In this slender book, Harvard geneticist and zoologist R.C. Lewontin lays out a much needed corrective against genetic determinism, the notion that huIn this slender book, Harvard geneticist and zoologist R.C. Lewontin lays out a much needed corrective against genetic determinism, the notion that human beings are "nothing more than" meat robots compelled toward particular behaviors, both individual and collective, by our genes. Lewontin reserves much of his scorn for the "just so stories" of sociobiology, with its uncritical (and unscientific) "discoveries" of particular cultural norms--like racism, sexism, and imperialism--being universally hardwired into human biology, and so seemingly part of our collective destiny, like it or not.
In the introductory chapter, Lewontin lays out the foundation for the rest of the book. He presents philosophy, sociology, and political theory of science:
For an institution to explain the world so as to make the world legitimate, it must possess several features. First, the institution as a whole must appear to derive from sources outside of ordinary human social struggle. It must not seem to be the creation of political, economic, or social forces, but to descend into society from a supra-human source. Second, the ideas, pronouncements, rules, and results of the institution's activity must have a validity and a transcendent truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its explanations and pronouncements must seem to be true in an absolute sense and to derive somehow from an absolute source. They must be true for all time and all place. And finally, the institution must have a certain mystical and veiled quality so that its innermost operation is not completely transparent to everyone. It must have an esoteric language, which needs to be explained to the ordinary person by those who are especially knowledgeable and who can intervene between everyday life and mysterious sources of understanding and knowledge.
The Christian Church or indeed any revealed religion fits these requirements perfectly, and so religion has been an ideal institution for legitimating society....
But this description also fits science and has made it possible for science to replace religion as the chief legitimating force in modern society. Science claims a method that is objective and nonpolitical, true for all time. Scientists truly believe that except for the unwanted intrusions of ignorant politicians, science is above the social fray....
Not only the methods and institutions of science are said to be above ordinary human relations but, of course, the product of science is claimed to be a kind of universal truth. The secrets of nature are unlocked. Once the truth about nature is finally revealed, one must accept the facts of life... Finally, science speaks in mysterious words. No one except an expert can understand what scientists say and do, and we require the mediation of special people... to explain the mysteries of nature because otherwise there is nothing but indecipherable formulas....
Despite its claim to be above society, science, like the Church before it, is a supremely social institution, reflecting and reinforcing the dominant values and views of society at each historical epoch. (7-9)
Lewontin takes specific exception to the uses to which biology has been put, in justifying human systems of inequality and repression:
The vulgar error that confuses heritability and fixity has been, over the years, the most powerful single weapon that biological ideologues have had in legitimating a society of inequality. Since as biologists they must know better, one is entitled to at least a suspicion that the beneficiaries of a system of inequality are not to be regarded as objective experts. (37)
Bioinformatics is regularly hailed as a game-changing science, bringing genetic information to bear on everything from health care to public policy, but does this new knowledge empower individuals or institutions?
Increasingly, knowledge about the genome is becoming an element in the relation between individuals and institutions, generally adding to the power of institutions over individuals. The relations of individuals to the providers of health care, to the schools, to the courts, to employers are all affected by knowledge, or the demand for knowledge, about the state of one's DNA. (76)
Sociobiology and "Just So" stories:
At the surface this theory of human nature [i.e., sociobiology] is the obvious ideological commitment to modern entrepreneurial competitive hierarchical society. Yet underneath is a deeper ideology, and that is the priority of the individual over the collective. Despite the name sociobiology, we are dealing with a theory not of social causation but of individual causation. The characteristics of society are seen as caused by the individual properties that its members have, and those properties ... are said to derive from the members' genes. If human societies engage in war, that is because each individual in the society is aggressive. If men as a group dominate women or white Blacks, it is because each man as an individual is desirous of dominating each woman and each white person has feelings of personal hostility set off by the sight of Black skin. The structures of society simply reflect these individual predispositions. Society is nothing but the collection of individuals in it, just as culture is seen as nothing but the collection of disarticulated bits and pieces, individual preferences and habit. (93)
