The Music of Life (RJS)

Several years ago Denis Noble published an interesting little book The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes. The reductionist approach to biology described on a popular level by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene considers the purpose of any organism simply to provide a casing ensuring the survival of the genes. Information flows from the gene which is the ultimate conductor controlling the whole.

Biology however, is far more complex than the reductionist emphasis on the selfish gene allows. A systems approach to the whole provides a more complete picture. Epigenetics describes the study inheritable changes caused by mechanisms other than changes in the linear DNA sequence.

A retired biology professor Bev K. Mitchell provided the following reflection on The Music of Life. His essay considering the marvelous complexity of God’s creation is well worth a post.

Emerging pianos

by Bev Mitchell

 Written while reading or shortly after reading Denis Noble’s very stimulating “The Music of Life”

 The strangest results often emerge when we combine things. The genes of any two species in the same genus are not all that different, yet we can measure many differences between two “good” species, including the all important inability to mate and give rise to viable offspring. The differences that underlie this seemingly simple fact can include habitat choice, life history characters, behavior, morphology, biochemistry of reproduction, cellular physiology, genome level discord and many more.

The piano offers a metaphor to illustrate this emergence of a suite of differences based on limited gene differences. In fact, using the piano instead of the genome we can stack the deck and offer the analogue of truly identical genomes. Consider 100 pianos and consider the keys as genes. Each key is different, yielding a different frequency well within the range of human perception. There are other controls on the sound quality, such as pedals, tuning etc., but we will equalize these to the fullest possible extent in our metaphor.

So far, everything is in order, for all intents and purposes the instruments are identical. Now we introduce 100 accomplished pianists, randomly selected from a very large, diverse population. We know nothing of these 100 pianists save that they are all very accomplished. Our task is to predict the sounds and rhythms that will come out of these pianos when the corresponding pianist sits down to play. Preposterous you say, and you would be correct. We have no idea what will emerge when any pair (piano, pianist) fill the air with sound.

This is how it is with genes. They are a database, just as the piano keys may be considered a database. Decisions as to how they are used, combined, expressed, or not used at all depend entirely on another level of organization, above the database. By interviewing the 100 pianists, we could get a reasonable idea of what to expect, because we would have something like direct access to the ones making the decisions about how the keys would be used. With real genes, however, biologists are just beginning to get the first glimpses of these selection mechanisms. Also, instead of 88 keys, there are orders of magnitude more genes in a typical organism.

When the pianists do sit down to play (one by one would be an important part of the experimental design) we will hear a great concert made up of all kinds of music and musical styles. All emerging from essentially identical instruments. Furthermore, we probably could group the recital pieces into a few groups comprising related genres and styles (let’s call these genera). Some presentations may be so unique they cannot be grouped (a genus with a single species). Others will be more common (probably classical, jazz, gospel) and will comprise genera that are more species rich.

At the end of our experiment, we will have a little musical zoo populated by quite distinct presentations. The truly amazing thing is that this great variety emerged by choosing the sounds available from a relatively tiny database – in this case identical databases. The rhythms (timing) were not present in the database, but brought to the database. Yes, the structure of the instrument cried out to have timing and rhythm added, but it is nowhere present in the machine.

The real thing always outruns the metaphor. Imagine the possibilities with thousands of genes (keys) and gene variants and probably hundreds of mechanisms (pianists) for choosing which genes to play and how to play them. Try to imagine what it is that directs these mechanisms so that the appropriate organism emerges. Imagine time and circumstance operating on this combination of genes and mechanisms to yield variety through adaptation and selection cycles.

But there is more. Let’s return to the pianists. Some are really “in the zone” when they play and little can distract them. Others are on edge, they are accomplished but unaccustomed to being part of experiments (for example). The way the keys are played, and the resulting experience, can be dramatically altered by messing with the pianist while he or she plays – or whispering something to them beforehand that makes them even more nervous than usual. Can this metaphor compare with anything in real gene control? It used to be thought that everything in development worked in one direction – from gene to organism. Now we have a growing body of evidence revealing that information flows both ways. The environment of the gene, or the cell in which it resides, or the tissue/organ in which the cells reside, or the organism in which the tissue or organ reside can seriously influence how the database is used, or how the piece is played, to return to our metaphor.

This illustrates the rapidly growing field of epigenetics (over- genetics, meta- genetics). Gene expression can be affected by what is going on or what is happening to the organism in which they reside. There is even good evidence from extensive long-term studies that these effects can extend across generations, how many is, understandably unknown. Chemical mechanisms underlying such effects can be as straightforward as removing or adding methyl groups to regulatory parts of genes.

