I don’t know if R C Lewontin’s name features in the vast pool of knowledge above, but let me drop it in now to watch the ripples (even if the stone itself sinks!). You’ll recall that quite some years ago he co-wrote a book, “Not In Our Genes”. It’s a very long time since I read it but my feeling persists that it was not always easy to be sure what exactly the authors were saying (was it Bertrand Russell who said that you can never be sure exactly what you’re saying until you know precisely what it is you are denying?). The general message, I think, was that it was quite wrong to look to genes to answer questions about human behaviour and intelligence. If that is a garbled account, please correct me, but it would seem extraordinary if genes were not to have a controlling influence on the brain when they exert so much control on every other organ in the body.
But I’ve just been reading his 1993 book, “The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as ideology” which, excepting one chapter, was the substance of the Massey Lectures delivered by the author on CBC in 1990. I’d like to pick a few ideas from it here to see if they might perhaps rescue us from our dilemma, even though I’m a little skeptical about Lewontin’s drift. He is certainly very aware that scientific theories and pardigms have social consequences, not least in the way they change our philosophical view of ourselves. He is very aware of history, of sociology, of psychology, of economics, of suffering, exploitation, mass poverty in the face of capitalistic wickedness and so on. He is against sociobiology. It seems apposite to quote here from the two sentences at the very end of the book:
“...(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 They have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that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.” (P 123, Penguin ppb.)
Earlier, he has criticised what he sees as a widespread tendency to confuse causes and agents. For example, bacteria are no more than agents in relation to a disease, the causes are to be found in socio-economic relations. He is deeply skeptical of The Human Genome Project, declaring that it will tell us nothing useful. He criticises the Darwinian world view in which organisms and environment are totally separated. “(O)rganisms confronted (mechanisms in the external world) and ... either successfully adapted to them or failed.” He continues:
“The deep point of Darwinism was the separation between the forces of the environment that create the problems and the internal forces of the organism that throw up solutions to problems more or less at random, the correct solutions being preserved.” (P 108) He states: “Modern biology has become completely committed to the view that organisms are nothing but the battle grounds between the outside forces and the inside forces”. Later: “When we free ourselves of the ideological bias of atomism and reductionism ... we find a much richer set of relations (with) very different consequences for social and political action than are usually supposed, for example, by the environmental movement”.
P117: “All forces of nature depend for their influence on size, distance and time duration. How large an organism is, how rapidly it alters its state and position, how far it is from other organisms of different sizes and kinds are all deeply influenced by the organism’s genes. So, in a very important sense, the physical forces of the world, insofar as they are relevant to living beings, are encoded in those beings’ genes”. Bacteria are too small to feel gravity, but we are too large to have to suffer constant bombardment from Brownian motion (which batters them). On page 122 he writes, “If one were to choose a simple biological property of human beings that was of supreme importance, it would be our size. The fact that we are somewhere between five and six feet tall has made all of human life possible as we know it.”
We have been able to build a technological civilization because we are not too small to generate the necessary kinetic energy from swinging pickaxes to break rocks for mining and therefore smelting iron (conversely of course small babies falling don’t hurt themselves); we are big enough to control fire using heavy branches; big enough to support a brain sufficiently commodious for the neuronal connections essential for thought and speech.
“The most important fact about human genes is that they help to make us as big as we are and to have a central nervous system with as many connections as it has. However, there are not enough genes to determine the detailed shape and structure of that nervous system nor of the consciousness that is an aspect of that structure. Yet it is consciousness that creates our environment, its history and the direction of its future. This then provides us with a correct understanding of the relation between our genes and the shape of our lives. ... (DNA), having made (the human) brain possible, the genes have made possible human nature, a social nature whose limitations and possible shapes we do not know except insofar as we know what human consciousness has already made possible.” (P 123)
For Lewontin, there is simply no evidence to support speculations about the heritability of personality traits, no successful disentanglement of family similarity because of shared family experiences and similarity because of genes, no grounds for supposing that an inherited set of human temperamental and intellectual traits are “the basis for social organization”. (P 96) “Once we admit that only the most general outlines of social behaviour could be genetically coded, then we must allow immense flexibility depending on particular circumstances.” (P 98) He cautions against “plausible stories” that can be “invented (to) explain the natural selective advantage of any trait imaginable”. (P 100) For him, sociobiological reasoning “makes a generalized observation by looking around. It postulates genes without any evidence, and then it tells a plausible or perhaps not so plausible story”. (P 101)
Going to move along the poolside for a better view of any ripples, maybe still see the stone through the clear water, perhaps hear words from a wise fish! No dangerous sharks in there, surely?!