Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity – Book Review

 World-class heart researcher Denis Noble demolishes the “Selfish Gene” – With Grace and Wit

Just as modern astronomy has shown us there is no definite “center of the universe” (and it is most certainly not the earth), in his book “Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity,” Oxford Professor Denis Noble shows that in biology there is no “starting point of the organism.” (And it is most certainly not the gene!)

Denis Noble is the man who worked out the details of the cardiac rhythm, which made pacemakers possible, as well as the drug Ivabradine.

He received the distinction “Commander of the British Empire” from the Queen of England for his service to the sciences. His heart research involved knocking out genes and altering gene expression.
His heart research (including extensive computer modeling of heart activity) convinced him that Richard Dawkins’ “Selfish Gene” concept could not possibly be correct.
This book belongs to a growing category of critiques from “outsiders” – people not originally indoctrinated by conventional evolutionary biologists, whose professional work proves beyond reasonable doubt that Neo-Darwinism is irredeemably flawed.

The book begins with a history of astronomy, where ideas that the earth is not the center, and not even our sun or galaxy are at the center, were met with great resistance.

Noble says making the gene the immortal center of evolutionary biology is at least as great a mistake as earth-centric astronomy!

This is because it has negatively impacted fields as diverse as economics, theology, sociology, politics and literature.

Noble is a strong historian and his book uncovers the detailed history of the language and development of the ideas behind modern evolutionary theory.

He says:

“Neo-Darwinism is a product of nineteenth-century scientific thought in the last decades before the revolutions in physics leading to quantum mechanics and relativity theory.”

“Since Neo-Darwinism has dominated biological science for over half a century, its viewpoint is now so embedded in the scientific literature, including standard school and university textbooks, that many biological scientists may themselves not recognise its conceptual nature, let alone question incoherencies or identify flaws.”

“the language of Neo-Darwinism is itself a powerful barrier to the development of a more inclusive theory… it is the whole conceptual scheme of Neo-Darwinism that creates the difficulty. Each concept and metaphor reinforces the overall mind-set until it is almost impossible to stand outside it and to appreciate how beguiling it is.”

He shows how the entire field has become a prisoner of its own circular reasoning, and of an unjustified antagonism towards teleology, or purpose in nature. He explains how it is manifestly impossible to understand something like a heart if you will not acknowledge that it exists for the purpose of pumping blood, and doing so in a very particular manner.

He shows that you can only understand the behavior of a heart at a certain level of the system and that, at other levels of the system, the same behavior may appear random or invisible or incomprehensible. He shows that biology is systems within systems within systems, and that every system has a relationship to other systems.

Note that even randomness itself only exists with respect to other events.

Noble shows that you cannot pinpoint any particular starting or ending point to a living organism. Each effect flows from multiple causes and each cause produces multiple effects.

This reminds me of a statement made by Gary Fugle, an author and biologist who said, “there is no single place in nature where you can say ‘Aha – THERE is the hand of God, you can see it right there!’”

Although people who espouse God-of-gaps arguments take comfort in such things, those gaps have a way of migrating elsewhere in the face of growing scientific knowledge.

Noble is making a complementary statement, but aimed at scientific reductionists instead: There is no one all-encompassing, explanatory, simplistic Final Answer In Nature that says “this is the spot where everything starts.”

Rather, says Noble, goals are contextual, and just like randomness, only have meaning *with respect to something else.* He says, “It is in this context that we can understand why many prominent Neo-Darwinists are also prominent atheists. That also is a statement of faith. Part of that statement of faith is that creative purpose, consciousness and intentionality are all mirages, epiphenomena without significance or effect.”

Thus his argument for “Biological Relativity.” Every system, every goal and behavior is relative to others around it, both smaller and larger scales and levels of systems. This book will be liked by anyone who creates for a living and instinctively knows that nothing in nature is as simplistic as Dawkins’ just-so explanations and stories.

He rigorously demonstrates new models of evolution via the work of several researchers including Conrad Waddington: In direct defiance to Neo-Darwinism, learned traits are inherited, and Lamarck was right 200 years ago: organisms direct the evolution of their progeny.

Noble devotes time to describing the evolutionary toolbox of Horizontal Gene Transfer, Epigenetics, Symbiogenesis and Transposition. He shows that many evolutionary events are grand movements of large-scale sections of DNA.

He gives Neo-Darwinism credit for a number of fields of study such as population genetics. But he also shows how it has slowed discovery in other fields for 50+ years. He blames some of this on the ever-narrowing scope of scientific categories, fragmentation of disciplines, increasingly unable to see the whole for the parts.

Some memorable quotes:

“I saw a film of a living unicellular organism, an amoeba. It could hardly have been more different from the two-dimensional sections of dead cells that I had drawn as a student. Nothing stood still. Everything was streaming this way and that as the organism moved around. When it found an object that was sensed (I assumed chemically) to be food the movements became beautifully co-ordinated as two extrusions called pseudopodia (false feet) encircled the object, eventually allowing it to be taken in as a membrane coated vesicle to be digested.

“This tiny organism had a ‘nose’: the chemical receptors on its membrane surface. It had ‘muscles’: in fact formed of protein molecules, some of them very similar to those in our cells, only not organised into separate muscular organs. It clearly had a ‘nervous system’ to connect the two together, although it had no nerves as we know them. It had a clear goal: to feed itself. As we will see later when we discuss the cell cycle, it knows when and how to reproduce itself in an intricately co-ordinated activity when it makes its genes dance as they and their predecessors have done for at least one billion years.”

“Those working on a systems approach were openly denigrated as not doing ‘real science’, not being ‘where it is at’. Later, in the 1970s when I became a member of research grant committees, I was to hear that phrase often. Being ‘where it is at’ was committee-speak for excluding any other approach. Sadly that exclusion was so successful that very little integrative research remained. Molecular biology and genomics sucked up most of the funding.”

