "how does it work" details of the genome has not answered the question above. Who is running the show? For instance, "DNA does nothing outside the context of the cell." All of the over 200 kinds of cells used to make up the various organs of the body contain identical DNA. Therefore, DNA alone cannot determine how the cell will develop functionally.

Of course, when an almost complete understanding of cellular function offers very little help in understanding higher level functions, the road becomes bumpy and vision somewhat blurred. Both scientists and the public demand clear, concise, mathematically perfect answers. Unfortunately, Gaia doesn't work that way. As Noble says: Nature is inherently messy. And yet there is and must be multi-cellular harmony. Our over 200 cell types have had over 2 billion years of experience in cooperative ventures. Our organism may not be perfect, but most of the time it works.

Noble is convinced that a bottom-up, reductionist scientific outlook on biology cannot answer the important questions we need to know about ourselves and how we operate in our environment. The last two chapters were the most interesting to me because they journey into territory that demands a more holistic view, an integrated view of multiple, nested processes. I like the concept of a holarchy where each higher level of function is greater than the sum of its lower operations. This takes us to chapter 9, the penultimate chapter, where we find the question: "So how do biologists and philosophers think we see the world?" This a deeply important question because our actions and reactions are largely, if not completely based on our world view - or the meaning we glean from our environment both far and near. Too often we see and hear what we think is there.

The favoured scientific view of how we see the world is based on a proposition, a physicalist position that our senses turn their inputs into electrical movements that are interpreted by the brain that contains an "I" or self, that creates our world. Noble asks; (1) Where and what is the "I?" (2 Where or what is the map or the translator that gives meaning to the sensory outputs? Recently, several neuroscientists suggest that the brain is the self. The book cites several experiments that do not support this view.
Neuroscientists will never find a physical explanation for how intentional action is performed by the body because this action occurs at a higher level. As I mentioned above, a holarchical concept seems to be necessary. I liked a subheading which reads:
The Self is not a neural object.

At the end of the day, we may come to the conclusion that the self is more like a process than an object. I admire the fact that the author is willing to engage with subjects, since Descartes, considered outside the realms of science. Unless we are destined to morph into robots, we need to be concerned about consciousness and how we can best see ourselves as beings of intention - of purpose not strictly limited to survival. We need to go softly and listen to the orchestra so we can play in tune. Yes, as Noble says, let us listen to the music of life.
Planet as Self: An Earthen Spirituality
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