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Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines [Paperback]

Evelyn Fox Keller
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 30 2003 067401250X 978-0674012509 1

What do biologists want? If, unlike their counterparts in physics, biologists are generally wary of a grand, overarching theory, at what kinds of explanation do biologists aim? How will we know when we have "made sense" of life? Such questions, Evelyn Fox Keller suggests, offer no simple answers. Explanations in the biological sciences are typically provisional and partial, judged by criteria as heterogeneous as their subject matter. It is Keller's aim in this bold and challenging book to account for this epistemological diversity--particularly in the discipline of developmental biology.

In particular, Keller asks, what counts as an "explanation" of biological development in individual organisms? Her inquiry ranges from physical and mathematical models to more familiar explanatory metaphors to the dramatic contributions of recent technological developments, especially in imaging, recombinant DNA, and computer modeling and simulations.

A history of the diverse and changing nature of biological explanation in a particularly charged field, Making Sense of Life draws our attention to the temporal, disciplinary, and cultural components of what biologists mean, and what they understand, when they propose to explain life.


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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Keller (The Century of the Gene), professor of history and philosophy of science at MIT, analyzes the history of developmental biology. She explains the type of information scientists have accepted, why changes in acceptance may occur and, on a broader scale, what it means to understand the natural world. Models we now view as scientifically absurd held sway a mere century ago, while others, based on mathematics and visualized on computers but devoid of any confirmation from a biology laboratory, have now captured many imaginations. Keller shows that biology, like all of the sciences, is influenced by many factors: "Both what counts as knowledge and what we mean by knowing depend on the kinds of data we are able to acquire, on the ways in which those data are gathered, and on the forms in which they are represented." While Keller's prose is graceful and informed, her thesis is complex and unlikely to be fully appreciated by those without significant grounding in philosophy and biology.

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

A terrific book full of thought-provoking and original ideas and observations. Keller's discussion of "explanation" in the life sciences is easily one of the very best and most interesting treatments of this topic that I have ever read. (Jim Woodward, J.O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, California Institute of Technology)

Making Sense of Life is about the importance of recognizing [the] tight connection between the use of language in the social domain and how it produces biological "understanding"...The central arguments of Making Sense of Life are made with grace and authority. Those who are unsettled by them, and who wish to take issue with Keller, could not ask for a more accomplished and eloquent adversary. (Lisa Jardine New Scientist 2002-05-10)

Keller writes beautifully, explains exquisitely, does a really good job of showing how today's four-dimensional color gene-product-marked embryo pictures, available to all on the Web, have answered most of the old questions...and how they have generated a whole new set: about artificial life, about complex systems and emergence, about what we want to understand development for...I hope she finds a new generation of biology students, as well as historians, who'll appreciate her subtle thinking; this book makes sense of embryology at last. (Jack Cohen Biologist 2002-12-01)

Evelyn Fox Keller, once a mathematical physicist but now primarily a historian of biology, has analyzed the varied attempts of 20th-century biologists to provide an explanation for the nature and origin of life...Keller's achievement is to historicize 20th-century biological concepts, so that we can begin to see that they are not inevitable, springing directly from a realization of "how nature is", but rather are culturally located, and shaped by complex social forces. (Steven Rose Lancet 2003-02-08)