The real difficulty with the process of explanation that allows direct advantage, or kin selection, or reciprocal altruism when one of the other is useful in the explanation, is that a story can be invented that will explain the natural selective advantage of any trait imaginable. When we combine individual selective advantage with the possibility of kin selection and reciprocal altruism, it is hard to imagine any human trait for which a plausible scenario for its selective advantage could not be invented. The real problem is to find out whether any of these stories is true. One must distinguish between plausible stories, things that might be true, and true stories, things that actually have happened. How do we know that human altruism arose because of kin selection or reciprocal altruistic selection? At the very minimum, we might ask whether there is any evidence that such selective processes are going on at the present, but in fact non one has ever measured in any human population the actual reproductive advantages or disadvantages of any human behavior. All of the sociobiological explanations of the evolution of human behavior are like Rudyard Kipling's Just So stories of how the camel got his hump and how the elephant got his trunk. They are just stories. Science has been turned into a game. (100)
Our DNA is a powerful influence on our anatomies and physiologies. In particular, it makes possible the complex brain that characterizes human beings. But having made that brain possible, the genes have made possible human nature, a social nature whose limitation and possible shapes we do not know except insofar as we know what human consciousness has already made possible....History far transcends any narrow limitations that are claimed for either of power of genes or the power of the environment to circumscribe us.... [T]he genes, in making possible the development of human consciousness, have surrendered their power both to determine the individual and its environment. They have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that unique form of experience, social action. (123)
More slowly paced that Egan's previous novels. Focuses on intra- and interpersonal stuff more than traditional science fiction. Not sure if the main cMore slowly paced that Egan's previous novels. Focuses on intra- and interpersonal stuff more than traditional science fiction. Not sure if the main character is chillingly mechanical on purpose or by accident; purpose and accident are the driving intellectual themes of the novel, which adds to the uncertainty. Features Egan's typically unbelievable character expositions on scientific and philosophical themes, along with his broad-brush hostility toward religion per se. The novel finally went off the rails with its full-on the-selfish-gene-as-evil-mastermind plot device and and its ending was a deus-less deus ex machina---all loose ends get tied up halfway down the last page!
The last line of the book is "Life is meaningless." This is one time when I should have skipped ahead and saved myself the (meaningless) time I needed to read this book. ...more
Based on the short film of the same name, Powers of Ten takes the reader on a voyage into the biggest and smallest frames of reference we can currentlBased on the short film of the same name, Powers of Ten takes the reader on a voyage into the biggest and smallest frames of reference we can currently imagine. Packed with notes and artwork, this book makes a perfect supplement to a classic, mind-blowing short scientific film....more
Many 20th century scientists, whether working for the military, industry, or their own self-aggrandizement, have been responsible for perpetrating horMany 20th century scientists, whether working for the military, industry, or their own self-aggrandizement, have been responsible for perpetrating horrible shit against "the least of these": prisoners, women, minorities, the mentally retarded, and even children. Forced sterilizations, feeding radioactive isotopes to pregnant women, and keeping prisoners in solitary confinement for decades are just a few of the insidious activities carried out, not by the Nazis or Soviets, but good, red-blooded American researchers, for the sake of increased knowledge, control, and power (but never wisdom, it should be noted). This graphic (in every sense of that term) collection is disconcerting, in both form and content, and it did an excellent job of lowering this reader's already often abysmal estimation of his fellow human beings. ...more
After I finished The Quantum and the Lotus, I was drawn to this volume. Instead of a conversation between two individuals from two interesting backgAfter I finished The Quantum and the Lotus, I was drawn to this volume. Instead of a conversation between two individuals from two interesting backgrounds—a scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist and a scientist raised Vietnamese Buddhist—the conversation here is within one individual, and it seems on its face to be a much more challenging discourse than the one between "new physics" and Buddhism. Biologists seem to me to be far less amenable to "spiritual" themes than their peers in physics, particularly when those themes are explicitly theist and Christian.
I anticipated an interesting read. Alas, this was mostly a slog. Firstly, his take on evolution was weak. Wright accepts the fact that evolution occured/occurs pretty much as per biology textbooks, but rejects the concomitant philosophical naturalism (a "worldview") he dubs evolutionism. He lays out three possible views of evolution for Christians (all of whom he assumes to be conservative when it comes to "Scripture"): Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, and Evolutionary Theism, and affirms that the last is most in line with his own beliefs. He never acknowledges that Neo-Darwinian evolution is a major challenge to theistic faiths; not just because its explanation for where we all came from undermines the central importance of a Creator, but also because much apparent ugliness and cruelty in nature suggests that such a Creator, if one were to exist, would be malign rather than beneficent. Secondly, Wright discusses performing science as a "methodological naturalist," without going into much detail of what this looks like or what challenges it poses to the Christian scientist (not to be confused with the Christian Scientist). Third, these crucial issues were cursorily dealt with before the author went on to talk about (monolithic) Christian approaches to genetic engineering, population, global warming, etc.
