The Corpse in the Elevator

Against Biological Determinism

Dialectics of Biology Group, edited by Steven Rose
Allison and Busby, distributed by Schocken, 184 pp., $14.95; $8.95 (paper)

Towards a Liberatory Biology

Dialectics of Biology Group, edited by Steven Rose
Allison and Busby, distributed by Schocken, 161 pp., $14.95; $8.95 (paper)

There is a story about a wonder-rabbi, who on his deathbed whispers to his chief assistant, “Life is like a bagel.” The word spreads through the crowd waiting outside the rabbi’s house, “Life is like a bagel; the rabbi says life is like a bagel,” until finally, at the edge of the crowd, it reaches the town fool, who asks, “What does it mean: life is like a bagel?” The question spreads back through the crowd, “What does it mean, life is like a bagel?” until it reaches the bedside of the rabbi. “Rabbi,” his assistant asks, “What does it mean, life is like a bagel?” “Nu,” the rabbi says, weakly shrugging his shoulders, “so life is not like a bagel.”

By the timely intervention of a naïve mind, we are saved from a metaphor. We do not have to live our lives as if they were seamless circles without beginning or end, firm at their exteriors but soft within, substantial around the periphery but at the center empty. We are not always so fortunate, however. Every philosopher does not have a divinely appointed fool to keep nature from mimicking his art. On the contrary, our view of the world is so dominated by powerful metaphors that we often turn similes into identities. Life ceases to be like a bagel, and becomes one.

What is surely the most powerful and influential metaphor-become-real in Western civilization was provided in 1637 by René Descartes in Part V of his Discourse on Method and further elaborated in his Principles of Philosophy. It is the organism as machine,

…a machine which having been made by the hands of God is incomparably better arranged, and is more admirable in its motions, than any that could be invented by men.


if there were such machines, which had the organs and appearances of an ape or some other nonrational animal, we would have no way of realizing that they were not of exactly the same nature as the animals….1

Indeed, the whole world, animate and inanimate, is like a clock:

I have described this earth, and the whole visible world in general, as if it were a machine in the shape and movements of its parts … for example, when a clock marks the hours by means of the wheels of which it is made, it is no less natural for it to do so than it is for a tree to produce its fruits.2

What has happened since 1637 is that, in the minds of natural scientists and a large fraction of social scientists as well, the world has ceased to be like a machine, but instead is seen as if it were a machine. Cartesian reductionism, which regards the entire world of things as, in fact, a very complicated electro-mechanical device, is not simply the dominant mode of thought in natural science, but the only mode to enter the consciousness of the vast majority of…

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