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

Jessica Riskin
Susannah Gibson

Jessica Riskin. The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 544 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-30292-8; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-226-52826-7.

Reviewed by Susannah Gibson (Cambridge Philosophical Society) Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (October, 2018) Commissioned by Dominic J. Berry (London School of Economics and Political Science)

Printable Version:

Modern biology is essentially flawed. This is the stark message that underlies the whole of Jessica Riskin’s intricately detailed, meticulously researched, and astonishingly wide-ranging book, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick. The problem can be traced back to the seventeenth century, when the idea of “clockwork” or mechanism began to be used to explain the functions of living things. To modern ears, the idea of a mechanical world—self-contained and without any need for an external divine figure or mysterious forces—sounds like a reasonable, secular, and scientific approach to take. The genius of Riskin is to unpick the long history of the mechanical theory to show how paradox has crept into the heart of the life sciences.

A central part of seventeenth-century mechanical theory was the idea that though matter may be governed entirely by well-defined laws and lacking any agency of its own, the universe and all within it is overseen by a divine power. Mechanical theories of life were created as part of a complete theological worldview and would have made no sense to their authors had the prime mover—God—been removed from them. Nature could function as it did, without any element of it (apart from man) having consciousness, will, or agency, because these were outsourced to an external supernatural force. Over the course of three hundred years, the two complementary parts of the mechanical theory—passive nature and active God—have become separated; modern science has inherited one part of the theory while seeking to invalidate the other.

Riskin’s history of mechanical theories of life begins with the lifelike automata that sprang up around medieval Europe, often as devotional objects. She whisks her reader through an extraordinary series of figures: the remote-controlled saints who would judge the purity of pilgrims; the grimacing Christs on the cross; mechanical devils who would roll their eyes, howl, and grotesquely stick out their tongues; angels carrying souls up to heaven. Riskin’s examples show just how popular and varied these contrivances were, and she argues that mechanical figures were not seen as passive in the pre-Reformation period, writing that “the idea that a fully material entity could have no agency, but must be purely passive, arose with the Reformation, when the Reformers asserted a categorical distinction between matter and spirit, setting their clockmaker God rigorously apart from his Clockwork creation and assigning him a monopoly on agency” (p. 43).

The key figure we associate with mechanical theory and the creation of the “animal-machine” in the seventeenth century is René Descartes, who famously described the animal body in solely material and mechanical terms. Many assume that this theory renders animals somehow “inanimate,” but Riskin’s close reading of Descartes highlights the inherent living nature of Descartes’s animal-machine: “rather than to reduce life to mechanism, he meant to elevate mechanism to life: to explain life, never to explain it away” (p. 45). Explanation was key to Descartes’s work, as Riskin emphasizes: “establishing that the world was made of moving bits of uniform matter was not Descartes’s primary purpose. Rather, he was committed to understanding the world in mechanist terms. Machinery, in Descartes’s usage, meant intelligibility” (p. 55).

But despite Descartes’s insistence that his animal-machine was an animated being, many of those who followed him interpreted the animal-machine as a passive, limited, inert, brute kind of thing. It was this conception of life that began to dominate thinking about the natural world from the late seventeenth century. Alongside it arose what Riskin calls “science-theology”: a holistic system devoted to demonstrating God’s might by studying the mechanical perfection of the many things He had created. Riskin uses this phrase rather than the more common “natural theology” “to emphasize their deep connectedness, indeed, their essential oneness” (p. 79).

There were others who argued for a more vital nature. This sidelined minority sought purely “natural” explanations for the world around them. To deal with the problems posed by removing God from their scheme—problems of agency, intent, and purpose—they made these properties part of the natural objects they studied. They imbued nature with a vital spark, an organic power.  This kind of vitalism was seen as dangerously atheistic in in its time, and is often considered dangerously mystical today. It remained a fringe belief without the mass support enjoyed by mechanical theories and did not permeate science, nor pass along so easily to the present day. Riskin beautifully demonstrates how the orthodox religious theory of mechanical nature has become the orthodox atheistic theory we know today, while radical and godless vitalism has come to be seen as hopelessly supernatural.

While eighteenth-century savants may have spent hours pondering the theological implications of mechanical theory, for the wider public, mechanism was a form of entertainment. Thousands flocked to see the mechanical wonders of the age: a statue that could really play the flute, shaping its lips and tongue to produce the notes; mechanical children who could write and draw; a duck famous for its defecation; a beautiful woman who seemed to show emotion as she played piano. These incredibly complex creations inspired awe just as their medieval forebears had done, but now they made their audiences think not of the power of God, but of the power of science and engineering. Away from the exhibition halls of Paris or London, far more useful machines were being developed as the industrial revolution played out. Machines were becoming more commonplace, and where once it was thought a diverting question whether a human or animal could be described in terms of machinery, it was now being asked whether machines might one day replace humans—and especially those deemed most dispensable: “slaves, conscripts, workers” (p. 146).

The later part of the book moves on to more modern biology, giving a chapter to Darwin, and another to his immediate successors and their interpretations of his work. Riskin writes at length about Darwin’s views on Larmarck, on vitalism, and on the question of agency, showing how he was influenced by older traditions, and how he struggled with questions relating to materialism. She also writes about the generations that followed Darwin, refining his work, adding to it, reimagining it, and, sometimes, deliberately misrepresenting it. The creation of “Darwinism” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a passive, mechanistic view of nature triumph conclusively over vitalism, giving rise to the view of life that prevails today.

In the penultimate chapter Riskin takes the story up to the present day, leading the reader through a lively history of robots (originally pronounced “a lot like what a frog says in a children’s story,” p. 297), artificial intelligence, cybernetics, and cognitive science. But it is the final chapter, in which Riskin rounds on those scientists and science writers who willfully ignore or abuse history, that packs the biggest punch. She delves into the intricacies of modern evolutionary theory and genetics, exploring how a historical understanding of mechanical and vitalist theories can affect our opinions on controversial branches of science such as epigenetics. Some biologists seek to distance themselves from the histories of their disciplines, and especially from those elements that are now discredited or unfashionable, but Riskin argues persuasively for the importance of history to modern practitioners.

This book moves deftly between complex discussions of theological and philosophical arguments about the nature and meaning of life, and light-hearted excursions into the mechanical figures that have so long enthralled and entertained us. In this highly readable book, Riskin links esoteric theory to everyday concerns. Whether or not you agree with Riskin (and many biologists may well balk at her central claim), readers will find this book thought-provoking and utterly engrossing.

Citation: Susannah Gibson. Review of Riskin, Jessica, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick. H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews. October, 2018. URL:

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