The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 2000, 136pp. h.b.
reviewed by MC5, January 13, 2001
MIM recommends this book, by Harvard professor Richard Lewontin, especially for those who are in the life sciences or would consider the life sciences for a career. Famous earth scientist and biologist Stephen J. Gould has said that Lewontin is the "most brilliant scientist I know."
From MIM's point of view, Lewontin accomplishes three goals in this book, listed in descending order of importance: 1) attacking once again the idea that genes determine the organism without a role for the environment or the organism 2) refuting idealism that has sneaked into evolutionary theory concerning adaptation to environment 3) that there is no correct line that can save species and that environmentalism has to be anthrocentric.
Lewontin shows readers a picture of a humyn sperm with a full-grown but miniature humyn inside.(p. 7) There used to be those in science that believed the mother only nourished the sperm which grew larger into a baby sized humyn. The reason Lewontin shows readers this drawing and element of history is to warn people not to become the next "preformationists," people who believed everything was already determined once the sperm left the male. The genetic determinists need to learn a lesson.
Next, he shows readers scientific results from seven different plants cloned twice each, and broken into three groups.(pp. 20-1) All three plant groups had the exact same genes, but then they were placed in different environments. The plants with the same exact genes grew to different heights in different environments. Furthermore, the one that did the best at low elevation did the worst at middle elevation and then the best again at the highest elevation. Hence, it was not easy to predict which sets of genes (genotypes) would do well in what environment. The point is that environment is a big and messy factor in how a plant grows.
It is not that Lewontin says that genes have no impact. Humyn genes and chimpanzee genes are different and that is why the two species have different language abilities.(p. 28) Differences amongst species can be attributed to genes. Differences within species are more difficult to understand.
Humyns are a great example of the organism's impact on its own environment. Like some public health researchers, Lewontin has noticed that the real advances in medical health do not come from discovering vaccinations or even theories of germs. In actuality, humyns have seen an increase in their life expectancy for the following reason: "The most plausible explanation we have is that during the nineteenth century there was a general trend of increase in the real wage, an increase in the state of nutrition of European populations, and a decrease in the number of hours worked. As people were better nourished and better clothed and had more rest time to recover from taxing labor, their bodies, being in a less stressed physiological state, were better able to recover from the further severe stress of infection. . . . The causes of death in Europe in earlier times were what they still are in the third world: overwork and undernourishment."(pp. 104-5)
Even within a species, and this touches very indirectly on race, some genotypes do better based on what genotypes are already prevalent in that species' population.(p. 128) There is no saying which genotype is "best" for all situations. Even at the individual gene level, some genes are more likely to become reproduced in combination with certain other genes, but which genes are better combinations again depends on other factors. In some situations, it makes no sense to speak of the genes separately.(pp. 82-87)
Because the same plant may do poorly at middle elevation but well at low and high elevations, Lewontin pushes to expunge idealism from biological thinking. There is no "ideal environment" in which all genotypes (sets of genes) can be evaluated.(p. 30) The environment is in fact always changing, even as a species "adapts" to its environment. In fact, changes in organisms also change their environments.(p. 58)
White pines are a species of tree that can fill in in an environment going through transition. However, once white pines grow up, they create deep shade and their own seedlings perish. Hence white pine forests only last one generation and are succeeded by hardwood forests.(p. 59) This is an example of how the organism changes the environment. Even such small changes as the spacing between leaves in a plant make a big difference in the "microenvironment" important to insects and pollen.
Finally, Lewontin says something to environmentalists that is very important: "The growing environmentalist movement to prevent alterations in the natural world that will be, at best, unpleasant and, at worst, catastrophic for human existence cannot proceed rationally under the false slogan 'Save the Environment.' 'The environment' does not exist to be saved. The world inhabited by living organisms is constantly being changed and reconstructed by the activities of ITAL all END of those organisms, not just by human activity. Neither can the movement proceed under the banner of 'Stop Extinctions!' Of all species that have existed, 99.99 percent are extinct, all species that currently exist will one day be extinct. Indeed all life on earth will one day be extinct. . . . What we can do is to try to affect the rate of extinction and direction of environmental change in such a way as to make a decent life for human beings possible."(pp. 67-8)(1)
This book is highly readable relative to its content; even though it makes references to many subjects learned in college. We expect that people with high school reading skills will obtain much of value from the book.
1. MIM is saying the same things at http://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/mn/mn190 /environment.txt http://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/letters/nonfaqlt/index.ht ml
Buy This Book
|Back to bookstore||Home page|