Book Review: Werner Loewenstein’s “The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life”

The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life by Werner R. Loewenstein

Though there is a paucity of equations, particularly on the information theoretic side, Loewenstein does a fantastic job of discussing the theory and philosophy of what is going on in the overlapping fields of information theory and microbiology. (I will note that it is commonly held wisdom within publishing, particularly for books for the broader public, that the number of equations in a text is inversely proportional to the number of sales and I’m sure this is the reason for the lack of mathematical substantiation which he could easily have supplied.)

The Touchstone of Life (Book Cover)

This is a much more specific and therefore much better – in my mind – book than John Avery’s Information Theory and Evolution which covers some similar ground. Loewenstein has a much better and more specific grasp of the material in my opinion. Those who feel overwhelmed by Loewenstein may prefer to take a step back to Avery’s more facile presentation.

Loewenstein has a deft ability to describe what is going on and give both an up-close view with many examples as well as a spectacular view of the broader picture – something which is often missing in general science books of this sort. Readers with no mathematical or microbiology background can benefit from it as much as those with more experience.

One thing which sets it apart from much of its competition, even in the broader general science area of non-fiction, is that the author has a quirky but adept ability to add some flowery language and analogy to clarify his points. Though many will find this off-putting, it really does add some additional flavor to what might be dry and dull explication to many. His range of background knowledge, philosophy and vocabulary are second only (and possibly even on par or exceeding in some cases) that of Simon Winchester.

I’d highly recommend this book to people prior to their academic studies of biochemistry or molecular cell biology or to budding biomedical engineers prior to their junior year of study. I truly wish I had read this in 1994 myself, but alas it didn’t exist until a few years after. I lament that I hadn’t picked it up and been able to read it thoroughly until now.

For my part, his drastically differing viewpoint of the way in which biology should be viewed moving forward, is spot on. I am firmly a member of this new “school”. His final chapter on this concept is truly illuminating from a philosophical and theoretical view and I encourage people to read it first instead of last.

I’ll also note briefly that I’ve seen some reviews of this book which make mention of creationism or intelligent design and whether or not proponents of those philosophies feel that Loewenstein’s work here supports them or not, particularly since Loewenstein appeared on a panel with Dembski once. I will state for those who take a purely scientific viewpoint of things, that this book is written in full support of evolution and microbiology and doesn’t use the concept of “information” to muddy the waters the way many ID arguments are typically made.

Original review posted to GoodReads.com on 9/4/12

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Book Review: John Avery’s “Information Theory and Evolution”

Information Theory and Evolution Book Cover Information Theory and Evolution
John Avery
Non-fiction, Popular Science
World Scientific
January 1, 2003
paperback
217

This highly interdisciplinary book discusses the phenomenon of life, including its origin and evolution (and also human cultural evolution), against the background of thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and information theory. Among the central themes is the seeming contradiction between the second law of thermodynamics and the high degree of order and complexity produced by living systems. This paradox has its resolution in the information content of the Gibbs free energy that enters the biosphere from outside sources, as the author shows. The role of information in human cultural evolution is another focus of the book. One of the final chapters discusses the merging of information technology and biotechnology into a new discipline — bio-information technology.

Information Theory and EvolutionInformation Theory and Evolution by John Avery
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic book which, for the majority of people, I’d give a five star review. For my own purposes, however, I was expecting far more on the theoretical side of information theory and statistical mechanics as applied to microbiology that it didn’t live up to, so I’m giving it three stars from a purely personal perspective.

I do wish that someone had placed it in my hands and forced me to read it when I was a freshman in college entering the study of biomedical and electrical engineering. It is far more an impressive book at this level and for those in the general public who are interested in the general history of science and philosophy of the topics. The general reader may be somewhat scared by a small amount of mathematics in chapter 4, but there is really no loss of continuity by skimming through most of it. For those looking for a bit more rigor, Avery provides some additional details in appendix A, but for the specialist, the presentation is heavily lacking.

The book opens with a facile but acceptable overview of the history of the development for the theory of evolution whereas most other texts would simply begin with Darwin’s work and completely skip the important philosophical and scientific contributions of Aristotle, Averroes, Condorcet, Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, or the debates between Cuvier and St. Hilaire.

For me, the meat of the book was chapters 3-5 and appendix A which collectively covered molecular biology, evolution, statistical mechanics, and a bit of information theory, albeit from a very big picture point of view. Unfortunately the rigor of the presentation and the underlying mathematics were skimmed over all too quickly to accomplish what I had hoped to gain from the text. On the other hand, the individual sections of “suggestions for further reading” throughout the book seem well researched and offer an acceptable launching pad for delving into topics in places where they may be covered more thoroughly.

The final several chapters become a bit more of an overview of philosophy surrounding cultural evolution and information technology which are much better covered and discussed in James Gleick’s recent book The Information.

Overall, Avery has a well laid out outline of the broad array of subjects and covers it all fairly well in an easy to read and engaging style.

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Reading Progress
  • Started book on 07/11/11
  • Finished book on 08/14//11
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