on Lewontin on biology

Lisa Rogers EQDOMAIN.EQWQ.LROGERS at email.state.ut.us
Thu Sep 14 11:38:20 MDT 1995

JimDevine:I recently read Lewontin book (NOT IN OUR GENES, with Rose
and  Kamin) and I don't think this [Lisa's] is an accurate
description of  Lewontin's views.

Lisa:  Jim's view of Lewontin certainly looks more reasonable than
what I've seen.  If you read his Tanner lecture, you'll see what I
saw.  To the extent that he did say anything reasonable, it is still
irritating to a lot of us behavioral ecologists because we already
know all about "interaction with environment" etc, etc.  Repeated
tales about the evils of genetic determinism are redundant and
irrelevant to all my colleagues, and I believe, to the immense
majority of all biologically informed people.  Certainly in the
Tanner Lecture, Lewontin went much farther than blasting what I would
call bio-determinism.  Rather than shooting a conceptual wolf in
biological clothing, that was trying to hide in the department, but
was dead already anyway, it felt like Lewontin would blow up the
whole building.  Or the rest of us respectable people keep burying a
smelly dead goat, and Lewontin&co keep digging up the goat so they
can shoot it again, in order to save us all.  All it does is stink up
the whole place.

JDevine:  Lewontin is definitely launching polemics, criticizing
those such as E.O. Wilson, who want to explain everything in terms of
genetics or biology (reducing human social behavior to ant behavior,
for example).
[snip] I think they see a biologically-determinist ideological
overlay which contradicts the scientific basis of biology.

Lisa:  (I'm not sure if my snipping ended up being misleading by
putting the above two bits together, or if it actually clarifies the
meaning of the second sentence.  Or I should ask JimD, where is the
"overlay" you refer to?)
The most that I will say in "defense" of EOWilson is that the above
comment is a poor caricature of his work.  Paul Kitcher's _Vaulting
Ambition_ provides a fairly comprehensive review of obnoxious
"deterministic" statements made by Wilson.  Kitcher devotes most of
his book to debunking Wilson, holding Wilson up as nearly the sole
personification of "bio-det", which I don't think is entirely fair,
but even Kitcher doesn't claim that Wilson "reduces" people to ants.

JDevine: At any one time, human behavior is _limited_ by genes, but
cultural/technological matters determine the extent to which  these
limits are reached. Dynamically, cultural/technologial  evolution
(which is more Lamarckian in that acquired  characteristics can be
inherited) has taken the driver's seat  from Darwinian
biological/genetic evolution (which happens more  slowly and is
influenced by the first kind of evolution).

Lisa:  I'm not sure what exactly is meant by this.  It looks
familiar, but it is not very specific.  Perhaps an example would
help, except that I don't want to go far into "gene/culture
coevolution" as a topic.  There are several people publishing various
approaches to this concept and the related topic of social/cultural
evolution, but I don't find any of them very useful, as I have
mentioned before.

Points well taken regarding ADD/autism/etc, although it is nothing
new to biologists.  Even [dare I say it] EOWilson understands that
many species are very sensitive to social learning, social
environment, etc, perhaps especially humans.  It is part of the
nature of the "social adaptation" of social species.

Jim Devine: I too was dissatified with the idea that human freedom is
like the freedom of particles in Brownian motion.

Lisa:  If I seem a bit in/tense on this topic/post today, please
forgive.  We really do agree on essentials, don't we?  It may seem
I've spent the whole post quibbling, but what Lewontin / Wilson
actually say or think or do is not really the main point.

Perhaps some points we should address are What should a marx-informed
critique of biology / determinism look like?  And What is to be done
about effects of science upon society, or What should be done to
affect science?  Or what should biology do, or would do differently
if marx/soc/revolutionaries had our way?

Or, what do you [all] think the main points are or should be?

Lisa Rogers

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