Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts, Books for the News, History and Philosophy of Science

Jessica Riskin on The Restless Clock

Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument Over What Makes Living Things Tick explores the history of a particular principle—that the life sciences should not ascribe agency to natural phenomena—and traces its remarkable history all the way back to the seventeenth century and the automata of early modern Europe. At the same time, the book tells the story of dissenters to this precept, whose own compelling model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines, in an attempt to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to theology’s “divine engineer.” In a recent video trailer for the book (above), Riskin explains the nuances of both sides’ arguments, and accounts for nearly 300 years worth of approaches to nature and design, tracing questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, Darwin, and others.

From a review at Times Higher Ed:

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.

A profile at The Human Evolution Blog:

To understand this unspoken arrangement between science and theology, you must first consider that the founding model of modern science, established during the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, assumed and indeed relied upon the existence of a supernatural God. The founders of modern science, including people such as René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, described the world as a machine, like a great clock, whose parts were made of inert matter, moving only when set in motion by some external (divine) force.

These thinkers insisted that one could not explain the movements of the great clock of nature by ascribing desires or tendencies or willful actions to its parts. That was against the rules. They banished any form of agency – purposeful or willful action – from nature’s machinery and from natural science. In so doing, they gave a monopoly on agency to an external god, leaving behind a fundamentally passive natural world. Henceforth, science would describe the passive machinery of nature, while questions of meaning, purpose and agency would be the province of theology.

And a piece at Library Journal:

The work of luminaries such as René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, and Charles Darwin is discussed, as well as that of contemporaries including Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Stephen Jay Gould. But there are also the lesser knowns: the clockmakers, court mechanics, artisans, and their fantastic assortment of gadgets, automata, and androids that stood as models for the nascent life sciences. Riskin’s accounts of these automata will come as a revelation to many readers, as she traces their history from late medieval, early Renaissance clock- and organ-driven devils and muttering Christs in churches to the robots of the post-World War II era. Fascinating on many levels, this book is accessible enough for a science-minded lay audience yet useful for students and scholars.

To read more about The Restless Clock, click here.