Just imagine what God hath wrought. But don’t look for God’s fingerprints in this unimaginable complexity. He is outside of it all, but still lovingly responsible for its existence and sustenance – he has made and is making it all possible. No matter how detailed, no matter what level of organization we consider, these are all only one thing to a Christian – they are examples of what God has done (is doing). They should not be considered in the sense of explaining how God does things. This is the great error of Intelligent Design theory, and the earlier God of the gaps kind of thinking. God is at work. We are privileged, through the dedicated work of very imaginative and talented people, to be able to see more and more of the ‘what’. But, no matter how many layers we peel from the onion, we will never directly see God at work. He has ways of working that we can understand only through his self-revelation. Scriptures, the Church, the Holy Spirit and the cosmos (at all levels) work together to provide this revelation. The answer to ‘how?’ will have to wait. But hey, isn’t what we can know truly wonderful?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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George Winston on the Piano

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  • Rick

    Good post.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    I like this. I’ve been thinking that Dawkins goes to far in his “selfish gene”. It does depend on one’s view of what constitutes “gene selfishness”. An inter-dependent network is certainly not the first thing that comes to mind. Inter-dependency has certainly been more successful. One does begin to push the boundaries on the term “selfish” in such a context.

  • Jon G

    Ah, that video at the end filled my soul with so much joy. There are some things that just can’t (and shouldn’t) be explained with words for doing so would eliminate their efficacy.

    Thanks Bev and RJS!

  • Joe Canner

    Bev and RJS,

    Thanks for this; as a musician and statistician this resonates (no pun intended) with me. One of the things that pushed me towards evolution and away from creationism/ID was the idea that rare events can and do happen if you repeat the “experiment” often enough.

    One question about epigenetics: how does this relate to Lamarck’s theory of evolution? I know he didn’t have any real evidence at the time, but it sounds like we might some day find (or may have already found?) that there are some examples of evolution that have an epigenetic basis and which support support his theory.

  • Bev Mitchell


    Thanks for your comment. Re Lamarckism: it relates in the sense that we now know there is two-way information traffic. Genes don’t rule like tyrants. But you still don’t sire well muscled children by exercising a lot! :)

    The best quick read on these matters is the book by Denis Noble referred to in the introduction. A longer account more geared to human biology is by Richard C. Francis “Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes”.

  • Mike Blyth

    It seems you’re presenting a few different ideas here. First, the individual’s life is not fully determined by its DNA. That seems to be the main point of the piano metaphor. As far as I know, no biologists have thought differently. While mechanisms have been newly coming to light, is it not true that biology has always recognized that life in the real world is far more than DNA sequence?

    Second, you seem to be inferring that because new mechanisms of gene regulation and development have been discovered, this somehow reveals a deeper meaning to life. That part escapes me. Whether I have a certain feature because a parent carried a particular allele, or had a chromosomal rearrangement, or even some heritable epigenetic feature, the end results seem to me to be the same. I get a genome from my parents, and it interacts with the environment including my behavior to make me who I am. It’s an amazing process, true, and the process shows that we are more than our DNA sequence, but what beyond that?

  • RJS


    A bit feisty?

    Noble is explicitly trying to counteract the idea people take from The Selfish Gene by Dawkins that we are merely packages for preservation and propagation of genes. The reality is far more complex. Communication is two-way. The genetic code has to be played – and it can be played in different ways. Back when I was in high school and college people were still using punch tape readers with computers. The punched tape was read from beginning to end as a coded program. Many think of the genome as a punched tape with the code for life, but it isn’t this simple.

    There does not need to be beyond “natural” to account for this and nothing in this post or in Noble’s book suggests differently. In the last paragraph Bev reflects on this as a Christian and a biologist. But he explicitly says “don’t look for God’s fingerprints” in this paragraph. There is room for purpose and plan here, but there is no smoking gun with a broken natural cause and effect relationship.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Joe @ 4 – a statistician! Great – part of my work is geostatistics – and yes, studying geostats has certainly played a role in my understanding of the world.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Mike (6),

    You are correct, there are two parts to the essay. The strictly biological part illustrates the serious problems we run into if our approach is too reductionistic (á la Dawkins and followers). By the way, exactly the same problem exists among theologians. From Noble’s little book, you can make a long list of direct correspondences for the problems that reductionistic thinkers in both fields engender – it’s actually quite an interesting exercise.

    As for the Christian part, RJS has already pointed out the central message. Another Christian writer gives us this quote “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father?” “(Jn 14:9). God’s greatest revelation to us is through the Incarnation, life of Christ, Calvary and the Resurrection, and it’s a rather complete and easily understood message of love. When we focus on God’s power instead of his love, we tend to underplay or even bypass this central message and go looking for God’s fingerprints in what he has made. We understand so little of what God has made (despite our great advances) and practically nothing about how he does it. Yet his love is revealed to us by his Spirit and his Word every day.

    Since I can never resist recommending books, here’s an “older” one you might like “Is God to Blame?” by Greg Boyd.