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It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions [Paperback]

Richard Lewontin
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Sept. 30 2001
Is our nature—as individuals, as a species—determined by our evolution and encoded in our genes? If we unravel the protein sequences of our DNA, will we gain the power to cure all of our physiological and psychological afflictions and even to solve the problems of our society? Today biologists—especially geneticists—are proposing answers to questions that have long been asked by philosophy or faith or the social sciences. Their work carries the weight of scientific authority and attracts widespread public attention, but it is often based on what the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin identifies as a highly reductive misconception: "the pervasive error that confuses the genetic state of an organism with its total physical and psychic nature as a human being."

In these nine essays covering the history of modern biology from Darwin to Dolly the sheep, all of which were originally published in The New York Review of Books, Lewontin combines sharp criticisms of overreaching scientific claims with lucid expositions of the exact state of current scientific knowledge—not only what we do know, but what we don't and maybe won't anytime soon. Among the subjects he discusses are heredity and natural selection, evolutionary psychology and altruism, nineteenth-century naturalist novels, sex surveys, cloning, and the Human Genome Project. In each case he casts an ever-vigilant and deflationary eye on the temptation to look to biology for explanations of everything we want to know about our physical, mental, and social lives.

These essays—several of them updated with epilogues that take account of scientific developments since they were first written—are an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.

The second edition of this collection includes new essays on genetically modified food and the completion of the Human Genome Project. It is an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.

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Stephen Jay Gould calls Richard Lewontin "simply the smartest man I have ever met." And not the least opinionated, either. Lewontin has long been famous among biologists for a volatile combination of feisty leftism, scientific insight, and verbal skill, which have been displayed for the more general public in his essays for what has been called The New York Review of Each Other's Books.

It Ain't Necessarily So is a collection of some of his more characteristic reviews from the 1980s and 1990s. The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould; Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson; sociological studies of Sex in America; and Ruth Hubbard's books on gender in science: all his essays are informative yet lively, with a high acid content--as when he begins his piece on the Human Genome Project with a definition of "fetish."

Lewontin's prose is worth reading in itself, but what lifts this anthology to another level is that it also includes replies and rebuttals selected from the New York Review's letters column--a forum that doubles as the intellectual's World Wrestling Federation. For the older pieces, he also includes updates, "where are they now" summaries to give a sense of historical change in each field. Assertive, brilliant, sarcastic, dense, wide-ranging--Lewontin may be challenging, but he is never dull. --Mary Ellen Curtin --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

