Short works

Books : reviews

C. A. R. Boyd, Denis Noble, eds.
The Logic of Life: the challenge of integrative physiology.
OUP. 1993

This book is a highly challenging collection of essays by eminent scientists on the theme of integrative approaches to physiological problems. It will be of interest to biologists who wonder how, and in what way, the current avalanche of information emerging from modern reductive science (molecular biology, cell biology, cell biophysics) can be put together in such a way that appropriate function at the molecular, cellular, tissue, and organismal levels ensues. The collection was originally conceived as a response to a remark by Sir James Black (Nobel Laureate, 1988) that the future lay in a ‘progressive triumph of physiology over molecular biology’. Each of the authors was sent an introductory essay on this theme and asked to respond in whatever way they thought appropriate in their field. The intellectual excitement generated has exceeded the expectations of the original invitation. A significant feature of the book is that some of the authors themselves work at the molecular or cellular level. They are joined by others who have taken positions based on their interpretation of modern evolutionary theory, by those whose work is on complex systems (such as the nervous or endocrine systems), and by those whose expertise lies in the general theory of non-linear systems. Conceived as a celebration of the 1993 International Congress of Physiological Sciences, it is a work that matches the immense challenge of modern biological science at the end of the twentieth century.


Denis Noble, C. A. R. Boyd. The Challenge of Integrative Physiology. 1993
Stephen Jay Gould. Evolution of organisms. 1993
E. M. Southern. Physiology and genes. 1993
R. L. Gardner, C. D. Stern. Integration in development. 1993
Jared Diamond. Evolutionary physiology. 1993
D. Denton. Control mechanisms. 1993
J. D. Vincent. Endocrinology. 1993
Masakazu Konishi. Brain and behaviour. 1993
F. Eugene Yates. Self-organizing systems. 1993

Denis Noble.
The Music of Life: biology beyond genes.
OUP. 2006

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 13 October 2008

Denis Nobel, one of the pioneers of Systems Biology, puts forward his view of how biology is more than (maybe even other than?) just genes in this extremely readable little book. He does this by explicit use of metaphor and (invented) anecdote in order to make his points, but is also careful to point out where this rhetorical approach breaks down.

The main metaphor is one of an orchestra producing music, where the genes might be the analogue of the musical score; necessary, maybe, but clearly by no means sufficient, to generate the sound of the symphony. There are several additional vital aspects to biology, including the fact that a new organism does not start ab initio, but in the context of a lot of pre-existing chemicals in the egg cell, and that these pre-existing chemicals have a natural behaviour dictated by the rules of physics and chemistry that therefore do not need to be encoded in the genome; the organism gets all this extra information, and more, for free from its environment. This extra environmental information is illustrated is an amusing, and memorable, anecdote of the recipe for an omelette that leaves out a crucial preparation step, because, simply, "how else would you prepare an omelette?" We also get some combinatorics that demonstrate why, when comparing our genomes to those of other species, 95% the same in the chromosome string can become mind-boggling fantastically different in the resulting behavioural network combinations.

This is a great little introduction to the concepts of Systems Biology, how the organism affects the genome as much as the genome affects the organism, and how it simply doesn't make sense to try to explain everything just from the bottom up. This doesn't mean Systems Biology is some woolly, hand-waving, purely holistic approach -- bottom-up reductionist information is still an important component, but only a component. Recommended.

Denis Noble.
Dance to the Tune of Life: biological relativity.
CUP. 2017

In this thought-provoking book, Denis Noble formulates the theory of biological relativity, emphasising that living organisms operate on 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.