“[Denis Noble] should be chained to a desk…and forced to write more books.”

“…should be read by all systems biologists…”

“…presents serious challenges to… current biological dogma…”

“…a timely rebut of .. genome-mania..”

“….gives readers the feeling .. they are sharing in an active process of discovery”

“The book begins with a stirring inversion of Richard Dawkins’s famous “selfish gene” metaphor.”

“…short but very rich book..”

“…highly readable..”

“I found this book profoundly stimulating and being a reductionist researcher myself allowed me to put into context where we fit in.”

“It is one of the most important books I have ever read….”

“Finally someone with knowledge and common (scientific) sense!”

“…a brain-stretching delight…”

“…..the age-old quest to explain life, the universe and everything! I’m going to re-read the book and ponder it further….”

“…..brilliant description of sexual intercourse……….[in chapter 7] …..that should utterly dispose of any simplistic ideas of “Lamarckian” inheritance of acquired characteristics as “wrong”….”

“Denis Noble should be chained to a desk… and be forced to write more books” (Amazon reviewer)

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Current “Prize” review — for accuracy and insight

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The following one was the prize review in 2014

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful

5.0 out of 5 stars Real Science, April 4, 2014


Daniel C. Hall “skybolt” (San Francisco, CA USA) – See all my reviews

This review is from: The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes (Paperback)

Science these days is so tangled up with Politics that one has a difficult time catching one’s breath between party line pronouncements by the national Academys of Science. Do NOT improvise is their message. Do NOT think outside the box for heaven’s sake; you never know who might be watching!. This book, by a first class scientist, is not any kind of theistic rant, although I’m sure it has been characterized as such by the post modern flat earthers at the NAS. I have no idea what Denis Noble’s religious or philosophical preferences might be. Nor do I care. The message born by this little book is that neo Darwinism along with the entirety of it’s “genetic determinism” baggage is finished. Flat dead.

Reductionistic methods in every scientific field have produced the most extraordinary explosion of human knowledge imaginable over the last 200 years. Scientific reductionism really is at the core of how we think and how, for the most part, we must continue to think. It allows us to keep our thoughts in order. It is essential. But it has also led us to a standstill in Physics, Cosmology, and Biology. Fortunately the Chemists and Mathematicians have avoided the trap; they simply have no dog in the fight. I’ve also been generous and included Cosmology as a science here out of respect for what it might have one time been. Alas, it was long ago hijacked by philosophers and a few physicists with less than stable personalities. Others have followed simply because they imagined there was no place left to go. Who would have thought for instance, that after the fifty years of great Physics leading up to Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga finally fleshing out QED, that the physical sciences would descend into 50 years of entanglement in strings and multiverses; neither of which have a shred of testability or connection to anything visible. This is sad you know. There is an entire generation of brilliant minds and hopeful careers completely wasted on a pair of stupid ideas. Oh well.

But, Noble doesn’t talk about that. What he talks about is the dead end created by reductionism in the Biological sciences. He’s a physiologist. He’s the guy that created the first workable computer model for the beating heart. He’s a serious scientist. The book asks us to consider a systems approach to biology. He does not wish to destroy scientific reductionism but rather to understand it’s limitations and to suspend the bottom up or top down epistemology long enough to observe how certain “qualia” or singular elements from within the system inform it’s development from inside. The system is not just reductionistic; it is flexible in the direction of it’s information pathways. Dr. Noble says it better than I just did, but that’s the essence of the argument. This is HERESY at the NAS, and Noble knows that.

This is a good read for any of us. It is short, to the point, and avoids unnecessary complexity. If you want to get complex, start working through his source notes and bibliography. He backs everything up with hard numbers.

The next one was the “Prize” review for 2012-2013

The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes

Denis Noble Oxford University Press: 2006.

In the modern classic The Music of Life, physiologist Denis Noble explains simply and profoundly why the ‘self’ is the most hidden, and important, metaphor governing existence. Without it, we believe, there would be no legal system for lack of a culprit, no health system for lack of a patient, and no politics, culture or education — at least not as we know them. Yet the scientific metaphor of self, inherited from the Enlightenment, comes at a price: it entails an understanding of ‘higher’ levels of organization by appealing to the behaviour of constituent ‘lower’ elements.

