Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. Denis Noble.

Noble, Denis. Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity. Cambridge, Cambridge 2016. NF; 1/21.

A fan of ideas about science and about evolution in particular, I was impressed with this polemic. It attacks the orthodox “Neo-Darwinist” view on inherited characteristics and evolution and its underlying determinist philosophy. I was taught in university, and have read and written about Neo-Darwinist ideas popularized by Richard Dawkins (in for example his The Selfish Gene): all inheritance and so all life evolution is directly and exclusively about changes to the genetic code in DNA. Noble, an influential and senior physiologist who was I think 83 when he wrote this book, argues that Neo-Darwinism is not wrong, just incomplete and constricting. And he thinks its philosophical assumptions could do with a little loosening up as well. He appears to me to propose a solution for the so-called mind-body problem, saying essentially it doesn’t exist. This felt to me like it might be a bit of a big deal.

I came across this book reading a book I got bored with and didn’t finish: Man’s 4th Best Hospital, a late follow-up of Dr. Sam Shem’s 1978 best-seller The House of God (Shem is a pseudonym for psychiatrist Stephen Bergman) which I recently reread having first had fun with it just after finishing my medical internship. House of God was starkly accurate if a bit overstated about the weird sociology of medical training and practice in the 70s. Bergman was a Rhodes scholar who studied under Dr. Noble at Cambridge.

Dawkins and his fellow member of the loose organization called the “Brights”, philosopher Daniel Dennett, take a view of metaphysics variously referred to as mechanist, physicalist, reductionist, materialist, or determinist, holding that there is ultimately no mystery or purpose in the universe, and that a completed physics will allow, however impossibly complex, a fully explanatory and predictive understanding of everything, all pretty much proceeding in a causatively-fixed three-dimensional sequence. This is a view, to the extent that we think about such things at all, held by most people working in science. Noble refers to this and its offshoot Neo-Darwinism as “closed”, in that it holds that physical events and subatomic particles are the only realities and their action will only and can only proceed down a single path. This, roughly, is determinism, and Noble proposes an alternate “open” approach.

I’ve always been bothered by that reductionist “closed” understanding of things. I think it ignores some obvious realities in the world. I have ideas that seem real to me, purpose does appear to exist in living things, and I find I can freely decide and take action which makes things happen. I’ve found my way through most of Dennett’s difficult 1999 Elbow Room where he deals with making things happen (free will, philosophers call it) by calling free will complicated but eventually illusory. But determinism’s causes and effects proceeding inexorably is difficult to refute in a world where current “science” holds that up to us as the only reality.

Imagine stopping time and doing whatever it takes to inventory absolutely everything (or even just a limited piece of that universal everything) according to a completed physics, and then letting time move forward by the tiniest possible increment, and stopping it again. If physical causation is the only thing driving events, what is present after our imaginary tiny time increment can’t exist except as a result of what was there before the increment, can it? Not unless something extra-physical, “magic” or mysterious to a determinist understanding somehow intervenes. Scientific material determinism says no, there’s no magic so no mystery, because whatever completed physics finally finds is all there really is. But my life experience tells me that extra-physical things exist or may exist and maybe just haven’t yet been explained because physics isn’t completed and may never be. I like the humility and honesty of that agnosticism, which is a good friend to mystery. Admitting we don’t know what’s going on would leave at least some part of the future open instead of predetermined.

So what is Dr. Noble’s “open” approach, and what are his arguments? Here’s what I took from reading him. Focusing on genetics, he points out that germ (sperm and ovum) cells in sexually reproducing animals including humans contain a lot more than just DNA. When the two cells join they carry with them into the single-celled zygote a complex mass of organized non-DNA material. As a baby forms that single cell divides repeatedly and soon turns into many different kinds of cells (brain, muscle, bone, liver etc.). Recent careful observation of the way these cells divide and specialize shows that mechanisms exist in the cells that appear to tell DNA (which is completely identical in all the cells) what to do. Which proteins to make and not make in what quantity over what periods of time and in what order, and therefore how to do the hundreds of different things cells become specialized to do. Big long tracts of human (for example) DNA appear never to be used: they are considered “junk” by many neo-Darwinists. But mechanisms in the cell can rearrange DNA’s activity through sequencing and turning on or off different parts of its transcription process. DNA may have, or be, a living creature’s blueprint, but without the rest of the cell DNA is just a very large molecule sitting there doing nothing.

