By: Stephen Rothman
300 pages, no illustrations
As we enter the Genomic Age, the practice of molecular biology will take on increasing importance. Much is at stake, from the discovery of new drugs and treatments, to the development of new agricultural products, to a greater understanding of all natural systems, even a new conception of ourselves. Like most of modern science, molecular biology is based on a method called reductionism, whereby a system is broken down into its constituent parts to be studied at the most fundamental level possible. Reductionism is an extraordinarily powerful tool that has been incredibly productive; but, some would argue, it has its dangers.
In Lessons from the Living Cell, veteran experimental biologist Stephen Rothman argues that reductionism is a philosophical spectrum that tends to lead its practioners along a logical path to its extreme conclusion, what he calls strong microreductionism. In other words, biologists who enter the lab to take a reductionist approach to a problem are participating in a scientific culture that in its methods and assumptions reinforces the view that biological processes can be fully understood from the description of their fundamental elements – that ultimately a complete understanding of a biological system, or even an organism, can be built from the bottom up. Common sense would dictate that this is not so, that even though the study of molecular entities yields extremely useful data, its final interpretation requires a reference to the whole. And most biologists would acknowledge this as self-evident, but their day-to-day practice belies a different philosophy. This is not an idle philosophical conundrum: Rothman argues that the collective, unwitting practice of strong microreductionism can lead to misinterpretations of scientific results and the persistence of faulty paradigms.
Lessons from the Living Cell is an extended meditation on what makes a system living and how our methods of approaching this question determine our results. It is a clear-eyed look at the social climate in which science is practiced and the collective psychology that Rothman fears is leading scientists astray. It is an elegant argument that draws upon the author's personal experience to reveal how the passive acceptance of strong microreductionism can make it difficult for new scientific ideas to be accepted. Ultimately it is a passionate plea for the adoption of a new kind of science, one that goes beyond reductionism to embrace the full complexity of living systems.
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