Jessica Riskin

The Restless Clock
University of Chicago Press

Available on

Paperback edition, February 2018, and
Chinese translation, July 2020 - 永不停歇的时钟:机器、生命动能与现代科学的形成

Winner of the American Philosophical Society 2021 Patrick Suppes Prize

On the radio:
Ockham's Razor, ABC Radio, May 22, 2016, The Library of Economics and Liberty, February, 11, 2019

Chronicle of Higher Education list, The New Canon : What's the Most Influential Book of the Past 20 years?
— November 2018

Essay by Steven Shapin, "What It Means to Be Human"

The Guardian: The book that changed my mind: Matt Haig, Emily Maitlis and more share their picks — May 2019

"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

Amazon, March-April 2016

"The Restless Clock is a #1 New Release on Amazon"— Fletcher and Parry Blog, March 11, 2016

"Stanford historian examines age-old inquiry about what it means to be 'living'."— Stanford News Service, April 4, 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."

                 Nature 529, 153, 14 January 2016

   The Restless Clock at The Human Evolution Blog,
   April 18, 2016

   Frolicsome Engines: The Long Prehistory of Artificial Intelligence, The Restless Clock at PublicDomainReview,
   May 4, 2016

   "The Restless Clock: In Defense of Lamarck" at Plausible Futures, May. 12, 2016

   The Restless Clock at The Paris Review, May 13, 2016 Dan Piepenbring, Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News

   The Restless Clock featured on Real Clear Science, May 25, 2016

   The Restless Clock on The Chronicle of Higher Education's Weekly Book List for May 27th, 2016

   The Restless Clock featured at The Open University, May 27, 2016

   The Restless Clock at Literary Review June, 2016 Hannah Dawson, Making the First Move

   The Restless Clock Will Have You Pondering the Matter of Matter at PopMatters, June 15, 2016

   The Restless Clock at Inverse: Ancient Automata Were the Precursors to Today's Robots, July 10, 2016

   Living Machines: Automata Between Nature and Artifice, Bizzarro Bazar, August 4, 2016

Material Issue: Reclaiming a living cosmos from the dead-end tradition of Western scientism, The Baffler, Sept. 1, 2016

The Restless Clock at the Times Literary Supplement: "Machine Learning", Sept. 9, 2016

The Restless Clock in The Boston Globe: The Strange Machines That Once Helped Explain Animal Behavior, April 24, 2016

The Restless Clock reviewed at Choice Magazine, Nov. 1, 2016

Steven Shapin reviews The Restless Clock in the London Review of Books, Dec. 1, 2016

The Restless Clock is listed in the Top 20 History of Science Books of 2016 at, Dec. 8, 2016

The Restless Clock on the bestseller list at Library Journal, Dec. 15, 2016

The Restless Clock book review in Inference, Dec. 31, 2016

Bookscrolling Best Books of 2016 in History, Jan. 8, 2017

Bookscrolling Best Books of 2016 in Science and Nature, Jan. 5, 2017

The Restless Clock in The New Atlantis, Jan. 9, 2017

Review in ISIS, A Journal of the History of Science Society, March, 2017

Review in The Best, May, 2017

LA Review of Books, July 14, 2017

Gibson on Riskin, 'The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick', October, 2018

Oren Harman, "The Life and Times of a Scientific Mistress, "The Life and Times of a Scientific Mistress," in Raritan, Vol. 38, No. 1, pp. 97-114.

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.

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Jessica Riskin home


Riskin's Work:


  • The Scientific Revolution
  • Science and Law in History
  • Science in the Making
  • The Enlightenment
  • What is Life? The History of a Question
  • Research Seminar for Majors