Modern systems biology begs to differ: the self is a process, the integration of proteins, genes, tissues and systems in constant interaction and devoid of hierarchy. Searching for an illusory ‘self’ in the brain is pointless. And we must not believe that sans self, society crumbles. Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am”; we can graduate to “thinking, therefore being”. As science continues its incessant, marvellous march, this realization will save us from mischief ahead.

Oren Harman is professor of the history of science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, and author ofThe Price of Altruism, a biography of geneticist George Price.

Published in Nature, July 2013

The next one was the “Prize” review for 2010-2011

Organisms as systems (A J Cornish Bowden – posted January 2010)

“…..brilliant description of [you know what]……….

[in chapter 7]

………that should utterly dispose of any simplistic ideas of “Lamarckian” inheritance of acquired characteristics as “wrong”….”

This is a book that anyone interested in understanding the nature of life should read — not life as a collection of genes, or even as a collection of proteins, but life as a system of interactions. Denis Noble doesn’t try to do away with reductionism altogether, but to use reductionism in a less simple-minded way than is often done. He accepts, as any sensible biologist must, the importance of the genome, but he rejects the idea that the genome is all there is.

In the first chapter he examines the famous passage in which Richard Dawkins first expressed the concept of the selfish gene (“Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots…”) and then, without distorting any of the facts, rewords it in a way that totally changes the emphasis (“Now they are trapped in huge colonies, locked inside highly intelligent beings…”). Whether you finish by preferring his version to Dawkins’s or not, you can hardly escape feeling that he has raised some serious doubts about an over-simple interpretation of the relationship between genes and organisms. For myself, I think that Dawkins’s version was an essential step towards moving from an individual-centred view of evolution towards a view that recognized the importance of the gene, but Noble is right to emphasize that one shouldn’t take it too far.

Much later in the book there is a brilliant description of [you know what] that should utterly dispose of any simplistic ideas of “Lamarckian” inheritance of acquired characteristics as “wrong” and opposed to the “right” idea of Darwinian natural selection. (I put “Lamarckian” in quotation marks because Noble does, for the very good reason that Darwin was no less of a “Lamarckian” than Lamarck was, and he became more of one with each successive edition of The Origin of Species.) We are back here to points of view: if we consider individuals, then inheritance is by natural selection, but if we consider each (multicellular) individual as a colony of cooperatively interacting cells, then inheritance is “Lamarckian”. A liver cell, for example, has exactly the same genome as a muscle cell from the same individual, but liver cells divide to produce liver cells, never muscle cells: clearly some characteristic that a liver cell has “acquired” during its formation (and not just its genome) is being passed on to its descendants.

As a researcher Noble is known for his development over half a century of a mathematical model of the heart that can faithfully reproduce many of its properties. In that sense he was a systems biologist long before anyone thought of this vogue term. The importance of this for the general theme of the book is that it establishes that he is not a holist in the mystical sense of the term, as he clearly recognizes that an organ as complex as the heart can be represented in mathematical equations based on the known properties of its components, but only if their interactions with one another are taken into account.

Denis Noble should be chained to a desk with a word processor and be forced to write more books. (Matthew Hayward)

Puts Biology back into Biology
In the book he argues for a paradigm change in biology. This book should be read by all potential systems biologists as it shows how the term has been hijacked by those who secretly still subscribe to the reductionist paradigm and who cannot truly embrace how biology used to be. (Andrew Dalby)

Small in size; big on ideas
this book presents serious challenges to a great deal of current biological dogma and there will be many readers for whom this book is an eye-opener. It is an easy and entertaining read for anyone with even a smattering of science and regardless of whether or not you finally come to agree with Denis Noble, you can be sure you’ll find what he has to say interesting and enlightening. (Steve Benner)

Inspiration for a Systems Approach to Biology
This little book is a real treat. Among other things, it is a timely rebut of the genome-mania that has dominated biological science and popular attention paid to it over the past decade. This is not to say that Noble’s book is an anti-genome book. On the contrary, Noble presents the view of the genome as not more (or less) than another few molecules that make up the complex interacting soup of life.
One of the gems in this book is Noble’s description on the combinatorial explosion associated with the seemingly straightforward task of developing gene ontologies–the assignment of biological functions to genes. Noble explains in simple terms why it is practically impossible to enumerate necessarily immense set of high-level functions associated with a specific gene, and why the quest to map functions to genes or genes to functions is a hopeless task unless one adopts a systems view.  (Daniel A Beard)


SYSTEMS BIOLOGY: How Central Is the Genome?
August 10th, 2007
By Eric Werner
Link to article (requires subscription)
The ending of the review in SCIENCE reads:
The Music of Life is a surprisingly, if deceptively, easy read. One learns as much, if not more, on a second reading as on the first. Noble presents his case for the systems approach with elegance and a simplicity that hides unnecessary detail. His conversational style together with personal vignettes give readers the feeling they are with him sharing in an active process of discovery. The book can be recommended to anyone, novice or professional, interested in systems biology and the foundations of life.

