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" A good traveller has no fixed plans,

and is not intent on arriving "

Lao Tzu

I Can Dispose of Richard Dawkins in Five Minutes

August 6th, 2010

When a friend (a Professor of Physiology at one of England’s finest universities) said this to me, I knew he wasn’t proposing anything illegal. He meant, of course, that he could easily refute Richard Dawkins’ ‘Selfish Gene’ theory. “How?” I asked. I then wished I had grabbed a video camera or voice-recorder because soon the five minutes were up and – not being a biologist – I couldn’t retain most of what he said. I moaned. He told me to read Denis Noble’s book The Music of Life. “It’s all explained very well in there.” I shall read it. Meanwhile a quote from The Guardian’s review of it:

Steven Poole on The Music of Life by Denis Noble (Oxford, £12.99)

In this highly evocative essay, eminent physiologist Noble argues that a dominant metaphor in biology is blocking the path to further understanding. This is the notion that genes are the “program” of life and that they are its fundamental unit. Instead, the author shows, genes are merely a database and cannot do anything without other systems interpreting them, and there is ample evidence for “downward causation”, in which higher-level systems and the environment affect the way genes work. Further, genes rely for their effect on chemical, physical and other properties of the natural world, which we all “inherit”. (So much, Noble concludes poetically, for the notion of inheritance being solely via genes.)

The book begins with a stirring inversion of Richard Dawkins’s famous “selfish gene” metaphor (we are the point of the genes “imprisoned” inside us, he insists, not vice versa) and works through some fascinating examples in Noble’s own specialism of cardiology: the heart’s rhythm, for example, is not predictable from our genes or even at the molecular level.

Stop thinking about computers: the better metaphor for life, he concludes, is that of polyphonic music.