Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Stephen Rothman:
Lessons From the Living Cell: The Limits of Reductionism [2002]

      This book gets into both the philosophy of science—especially on the issue of reductionism—and also some issues in cell biology which have implications for those more general philosophical questions. The first part of the book focuses on reductionism and the author returns to that topic briefly near the end of the book. However, more than two-thirds of the book explores a major dispute in the science of cell biology, about just how proteins are transported within cells, and how they are secreted by cells.

      Our group gave the book a collective average of 5.8 points on a scale of 0 to 10, which is fairly middle of the road. In general, those of us with more of a background in biology and/or more of an interest in questions in the philosophy of science gave it higher ratings, and the others gave it lower ratings.

      Scott, who had little previous knowledge of cell biology (and little formal education in biology in general) found the material on cell biology fairly hard going, but worth the effort. There were many new terms which he felt he didn’t fully grasp or found hard to keep in mind, even if they were initially defined in the book (some were, some weren’t). This sent him to the dictionary on occasion to discover the meaning of words like ‘supernatant’. He said that as far as a general reader is concerned, the book would have greatly benefited by having some illustrations and a glossary. Scott felt that the absence of such things indicated that the primary intended audience is people with at least some background in biology. Nevertheless, he enjoyed learning some things about how cells functioned. Still, for him, the main points of interest in the book came in the discussion of reductionism and other general philosophical issues.

      A major part of the book is devoted to showing that the “vesicle theory”—that proteins are transported through cells in tiny containers or sacks—is poorly supported and actually incorrect. But the best argument against any theory is a better theory, and unfortunately Rothman doesn’t put forward his alternative theory (of “membrane transport”) until very late in the book. Still he does make a convincing case.

      Scott was well disposed to agree with Rothman’s criticism of what he calls “strong micro-reductionism” even before starting the book. After all, you will never be able to understand how a sewing machine works by studying particle physics, even though sewing machines are indeed at bottom composed of molecules and atoms, which in turn are composed of sub-atomic particles. You must study any phenomenon at the right level of description.

      However, Scott was not fully convinced that the primary reason that most biologists have uncritically accepted the “vesicle theory” is simply their micro-reductionist experimental approach (i.e. chopping up cells and looking at the tiny pieces). Towards the end of the book Rothman himself briefly mentions another factor that is at least as important, namely the tendency of people to become emotionally wedded to their theories and not keep a sufficiently open mind about them.

      Kevin thought the book was hard to read, and that Rothman went on and on about reductionism, repeating many points over and over. He thought the section of dialog between “Epistemon” and “Eudoxus” was especially poor. Many other people agreed with that. While Galileo had to use the dialog form in order to present ideas that it wasn’t safe to put forward as his own, what is Rothman’s excuse? It only makes it less clear what position he is actually arguing for. Kevin didn’t have trouble with the material on cell biology since he was a biology major in college. But he said he didn’t get much out of the book and is more interested in concrete scientific applications than in abstract principles of science and philosophy.

      Kirby was also a biology major for most of his undergraduate college career, and he liked the book a whole lot. He didn’t have any problems understanding the book at all, and found Rothman’s arguments against the vesicle theory and for his own membrane transport theory quite persuasive. He gave the book one of our highest ratings, an 8.

      Rosie said she is also fascinated by cell biology, and liked that part of the book by far the best. She didn’t care for the first few chapters on reductionism and felt that the author had a tendency to just create categories in which to push and label people. She enjoyed many parts of the book, but thought there was overkill in Rothman’s criticisms of reductionism, and found those parts of the book tedius and repetitive.

      Barbara was quite interested in the information about cells. She also liked the dialog part, between Epistemon and and Eudoxus, and in general the way the author wrote. She gave it our highest rating, a 9.

      Ron, in contrast to Rosie, thought that the first third of the book was best, but found the last two-thirds a hard read. (Ron studied astrophysics, not biology!) He found the material on cell biology tedius and repetitive, and was more interested in questions that Rothman didn’t much get into, such as how cells evolved in the first place.

      Rich and John gave the book our lowest ratings (4 and 3). Rich agreed with Kevin’s comments, and felt that the author went on way too long about reductionism in the first part of the book. He found it very tedious and was bored to death, and thought Rothman needed a better editor. Rich didn’t get to the cell biology part, but was intrigued about some of the comments of other people, and might go back and check that part out.

      John said he also seconded Kevin and to lesser degrees Rosie and Rich. At which point Rosie interjected “What do you mean, lesser degree?!” After the laughter died down, John said Kevin’s comments had just best expressed his own opinion! John felt that Rothman said a number of things over and over again, even after John had already been convinced by his arguments against micro-reductionism and the vesicle theory. But he said the book was too painful to complete, and that general readers like ourselves were not the indended audience.

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