More Recent Comments

Wednesday, February 07, 2024

Philip Ball's new book: "How Life Works"

Philip Ball has just published a new book "How Life Works." The subtitle is "A User’s Guide to the New Biology" and that should tell you all you need to know. This is going to be a book about how human genomics has changed everything.

Here's how the author describes his book.

Biology is undergoing a quiet but profound transformation. Several aspects of the standard picture of how life works—the idea of the genome as a blueprint, of genes as instructions for building an organism, of proteins as precisely tailored molecular machines, of cells as entities with fixed identities, and more—have been exposed as incomplete, misleading, or wrong.

In How Life Works, Philip Ball explores the new biology, revealing life to be a far richer, more ingenious affair than we had guessed. Ball explains that there is no unique place to look for an answer to this question: life is a system of many levels—genes, proteins, cells, tissues, and body modules such as the immune system and the nervous system—each with its own rules and principles. How Life Works explains how these levels operate, interface, and work together (most of the time).

I think this sounds like Evelyn Fox Kellar and the gobbledgook promoted by The Third Way. Denis Noble is one of the founders of The Third Way and he likes Philip Ball's new book. He likes it so much that he wrote a favorable review and got it published in Nature: It’s time to admit that genes are not the blueprint for life.

When the human genome was sequenced in 2001, many thought that it would prove to be an ‘instruction manual’ for life. But the genome turned out to be no blueprint. In fact, most genes don’t have a pre-set function that can be determined from their DNA sequence. Instead, genes’ activity — whether they are expressed or not, for instance, or the length of protein that they encode — depends on myriad external factors, from the diet to the environment in which the organism develops. And each trait can be influenced by many genes. For example, mutations in almost 300 genes have been identified as indicating a risk that a person will develop schizophrenia.

Really? The regulation of gene expression was only discovered in 2001 and it changes everything? And it's news that some genetic conditions are affected by lots of genes? Biology is messy and the simplistic views that Noble is attacking are clearly, well, simplistic. That does not mean they should be replaced by mystical views about higher level processes that override the genome and change our view of biology and evolution.

I don't have a copy of Philip Ball's book—it's not due to arrive for another week. I'll post my own review after I've read it and I'll include some of the email exchanges we had ten years ago when I commented on his "Celebrate the unknowns" article in Nature [see DNA: Nature Celebrates Ignorance and Philip Ball writes about molecular mechanisms of evolution].

This is the guy who thought that regulatory RNAs overthrew the Central Dogma and who was skeptical about junk DNA. With that kind of track record, I'm not very optimistic that his latest book is going to accurately reflect real science. His opinion on recent discoveries about the human genome prompted me to say,

I've commented before on articles written by Philip Ball. In the past, he appeared to be in competition with Elizabeth Pennisi of Science for some kind of award for misunderstanding the human genome.


Fré Hoogendoorn said...

I saw this book in a bookshop and looked up what it said about junk DNA. It repeats the same misconceptions you've been fighting against for so long. I put it back and won't be reading it.

John Harshman said...

One queestion: why sea urchins?