The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment

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9780674006775: The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment

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.

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Review:

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

About the Author:

Richard Lewontin is Alexander Agassiz Research Professor at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. His many books include Biology and Ideology, Not in Our Genes, and Human Diversity.

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