These processes are hard to visualize, because they are complicated and exquisitely tiny. Diagrams in biology textbooks are not accurate in their representation. Dr. Noble in talking about the cell is interested in things’ size, or ” levels” of systematic function. At the micro end we have the sub-atomic things particle physicists talk about, quarks, that build into atoms, molecules, cells, tissues (muscle, brain, etc.), body systems (circulation, digestion etc.) organisms (whole creatures) and then families, cultures, the world, the solar system, galaxies, and the “universe”. I was reminded of Whiteson and Cham’s book We Have No Idea (where we are told there are 200 billion galaxies in the universe visible to us, the outer reach of which is 13 billion light years away) as Noble describes the vast differences among small ordered levels:

(C)onsider the smallest independent unit in cells, which is the proton (the centre of a hydrogen ion). Its diameter is about 1 fm (10 to the minus 15 of a meter). If we could magnify the proton up to the size of a cell, the edge of the cell would be beyond the edge of the solar system.

The cell itself is tiny but everything in it is inconceivably tinier. It’s hard to imagine a way that giant objects in the solar system could influence a human germ cell if it survives and reproduces. But of course things happening to a human being before they have children dynamically affect their brain and circulatory system through their lively circulating environment, and maybe those subtly changed systems could influence things in some of their body’s cells including germ cells. If so, the biological and ideological door would be “open” to a subtly different ovum cell, for example, that could do its business of how its DNA expresses itself in a new individual a little differently than its DNA would otherwise “dictate”.

I don’t see where Dr. Noble discusses the exact mechanism of the effect of somebody’s life experience before they have children on their germ cells. He tells us that a lot of biological functions like heart rhythm are probabilistic and backed up by multiple fail-safe mechanisms. Why that helps to establish that experiences could affect inheritance must have flown over my head. It doesn’t though take a cell biology or evolution PhD to get that if we humans have an idea, especially a repetitive and strongly-held one like love or fear, that idea has a biological side. Cortisol, serotonin, dopamine, insulin, and other emotion-influenced and influencing natural juices squirt in different thought and emotional situations into our blood. Exactly what happens to the DNA-regulatory machinery when somebody’s germ cells in childhood get a mighty dose of fight and flight every afternoon would need to be worked out, but over generations it could make (and could have made) a difference to inheritance.

This brings us to a controversial idea in biology and evolution called inheritance of acquired characteristics. Old Charles Darwin said he believed that the characteristics animals acquire during their lives prior to reproduction can be passed on to offspring, but he didn’t describe just how that could happen. Brilliant though he was, of course he didn’t understand DNA, RNA, and proteins either. A near-contemporary biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, became well-known for believing in inheritance of acquired characteristics, and Lamarck is dismissed by neo-Darwinists, believing as they do that the “Selfish Gene” that is inherited is simply DNA, nothing else, and that DNA couldn’t possibly be influenced by an organism’s life experiences.

There is a wealth of argument, experiments including his own to do with heart and circadian rhythm, discussion of general relativity and quantum mechanics, and also of epistemology (the philosophic study of knowledge) included in Noble’s book. But he appears to me in putting forward a credible mechanism for a higher level of organization (the cell) influencing a lower level (the DNA molecule) to pry open the closed system of inheritance that has been what most ordinary people have believed since Watson and Crick described DNA in the early 1950s. That closed system was certainly what was unquestioned, and what I was taught, by university scientists in the 1960s and 70s. Noble speculates (I would say credibly) that the idea that molecules are the centre of the universe and materialism and determinism explains everything became intellectual truth because mid-20th-century scientific thinkers needed to oppose intelligent creationism. Doctrinary mystical religion, or theism. Neo-Darwinism and its determinism had to be careful to deny that there could be such a thing as a purpose, because talking like that sounded like believing in a God as a creator. 20th-century scientists were forced into a universal “scientific” idea of mechanistic and billiard-ball materialism because they found themselves critically opposed to popular religion. I think this book of Dr. Nobles’ argues that that mistaken retreat into materialism and determinism has left us with a dry and narrow understanding of nature and life.

