Saturday, June 5, 2010

Books: The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome, by Denis Noble

When writing non-fiction, the author must make assumptions about his audience, so that he conveys the right depth and detail of information. Denis Noble, though, seems not to have asked himself whether he was writing for a scientific or lay audience. Sometimes, he gives maddeningly obvious information, reminding us, for example, that the four bases comprising the DNA molecule are known in shorthand as A, T, G, and C, and that DNA is shorthand for deoxyribonucleic acid. This I learned in school when I was sixteen. He tells us that a millisecond is one-thousandth of a second. Then, perhaps forgetting that we readers are too uneducated to understand simple power prefixes without his assistance, he launches into a description of how the heart's pacemaker function works by a feedback system of electrical charges, showing us graphs of cell voltage in milivolts against potassium, mixed ion, and calcium channels in nanoamps, which are nearly illegible to a layperson.

I think that Noble's trouble is that he's not writing science for the layperson or the scientist; he is a scientist with strong humanist tendencies, railing against his less-humanist colleagues, at anyone who will listen. Noble wants badly to present his philosophical ideas in a way that seems scientific, so he uses one of literature's staple techniques: the extended metaphor, which allows one to build two parallel columns of data that correspond one-to-one, preserving the clean, linear aesthetic of science. Life, he tells us, is like music.

But things get messy, because Noble neglected to draw a schema for his one-to-one correspondences before he began. He presents DNA as information that gives rise to a human in the same way that a compact disk contains information that gives rise to music—but only when inserted into the correct stereo system. Thus, as a CD is silent without its player, DNA creates no life without a womb and its chemical inputs.

This is fine, but things fall apart when he tries to build the correspondence from the bottom up. DNA codes for life in the same way that a score codes for music; a score exists, but without the musical instrument and musician, the score is silent. In my lay understanding of biology, the correlate for the instrument would be pre-existing tissues, the cells that surround the DNA, and the musician would be the chemical signals that flush these cells and drive DNA to do its work of dividing and coding and protein-building. But I haven't taken biology for more than ten years now.

Noble tells us no: "If there is a score for the music of life, it is not the genome," [italics mine] because "DNA never acts outside the context of the cell." And yet, as I've worked it out above, neither does a score "work" outside the context of the instrument. So, what is the problem? Likely, there is none, for Noble then flips back to the original construct, describing how "protein and cell machinery works to stimulate and control transcription. . . this is what 'plays' the genes." So DNA is again the score. But then, in the chapter on the Conductor (how does a Conductor fit in?! Certainly, music can be played without one. . .), Noble reminds us that "we have also developed the metaphor of the genome as a [pipe] organ, which needs someone to play it." So, wait. Now, the genome is the instrument? What is the score? Noble attempts to clarify: "We should think rather of a 'virtual conductor'—the system behaves 'as if' it has a conductor. The genes behave 'as though' they are being 'played' by this conductor—rather like some orchestras that play without a separate conductor." But Noble had told us that "the organ is not a program that writes. . . the Bach fugues. Bach did that." So corrodes our tidy one-to-one correspondence.

Clearly, what Noble means by the sentence quoted at the beginning of the preceding paragraph is that "the genome itself is not the music of life." It is in his penultimate chapter that he clarifies this, realizing his true goal: to demonstrate that "the self"* can not be located in one isolated part of our being, be it DNA, a section of the brain, or any other proposed lone location. "The self," he tells us, is "an integrative process that can be deconstructed;" not a mere "neurological object." This is his reason for insisting on an integrated "systems" biology, which doesn't assume bottom-up or top-down causation, but, in a much more Zen way, understands life as a feedback loop of being. The messy music metaphors, it turns out, were completely unnecessary in the making of this point.

*philosophically speaking

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