Is our nature—as individuals, as a species—determined by our evolution and encoded in our genes? If we unravel the protein sequences of our DNA, will we gain the power to cure all of our physiological and psychological afflictions and even to solve the problems of our society? Today biologists—especially geneticists—are proposing answers to questions that have long been asked by philosophy or faith or the social sciences. Their work carries the weight of scientific authority and attracts widespread public attention, but it is often based on what the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin identifies as a highly reductive misconception: "the pervasive error that confuses the genetic state of an organism with its total physical and psychic nature as a human being."
In these nine essays covering the history of modern biology from Darwin to Dolly the sheep, all of which were originally published in The New York Review of Books, Lewontin combines sharp criticisms of overreaching scientific claims with lucid expositions of the exact state of current scientific knowledge—not only what we do know, but what we don't and maybe won't anytime soon. Among the subjects he discusses are heredity and natural selection, evolutionary psychology and altruism, nineteenth-century naturalist novels, sex surveys, cloning, and the Human Genome Project. In each case he casts an ever-vigilant and deflationary eye on the temptation to look to biology for explanations of everything we want to know about our physical, mental, and social lives.
These essays—several of them updated with epilogues that take account of scientific developments since they were first written—are an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.
The second edition of this collection includes new essays on genetically modified food and the completion of the Human Genome Project. It is an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.
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Stephen Jay Gould calls Richard Lewontin "simply the smartest man I have ever met." And not the least opinionated, either. Lewontin has long been famous among biologists for a volatile combination of feisty leftism, scientific insight, and verbal skill, which have been displayed for the more general public in his essays for what has been called The New York Review of Each Other's Books.
It Ain't Necessarily So is a collection of some of his more characteristic reviews from the 1980s and 1990s. The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould; Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior, by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson; sociological studies of Sex in America; and Ruth Hubbard's books on gender in science: all his essays are informative yet lively, with a high acid content--as when he begins his piece on the Human Genome Project with a definition of "fetish."
Lewontin's prose is worth reading in itself, but what lifts this anthology to another level is that it also includes replies and rebuttals selected from the New York Review's letters column--a forum that doubles as the intellectual's World Wrestling Federation. For the older pieces, he also includes updates, "where are they now" summaries to give a sense of historical change in each field. Assertive, brilliant, sarcastic, dense, wide-ranging--Lewontin may be challenging, but he is never dull. --Mary Ellen CurtinAbout the Author:
Richard Lewontin is a leading geneticist and the author of Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA and The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and co-author of The Dialectical Biologist (with Richard Levins) and Not in Our Genes (with Steven Rose and Leon Kamin). He is Professor of Population Sciences and the Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University.
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