The Music of Life

Biology Beyond Genes

Denis Noble

OxfordUniversityPress 2006


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. 


Having established the extent of DNA activity in the cells, Noble turns to higher functions and the challenge offered to systems biologists who begin to look at levels of functionality where there seems to be a flow of movement with bottom-up, top-down and even sideways pressures in development.  You will enjoy Noble’s most interesting and comical metaphor in a story he calls “the Chinese Emperor and the poor farmer.”


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.


Additional personal observations on the book


Personally, I was extremely impressed with the way Noble, from a scientific frame of reference – as I understand it – may be agreeing somewhat with a philosophical outlook held by Advaita Vedanta and some adherents of Buddhist thought.  I can state my point quite clearly, but my statement cannot be understood solely by our thinking function, or bear logical analysis.  There is no separate me that does the seeing, the hearing, etc.  There is only the seeing and the hearing.  There is the absence of the doer.  There is just the doing.  Consciousness, and I don’t mean sensory inputs and outputs, permeates our reality.  It isn’t something we possess, it is something we are.  The “I” that we think we are is not a separate object to be observed.  We can never find ourselves out there because we are that which we so desperately seek.  I accepted this way of viewing existence supposing the one consciousness pervaded the universe.  Recently, it came to me that Gaia mediates this pervading energy and that we are the planet.  Gaia is the one consciousness as far as we Earthlings are concerned.  All of what we term objects around us reflect the beingness and consciousness of Gaia to the extent of its development.  As self reflective beings – and I do not exclude other species here – we are more being lived than living.  From this perspective, “going with the flow,” “communing with Nature,” the sense of awe and reverence we feel when we encounter the energy of dolphins, whales, and recently from an  article printed in the Orion magazine, the presence of an octopus.

All these phenomena take on new meaning when we think of being in and not on a planet.  We share, at the highest level of our evolutionary abilities, the mind and heart of Gaia.  There is so much freedom in this way of thinking of how we are in the world.  No guilt, no alienation, no aloneness.  One can sense the loving care and intimate relationship with all around.  From this perspective, who dies?  Where else would we go?

There are so many more implications here that I won’t go into now.  Let me conclude with the following.  I recall a saying from a great teacher and former medical doctor, Richard Moss. “You have nothing to offer another being but the quality of your presence.”