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Paradoxical Life

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

Andreas Wagner
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Paradoxical Life
    Book Description:

    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 Lifeis 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15637-9
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Paradox and the Power of Choice
    (pp. 1-5)

    In the womb, all human body parts, be they simple like hair and nails or intricate like eyes, form through an unimaginably complex communication process. The participants in this process are millions of cells. These cells release thousands of molecules as signals that crisscross the embryo and contain instructions to other cells: move over here, move over there, bulge, flatten, swell, shrink, divide, or die. The respondents follow their instructions and talk back. This cellular conversation is as carefully orchestrated as a symphony but vastly more complex. The result is a human body, including the very eyes that read these...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Inner Dialogue of Creation
    (pp. 6-31)

    The kind of communication most familiar to us is a conversation between two people. We tend to think that human conversation is vastly different from other forms of communication, not least because it exists only in our species. In so doing, however, we overlook that animals, plants, bacteria, and even molecules carry on conversations that may exceed our own in subtlety, flexibility, and the power to shape the world.

    In writing lines such as these, a writer experiences a continual inner dialogue. For example, I ask myself, was this last sentence a good way to get my point across? Then...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Other Side of Self
    (pp. 32-61)

    The time was August 1941. In the Auschwitz concentration camp, a prisoner had escaped from barrack 14. The reprisals for such escapes were draconian: for each escapee, ten men were condemned to death. The six hundred men of barrack 14 assembled. The assistant commander of the camp, SS Karl Fritsch, walked the rows of prisoners. Whomever he asked to step out of line would suffer death. One of the chosen men, Francis Gajowniczek, father of a family, wept and pled to be spared when an eleventh men stepped out of line. This man, the Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, offered his...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Wholey Parts and Partly Wholes
    (pp. 62-90)

    Have you ever watched a swimmingEscherichia colibacterium through a microscope? If not, you would be impressed. For one thing, the bacterium looks very different from the dead stuff around it. In a sea of inert and dead debris, from barely visible specks to hulking boulders, the bacterium is an island of frantic activity. It darts in one direction, stops, tumbles around erratically, as if undecided where to go, then darts in another direction, stops again, and so on. This bacterium—a swimmingwhole—has billions of molecularparts.¹ Some of these molecules are absolutely essential for swimming.


  8. CHAPTER 4 Risky Refuges
    (pp. 91-118)

    Is your life risky? Are you a war correspondent, a test pilot, a circus acrobat, or an undercover police offcer? Alternatively, are you an accountant, an administrator, or a receptionist? (The ceiling could perhaps cave in on you. But what are the chances of that?) How do you feel about the world changing frantically all around you? Are you politically conservative? Do you want to preserve and enshrine your ancestors’ way of life? Or would you rather dump their dusty traditions? Do you feel that younger people resemble space aliens rather than humans? Or do you embrace their boldness and...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Destructive Creation
    (pp. 119-132)

    A moment ago, I brushed another hair—another fallen leaf—off my writing desk. Lately I have been finding more and more of them. My hairbrush draws a richer harvest by the week. This tree is losing its leaves.

    The analogy between falling leaves and hair loss is more than skin deep, because the same peculiar process drives both balding and a tree’s preparation for winter. It is a process shaping all organisms, involving destruction as much as creation and death as much as birth.

    Where a leaf attaches via its stalk to a tree branch, you can see a...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Choice in the Fabric of Chance and Necessity
    (pp. 133-150)

    Can you make a difference in the world? If you lived a life such as that of Gandhi or Hitler, you would influence the fates of millions. Some of your decisions and choices would change human history. But can any human choice really change history’s course? It might merely cause a temporary detour from a future deeply mysterious, yet utterly certain. No matter what we do, earth may always be full of war and misery; or it may eventually become free of war and misery; or we may eventually blow it to smithereens.

    Here is a more modest question, a...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Purposeful Openness
    (pp. 151-164)

    Oops, I just nearly tipped my chair over—I really should stop rocking on it. This chair has four wooden legs. Round felt pads cover their base, so they won’t squeak. The chair’s seat is made of polished wood, polished both by the manufacturer and by my behind, as I write hour after hour. The chair’s backrest is a sheet of reeds woven around two wooden rods on each of the chair’s sides. All these parts make up the chair’sstructure. And what does a chair do, what is itsfunction? Easy, you will say. A chair is made for...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Choice and the Natural Sciences
    (pp. 165-178)

    Among all the conversations from the microscopic to the planetary realm that build the world, one is special to humans in our time, and it has shaped our world unlike any other. It is the conversation we call natural science. Antibiotics, electric lighting, computers, telecommunications, air transportation, and much more are its products.

    Why is science so powerful? What distinguishes it from other conversations? These questions occupy this and the next chapter, where I argue that science creates and requires especially powerful and complex choices.¹

    I am concerned here with science as a conversation with nature, whether human or nonhuman....

  13. CHAPTER 9 The Limits to Knowledge
    (pp. 179-191)

    Scientific conversations have two advantages over other conversations. Both come from two rules of how to pose questions to nature: first, scientific questions must encourage nature to answer “no”; second, it must be possible to ask nature the same question over and over again. Both sources of strength have the weaknesses that come with any strength. After having outlined how these weaknesses limit our ability to know, we will return to the thread of paradoxes that runs through our conversation.

    Early in the twentieth century, the philosopher Karl Popper pointed to a simple but devastating fact about scientific theories: we...

  14. CHAPTER 10 The Power and Burden of Freedom
    (pp. 192-204)

    Why is there something and not nothing? What is our place in the world? What is our future? Over two thousand years these questions germinated and grew into Western philosophy. Philosophy, in turn, has given rise to the natural sciences. And even though science has taught us much about the world, it cannot solve the elementary tensions I have touched on in this book. The questions involve the relations between part and whole, self and other, and matter and mind, for example. These tensions turn up everywhere science has traveled, from atoms to organisms and their societies. And they lead...

  15. NOTES
    (pp. 205-250)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 251-260)