FW: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Dream of the Human Genome
FW: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Dream of the Human Genome
From: Danny Yee [mailto:danny@...]
Sent: Monday, August 13, 2001 8:27 AM
Subject: [ANTHRO-L] Book Review - The Dream of the Human Genome
An HTML version of this book review can be found at
along with more than five hundred other reviews.
TITLE: It Ain't Necessarily So
- The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions
AUTHOR: Richard Lewontin
PUBLISHER: New York Review Books 2000
OTHER: 330 pages
_It Ain't Necessarily So_ is a selection of book reviews originally
published in the New York Review, in which Lewontin tackles topics in
the philosophy, history, and politics of biology. Also included are
some exchanges which followed the reviews and some updates written
for this collection. Lewontin is an attractive stylist and a lively
polemicist as well as an incisive thinker, and this collection shows
him off to good effect, especially when the selection of books under
review allows him to address topics in depth, in what are more essays
than reviews. Some of the pieces are however a bit scattered and there
is a degree of repetition between them, so anyone after a more systematic
presentation of Lewontin's ideas should probably start with his books,
perhaps with _The Triple Helix_, on genes and organisms and environments,
or _Human Diversity_.
The pieces are presented in chronological order. A 1981 review of
Stephen Jay Gould's _The Mismeasure of Man_ is really a brief essay on
intelligence and intelligence testing. An update looks at newer evidence
from a 1990 twin study in Minnesota.
"A trait can be 100 percent heritable in the circumstances in
which that heritability was measured, yet be easily changed.
If that were not true, medical genetics would lose most of its
interest. People with two copies of the mutation for Wilson's
disease used to die in early adolescence or early adulthood
with absolute certainty, because of the lack of a single enzyme.
Now they survive by taking a simple pill that makes up for their
chemical deficiency. Wilson's disease used to be 100 percent
heritable, but is no longer. ... The "heritability" of a trait
only measures the proportion of variation among people that is
caused by the variation of their genes in the present array of
environments and for that specific trait. Thus an estimate
of the heritability of a characteristic has no predictive or
Among the less focused reviews, "Darwin's Revolution" looks at a potpourri
of eight books published around the Darwin centenary in 1982, spanning
everything from creationism to history of science to debates within
evolutionary biology to a popular introduction to evolution. "Darwin,
Mendel, and the Mind" reviews biographies of Darwin, Mendel, and Lamarck
and, for something completely different, Changeux's _Neuronal Man_.
"The Science of Metamorphoses" has two separate parts, one on a biography
of Jacques Loeb and the engineering approach to biology and the other
on Edelman's _Topobiology_.
"The Dream of the Human Genome" looks at nine books published around 1990,
when the human genome project was just getting under way. In it Lewontin
critiques the grandiose claims and hidden assumptions of the project,
as well as highlighting the vested interests of the participants ("no
prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial
stake in the biotechnology business") and the controversies over the use
of DNA forensic evidence. A decade later, that all holds up rather well,
but an update considers recent developments.
"Women versus the Biologists" looks at a whole collection of books by Ruth
Hubbard, encompassing debates over the nature of biological and social
differences between the sexes, and over women in science. And in "Sex,
Lies, and Social Science" Lewontin critiques a 1994 survey of American
sexual practices, focusing on the unreliability of self-reporting.
In response to a claim in the resulting exchange that it was inappropriate
for a biologist working on "simple" animals to review a book "formulating
a social perspective on human sexual conduct in the United States", a
rare autobiographical note illustrates how Lewontin's interests extend
beyond the population genetics of fruit flies:
"Although a biologist, I have a graduate degree in mathematical
statistics and have taught the subject for forty years. About 10
percent of my technical publications, including a textbook of
statistics, have been devoted to problems of statistical sampling,
estimation, and hypothesis testing. More important, my biological
work must be classified as methodological, my chief contribution
to the field having been an analysis of the deep epistemological
difficulties posed by the data of evolutionary genetics and the
introduction of new experimental approaches specifically designed
to overcome the ambiguities. Finally, my work on epistemological
problems, produced both alone and with philosophers of science,
appears in standard philosophical journals."
Though _It Ain't Necessarily So_ itself is free from statistics.
"The Confusion over Cloning" considers a 1997 report from a bioethics
advisory commission on cloning, exploring the ways in which the
assumptions of genetic determinism lead to confused thinking about the
subject -- and explaining some of the real safety issues involved.
And "Survival of the Nicest", a review of Sober and Wilson's _Unto
Others_, considers the debate over the origins of altruism and the
role of group selection.
%T It Ain't Necessarily So
%S The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions
%A Lewontin, Richard
%I New York Review Books
%C New York
%G ISBN 0-940322-10-2
%K biology, philosophy of science
13 August 2001
Copyright (c) 2001 Danny Yee http://danny.oz.au/
Danny Yee's Book Reviews http://dannyreviews.com/
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