The Mathematics of Life

The Mathematics of Life was mathematician Ian Stewart’s most recent book, at the time I received it; but Stewart is prolific, writing a new book every 57 minutes or so. The Mathematics of Life is now his second most recent popular science book. In my opinion, your enjoyment of this book will depend upon your expectations.

I came to the Mathematics of Life hoping for a display of Stewart’s famed ability to explain complex mathematics to non-mathematicians1. Stewart’s goal, however, did not appear to be to educate about modern, applied mathematics. Rather, this book is an extended argument that integrating mathematics with biology constitutes a “sixth revolution”2 in the biological sciences. Having agreed that mathematics is important to modern biology several years ago, I found The Mathematics of Life somewhat redundant to my intellectual outlook.

Stewart makes his case through a series of single chapter anecdotes demonstrating math’s contribution to cutting edge biology. This approach can generate a disjointed clip show of separate essays. The Mathematics of Life avoids this fate. Despite its risky structure, Stewart provides a coherent narrative throughout that keeps the reader moving from one topic to the next. Some chapters, like those on alien life, feel like they may be retreads from other works.

In general, The Mathematics of Life feels like a one-sided conversation in a pub after asking your drinking buddy, “How much mathematics do you think biologists need to know?” With someone of Stewart’s ability3, this does not sound like a bad way to spend an evening. It does suggest that The Mathematics of Life would have benefitted from a sterner editorial hand.

This also means that some chapters feel a bit disjointed. They wander and do not necessarily find their way back home. In his discussion of lizard genetics and Rock-Paper-Scissors, the lizards provide a dramatic example of evolutionary trade-offs and neatly demonstrate how a real and complex biological system can conform precisely to mathematical predictions. Stewart tells the reader about the lizards, but then fails to discuss how their populations match predictions or the implications of this result. This left me feeling unsatisfied as if I hadn’t eaten enough dinner, but with my brain.

I was also discomfited by the generic references to scientists4, often representing scientific consensus, that disagree with Stewart’s opinion. It’s not only the people who support our positions that have names. I don’t know who these “scientists” are, but they are quite a bit different from the scientists I know. Stewart and I are from different generations. So, it could just be a Kuhn thing5.

While I didn’t notice any unforgivable errors, I do have some issues with the way Stewart presents some of the biological information. This is the pedantry portion of our broadcast:

  • Drosophila melanogaster is NOT the favorite organism of geneticists.
  • The cladistics section needs a discussion of parsimony. Parsimony favors evolutionary trees that require the fewest changes. Stewart doesn’t mention parsimony until the discussion of alien life.
  • Stewart’s rants against GMOs based on uncertainty, but provides no guide to what kind of certainty he requires.
  • He quote Dobzhansky, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Dobzhansky meant all of evolutionary theory, not just natural selection. Trust me, Dobzhansky knew the difference. It is not clear that most popular science writers do.
  • In arguing for the complexity of human life, Stewart refers to the fact that humans express 100,000 proteins, but provides no reference for this as a reliable number rather than extrapolation.
  • Though we are confused by the complex information storage in the genome, our cells obviously are not. The genome is more than a linear code.
  • The discussion of genome wide association studies (GWAS) is out of date. It also illustrates their faults with an unrepresentative GWAS for homosexuality that may be one of the worst ever done.
  • He flubs Goldilocks & the Three Bears. The Bears were out for a walk because all three bears thought that all three bowls of porridge were too hot.
The Mathematics of Life is a book for math fans who are not particularly interested in learning about math. My recommendation is that you should buy a book by Ian Stewart. You should just buy one that isn’t The Mathematics of Life. There are a lot of options. 

NOTES

  1. You can listen to Stewart strut his stuff in his interview with Rachelle Saunders on Skeptically Speaking.
  2. He devotes chapters at the beginning of the book to describing his first five revolutions. If you are a biologist with any grasp of the history of your discipline, you can safely skip chapters 2-7 (about one-third of the book) without hurting your ability to understand the following chapters.
  3. It is, perhaps, telling that all the back cover blurbs on my copy of The Mathematics of Life refer specifically to Stewart as an advocate for and teacher of mathematics without reference to the book at hand.
  4. I spend my working day immersed in the variety of people that make up “scientists”. Generic references to this diverse group as if they are monolithic or some grab bag of The Big Bang Theory characters always rubs me the wrong way.
  5. A derivation of Thomas Kuhn’s argument from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that changes in scientific thinking occur, not due to gradual accretions of knowledge, but radical paradigm shifts in approach between generations of scientists.
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