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.
Even for readers who do not agree with Lewontin, there is much of value in [his] books. He is superb at conceptually characterizing large research programmes in biology, and putting them in historical context…his writing is consistently elegant and readable, frequently funny, and abounding with provocative remarks.
A slim tour de force of the new genomic thinking. In an evenhanded set of essays, Lewontin extends this dynamic view of heredity to the interactions of genes, biology, and environment.
[Lewontin] is at odds with some orthodoxies of contemporary biology. He is skeptical of genetic determinism, the notion that what we are and what we do is determined by our genetic makeup. He argues in The Triple Helix for a more nuanced explanation than strictly genetic or strictly environmental views, or even the view that the explanation involves discovering how genes and environment interact… This book is a warning to those who seek fixes by manipulating the genes of humans or other species, or by implementing ill-conceived public policies.
In his latest book, The Triple Helix…Lewontin lays out his position with devastating clarity; the science in the book should be accessible to most laypersons. However much our DNA may tell us about individual diseases, he says, ultimately reductionism provides a simplified and therefore false picture of both the interactions between the genes of any cell and the other parts of the cell and the interactions between a cell and all the other cells of an organism. By extension, that false picture also undermines a true understanding of any organism’s interaction with its environment.
This book grows from the premise that interaction between organisms and their environments are not only influential for both parties, but are in fact crucial to shaping how each exists at any given moment. Building on this idea, Lewontin then shows that current methods for understanding society and social problems are often too simplistic and therefore dangerously inadequate.
Richard Lewontin refutes the thesis of genetic determinism—or what might be called ‘just’ genetics, meaning ‘only’ genetics. Lewontin is highly regarded not only for his research in population biology but also for his empirically grounded and challenging critiques of the field… Lewontin’s slim tome, readable within a few hours, is replete with provocative prose and graphs, sketches, and tables.
Lewontin is one of the great living biologists. With the scientific enterprise passing, it is said, from the age of physics into that of biology, his remarks on biology studies couldn’t be timelier.
Whatever the reader’s views, these essays are worth reading for their brilliant, if sometimes partisan, criticisms. Lewontin’s style is remarkably clear considering the complex nature of some of his arguments. Recommended.
- 144 pages
- 5 x 7-1/2 inches
- Harvard University Press
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