In 1500, the earth appeared to be the centre of the everything until Copernicus suggested otherwise. In the 19th century the mechanics of Isaac Newton were accepted as the answer to the workings of the universe, until Einstein suggested relativity. Dr. Noble encourages our mindset to open to speculation that late-20th-century physical determinism may not be the whole story either. The “whole story” may in fact end up being beyond our reach: mysterious.

Noble says purpose exists, we just don’t see it at an atomic or molecular level. It is the purpose of circulation to carry oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. It is the purpose of animals to survive and reproduce. It appears to me denying any of this flies in the face of common sense. It doesn’t make sense either to hold that as between a physical object like a stone and an idea like what I want to have for dinner, only one or the other can fundamentally exist. And in modern thought there is no question at all which one that is: physical objects (whatever they end up being made out of). There is according to that point of view no insubstantial mind, only the structure and molecular events of the physical brain. Whence the mind-body problem: how could a material brain be influenced by an idea that is a mystery fairytale, or give rise to one? If ideas are just epiphenomena: foam on the surface of the water, how could they make anything physical happen? The late 20th century “scientific” solution is that ideas that are different from things don’t exist.

This is as every child knows complete nonsense: of course ideas exist! I’m having an idea as I write this sentence, the idea is to try to help you to understand Denis Noble’s ideas. And as you read my inept sentences my ideas could literally change the world by causing you to read Noble’s book. But this kind of thing isn’t weird and un-scientifically magical, it is perfectly real and happens all the time. In evolutionary biology once we accept that at a level not too much removed from cellular molecules there can be a purpose and that ideas have force at an organism level it seems to me that neo-Darwinism and also the mind-body problem disappear. They are awkward creatures of materialism and determinism stubbornly and defensively focusing on atoms and molecules.

Dr. Noble may have sprung me out of physical determinism and even the mind-body problem though I’m not enough of a biologist or philosopher to encompass all his arguments. Reading this book was for me like raising reasonable doubt in a criminal trial: being convinced I don’t necessarily have to accept something I’ve always known doesn’t make sense is like getting out of jail! The materialist and molecular biology argument that paying serious attention to higher-level dynamics is a form of dumbing-down is the opposite of the truth. Continuing to focus on ever-tinier sub-molecular events at the expense of an expanded reality seems to me about as blind-dumb as we can get.

All this may seem arcane and theoretical (and my understanding of it overly simple and/or just plain wrong). But could it be there is no need to carefully bear in my insubstantial mind, looking at the ocean, that the water is H2O molecules with sodium chloride etc., and its movement is wind caused by changes in atmospheric pressure? I don’t mean the ocean has a purpose in human terms, only that I can without feeling silly follow my purpose and imagine that my perception of its beauty is a force in the world that can make a difference in my life and that of other people. Sodium chloride and changing atmospheric pressure don’t matter much at the level of my organism and its effect on the world. Their chemistry and air pressure dynamics are really only of interest to a molecular biologist or physicist. It could even be that the circumstances we create, and the example we give to our children can have a “biological” effect on our grandchildren through our kids’ subtly changed germ cell machinery. Inheritance of acquired characteristics through love.

I very much hope you won’t be put off by my long muddled review of this very fine book or (if you decide to read Dance to the Tune) by not completely understanding all the detail. See if you agree that the ideas here could be part of a positive change in biology and culture. I think they may lead more general thought in a better direction, one I intend to take seriously and have a good look at myself.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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