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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
In this clear and thoughtful book, Stephen Rothman offers a critical look at the dominance of a reductionist paradigm in modern scientific thought, the simplest expression of which might be: The parts account for the whole. Within biology, the invention of the microscope began the process of breaking down organisms into their constituent components, leading to the reductionism of cell theory, whereby life is "nothing more than a distinctive and inordinately complex chemical and physical occurrence." This view has its roots in the Newtonian concept of general and universal laws and in the Cartesian separation of body and soul. It can also be traced to the ancient Greeks, who first postulated that unseen structures underlie the visible natural world.
Rothman is an experimental biologist whose career of more than 30 years has shown him the need to think systemically -- to consider the bigger picture by applying the lessons of ecology and systems theory, for example. As we have grown obsessed with disciplines such as genomics, this exerts a powerful influence on public policy. The Human Genome Project, of which Rothman is quite suspicious, epitomizes the reductionist mind-set dominating contemporary American science. The book is at heart an inquiry into methodology: "Bad approaches may, and often do, yield good results, but this does not consequently make them good approaches." Influenced by Thomas Kuhn's idea of the paradigm shift, Rothman believes that we need to change our way of thinking. Using the example of the development of the vesicle theory to explain cell transport, Rothman believes the limitations to this model demonstrate the difficulties inherent in reductionism.
For Rothman, an overly reductive approach ignores the "essential and transcendent quality" of life. It does not account for our own experience as living creatures who study life. It also ignores a cardinal point of evolution: the importance of adaptation in what makes something alive. Reductionist research can become a castle in the air, losing its roots in the earth. Instead of dwelling excessively on our models and theories, "however luminous," we must always concede the ultimate authority to nature itself. (Jonathan Cook)