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The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment [Paperback]

Richard Lewontin
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 17 2002
One of our most brilliant evolutionary biologists, Richard Lewontin has also been a leading critic of those—scientists and non-scientists alike—who would misuse the science to which he has contributed so much. In The Triple Helix, Lewontin the scientist and Lewontin the critic come together to provide a concise, accessible account of what his work has taught him about biology and about its relevance to human affairs. In the process, he exposes some of the common and troubling misconceptions that misdirect and stall our understanding of biology and evolution. The central message of this book is that we will never fully understand living things if we continue to think of genes, organisms, and environments as separate entities, each with its distinct role to play in the history and operation of organic processes. Here Lewontin shows that an organism is a unique consequence of both genes and environment, of both internal and external features. Rejecting the notion that genes determine the organism, which then adapts to the environment, he explains that organisms, influenced in their development by their circumstances, in turn create, modify, and choose the environment in which they live. The Triple Helix is vintage Lewontin: brilliant, eloquent, passionate, and deeply critical. But it is neither a manifesto for a radical new methodology nor a brief for a new theory. It is instead a primer on the complexity of biological processes, a reminder to all of us that living things are never as simple as they may seem.

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From Amazon

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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
By Frank
This an interesting book by an author who, pretty much, stopped writing when he completed his message.
His main message is that DNA is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to the structure of life. Other important factors are the conditions within the organism's cell (including what chemicals are present, and how the DNA folds), what the organism's environment is, and how the organism changes that environment.
Lewontin worries that because scientists can now easily analyze and manipulate genetic structure, scientists will overemphasize research on the DNA structure itself, leaving other important and significant biology unstudied.
The author also points out that while dramatic mutations are chosen to study mutations, many mutations aren't so dramatic, and that some of the "dramatic mutations" are in fact the combination of several lesser mutations.
The writing is unnecessarily complex in places, including one passage where the author claims "Causal claims are usually ceteris paribus, but in biology all other things are almost never equal." How many readers recognize the Latin phrase "ceteris paribus" ? The author also buys into the duality so common in discourse: _either_ DNA is the only important thing, _or_ DNA is a minor side-issue. What happened to the middle road?
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4.0 out of 5 stars A triple knot for 'popular genetics' July 15 2001
Like everything else in life why should the reading of the Human Genome remain free discussion and debate on its merits and its false promises? THE TRIPLE HELIX like another recent book in the same vein - THE CENTURY OF THE GENE, - take it as their duty to throw cold water on all the happy gene talk in recent popular science books.
The Human Genome Project is not the primary target for criticism here; what Mr Lewontin objects to is the simplified approach of popular biology that insists on treating genes, organisms, and environments as distinctly seperate. Instead "taken together, the relations of genes, organisms, and environment are reciprocal relations in which all three elements are both cause and effects. Genes and environment are both causes of organisms, which are, in turn, causes of environments, so that genes become causes of environments as mediated by the organism." Quite plainly he says that organisms alter, modify, or in some cases create, their environments. Therefore in the great either/or debate on nature versus nurture, Mr Lewontin would argue it's neither/nor.
Taking neither side of the debate may lead one to believe that Mr Lewontin is then a supporter of a new theory, or an advocate of a new approach to determining biological truths. Not so. "It is not new principles that we need but a willingness to accept the consequences of the fact that biological systems occupy a different region of the space of physical relations than do simpler physico-chemical systems...that is, organisms are internally heterogeneous open systems."
General readers can manage the book because Mr Lewontin writes well, and in being critical, he takes time to explain his views.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Why the genome project may disappoint Jan. 27 2001
This little book contains three lectures given by Lewontin at the Lezioni Italiani in Milan a few years ago. It is technical and aimed at an educated readership. Since there is not enough space here to discuss the entire book, I will concentrate on a brief discussion of the first, "Gene and Organism."
In this lecture Professor Lewontin outlines the role that genes, environment and chance ("random noise") play in the development of an organism. As he phrases it on page 20: "the organism is not specified by its genes, but is a unique outcome of an ontogenetic process that is contingent on the sequence of environments in which it occurs." This means that you could take the same genetic code and have it unfurl in Hyde Park and get an organism different from one you would get having it unfurl on, say, the Boston commons. Lewontin shows how cuttings from the same plant cultured at different altitudes developed differentially, and in a manner that could not be predicted. The reason they could not be predicted is that there is a significant amount of random variation ("developmental noise") that occurs as the plant grows. Lewontin gives the further example of a multiplying bacterium on page 37. The bacterium divides in 63 minutes. In another 63 minutes the daughter cells should divide again, giving four bacteria, but actually there is some random variation in how long it takes them to divide, so that one daughter divides in say 55 minutes, the other in an hour and five minutes. And this continues so that the bacteria culture does not increase in pulses, but continuously in random increments.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Four Movements Oct. 23 2000
Richard Lewontin's "The Triple Helix" is a delightful literary composition in four movements consisting of three lectures and an essay on contemporary trends in biology and genetics. While the three in the triple helix metaphor refers to the interactive nature of a gene, an organism and an environment, it is also a reference to the notion that the human DNA (double helix) nucleotide-sequencing project is less than the be all and end all of genetics research.
In the first movement (Gene and Organism), Lewontin reviews major discoveries in biology from Darwin to the Genome Project. In his critique the author carps the metaphors of biology, especially the once useful words and phrases like Decarte's metaphor of the world as a "machine", general use of the word "development" (unrolling or unfolding of something that is already there) to mean ontogeny and embryo genesis and the "Holy Grail", i.e., the Genome Project (the project that determined the nucleotide sequence of the entire human genome). Using elegant examples from contemporary biology, Lewontin dispenses with the ideas (1) that a cell is anything much like a machine and (2) that as a blueprint, DNA sequencing would be sufficient to define anatomy, development and function.
In the second movement (Organism and Environment), the author clears up the meaning of "ecological niche". Accordingly, environment and organism are so closely related that, except in the laboratory, neither exists in the absence of the other.
"Organisms not only determine what aspects of the outside world are relevant to them by peculiarities of their shape and metabolism, but they actively construct, in the literal sense of the word, a world around themselves.
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