on February 28, 2003
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.
on November 23, 2002
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.