Friday, August 10, 2007

Molecules and Marx

My publisher kindly sends me copies of reviews of Genesis Machines that appear from time to time in the press. I was quite surprised to see the book featured in the June issue of the Marxist Review, the monthly theoretical magazine of the Workers Revolutionary Party. In his article, William Westwell invokes Richard Dawkins as the contemporary cheerleader of arch-reductionism and mechanical materialism. But, by concentrating purely on the first half of the book (which, by its very nature is comprised largely of historical background), Westwell ignores one of its fundamental arguments: that 21st century science cannot succeed by insisting on the top-down, reductionist paradigm. Science is still, to a large extent, a reductionist enterprise, but the emerging field of systems biology is providing a complementary approach (in a way, occupying the region where top-down meets bottom up). By arguing for a notion of "quality of computation", Westwell reminded me of conversations I have enjoyed in the past with Brian Goodwin, who has argued that "Biology is returning to notions of space-time organisation as an intrinsic aspect of the living condition... They are now described as complex networks of molecules that somehow read and make sense of genes. These molecular networks have intriguing properties, giving them some of the same characteristics as words in a language. Could it be that biology and culture are not so different after all; that both are based on historical traditions and languages that are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities, either of cells or of individuals?" Unfortunately, Westwell appears to have ignored the later detailed discussion of such matters.

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