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It Ain't Necessarily So : The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions Hardcover – February, 2000
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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
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.
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- The topics are generally quite interesting, and Lewontin's comments are at times eye-opening, casting serious doubt on established doctrine.
- He writes very well (although he seems to be showing off a bit with vocabulary and the use of French).
- He seems quite opinionated. I find his words compelling enough to be more suspicious of what others have said, but at times I don't really feel that I can trust his opinion. There are many examples of this, one being that he is thoroughly convinced of the validity of group selection and can't understand why everyone else doesn't see it. It's all so clear to him...
- At times he seems to delight in being nasty, in choosing hurtful ways to say things, as though that were part of his responsibility in reviewing the work of others.
Occasionally I found the book almost painful to read. For some of the essays, in which he tried to lay waste to the egos of others, he includes their responses as well -- so that he can take one last swipe at them. I actually did skip a few pages in the middle of the book, where he was taking one of these last swipes -- I couldn't stand it. I wanted to shout "Richard, go to your room!"
Still, the book is a thought-provoker, worth reading. Just be forewarned that the author gets a D-minus on "Plays well with others."
The first essay, "The Inferiority Complex" is a review of Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man (1981) which deals with the IQ conundrum. Lewontin's main point here, in agreement with Gould, is that "there may be genes for the shape of our heads, [but] there cannot be any for the shape of our ideas" (p. 9). I'm not sure I agree with that rousing call to the uniqueness of human kind, but I am confident that no one has yet refuted such a point of view. Not entirely as a surprise Gould (in a jacket blurb) acknowledges Lewontin as "the smartest man I have ever met."
Gould is not the only one to sing praises to Lewontin's intellect and understanding. Noam Chomsky chimes in with an acknowledgment of "the impressive quality and significance" of Lewontin's essays, while a book I just finished reading, Steve Jones's excellent Darwin's Ghost (1999) is dedicated to Lewontin, who showed him "what evolution can and cannot explain." Perhaps that is Lewontin's main strength, as a anchor on the ship of biological presumption that would sail us to a questionable nirvana of the pre-determined. I can say from my own experience that the very learned professor reminds me of someone I would call "the Edmund Wilson of book critics biological." He is also the very distinguished Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard and the author of several books on genetics and related subjects, most characteristically perhaps, Not in Our Genes (1984) with Steven P. R. Rose and Leon J. Kamin.
Why then am I not entirely thrilled with this beautifully wrought collection of unquestionably significant and stimulating essays? I think it's that I disagree with his point of view and emphasis, and feel that the sequencing of the human genome really is a significant step toward our understanding of who and what we are, and I don't care who, or who did not, get rich in advancing it.. I also think that the practical applications from such information may prove valuable in ways we cannot begin to predict. I am a fool for knowledge if only for knowledge's sake, and I wonder why Lewontin has expended so much energy knocking the project. His real criticism of the effort, despite his use of the derogatory words, "dream" and "illusion" and even "fetish" (p. 135) is presented on page 177: "The promise of great advances in medicine, not to speak of our knowledge of what it is to be human, is yet to be realized from sequencing the human genome."
Who could disagree with that? He also writes on page 151, "Causal stories are lacking...nor is it clear, when actual cases are considered, how therapies will flow from a knowledge of DNA sequences." Again, who could disagree? However this is political-speak. It says nothing that can be seized upon and found derogatory, yet hints at failure and disappointment. Characteristically, Lewontin writes nothing that one can find direct fault with, yet by indirection and association he belittles the effort. I would note that the word "fetish" is not used directly as a coloration of the project, but as an indirect association. People have said that The New York Review of Books is really The New York Review of Each Others Books, and therefore constitutes a close-knit club with a shared political point of view. I will withhold such a judgment since I have only a passing familiarity with that very prestigious publication.
Putting all that aside, I found myself, while reading the third chapter, "Darwin, Mendel, and the Mind," wondering if Lewontin was really conscious of his own thought processes when on page 103 he relates that he "passed among three very different mental states all under the control of the willful I." Ah, if only that "willful I" really was in control and had the power to consciously regulate our mental states. Lewontin seems unaware that it takes many years of devoted practice to still the "monkey mind" and allow one an observation of one's mental processes. He asks rhetorically (still on p. 103), the question he calls the "central problem...for neurobiology," namely, "What is "I"? This is indeed a profound question, asked at least as early as the Upanishads. The modern answer, which Lowentin must know, but does not present, is that the I is an illusion that we cannot help but believe. He goes on to argue with Daniel Dennett against the idea of consciousness as a "metaphorical delusion" (p. 105) without realizing that there is a crucial difference between a "delusion," metaphorical or otherwise, and an illusion. If he looks more closely he might find that consciousness is a trick of the evolutionary process, the main purpose of which is to make us fear death by forcing us to identify intensely with our particular phenotype. Our subjective appreciation of consciousness is a wondrous byproduct of that identification.
Lewontin has taken several topics of biology that are very much in the public eye lately, and tries to dispell misconceptions, usually to good effect. He clearly has opinions worth airing, and to have so many different topics covered here is a great bonus. It's also nice to see that he's not afraid to print criticisms of his reviews.
I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in controversial topics like cloning or the usefulness of the Human Genome Project, but those with a little scientific background will probably get the most out of this.