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Keller's Life and Times of Genetics Feb. 28 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Keller's book is a fascinating read about genetics today, but just as fascinating about the intellectual developments that preceded today's thinking. She appreciates the thrill of the chase, but also provides the longer view, showing how scientific explanations that were satisfying to the scientists of a given day have frequently turned out to have little bearing on subsequent science-as our museums, T. Kuhn and Keller herself show. And the explanatory nuggets that scientists mine, which put science at the head of society's power train, often turn into the dusty errata of ensuing decades for reasons connected with researcher's attitudes. (This seems to be a factor some ambitious scientists resent contemplating.) She tracks the inclination of researchers and thinkers to project intentions on the gene-an ingrained "agentic" factor. Particularly interesting is what happened when physicists (she's one herself) tried to apply their particular skills and world view on biology-it seems that the powerful, overall formulas of physics, so brilliant in particle analysis and thinking about the universe on a grand scale, simply don't reach down to the particular instances of biology (Turing's theoretical description of the development of Drosophilia may be highly elegant and efficient, but as it turns out the fly, like Frank Sinatra, prefers to do it its own way). Keller writes clearly and well about her subject-her book also gives a rundown of future directions for genetic research-but for me the fun is in Keller's tracing how the search for knowledge is shaped differently from era to era; Keller's book gives us a glimpse of the waters that knowledge swims in.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars History, but no explaining Nov. 23 2002
Format:Hardcover
I was rather disappointed in this book. Keller's view of 'explanation' is that it is relative to the needs of each particular culture and their historical time (p. 5). As such, she does not really critique or analyze the various historical concepts to any degree. Essentially, she presents what happened, and who did it, and how some things fell in or out of favor at a given time.
The result is that this book is essentially a narrative of approximately the last century of the history of biology. In that regard, it does succeed somewhat at attempting to condense the efforts of 100+ years of biology into about 300 pages. That is why I gave it two stars.
However, as Keller is a MIT philosopher of science and also trained in theoretical physics, I had expected more analytic depth, and some kind of "edge" - some thesis or thread or some other kind of thematic reason for her to be telling us all this history. Even on the most fundamental question of biology, "what is life?", Keller equivocates, calling it "a historical question, answerable only in terms of the categories that we as human actors choose to honor, and not in logical, scientific or technical terms." (p.294) Indeed, she does not even mention Schrodinger's 1943 lecture, "What is Life?"
The chapters on AI/AL are quite weak, focusing heavily on cellular automata (she mentions Wolfram several times). These tinker-toy computer games are about as close to life as a simulation of an earthquake is to an actual earthquake, in my opinion. Keller, however, describes computer simulations as being part of the 'revitalized' mathematical biology program.
She recounts the 'original' mathematical biology program as the one primarily led by Rashevsky, but also mentions Waddington and Turing.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
45 of 52 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars History, but no explaining Nov. 23 2002
By T. Gwinn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was rather disappointed in this book. Keller's view of 'explanation' is that it is relative to the needs of each particular culture and their historical time (p. 5). As such, she does not really critique or analyze the various historical concepts to any degree. Essentially, she presents what happened, and who did it, and how some things fell in or out of favor at a given time.
The result is that this book is essentially a narrative of approximately the last century of the history of biology. In that regard, it does succeed somewhat at attempting to condense the efforts of 100+ years of biology into about 300 pages. That is why I gave it two stars.
However, as Keller is a MIT philosopher of science and also trained in theoretical physics, I had expected more analytic depth, and some kind of "edge" - some thesis or thread or some other kind of thematic reason for her to be telling us all this history. Even on the most fundamental question of biology, "what is life?", Keller equivocates, calling it "a historical question, answerable only in terms of the categories that we as human actors choose to honor, and not in logical, scientific or technical terms." (p.294) Indeed, she does not even mention Schrodinger's 1943 lecture, "What is Life?"
The chapters on AI/AL are quite weak, focusing heavily on cellular automata (she mentions Wolfram several times). These tinker-toy computer games are about as close to life as a simulation of an earthquake is to an actual earthquake, in my opinion. Keller, however, describes computer simulations as being part of the 'revitalized' mathematical biology program.
She recounts the 'original' mathematical biology program as the one primarily led by Rashevsky, but also mentions Waddington and Turing. I find it odd that she did not mention Robert Rosen at all, considering he continued on after Rashevsky. I admit I am an admirer of Rosen's works, but her failure to even mention him seems odd considering she devotes an overly large number of pages to Turing's addition to mathematical biology.
Further, had she read Rosen's _Essays on Life Itself_, she would see that mimetic attempts at creating life with computer simulations is utterly ill-conceived. But, then again, since Keller engages in no analysis anyway, I should not be surprised at this.
Finally, Keller claims she shares some similarity to the philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright in believing that there is no set of universal laws of physics (and hence, in Keller's view, no universal set of laws of biology). Cartwright (who's books I admire) makes a good case for there being ontological reasons for this view (see Cartwright's _The Dappled World_). By contrast, Keller sees it as an epistemological problem, because the world is "irreducibly complex" and because of the "disunity of human interests". (p. 301) I think Keller misconstrues Cartwright completely when Keller contrasts her position with one alleging "an underlying incoherence" to the world. Cartwright never supposed, or proposed, 'incoherence' of nature in her writing; rather, Cartwright attempts to make sense of the ontological basis for the patchwork manner of physical laws.
The title _Making Sense of Life_ is misleading, for this book does no such thing, nor even attempts to cobble together an approach to doing so. It may be worthwhile as a history of efforts in biology, but even in that regard I'd prefer a polemic narrator, rather than this one.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A question biologists rarely ask any more May 10 2005
By John Duncan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Modern biologists rarely concern themselves with what life is. As François Jacob put it, "today we don't interrogate life in our laboratories", and Henri Atlan put it even more plainly: "Today a molecular biologist does not need to use the word 'life' for his work." Nonetheless, at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a lot of interest in defining life, with what now seem to be incredibly optimistic predictions of how long it would take to create life artificially. A little of this interest has survived until now, though Jacob and Atlan are right in regarding it as being far removed from the everyday preoccupations of practising biologists. In this interesting but demanding book, Evelyn Fox Keller traces the development from Stéphane Leduc at the beginning of the twentieth century to the artificial life enthusiasts of today.

