The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by Jessica Riskin

Robyn Arianrhod on how Enlightenment android-builders and modern biologists shaped the sciences of life and artificial intelligence

February 18, 2016
NASA astronauts, weightlessness training, Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, 1978
Source: Alamy
Upside down, you’re turning me: Newton’s gravitational force can be viewed as an inherent agency

When was the first true “android” built – and who coined the name? The answers may surprise you: around 1738, and Gabriel Naudé (1625). Today’s discussions about whether or not “intelligent machines” actually think may seem cutting-edge, but Jessica Riskin shows they have a long and colourful history. Android flute players and defecating ducks are just some of the 18th-century engineering marvels that were part entertainment and part scientific quest to uncover the secrets of life and intelligence. A quest to answer questions such as: does an android have “agency”? Is a living being more than a preprogrammed machine – more than the sum of its parts?

The Restless Clock is a sweeping survey of the search for answers to the mystery of life. It begins with medieval automata – muttering mechanical Christs, devils rolling their eyes, cherubs “deliberately” aiming water jets at unsuspecting visitors who, in a still-mystical and religious era, half-believe that these contraptions are alive. Then come the Enlightenment android-builders and philosophers, Romantic poet-scientists, evolutionists, roboticists, geneticists, molecular biologists and more: a brilliant cast of thousands fills this encyclopedic account of the competing ideas that shaped the sciences of life and artificial intelligence.

Riskin writes with clarity and wit, and the breadth of her scholarship is breathtaking. In particular, she explores scientific theories that aimed for some built‑in “agency”, some active principle that allowed matter to move in a way that did not require a predesigned mechanism (which seemed to imply a divine designer). Her goal is to “re-open scientific possibilities” – to show that, while passive mechanism is the “winning” principle in science, the “losing” agency theories have also shaped the life sciences.

Her dialectical approach is exciting. In showcasing the losers, however, I do feel that she sells the winners short. Mechanism was, indeed, fundamental, but it was Isaac Newton who set the benchmark, and his gravitational force can be viewed as an inherent agency just as much as the “living force” (kinetic energy) of his “losing” rival Gottfried Leibniz. Riskin acknowledges this view only in a brief endnote. For me, this omission – and the fact that “active” fields have dominated physics for 150 years – weakens some of her analysis. In particular, she insists that mainstream science is “fiercely embroiled” with theology. For her, this embroilment is due to classical mechanism, whose external forces compelling “dead” matter to move are, she claims, predicated on a supernatural (external) source. I question her “predicated”: although Newton and others used mechanism to justify their belief in a designer, the key to making sense of physics is not hidden beliefs and unknown causes, but rather Newton’s rigorous programme for limiting the scope of physics. What is “knowable” – measurable, quantitatively describable, “testable” – constitutes science; the rest is philosophy, theology or “tentative” science. Riskin refers only briefly, and dismissively, to Newton’s programme, when she shows Charles Darwin grappling with it. Darwin’s is just one of the fascinating historical debates that Riskin uncovers. But there will always be mysteries beyond what we “know”, whether a theory locates its active agencies internally or externally.

Riskin gives an astute last word to the quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger: a science of mind must include the human observers that classical physics carefully excludes. Physics has changed dramatically in recent decades. But Riskin’s reconsideration of hidden historical possibilities adds much to the mix for those seeking an interdisciplinary science of matter and life.

Robyn Arianrhod is honorary member of the School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University, and author of Seduced by Logic: Émilie du Châtelet, Mary Somerville and the Newtonian Revolution (2012).

The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick
By Jessica Riskin
University of Chicago Press, 544pp, £28.00
ISBN 9780226302928 and 03086 (e-book)
Published 10 February 2016

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