Weekly Reading: It Ain’t Necessarily So

18 Nov

Richard Lewontin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions,” is an erudite collection of essays for readers interested in the recent politics and the intellectual history of genetic ideas.

Published in its second edition in 2001, the book anthologizes 10 articles originally published in the New York Review of Books between 1981 and 1997; the reviews appear unrevised and are followed by exchanges with readers and postscripts by the author that bring the essays up to date (as of 2001).

The related points that Lewontin makes repeatedly are that human beings are not determined by their biology, and that any organism “is a unique consequence of the interaction of genetic and environmental forces.”

Another theme is that, despite huge achievements in the now smoking-hot field of biology, there are a couple of areas that remain beyond the reach of our understanding.  In particular, the following mysteries remain: How does a cell become a mouse? or the shape of my nose?  How do I have an idea? And what is the connection between my brain cells and my mental states?

The opening chapters cover: Biological determinism and Steven Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man; the novelty of Darwinian thinking (especially, the study of variation and similarity as intertwined aspects of the same phenomenon), and Mendel and the relationship of mind and brain.  “The Science of Metamorphoses” describes Jacques Loeb, an exemplar of the scientific drive to control (rather than understand) life, and Gerald Edelman’s theory of brain development that puts the location of cells at the center of the story of cell differentiation.

Chapter Five, “The Dream of the Human Genome” is a radical counterweight to all manner of excitement over the sequencing of the human genome, and a rich, stand-alone read that demonstrates the power of politics in determining the direction and the applications of science.  Major themes in this chapter include the limitations of gene therapy and the drawbacks of admitting DNA as forensic evidence.  On the significance of the genome projects, Lewontin writes (in 2001): “Now that we have the complete sequence of the human genome we do not, alas, know anything more than we did about what it is to be human.”

Latter chapters treat Ruth Hubbard and the critique of biological theories of women’s inequality; sexology and social science; cloning (again, with the message that genes alone do not determine who we are); the origin of altruism, and “genetically altered” food.

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