"In this rich, sweeping history, Riskin explores the dialectic between mechanistic models of nature from the mid-17th century forward… 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." — Library Journal, 1 January 2016
“The Restless Clock is a sweeping survey of the search for answers to the mystery of life. Riskin writes with clarity and wit, and the breadth of her scholarship is breathtaking."— Times Higher Education, 18 February 2016
"Jessica Riskin, author of The Restless Clock ... takes us through the history, the theoretical arguments, and the defining problems of modern life science since Descartes."— Interdisciplinary Radio, April 7, 2016
"Exploring Agency Through the Ages: 'Jessica Riskin engages the reader in evaluating these existential questions with respect to big-picture "processes" like evolution, artificial intelligence and epistemology.'"— The Tartan, April 13, 2016
"At the heart of this scientific and cultural history is the concept of agency—the capacity to act—in nature. Riskin reveals how two distinct interpretations emerged from the mechanical Universe of the Enlightenment: Isaac Newton’s passive version, reliant on a divine tinkerer; and Gottfried Leibniz’s, which saw life as purposeful and 'self-transforming.' Riskin’s investigation of this duality, by way of Renaissance automatons, the gestation of evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics, is engrossing and illuminating."
Today, a scientific explanation is not meant to ascribe agency to natural phenomena: we would not say a rock falls because it seeks the center of the earth. Even for living things, in the natural sciences and often in the social sciences, the same is true. A modern botanist would not say that plants pursue sunlight. This has not always been the case, nor, perhaps, was it inevitable. Since the seventeenth century, many thinkers have made agency, in various forms, central to science.
The Restless Clock examines the history of this principle, banning agency, in the life sciences. It also tells the story of dissenters embracing the opposite idea: that agency is essential to nature. The story begins with the automata of early modern Europe, as models for the new science of living things, and traces questions of science and agency through Descartes, Leibniz, Lamarck, and Darwin, among many others. Mechanist science, Jessica Riskin shows, had an associated theology: the argument from design, which found evidence for a designer in the mechanisms of nature. Rejecting such appeals to a supernatural God, the dissenters sought to naturalize agency rather than outsourcing it to a “divine engineer.” Their model cast living things not as passive but as active, self-making machines.
The conflict between passive- and active-mechanist approaches maintains a subterranean life in current science, shaping debates in fields such as evolutionary biology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence. This history promises not only to inform such debates, but also our sense of the possibilities for what it means to engage in science—and even what it means to be alive.