There is the Richard Lewontin non-biologists know, the author of acerbic, thoughtful, witty, unhesitatingly leftist books such as his essays from The New York Review of Books
collected in It Ain't Necessarily So
. This is the other Lewontin, the hard-core scientist, one of the most insightful evolutionary biologists going.
The Triple Helix is a manifesto for the life sciences: "The time has come when further progress in our understanding of nature requires that we reconsider the relationship between the outside and the inside, between organism and environment". Lewontin is not arguing for what he calls "obscurationist holism", but for a more complex interaction between gene, organism and environment, in which they construct each other:
.... it is the biology, indeed the genes, of an organism that determines its effective environment, by establishing the way in which external physical signals become incorporated into its reactions .... Whatever the autonomous processes of the outer world may be, they cannot be perceived by the organism. Its life is determined by the shadows on the wall, passed through a transforming medium of its own creation.
Lewontin argues for a life science that faces up to reality, that tackles the problems of studying subtle processes in complex systems where three-dimensional shape is crucial. The journal Nature
"cannot recommend [it] too highly for the many commentators and headline-writers who think that DNA is the blueprint for the organism"--or for their readers. --Mary Ellen Curtin
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From Publishers Weekly
The central message in this slim and eloquent book is that life is complex. Eschewing simple answers, Lewontin (It Ain't Necessarily So, reviewed below, etc.), professor of biology at Harvard, demonstrates how all organisms, including humans, are the product of intricate interactions between their genes and the environment in which they live. Neither genes nor environment are static, however, and their interplay dramatically changes both. Lewontin, long a social critic commenting on the ways biological information is misused, continues his articulate attack on genetic determinism, arguing against the simplistic belief that genes are largely responsible for behavioral characteristics. But the reductionists who believe that the ultimate understanding of human nature will come from molecular biology aren't the only ones he finds fault with here. Environmental determinists, Lewontin asserts, are equally incorrect and narrow in their focus. Looking only at the big picture works no better than reductionism: "Obscurantist holism is both fruitless and wrong as a description of the world." An integrative approach is what is needed, but, Lewontin laments, our technical ability to manipulate DNA has seduced scientists to such an extent that the very questions they are asking are being shaped by technology rather than by intellectual curiosity. Our fascination with DNA has "changed and pauperized, temporarily it is to be hoped, an entire field of study." Although the issues Lewontin addresses are huge, he writes about them in a manner fully accessible to the nonspecialist. 19 line illustrations. (May)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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