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Shostak Book Cover

Stanley Shostak
Death of Life
ISBN 0-333-633202


Tables and Illustrations ix
Preface xi
Chapter 1: Biology Is Ill 1
Delirium genetica: Symptoms 2
Biology's Future 17
In Other Words: A Philosophical Recapitulation of Biology's Predicament 24
Chapter 2: Before the Ball 35
Observation in Biology: The Evidentiary Method 36
Experimentalism in Biology: Indirect Analysis 51
Theory in Biology: Ideas versus Facts 62
Chapter 3: Biology Goes to the Ball 84
In the Land of Molecules 85
Moving to the Paradigm Palace 105
Looking Back 118
Chapter 4: Biology's Mid-Life Crisis 126
Biology's 'Revolution' 127
The Legacy of Physicists and Chemists 136
How well does DNA live up to its reputation as the gene? 150
Chapter 5: The Road(s) Not Taken: from Lamarck to Lovelock 162
Lamarck and Lamarckism: Pathos and Bathos 163
A New NeoLamarckism: Searching for 'Hopeful Monsters' 171
Chapter 6: La Mort de Cendrillon and Her Last Will and Testament 198
Last Will and Testament 199
notes 214
Bibliography 242
Index 263


My original objective for this book was to demonstrate the consonance of everyday assumptions about life with the assertions I made about it while teaching biology. Thus I interviewed students and friends, many of whom claimed to have some competence in living and even considered themselves experts on one or another aspect of life, based on contemplation and success solving life's problems. My search for consonance quickly revealed that life in my biology lecture had nothing in common with life outside the classroom, and biology rarely entered quotidian contemplation about life. In contrast to physics, which explained force, and chemistry, which explained matter, biology did not explain life and seemed to offer no practical guide to living. I, therefore, revised my objective and wrote this book to figure out why biology failed in its primary mission of elucidating life and what could be done about it.

The explanation for biology's failure that I have come up with does not condemn biologists. They only abandoned life after a tough struggle with it and after overpowering forces were arrayed against them. Life proved refractory, refusing to yield its secrets to even the cleverest experiments; scientific theory turned out to be inadequate, lacking the sophistication necessary to deal with life; problems of formulating life as a proper subject for scientific inquiry were not solved; life appeared to be a metaphysical construction, structurally defying explanation, etc. Be that as it may, the death blow to life was delivered by molecular biologists. They took biology down the easy (and profitable) road of 'ordinary science,' avoiding 'problem-making' and investing biology's resources in 'problem-solving.'1 Life fell by the wayside, but science marched on. Physicists and chemists joined the ranks of biologists, transmuting 'soft' biology into 'hard' biology (and converting its support from 'hard' to 'soft' money), the envy of anthropologists, psychologists and social scientists. The gene became biology's unitary particle, replication its unitary force, and transcription and translation, its fission and fusion. Taken to its logical extreme by Jacques Monod,2 DNA became biology's E = mc2.

Molecular biology 'threw away the baby (the study of life) with the bath water (biology's unsuccessful efforts to understand life).' Dominated by medical and agricultural colleges and beholden to government, agribusiness, biotechnology/pharmaceutical industries and the 'nonprofits,' molecular research regimented every aspect of biological research. In order to assure their hegemony, molecular biologists struck biology precisely where it once had strength, as a popular, accessible science. Physicists- and chemists-turned biologists subverted democracy in biology and built a molecular wall around it, an insurmountable barrier to those it sealed both in and out. Like other walls, this wall too will fall. Hopefully, this book will remove a few bricks. Death of Life also points toward promising alternatives for studying life. I am concerned with philosophical issues, woefully neglected by molecular biologists, and with bringing biology back to these issues. It is not a book about what other books are already about, variations on current biological practices3 and lacks,4 although it is a response to self-interested polemics.5 Death of Life skirts the pit of '100 great works' of academic biology and is not a 'stranger than fiction' tale ready for the Discovery Channel. Autobiographical material and published interviews are kept to a minimum, because scientists are notoriously antihistorical and self-serving reporters of their own work.6 Death of Life is not concerned with analyzing influences, attributing priority, praising or blaming individuals ('They are all honorable men.').

The intended audience is everyone who has ever ignored biology while pondering life, including my friends, undergraduates taking biology courses, graduate students, philosophers, historians of science, culture critics, and, of course, mainstream, molecular biologists. In an effort to enter a dialogue with this audience, I have lightened the burden of discursivity and organized Death of Life around the Cinderella story: biology as the Cinderella science, the orphan who makes good. I deviate from the usual tale, however, by announcing at the beginning that Cinderella is sick. The first chapter concerns her symptoms, diagnosis and prognosis. Chapter 2 examines how Cinderella abandoned a robust and vital evidentiary method for studying life in favor of positivism, reductionism and determinism. Chapter 3 describes the spread of molecular biology, the entry of chemists and physicists into biology and the expansion of their brand of reductionism. Chapter 4 finds Cinderella in the throes of a mid-life crisis, and Chapter 5 finds her reflecting on 'the road not taken.' Cinderella dies in Chapter 6 but leaves in her last will and testament a design for a new science of life.

No one other than myself, of course, is responsible for Cinderella's sad tale, but I am eager to acknowledge my indebtedness to the many individuals who helped me with this project. First of all, I thank a real Cinderella, Professor Marcia Landy, culture critic, film scholar and my first reader of record. She guided me to the French social critics and philosophers, and through her own grasp of Gramscian common sense breathed life into Death. I am also in debt to my friends in Ireland who patiently discussed life with me during the Summers of 1994 and 1995 when I wrote most of this book. In particular, let me thank Brigid Feehan, John and Maeve Feehan, and Tomas and Madge Lydon of Galway, Tessie and Dara Curran, Dot Gaynor, Mickey Joyce, and Peadar Wallace of the village of Leenane. Colin MacCabe is a special friend. Not only did he suggest that I undertake this book project, but he served as mentor and editor, supporting my faith in Lamarck and encouraging me to believe in life's future. I am also in debt to William Coffman, my colleague in the department of biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, whose incisive comments forced me to sharpen more than one blunt point. I would be woefully remiss if I failed to thank Drynda Lee Johnston, head librarian, and her able assistants who with patience and diligence located and procured the literature I required from remote and mysterious sources all over the country. Lastly, I thank Peter Koehler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for his moral support, and the University of Pittsburgh for its financial support through my many years of eccentric biologizing. 'A fine and precious institution it is that allows its members sometimes to step beyond the strict boundaries of their charge and purview.' Stanley Shostak
Leenane, County Galway

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Posted Thursday, January 7, 1999