The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes
Oxford University Press. First published 2006.
The book makes a case for going beyond the gene-eye view of biology and considering Life in terms of Systems Biology. Thus, Life and living organisms are to be considered as systems, in which hundreds of individual components - proteins, tissues, organelles, hormones, etc., etc.,- all come together in harmony to play the 'music of Life'. This is somewhat vaguer and less rigorous than what I know about systems biology as the study of metabolic cycles, the study of whole cell gene expression and control, and so on, i.e all the 'omics' of modern biology - genomics, proteomics, lipidomics, metabolomics....
The book is divided into chapters which each have a title taken from the discipline of music. The score is thus the genome; the rhythm section comprises of various beats and cycles, such as the heartbeat, circadian cycles, etc.; the orchestra is made up of the various organs and systems in the body; and finally, most importantly in my opinion, the conductor is what Noble calls 'downward causation'.
Downward causation is term he gives to control and regulation of genetic expression by environmental and epigenetic factors. He redraws the conventional reductionist causation cascade (that goes from genes to proteins to cells to tissues to organs, functions and finally to the organism) with some some important top-down control pathways as well. Notably these are the following. The control of gene expression by the organism, the organs and the tissues; the control of gene expression by proteins; and the control of cell processes at the level of the organism. He advocates neither a fully top-down causation process, nor a bottom-up approach, but instead speaks about Sydney Brenner's suggestion of a 'middle-out' approach (without however explaining how such a scheme of description is to be actually carried out). He also revives Lamarckism, at least at the molecular level, involving some kind of epigenetic inheritance of acquired characteristics.
The book is well-written. It is short, just a couple of hundred pages, and accessible to non-specialists as well. But his ideas are neither well-argued, nor fully supported, and remain vague and hanging in the air. There is among the thinkers on evolution a kind of fuzzy divide between those who hold that all contemporary life is determined by DNA, and those who believe that evolution occurs at other levels as well. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are important spokespersons for the former viewpoint. Noble, along with people like S.J. Gould, is on the latter side. In chapter 1, for example, he explicitly rejects the 'selfish gene' concept of Dawkins. This book however, simply introduces Noble's position, and elaborates on some aspects of it, without either making it definite, or arguing for it with any rigour (or vigour!). It may, unfortunately, be read by some as support for mysticism.