Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism

Steven Rose

Penguin 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Much has been written in opposition to narrowly reductionist approaches to biology, but much of that is anti-scientific, tending to vitalism if not to outright mysticism. This is not a charge that can be levelled at Steven Rose, a highly respected biochemist and a convinced materialist. Nor does Rose take an entirely negative approach, making hit-and-run attacks on individual weak points. His target in Lifelines is genetic reductionism (and his bete noire is Richard Dawkins, of The Selfish Gene fame), but his reach extends as far as the presentation of a complete alternative philosophy of biology. An outline of this forms the first chapter.

Using his own work as a source of examples, Rose begins by looking at some of the broad issues raised by the study of the natural world: observation and intervention, the use of metaphors and analogies, and the idea of natural kinds. Moving on to more formal epistemology and the philosophy of science, Rose fits into one chapter discussion of Bacon, Popper, Kuhn, the relationship between science and society, and the sociology of science. This is an excellent outline, which could stand alone as a succinct introduction to a difficult and often poorly treated topic.

Rose goes on to look at different kinds of reductionism. He evaluates the successes and limitations of methodological reductionism and theory reduction (relating theories from different disciplines), but his disagreement is principally with philosophical reductionism, in which the "pyramid" of disciplines is collapsed completely. Rose argues for ontological unity but epistemological diversity, for the validity of different levels of explanation of the one world.

A chapter on "genes and organisms" explains basic genetics, taking a historical approach. Rose highlights the complexity of the relationship between genes, chromosomes, genomes, and organisms, and the need for concepts such as norms of reaction in modeling the rarely simple or linear relationships between genotype and phenotype. In what is perhaps the key chapter of Lifelines, Rose next presents his own framework for viewing life, using concepts of lifelines (an attempt to capture the significance of the temporal dimension), homeostasis and homeodynamics, autopoiesis, and self-organisation. This framework attempts to do proper justice to the complexity of life, so if it is not complete and does not offer immediate answers to all the questions one might ask, that is not unexpected — or a failing.

Turning to evolutionary theories, Rose again takes a historical approach, going back to Darwin's precursors and then considering the challenges Darwin himself faced: the origin and preservation of variation, adaptation and design, and speciation. He also explains sexual and kin selection and the concept of heritability.

Some of the excesses of Darwinism are touched on in this, but for Rose, the metaphysical foundation of Ultra-Darwinism is a belief that the purpose of life is reproduction. On this foundation rest two further premises — that the fundamental unit of life is the individual gene and that all features of an organism are in some way adaptive. Rose explores aspects of evolution left out by this kind of approach. He sketches some of the ways in which selection can act other than on individual genes: on the genome, on cells during development, and on populations and species. He also considers the importance of evolutionary history in constraining selection, and of mechanisms other than selection. (Not surprisingly, he draws on Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin for much of this material.)

As a kind of case study, Rose offers a chapter on abiogenesis, on the origin of life. He sketches some RNA world possibilities, stressing that some form of system enclosed by a membrane (a basic cell or organism) must have been as fundamental as nucleic acids or other molecular replicators.

The penultimate chapter, "the poverty of reductionism", is a critical look at philosophical reductionism, at reductionism used as an ideological weapon in "neurogenetic determinism", especially in IQ studies and racial science. Rose analyses some of the devices used: reification, arbitrary agglomeration, improper quantification, the abuse of statistics, spurious localisation, misplaced causation, and the confusion of metaphor with homology, among others. But Lifelines concludes on a more positive note, with Rose sketching in the final chapter what he considers is necessary "to make biology whole again".

Lifelines is an important book. As an attempt to give the lay reader a high-level overview of biology that doesn't hide its complexities, it lacks the simplicity — and perhaps much of the attraction — of popular science books which focus on single ideas, offer simple answers, and sweep complex epistemological and philosophical issues under the carpet. Lifelines is, however, an important antidote to the misunderstandings about biology that such simplifications can produce, and should certainly be read by anyone who has uncritically swallowed Dawkins' The Selfish Gene or Wilson's Sociobiology. While Rose's own philosophical framework is hardly uncontroversial, even opponents should find it valuable as a challenge and a source of ideas.

September 1998

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%T Lifelines
%S Biology, Freedom, Determinism
%A Rose, Steven
%I Penguin
%D 1997
%O hardcover, references, index
%G ISBN 0713991577
%P xv,335pp