Harvard biologist Lewontin is highly skeptical of the human genome project supporters' claims that complete knowledge of the human organism and effective gene therapies are just around the corner. His forceful critique of this multimillion-dollar gene-mapping project points out that our DNA is infinitely complex, and that mutations in genes are not the cause of, say, cancer, although they may be one of many predisposing conditions. In a bracing, lucid collection of essays, all originally published in the New York Review of Books, Lewontin makes bold forays into such fields as evolutionary theory, IQ testing, criminology, artificial intelligence, neurobiology and gender differences, exposing sloppy thinking and fallacies on all fronts. Scrutinizing "the development of modern biology from Darwin to Dolly" (a reference to the sheep cloned in 1997), Lewontin lambastes Clinton's National Bioethics Advisory Commission, charging that its report on the possibility of human cloning sidestepped fundamental ethical, religious and political issues. Lewontin is a formidable critic of simplistic, flawed biological determinism, which he sees at work in studies of identical twins reared apart; in feminist biologists' claim that females are the smarter, gentler, more humane sex; in sociobiologist E.O. Wilson's belief that the sexual division of power flows directly from innate differences between men and women; and in biologist Richard Dawkins's argument for the primacy of genes over the social environment. Several of these rigorous essays include an exchange of letters between Lewontin and his critics, making this an illuminating forum of ideas. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Words do matter to Lewontin July 15 2004
Format:Paperback
Words do matter to Lewontin, and his portrayal of scientists as pontificating from a position of "objective truth" is not an indictment of individual scientists, but rather, a charge against the whole scientific enterprise. And the charge will stick. Each scientist exemplifies this, some to greater, and others to a lesser, degree. Speaking from 35 years experience as a scientist, I can say Lewontin is much more right, than wrong in his assertion. For the most part, the modern scientific enterprise is contaminated by scientists believing they are working at the "wholesale" level when it comes to "objective' truth, while the rest of people unknowingly work "retail," making culturally-biased statements which merely pass as "truth." This problem intensified after the Enlightenment, when natural philosophers (scientists) began to seriously confuse an arrogant superficial materialism/a priori rationalism with true science (information painstakingly and imperfectly derived from studying a world which is diffuclt or impossible to fully comprehend). Lewontin has caught on to this.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent... Dec 27 2003
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
First, the only reason this book gets four stars instead of five is because of the 'book review' format, and as book reviews the essays largely fail. As counteractive theoretical essays, however, they are insightful, scathing, and thorough. A friend of mine wanted to reread "The Selfish Gene" because it's a perennial favorite of humanities snobs, now I'll direct her to this text first.
This book deals much more with the philosophical implications authors imply in their texts than the actual Science, but has enough Science to placate those looking for basic information on genetics, etc. Lewontin's humble and witty approach is welcoming, and his thought process is enjoyable. His 'tell it like it is' approach to issues like Social Darwinism and the Human Genome Project are worth reading, especially for people relegated outside the physical and natural sciences who may be unaware of these perspectives. (Especially those who infrequently read Science texts and are consequently doomed to linger in outdated material).
The key strength of this text lies in its challenging other arguments, which is often stronger than texts with centralized theses. Because of Lewontin's critical authority, he is freer from the ideological rampages that blind many of the authors he addresses. My favorite sections of the text were the 'exchanges,' where authors wrote in to the magazine criticizing Lewontin and he responds. For the reviewer here who rebuked Lewontin for his simple approach to complex problems or his philosophical leaning, note that often those letters he responds to are written by the authors of the books he derides.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good insights on diverse themes May 17 2002
Format:Hardcover
First of all, let me say I feel a special admiration for Richard Lewontin. I believe he is a really smart man and always has an interesting point of view and lots of knowledge to sustain his opinions. This short collection of Reviews he wrote in The New York Review of Books undoubtly endorse my personal opinion on the author. I really recommend this book to anyone with some background on genetics, evolution and biology who wants to enrich his (hers) personal opinion on diverse themes in this subjects. I did not gave this book 5 stars because the reviews contained in it are not new. Although he writes some stuff at the end of his reviews in an attempt to update them, I believe that if he was to write them again, today, he might have changed (maybe, just maybe) a great deal of them. I think Richard Lewontin has more interesting things to say about this themes today than 12 or 20 years ago. He certainly has grown in knowledge and surely has mature his ideas with time and scientific enrichment. Just because he could have gave us more I did not give him 5 stars.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Which gene generated this book? Aug. 13 2001
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
A collection of disparate essays is an elusive target for a reviewer. The range of topics here is wide and of varying quality. With essays ranging from IQ testing through the Darwinian revolution to the Human Genome Project and cloning, Lewontin is able to declaim his own expertise in whichever subject he approaches. As with most New York Review of Books authors, he's witty and cleverly subtle when assaulting those authors or ideas he's contesting; passionately assertive in support. When you've finished the review, however, you're often left with little foundation for deciding whether you should buy that particular book for yourself. The usual reaction is wishing to run out and find all the other sources he refers to for confirming information.
The only consistent theme in this compilation is that of the iconoclast. Chipping away at perceived flaws in other people is a Lewontin specialty. He has favoured targets, such as Richard Dawkins and Philip Rushton, are frequently mentioned. A glaring omission, particularly in the updating Epilogue to "Darwin's Revolution", is that of Daniel C. Dennett's DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA. Given Dennett's scathing critique of The Spandrels of San Marco, co-authored by Lewontin and Stephen Gould, the oversight surprises.
The most engaging sections of the book are essays on the Human Genome Project, genetics and cloning. In an effort to undercut scientists like E.O. Wilson or Richard Dawkins, Lewontin attempts to restrict DNA's role to 'the stupid molecule' it was once considered. Using every verbal trick available, he writes a lawyer's brief against the Project and its supporters.
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