“Neo-Darwinism is incomplete as a theory of evolution. It also suffers from deep conceptual confusions, and is not compatible with the wider range of experimental evidence we now have.”

“Why are scientists like me apparently in such a small minority? There is a simple answer to that question. We are only apparently a minority. I have discussed extensively with evolutionary and other biologists in the course of lecturing to audiences, large and small, all around the world. Exceedingly few of the tens of thousands involved have seriously defended the orthodox Neo-Darwinist view as a complete explanation.”

On the benefits of updating our evolutionary models:

“Whole areas of economics, sociology and philosophy are based on interpretations of selfish gene viewpoints. No field of human endeavour will remain untouched since the implications affect even our concept of humanity.”

This field of “Extended Evolutionary Synthesis” is growing rapidly and it’s great that a person of Noble’s stature has taken the time to write such a careful book. Just as Neo-Darwinism has leaked poison into many fields, Biological Relativity has the potential for bringing new insights into economics, sociology and many other disciplines. Noble is mature enough and well-enough read to speak to these other disciplines.

Noble is no stranger to this debate. He has every qualification necessary to critique evolutionary biology from the outside. Noble organized the first debate about Richard Dawkins’ bestseller “The Selfish Gene” in 1976 and again between Dawkins and Lynn Margulis in 2009. He was on Dawkins’ PhD review committee at Oxford. He’s an Emeritus professor at the University of Oxford.

He’s a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific body in the world. He organized the Royal Society’s November 2016 Conference “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology” and chaired the 2nd day of the conference.

At the London conference, the overwhelming consensus from both presenters the 300 in attendance was that Neo-Darwinism is due for a major upgrade and perhaps needs to be replaced entirely.

He’s written over 500 scientific papers and he’s President of the International Union of Physological Sciences, the global umbrella organization for physiology. His keynote talks to physiologists worldwide regularly include critiques of Neo-Darwinism, and he often hears complaints from members that the evolutionary biology clique refuses to publish their papers.

He’s one of the pioneers of the field of Systems Biology and he is also editor of the Royal Society’s cross-disciplinary publication “Interface Focus.”

The book is very readable, it’s in middle-school to high school level English, and the glossary and explanations take pains to explain complex ideas in simple language.

If you’re hot on the trail of new evolutionary developments – the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis and systems like Natural Genetic Engineering and Symbiogenesis; if you’re fascinated by the Post-Dawkins evolutionary frontier, this book is a must-read.

It is part of a growing body of works that provide alternatives to the classical, textbook version of evolution that is repeated ad nauseum in the media. Other books include my own “Evolution 2.0” of course; “Evolution: A View from the 21st Century” by James Shapiro; “COSMOSAPIENS” by John Hands; “The Music of Life” also by Denis Noble, and “Acquiring Genomes” by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan.

Get “Dance to the Tune of Life” by Denis Noble on Amazon

Last but not least, don’t miss these two videos by Denis Noble, via Voices From Oxford:
“Rocking the Foundations of Evolutionary Biology” – Noble demolishes Neo-Darwinism in his role as keynote speaker at an international conference of physiologists in Suzhou, China

6 Responses

  1. Here you say “biology is systems within systems within systems, and that every system has a relationship to other systems.” and you seem to be using this concept to attack Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene.

    I find this odd. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes extensively on how vast networks of genes function as a whole within an organism. At one point he relates the cell to a rowing team where individual rowers represent individual genes. Selection, in this case, works not just on individual genes, but on different combinations of genes, and on how well they function as a team.

    In Dawkins’ other famous book, The Extended Phenotype, he goes on to write about how the genes of organisms don’t just develop networks among themselves inside the organism, but also with other organisms and the environment at large.

    I’ve spent the past 5 years studying and Teaching Neo-Darwinism based on the work of Dawkins, W. D. Hamilton, and Stuart West. The version of Neo-Darwinism that you outline in this article (and in your book) is not recognizable to me. I suggest re-reading their works.

  2. Dan Eumurian says:

    I’m reminded of the field of relational theology and of the “Great Dance” referred to at the end of Perelandra, by CS Lewis.

  3. Abed Peerally says:

    From what I can gather from this article Dr Noble makes a good case to counteract Dawkinism in favour of Darwinism. Some months ago I said under an article that a few intelligent biologists could easily overthrow all il the arguments of Dawkins. As a biologist his views are extremely concocted. However I believe that those who read my which had this week been released as ebook and soft and hard cover will réalisé we are best to finally having a final answer about our realities of existence. Search for Peerally’s “In search of consciousness and the theory of everything ” on the websites of Amazon, kobo and Smashwords,

  4. Scott O. Rogers says:

    It seems that everyone is locked into certain terms, rather than attempting to understand evolution. Terms, such as “species” “neo-darwinism”, “biological evolution”, “randomness (or random accident)”, “selection” appear to be defined differently by the majority of people. Species boundaries differ for each group of organisms that are described, but the designations are useful constructs for scientists, so that they know exactly what organism they are dealing with. And, nothing is truly random, but a random model must be used to determine whether certain events differ from randomness. In my book, “Integrated Molecular Evolution” (2017), I attempt to deal with evolutionary concepts, and not strict definitions of terms. It is written at an upper-undergraduate/beginning-graduate level, for those interested. Some things you may agree with, and others you may disagree with, but I wanted to draw from many disciplines to try to make sense of evolution for students and others. Evolution cannot be completely understood from reading a sentence, paragraph, chapter, or book. Although I have written books on evolution, I still learn new things about its intricacies daily.

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