This page contains a book review by Athel
Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism
by Steven Rose (1997), Alan Lane, the Penguin Press,
0713991577, available from
amazon.co.uk; published in the USA by Oxford University
Press, New York under the title Lifelines: Biology
ISBN 0195120353, available from
This review appeared as a part of multi-author review in Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22 (1999), together with reviews by 29 other reviewers (on pp. 885–912), followed by a response from Rose (pp. 912–921; see below). The review is confined to the central biochemical issue in the book, as it was written in the knowledge that other reviewers would deal with other aspects.
Abstract: Metabolic systems are complicated, and contain very large numbers of interacting reactions and many internal regulatory mechanisms. This does not, however, prevent the genetic composition of an organism from influencing its behavior, nor does it preclude the possibility that some aspects of its behavior may be amenable to simple explanations.
In 1774, Leonhard Euler claimed at
the court of Catherine the Great that he could prove the
existence of God, silencing his opponent, Denis Diderot,
with the following challenge:
Sir, (a +
bn)/n = x, hence God exists; reply
(quoted by Singh 1998). Like Diderot,
Rose finds algebra hard to follow (p. 160) and might find
it just as difficult to recognize the irrelevance of
Euler's argument to the proposition it was supposed to
prove. Rose's own style of discussion is similar, however,
apparently in the hope that his readers will be
sufficiently ignorant of biochemistry to think that his
emphasis on its complexity has some bearing on the question
of whether genes influence behavior.
Books that set out to explain why organisms behave as
they do describe observations of behavior on
almost every page. The books of Richard Dawkins, whom Rose
selects as his special target, illustrate this well:
readers can reject all of the author's interpretations
while remaining fascinated by the purely factual
information that these books contain. How one can hope to
convince anyone of the truth of a theory without supporting
it with abundant facts? Yet hard biological information is
extremely sparse in Rose's book. There is a great deal
about what he thinks of other biologists' opinions, but
almost no observations from behavioral biology.
Nonetheless, in his preface (p. x) he aligns himself with
the practising biologists
who spend a significant part of
every working day thinking about and designing
experiments, dismissing Dawkins and Daniel Dennett as
people who either no longer do science or never did it.
What a pity, therefore, that he chose to include so little
of the experimental basis of his ideas in his book. There
are a few vague remarks about how chicks behave, and that's
Rose claims throughout the book to be a biochemist, and in the remainder of this review I shall concentrate on the section (pp. 158–166) that deals with the complexity of metabolic networks and underlies the suggestion at the end of the book (p. 307) that genes are just individual workers in the great molecular democracy of the cell. As this section occurs in a chapter with the same title as the book, it is fair to regard it as the core of the book.
However, even as a standard
biochemical account of the basic ideas of metabolic
regulation, divorced from its role in the whole thesis, it
is peculiar. In a muddled account of enzyme catalysis that
does not contain any algebra Rose confesses that he finds
the algebraic relationship between a reaction rate and a
rate constant hard to grasp. He then presents metabolic
regulation in terms of the tired old myth of the
rate-limiting reaction, saying that
it often turns out that the rate-limiting step is one of
the first in the sequence — obviously advantageous so far
as the cellular economy is concerned: does it
or is it assumed without considering any other possibility?
The enzyme phosphofructokinase is asserted in innumerable
textbooks to be the rate-limiting enzyme for glycolysis. If
it were, then overexpressing it would increase the
glycolytic flux, but even though the relevant experiments
were done in yeast more than a decade ago (Heinisch 1986), and have since been
repeated in other organisms, the results — no
detectable increase in glycolytic flux when
phosphofructokinase is overexpressed 3.5-fold — have yet
to be taken seriously by the hordes of biotechnologists in
search of the mythical rate-limiting enzymes.
Rose appears to be conscious that his account is faulty, because at the end of it he quotes Kacser & Burns (1979) to the effect that control is shared among all the enzymes of a system. But does he mean the mea culpa that follows? If Kacser & Burns are right then what was the point in wasting some pages on a muddle? If they are wrong then why are they being quoted? Presumably the attraction of their paper lay more in its title and some quotable sentences than in any serious study of its content.
If these pages have any point at all it is to establish that metabolism is complicated, involving very large numbers of interacting reactions. True enough, but what does that have to do with the idea that genes can affect behavior? A system can be highly complicated, with many internal regulatory devices, yet its behavior may still be amenable to explanation in terms of a particular set of external influences: does anyone doubt that the path taken by an airliner is affected by the actions of its pilot, or must one just say that it is a complicated device and the pilot is just one of many components in its democratic organization?