Maybe this book will challenge the thinking of a Young Earth Creationist, or other blinkered fundamentalists, and open them up to accepting the fact of evolution. Maybe it will encourage another kid from a Christian home to continue to study and practice science. Those would good things. Otherwise, meh....more
Right off the bat, the title intrigued me because of its potent, and somewhat idiosyncratic to my upbringing, associations. I grew up in a fundamentalRight off the bat, the title intrigued me because of its potent, and somewhat idiosyncratic to my upbringing, associations. I grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant Christian home in the late 70s, and my dad was into the televangelists, charismatics, and late-Great-planet-Earth types.
Exhibit A: a picture I found on a pamphlet in his bathroom drawer when I was a kid:
Since that time my dad has been caught up in the apocalyptic notion that one day everyone will have a barcode "stamped" on their hand and forehead, encoding all of their vital information and making life outside of the Satanic, totalitarian "one-world-government" nigh impossible. This was predicted in (his reading of) Revelations 13.16–17:
It [the second beast] also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Well this book takes that apocalyptic meme as its starting premise. People have gotten used to being tracked, chipped, and inventoried for the first quarter of the 21st century, and so for most folks the move to tattoo every adult (seventeen and up) with a barcode is seen as business as usual, and in fact, for many, convenient and patriotic. For the young protagonist, though, there is something sinister about the tattoo, and she is rapidly embroiled in a conspiracy involving corporate tyranny, individual freedom, social pressure, and very real hazards resulting from the genomics revolution and a re-envisioning of the meaning of being human.
Good young adult book, a quick read for a good reader. Not too challenging, in terms of writing, but engaging and thought-provoking, particularly in regard to the consequences of contemporary policies and discoveries for the world which will be inherited by the book's primary audience....more
Meh. Took a good initial premise and more or less squandered it. (view spoiler)[Telepathic powers and Native American shamans are the least of the disMeh. Took a good initial premise and more or less squandered it. (view spoiler)[Telepathic powers and Native American shamans are the least of the distractions from the original leitmotif of resistance and rebellion. Now we find that no only has the evil corporation been reorganizing society around genomically-informed cost-benefit analyses, but that it has also been working on cloning. And not merely human cloning, but posthuman, transgenic cloning, the mixing of human DNA with that of other species. In the case of the protagonist and her clone sisters, the DNA of a sparrow. (hide spoiler)] I kept wanting to like this book more than I did, because it is fun enough and the author seemed good intentioned, but when I got to the final section, where the author resolved literally every loose end (and we're talking BIG loose ends, what used to be called the denoument and stuff) in less than fifteen pages, I couldn't be charitable any longer. (view spoiler)[Some of those loose ends include: Shutting off the global system for killing people using viruses encoded in their barcodes by means of an algorithm that the protagonist's discovered-minutes-before autistic bird-clone-sister remembered from infancy. Finding out via the news media, who have been singularly inept until this point, that the aforementioned barcode viruses die after six months anyway, so whew, dodged that bullet. The ACLU sues the government so that people (presumably losers and freaks, since most normal folks love their 'toos) can refuse to be tattooed. Clap clap, erm. Evil corporation running the country? No problem—the idealist ex-senator will run for president, and that will save everything. Huh? Can anyone take that seriously after the 2008 elections? (hide spoiler)] Yeah, lots and lots of loose ends. Seen better endings in overlong Stephen King novels....more
Imagine a space opera with the worldbuilding detail of Dune, but one whose first volume (of three) is itself the length of The Lord of the Rings aImagine a space opera with the worldbuilding detail of Dune, but one whose first volume (of three) is itself the length of The Lord of the Rings and which involves an invasion from another dimension that is vaguely described as "hell" or the "afterlife," and you have this novel. Lots of exposition, like Herbert or Tolkien, with enough plot and characterization (and mysterious antagonists) to keep me turning pages. (It didn't hurt that I paid $1 for this monster at a used book sale; that's one of the best bucks I've ever spent!)...more