Leduc thought that the appearance of forms resembling plants produced by osmotic effects in concentrated colloidal mixtures of inorganic salts had something to tell us about the emergence of life. Although he did not claim that these forms were actually living, some of his supporters were less restrained, and even during his lifetime Leduc became completely marginalized. A different fate awaited his near contemporary d'Arcy Thompson, whose famous book On Growth and Form has retained its appeal up to the present day. Keller is probably right, however, when she writes "yet, for all its fame, I suspect that few people today actually read On Growth and Form, and fewer still know what to make of it". Certainly, few of his admirers appreciate how far removed was his thinking from the neo-darwinism that dominates modern biology.

Keller's careful analysis of Leduc's and Thompson's ideas in the earlier part of the book is not, unfortunately, matched by an equally thorough examination of their successors in theoretical biology. Although she devotes several pages to the career of Nicolas Rashevsky, for example, she barely mentions Rashevsky's ideas, concentrating almost entirely on the political aspects of his career, describing how his early success in establishing a school of theoretical biology in Chicago collapsed in 1954 when his funding evaporated. More serious still, Keller ignores Robert Rosen completely -- mentioning him only in the notes at the end of the book, and then not as a major thinker in his own right but simply as Rashevsky's former student and the writer of his obituary. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, do not even rate the minimal recognition accorded to Rosen: their names are not mentioned, and neither is their theory of autopoiesis.

In the latter part of the book, therefore, Keller appears to have missed the opportunity to examine ideas of complexity and the importance of treating systems as systems rather than as no more than as collections of components. She takes modern "systems biology" (which is concerned more with complicatedness than with complexity) essentially at its practioners' own valuation; likewise with other trendy ideas like cellular automata, artificial life and so on.
11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keller's Life and Times of Genetics Feb. 28 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Keller's book is a fascinating read about genetics today, but just as fascinating about the intellectual developments that preceded today's thinking. She appreciates the thrill of the chase, but also provides the longer view, showing how scientific explanations that were satisfying to the scientists of a given day have frequently turned out to have little bearing on subsequent science-as our museums, T. Kuhn and Keller herself show. And the explanatory nuggets that scientists mine, which put science at the head of society's power train, often turn into the dusty errata of ensuing decades for reasons connected with researcher's attitudes. (This seems to be a factor some ambitious scientists resent contemplating.) She tracks the inclination of researchers and thinkers to project intentions on the gene-an ingrained "agentic" factor. Particularly interesting is what happened when physicists (she's one herself) tried to apply their particular skills and world view on biology-it seems that the powerful, overall formulas of physics, so brilliant in particle analysis and thinking about the universe on a grand scale, simply don't reach down to the particular instances of biology (Turing's theoretical description of the development of Drosophilia may be highly elegant and efficient, but as it turns out the fly, like Frank Sinatra, prefers to do it its own way). Keller writes clearly and well about her subject-her book also gives a rundown of future directions for genetic research-but for me the fun is in Keller's tracing how the search for knowledge is shaped differently from era to era; Keller's book gives us a glimpse of the waters that knowledge swims in.
0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Clear, interesting writing style Nov. 5 2006
By Edward Amicucci - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The method of material presentation made reading clear, understandable and interest as well as curiowity provoking.
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