The Restless Clock in the Baffler and TLS

September 19, 2016


The TLS recently reviewed Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, and though the full review is behind a paywall, its closing moments help to elucidate Riskin’s contribution to how we make sense of reasoning (no pun intended), from both a human and non-human perspective:

But Riskin also uses history as a way of thinking about the world, not just as a way of getting facts about the past right. “Historical understanding is integral to scientific understanding,” she claims, as she explores discussions among biologists and philosophers about directed mutation, drawing on work by Lamarck, Darwin, August Weismann and Richard Dawkins. This concern—the lack of humanistic and historical thinking in scientists’ and philosophers’ work—bookends her study. Jessica Riskin shows us the many ways in which scholars have sought to understand those parts of the world that are material, movable and predictable, and those that are characterized by agency, passions, chance, suffering and consciousness, as well as the tricky areas where they overlap. She mobilizes powerful examples from the history of the life sciences of where and how attempts at explaining these areas have succeeded and failed. Her journey takes us everywhere in the best possible way as she probes the limits of our efforts to explain—through science and through history—how the world works inside and outside the realm of our agency, purposes and reasoning.

For those who need more convincing in addition to the praise in the TLSJackson Lears’s piece “Material Issue,” on the cosmos and Western scientism, in the most recent issue of the Baffler, also conveys the depth of Riskin’s approach:

Thanks to books like Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (University of Chicago Press, 2015), we are beginning to discover that the propaganda peddled by Pinker, Kurzweil & Co. is not “science” per se but a singular, historically contingent version of it—a version that depends on the notion that nature is a passive mechanism, the operations of which are observable, predictable, and subject to the law-like rules that govern inert matter. This is the de-animated, disenchanted universe Max Weber associated with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of scientific rationality. It is also the universe inhabited in our own time by pop-Darwinian evolutionists, whose strict adaptationist program underwrites faith in automatic progress through natural selection—a process that operates independently of any individual organism’s desire but always evolves toward greater “fitness.” (The parallels this outlook shares with the Christian ideas of Providence and the humanist ideal of progress are striking.) Passive-mechanistic accounts of reality and experience did not mandate reductionist scientism, but they did make it the only alternative to transcendental religiosity—i.e., the belief in an immaterial soul or mind. This either-or assumption has characterized theories of mind down to the present. The passive-mechanist worldview, by eliminating purpose and agency from the nonhuman world, allowed Christians to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human soul and humanists to cling to their belief in the uniqueness of the human mind. Those beliefs die hard, even among behaviorists.

But as Riskin shows, the tradition of passive mechanism was never the only game in town, even after its triumph in the seventeenth century. For her, the key conflict is not the familiar one between transcendentalist and mechanist points of view but rather the tension between passive-mechanist and active-mechanist perspectives. Recuperating the tradition of active mechanism—the vision of an animated yet material universe—Riskin demonstrates what a powerful challenge it poses to contemporary modes of thought that claim the authority of science. Ultimately, The Restless Clock offers nothing less than an alternative way of seeing the natural world, and being in it.

To read more about The Restless Clock, click here.

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