Paradoxical Life: Meaning, Matter, and the Power of Human Choice

Paradoxical Life: Meaning, Matter, and the Power of Human Choice

by Andreas Wagner
     
 

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What can a fingernail tell us about the mysteries of creation? In one sense, a nail is merely a hunk of mute matter, yet in another, it’s an information superhighway quite literally at our fingertips. Every moment, streams of molecular signals direct our cells to move, flatten, swell, shrink, divide, or die. Andreas Wagner’s ambitious new book explores

Overview

What can a fingernail tell us about the mysteries of creation? In one sense, a nail is merely a hunk of mute matter, yet in another, it’s an information superhighway quite literally at our fingertips. Every moment, streams of molecular signals direct our cells to move, flatten, swell, shrink, divide, or die. Andreas Wagner’s ambitious new book explores this hidden web of unimaginably complex interactions in every living being. In the process, he unveils a host of paradoxes underpinning our understanding of modern biology, contradictions he considers gatekeepers at the frontiers of knowledge.

Though we tend to think of concepts in such mutually exclusive pairs as mind-matter, self-other, and nature-nurture, Wagner argues that these opposing ideas are not actually separate. Indeed, they are as inextricably connected as the two sides of a coin. Through a tour of modern biological marvels, Wagner illustrates how this paradoxical tension has a profound effect on the way we define the world around us. Paradoxical Life is thus not only a unique account of modern biology. It ultimately serves a radical—and optimistic—outlook for humans and the world we help create.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A biochemist at the University of Zurich, Wagner (Robustness and Evolvability in Living Systems) explores the overlap among a wide range of biological phenomenon, including "the making of an embryo, the attack of a deadly virus, the building of a termite's mound, and human conversation," and the paradoxes contained therein. Synthesizing a wide range of knowledge-the nature/nurture debate, Dawkin's "selfish genes" theory, etc.-Wagner examines the two-sided struggle between forces like selfishness and altruism, or creation and destruction, to probe the apparent dichotomy between matter and meaning. In Wagner's view, paradoxes (i.e., "This sentence is false," the liar's paradox) are not just flukes of language or sophisticated mind games, but "built into the foundation of the world and... equally irresolvable in nature where they abound." For evidence, he mines the "most profound and magical transformation of matter-the creation of an organism," the mechanics of proteins, DNA and RNA, and more. For all his pontificating, however, Wagner's conclusion is still a stretch: "the benefits of humility and serenity that come with abandoning final truths" give humans "enormous power." The general reader whom Wagner claims to address will likely find the book hard-going, and perhaps not worth the effort.
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Choice

"[A] highly unusual, stimulating, and comprehensive book about paradoxical concepts intrinsic to biological systems, nature, and knowledge itself."—J. N. Muzio, Choice

— J. N. Muzio

ForeWord Magazine

Silver medal winner of the ForeWord Magazine 2009 Book of the Year Award in the Philosophy category, presented by ForeWord

— Book of the Year Award

Independent Publisher

Gold Medal winner of the 2010 Independent Publisher Book Award in the Science category

— Independent Publisher Book Award

Choice - J. N. Muzio

"[A] highly unusual, stimulating, and comprehensive book about paradoxical concepts intrinsic to biological systems, nature, and knowledge itself."—J. N. Muzio, Choice

Frank T. Vertosick

“From Gödel’s theorem in mathematics to the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, the appearance of paradox in science often points the way to the deeper understanding of our natural world. The same holds true for the life sciences, as Professor Wagner entertainingly illustrates in his wide-ranging exploration of paradoxical behavior in biological systems. Skillfully written for the non-expert, Paradoxical Life examines the tension between apparently contradictory phenomena—altruism and selfishness in evolving species, for example—and concludes that such tension not only plays a critical role in biology, but may also hold the key to the human power of choice, a power that gives us a unique place in the biosphere.”—Frank T. Vertosick, Jr., M.D., author of The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing

Melanie Mitchell

"Andreas Wagner weaves together biology and philosophy in this lovely meditation on the many paradoxes of living systems, demonstrating that it is precisely life's stark contradictions that make it, paradoxically, understandable and meaningful."—Melanie Mitchell, Portland State University and Santa Fe Institute, author of Complexity: A Guided Tour

G�nter Wagner
"The full-blooded, dynamical thinking of a scientist at the height of his creative powers, this is a breathtakingly original and intellectually exciting synthesis of all that biology has taught us of how science relates to the world."—Günter Wagner, Yale University

Jonathan Kaplan

“Wagner presents a new way of looking at the relationship between science and ourselves, and of thinking about some very old arguments. This is a book for readers of Douglas Hofstadter, Karl Popper, and Richard Dawkins.”—Jonathan Kaplan, Oregon State University

ForeWord Magazine - Book of the Year Award

Silver medal winner of the ForeWord Magazine 2009 Book of the Year Award in the Philosophy category, presented by ForeWord

Independent Publisher - Independent Publisher Book Award

Gold Medal winner of the 2010 Independent Publisher Book Award in the Science category

Günter Wagner

"The full-blooded, dynamical thinking of a scientist at the height of his creative powers, this is a breathtakingly original and intellectually exciting synthesis of all that biology has taught us of how science relates to the world."—Günter Wagner, Yale University

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300171525
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
06/30/2011
Pages:
272
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

Andreas Wagner is a professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of Zurich and an external faculty member at the Santa Fe Institute. Educated at Yale University and at the University of Vienna, Wagner focuses his research on the evolution and evolvability of biological systems. He lives in Zurich.

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