Heinisch, J. (1986) Isolation and characterisation of the two structural genes coding for phosphofructokinase in yeast. Molecular and General Genetics 202:75–82 [context]
Kacser, H. & Burns, J. A. (1979) Molecular democracy: who shares the controls? Biochemical Society Transactions 7:1149–1161 [context]
Singh, S. (1998) Fermat's last theorem. Fourth Estate [context]
In his reply to the whole set of reviews [Behavioral and Brain Sciences 22, 912–921 (1999)], Rose made the following comments in relation to the above:
[...] There is little enough about ecology and population in the book, which is to be regretted, as some reviewers point out, but this reflects my own perspective and limitations as a biochemist turned neuroscientist (pace Cornish-Bowden I don’t justclaimto be a biochemist). I confess to some surprise that these core themes occupied so few of the reviewers, who preferred to respond to the periphery rather than to the centre. Indeed almost the only person who did address them was Cornish-Bowden, who sadly totally misunderstands the argument. He claims that I first provide a simplistic account of rate-limiting reactions in biochemistry, then correct that account, and finally argue that this means that genes are irrelevant to behaviour. In fact I do nothing of the sort: the discussion of rate-limiting reactions is, as my text makes very clear, a self-critical comment on early editions of a teaching text of mine, The chemistry of life (1991). The second is a description of the Kacser–Kauffman approach to metabolic complexity, which forms part of the explanation of why gene function and action can only be understood in the context of the metabolic web with in which they are enmeshed; it is only remotely connected with the discussion of genes and behaviour, and nowhere in Lifelines or anywhere else have I ever made the absurd statement that genes have nothing to do with behaviour. Cornish-Bowden must read more carefully. [...]
I should be pleased, I suppose, to be the only one (out
of 30!) reviewers to identify
is about and to address what its author regards as its
core themes, even if I totally misunderstood the argument.
It apparently has not occurred to Rose that if only one out
of 30 reviewers identified the core themes of the book and
that one totally misunderstood the argument then he may
have been guilty of writing in a way that invites
misunderstanding. In any case, I do not believe that I
misunderstood this argument; I just found it ridiculous.
Rose thinks that his text made it perfectly clear that pp.
158–163 were intended as a piece of self-criticism, but
this is not clear at all (and especially it would not be
clear to the general reader for whom the book was written).
The nearest Rose comes to criticizing these pages is to say
that they are
far too simple (p. 163), but I was not
criticizing them for being too simple but for being
muddled, old-fashioned and wrong. In his response, he
implies that the criticism applies only to the
The chemistry of life, but in
itself it is clear that it applies to the recent editions
Rose says that
nowhere in Lifelines or anywhere
else [has he] ever made the absurd statement that genes have
nothing to do with behaviour, and that I need to read more
carefully. So indeed does he, as nowhere in my review do I
say that he made such a statement, and maybe he is
confusing my review with the one immediately following it,
where Wim E. Crusio has the following to say (p. 890):
It is almost as if he wants to argue that genes and behavior have nothing to do with one another and that if genes do influence behavior, then they only do so in animals and surely not in man.
Perhaps this is the
absurd statement that Rose has in
mind, but in any case my quoting it is no criticism of
Crusio, with whom I fully agree that it is indeed almost as
if Rose is wanting to argue this.
This tendency to attack opponents for saying things that they have not said, and for falsely accusing them of committing the same fault themselves, is actually quite characteristic of the book as a whole and of Rose’s other writings, not to mention those of some of his allies who are more well known to the general public than he is himself. Among these the preeminent example is Steven J. Gould, whose attractive style of expressing his ideas (quite different from the dour and joyless approach favoured by Rose) has led many non-biologists into the error of supposing him to present the reasoned face of modern biology: anyone who has been misled in this way can hardly do better than read the devastating critique written by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides.
As far as I know none of the other 30 reviews that
appeared in Behavioral and Brain Sciences are
yet available on the web. A few of them liked the book, but
most did not, albeit for a variety of reasons. There are,
however, some web sites that express more favourable
opinions, written from points of view that range from the
Christian to the
communist. To be fair, I have also come across one
reviewer who works in the biological sciences who liked
the book, though as he refers to its author as
respected biochemist I wonder how many biochemists he has
asked, or whether he just took Rose’s self-assessment at