Posted by: Dan | September 12, 2007

Touchstone of Life: Disappointing Book on Information and the Foundations of Life

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Trying to find good books to review on cell biology just isn’t easy, but I’ve been looking. Werner Loewenstein had an interestingly titled one published in 1999, that I thought sounded interesting: The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life. An intriguing combination of topics, I thought – especially the issues of cellular biochemistry and their origins.

Molecular “information” was dubious however. I gave Loewenstein the benefit of the doubt – maybe he could do better than the inept attempts to use concepts from information theory to explain biological phenomenon I had seen previously (e.g. Dembski’s No Free Lunch). Could he explain how one could quantify the information content of an organic molecule better than the prevailing paradigm of organic chemistry, and in particular, the kinetics and thermodynamics of biochemical interactions and their effects?

Sadly, no.

Don’t get me wrong, he portrays cell biology and evolutionary history accurately enough, but the concept of molecular information doesn’t contribute anything. In fact, on page 9 and surrounding pages, he explicitly defines molecular information as a dimensionless inverse of entropy. And by taking away the scaling factor of entropy he sets the stage for a book-full of hand-waiving and sub-par qualitative explanations, when quantification would be much more precise.

For instance, on page 31, having gotten to the topic of “The Advantages of Molecular Complementarity,” Loewenstein says (emphasis in the original):

When we speak about the transmission of information from one molecule to another, we mean a transfer of information inherent in the molecular configuration – in the linear sequence of the unit structure or in the three-dimensional disposition of the atoms. Since molecules cannot talk or engage in other human forms of communication, their method of transmitting information is straightforward: the emitter molecule makes the atoms of the receiver deploy themselves in an analogue spatial pattern.

Anthropomorphize much? At best, this is an overuse of symbolism; at worst, it could fuel the naive interpretation that biomolecules possess some sort of intent or agency with which to decide to communicate (one step away from the invocation of deus ex machina or an intelligent capacity of molecules).

Loewenstein is also focused upon the thought experiment known as Maxwell’s demon. While much has been said about that as a thought experiment, it has little grounding in the world of experimental biology. For instance, he compares Maxwell’s demon to ion channels, cell surface receptors, and enzymes, yet has to resort to classical thermodynamics and kinetics in biochemistry to describe the functions of such proteins. There’s no ‘choice’ in such reactions, only chemical transition states and affinities, energy flow (often by ATP hydrolysis), and cascades of such reactions.

So yes, I’m rather disappointed with this book.

For more comments on the book, see Louis J. DeFelice’s review in Science in June of ’99.


Responses

  1. […] Touchstone of Life Review – An even more disappointed view of a book on “molecular information, cell communication, and the foundations of life,” right here on Migrations. […]

  2. Another dud, too bad. Have you read The Origins of Life by John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary. It sounds very similar in that it is concerned with the relation between life and information processing.

  3. The Origins of Life, hmm? No, I haven’t read it, but it sounds to be worth adding to my wishlist.

    At the moment I’m finishing Harold Morowitz’s The Beginnings of Cellular Life: Metabolism Recapitulates Biogenesis, which is fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about that book in making the case for metabolism-first biogenesis.

    Then I’m on to read Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe

  4. Hi!I have got great info by going through your site.Thanks for sharing this wonderful article with some great stuff.

  5. The “intentional stance” as Daniel Dennett calls it, is commonly used by biologists to describe the behavior of biological systems. Not as bad as you make it out to be.

    This book has a great story to tell and is worth reading. But it’s tough going sometimes because Loewenstein gets carried away with his prose.


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