By Viren Swami
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Review of 'The Music of Life', Denis Noble, OUP £12.99
Issue 310

Nature or nurture? A seemingly simple question, yet one that has taxed philosophers and scientists almost without interruption since the turn of the last millennium.

Still, with few exceptions, no scientist today would sincerely argue that human behaviour is a matter of either nature or nurture. Rather, almost everyone agrees that it is the interaction between the two that is of significance.

So, if everyone is an interactionist, why all the fuss? For one thing, the belief that nature (read genes) somehow causes behaviour, or what the historian of science André Pichot has termed “DNA-mania” remains unstintingly popular. The most fashionable exposition of this view can be traced back to the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, in which he made the case for a gene’s-eye view of human behaviour.

In the 30 years since the publication of The Selfish Gene, a great many pages have been devoted to what can sometimes seem a lost battle against DNA-mania. The latest addition to this literature, Denis Noble’s The Music of Life, is perhaps also the most eloquent.

At the heart of this book is a direct rebuttal of Dawkinsian-inspired biology. But unlike many similar accounts, which often descend into vitriol in their condemnation of Dawkins and the science he unleashed, Noble tries not to take sides. The main difficulty with The Selfish Gene, he writes, is that it is misunderstood. Dawkins’s gene-centred view of the world was only ever meant as “a colourful metaphor to interpret scientific discovery in a particular way”.

But like all metaphors, Dawkins’s gene-centred view only retains its usefulness so long as we recognise that it remains just that – a metaphor. It is not a scientific hypothesis, to be tested and examined empirically. Rather, it is a useful way of conceptualising one particular explanation of the human condition, in this instance a reductionist view of organisms.

Noble’s point is that Dawkins’s metaphor is not the only one available. And so he sets about revising many of Dawkins’ original concepts, giving new meaning to what were once – and sometimes still are – considered scientific fact.

Noble’s alternative, what he calls “systems biology” and elsewhere described as developmental systems theory, is that to understand human behaviour requires an analysis of the different levels at which it takes place and the interaction between those different levels.

To privilege the genes as the primary cause of behaviour makes little sense, whether empirically or metaphorically. Leave behind the deadweight of DNA-mania, and we may just begin to see how the development of an individual organism is the consequence of a unique web of interactions between its genes, complex molecular interactions within and across cells, as well as the nature and consequence of physical, biological and socio-cultural environments through which it passes during development.

These developmental dynamics must be incorporated into any plausible account of how an organism forms, grows and changes over the course of its life. Systems biology is based on an appreciation of this constant interplay between nature and nurture, biology and experience, yet such an appreciation remains lacking in most accounts of human behaviour, including many that claim to be “interactionist”.

It is difficult to say just what impact Noble’s book will have on both academic and lay circles. After all, others have made very similar points, sometimes more comprehensively. But perhaps if enough readers pick up this articulate book, Noble’s goal may yet be achieved – a radical switch of perception in which life emerges as a process, as “the ebb and flow of activity in an intricate web of connections”.

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