The Guardian

Steven Poole on The Music of Life
Saturday July 8, 2006
The Music of Life by Denis Noble (Oxford, £12.99)

In this highly evocative essay, eminent physiologist Noble argues that a dominant metaphor in biology is blocking the path to further understanding. This is the notion that genes are the “program” of life and that they are its fundamental unit. Instead, the author shows, genes are merely a database and cannot do anything without other systems interpreting them, and there is ample evidence for “downward causation”, in which higher-level systems and the environment affect the way genes work. Further, genes rely for their effect on chemical, physical and other properties of the natural world, which we all “inherit”. (So much, Noble concludes poetically, for the notion of inheritance being solely via genes.)

The book begins with a stirring inversion of Richard Dawkins’s famous “selfish gene” metaphor (we are the point of the genes “imprisoned” inside us, he insists, not vice versa) and works through some fascinating examples in Noble’s own specialism of cardiology: the heart’s rhythm, for example, is not predictable from our genes or even at the molecular level.

Stop thinking about computers: the better metaphor for life, he concludes, is that of polyphonic music.


Denis Noble
Oxford University Press, £12.99

The science of molecular biology has yielded some remarkable results in the past 50 years or so – from the discovery of DNA to the sequencing of the human genome. In this short but very rich book, Denis Noble, a professor of physiology at Oxford, attempts to do for so-called “systems biology” what Richard Dawkins has done for the field of molecular genetics. Noble’s claim is that the molecular approach, which is concerned with describing the constituent parts of organisms, is incapable of answering the fundamental question “What is life?” Living organisms are complex systems and understanding them requires abandoning the deterministic idea that the genome is a programme that “causes” life.


Yair Neuman (2007)

The book ….. directs us toward a vision of future systems biology. The great challenge of systems biology is to study the “processual” language of the organism, otherwise biology will be confined to the limited language of reductionism. Noble’s little monograph is an excellent source for students and researchers trying to confront this challenge. His book is highly readable and recommended to all those interested in the systems approach in biology and its deep theoretical insights.

Crystallography Reviews 2009, 1–3, iFirst

Anyone, including myself, interested in structural biology and chemistry in general and biological crystallography in particular, will find this book extremely interesting. As with the book by Ernst Mayr (2004) (What makes biology unique? Considerations on the autonomy of a scientific discipline, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (reviewed for Crystallography Reviews by Fuller (1)), the whole system versus the molecular biology is the central theme. Mayr, of course, as an evolutionary biologist, went further in covering population biology; whereas Noble focuses more on systems biology. ….I found this book profoundly stimulating and being a reductionist researcher myself allowed me to put into context where we fit in.

John R. Helliwell School of Chemistry, The University of Manchester Manchester, UK Email: 2009, J. Helliwell

From earlier readers’ reviews on Amazon

It is one of the most important books I have ever read……. It is rare to find a book with so many well founded and important philosophical implications of the scientific discoveries in our time. (Lars Petter Endresen) (13 August 2006)

Finally someone with knowledge and common (scientific) sense! Dr. Noble is one of the most creative physiologists of our time, and not surprisingly he decided to put an end to the endless “DNA craze” affecting scientists and media alike………. (Damir Janigro) (31 August 2006)

The book is a brain-stretching delight: an impassioned attack on narrow thinking regarding evolution, whether from the general media or other, specialised scientists. (K. P. Harrison) (25 October 2006)

I found this book really fascinating – it clearly explains some very complex research and has an underpinning philosophical thesis which is very thought provoking. In some ways this book is autobiographical because Denis Noble is at the later stage of his career and thinking back to how his research interests have changed from being reductionist through examining the individual components of the body, to the development of a systems approach to living beings. His points of reference include the Chinese language, buddhism and large concert organs and these help to illustrate some of the philosophical questions he is exploring in the age-old quest to explain life, the universe and everything! I’m going to re-read the book and ponder it further…..(C Halstead, 18 July 2008)