The Music of Life, by Denis Noble

I have added Noble’s book to my list of classic texts for several reasons. First, for its focus on organisms as wholes. Second, for modeling how to apply the methods of the humanities to thinking about evolution. Third, for Noble’s standing as an experimental physiologist and as one of the pioneers of systems biology. The book is written simply and clearly enough to be accessible to the general public and so, of course, to fellow biologists of every stripe and specialty.

I get two primary messages from this book. First, it’s time to turn from the spectacularly successful reductionist study of the genome at a molecular level to the study of how living systems at every level in an organism call on each other to effect the working of the whole. He illustrates this both through reports of his own researches into how molecular-level mechanisms support mechanisms of heart function, and diagrams with arrows showing how various levels are known to call on others, how even upper levels can call directly on mechanisms at the molecular level. He blazes a trail clearly modeling how others can study organisms as systems, implicitly faulting them if they don’t. Particularly he wants to question further concentration on reductionism given how much less is known about the interactions between levels where he clearly feels the next great discoveries lie.

Then, in a particularly bold modeling of how far systems theory should be taken Noble adds a chapter on how to think about the top level of mind, consciousness and self. He writes from his own experience with Asian thinking, particular Buddhism, and clearly wants us to cast our net more broadly than to settle on reason and a conscious self. He took my breath away. In a brief book of less than 150 pages he provides a survey of life from the genome seen as a database queried by proteins up through illustrations of how harmony is achieved at various levels of tissue and system, up to models of mind. It’s taken me a few days to take this in, but then I thought: YES! At last!

Along the way he implicitly reproves Edward O. Wilson for his presumption in proposing to subsume all the humanities under Darwinism. Noble models how science can fruitfully be treated as merely one player among the arts and the humanities. His chapter titles involve: the genome as CD; genes as organ pipes; the score; the conductor—downward causation; the heart as rhythm-section; the orchestra; modes and keys; evolution as the composer; the brain as opera theatre; and curtain call—the artist disappears (Buddhism).

Altogether extraordinary, a program for the future study of living creatures, with what are usually seen as “higher” functions, such as mind and consciousness, woven into the model, not necessarily to be included at every “level,” but not to be automatically excluded through human exceptionalism.

I had only one upset. As my “top” layer I could not easily relinquish reason and the conscious self, with an executive module maintaining management control over all the others. I think such a “Western self” may be required to probe into the huge system Noble paints living creatures to be. On the other hand, what is to be probed is what I’ve learned from Gregory Bateson to call “patterns of connection.” Yes, but can Eastern philosophy do that? Even if they can't, Noble’s book may specify for us what it is we lack, that we must develop, for a serious systems study of life to proceed. 

Some quotes:

Systems biology is what we are moving to. Only it requires a quite different mind-set…. It requires that we develop ways of thinking about integration that are as rigorous as our reductionist procedures, but different. This is a major change. It has implications beyond the purely scientific. It means changing our philosophy, in the full sense of that term.

Like any polemicist, I make free use of metaphor. I also tell some stories. These are intended to be enjoyable – and also to jolt the reader away from some current dogmas.

The theme of my book is that there… is no privileged level of causality in biological systems.

The genome needs to be read through the phenotype, not the other way round. … the logic of successful systems that win in the competition for survival lies in the system, not in the genes… What the genes do is to contain the database from which the system can be reconstructed. They are the “eternal” replicators. They don’t die, but outside an organism they also don’t live…. It does seem to me more natural, and certainly meaningful, to say that the rationale for existence lies at the level at which selection occurs.

[Of the genome presenting 30,000 genes]. Who plays the organ of 30,000 pipes? Is there an organist? What sort of organist could there be?... The “organist” therefore, consists of regulatory networks of interactions at all levels, from the highest to the very lowest, including networks incorporating genes themselves. There are no privileged components telling the rest what to do.

…the self is an integrative construct, occasionally a fragile one. It is also a necessary construct. It is one of the greatest symphonies of the music of life. But if we play around with its physiological basis as envisaged in this chapter, we might have to re-examine some of the fundamental ways in which our language works.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the concept of the “self” in such a culture [Asian] can have much more in common with a process than a thing. When trying to escape from the confines of my own culture and language I find it very helpful to think of the self this way. So, the self, the “me,” is where my body is because it is one of the most important integrative processes of my body.

Denis Noble, Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics; University of Oxford, Professor Emeritus and co-Director of Computational Physiology at Oxford University. One of the pioneers of Systems Biology, he developed the first viable mathematical model of the working heart in 1960. Noble was Chairman of the IUPS (International Union of Physiological Sciences) World Congress in 1993, and Secretary-General of IUPS from 1993-2001. He is now President. He played a major role in launching the Physiome Project, one of the international components of the systems biology approach. He has signed on to the website