- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 31, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 067401250X
- ISBN-13: 978-0674012509
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,216,170 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Making Sense of Life: Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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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.