- Paperback: 144 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press (February 15, 2002)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674006771
- ISBN-13: 978-0674006775
- Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.5 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #553,260 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment
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There is the Richard Lewontin nonbiologists know, the author of acerbic, thoughtful, witty, unhesitatingly leftist books such as Not in Our Genes and the essays from The New York Review of Books collected in It Ain't Necessarily So. This is the other Lewontin, the hardcore 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 [the book] 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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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. This difference in timing in multi-cellar organisms may result in morphological differences since a catalytic enzyme may arrive too late to, say, grow a side bristle on a fruit fly (an example that Lewontin gives). Lewontin applies this understanding to the development of our brains on page 38. First there are random connections set. "Those connections that are reinforced from external inputs during neural development are stabilized, while the others decay and disappear." This process, Lewontin advises us, can lead to differences in cognitive function that are neither strictly genetic nor strictly environmental. They are influenced by random (unpredictable) factors.
This understanding is the reason that Lewontin is less than thrilled with the Human Genome Project. He believes, as he makes clear in another book, It Ain't Necessary So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions (2000), that we will be disappointed by what can be accomplished simply from sequencing the genetic code, his point being that even though we know the code, the environmental and random factors cannot be known in any precise or predictive sense. It is true that the genome for a chimp will always code for a chimp and never for a rabbit, but whether that chimp is good at math or has unusually aggressive tendencies is something we cannot know from an understanding of the genetic code alone. Chance and environmental factors in development can result in a passive chimp even though its parents are aggressive.
Applying this idea to evolution in general, we can see that individual variation is not strictly a result of environmental differences but also of chance differences. Consequently, what we are is not shaped strictly by adaptive pressure (natural selection) but is to some extent the result of purely random processes. At one time in my life I studied chance and random events, and one of the most important things I learned is that the term "random" is not clearly defined, except in the sense that something that is random is unpredictable, which is a "you can't prove a negative" sort of definition. I also learned that there is considerable doubt as to whether a truly randomizing device actually exists. All real world devices, such as roulette wheels and computer random number algorithms can be shown to have some tiny bias, or to break down at the extremes. (Don't trust the random number generator on your computer when you are generating a very large number of trials: it will begin to repeat, and your Monte Carlo simulation will be flawed.) So what Lewontin calls "random events" are actually events that we simply do not know enough about to describe accurately. It may be that with greater ability we will eventually be able to describe or control these events. However, it may also be that at some level such events are the direct result of the probabilistic nature of a quantum event, and therefore in principle unpredictable. I suspect that Lewontin believes something like this.
In the second lecture Lewontin makes the point that to a significant degree organisms create their environment, and it is wrong to think of a place (such as the surface of the moon) without organisms as an environment. His dictum is "...[T]here are no environments without organisms" (p. 67). In the third lecture Lewontin discusses some of the problems associated with genetic causation and its analysis. There is a fourth chapter in which Lewontin attempts to provide some direction for future studies in biology.
I did not understand his assertion on page 81 that "Only a quasi-religious commitment to the belief that everything in the world has a purpose would lead us to provide a functional explanation for fingerprint ridges or eyebrows or the patches of hair on men's chests." The hair, I imagine is the result of sexual selection, but surely the fingerprint ridges allow us a better grip, and our eyebrows shade the sunlight as well as providing some small cushioning for our eye sockets.
According to Lewontin, the popular narrative of genetic determinism ignores the equally important factors of environment and developmental noise in ontogeny. Furthermore, the metaphor of "adaptation" views the organism as an object to be fitted to a pre-existing niche, whereas a more appropriate model is "construction," as the actions of organisms actively affect their own environments. Additionally, Lewontin shows that explanations by single-factor causation do not hold up in biology because the conditions of an organism involve multiple causal pathways. And, "Taken together, the relations of genes, organisms, and environments are reciprocal relations in which all three elements are both causes and effects." (100)
I have read this book twice in the last few years, and it has been a tremendous help for me in understanding biology both for academic purposes as well as for my own personal understanding of the world around me.
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