Brain Robinson (9/27/98) deserves our special thanks for bringing Richard Lewontin’s thinking into the debate. As has been discussed elsewhere, R. Lewontin doesn’t think that genes influence human behavior. That’s his view and he’s welcome to it, but his explanation, which you quote, contains a catch. Lewontin states that genes can’t determine human behavior because "…the genes, in making possible the development of 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 They have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that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 interactions." [R. Lewontin (1993) The doctrine of DNA: Biology as ideology. Penguin Press, P. 123].
Lewontin, like Steve Gould and many others, desperately want to keep Darwinism OUT of the social sciences at any cost. This is so that the "…power to determine the individual and its environment" can only be explained at the level of social interactions. Thus, with one swipe, Lewontin banishes all we know of biology from the realm of explanations of human behavior. To me, this is as absurd as saying that biology plays no role in human health or human activities such as movement, perception or cognition, when a wealth of evidence proves the opposite.
He pins much of his rationale for excluding biology (genes, etc.) from human behavior on the mistaken (but not unique) view that human consciousness, once emerged, no longer depends on the brain for its content or direction (and is thus an immaterial "soul?"). Yet we know that brain trauma, either localized or widespread, can drastically alter aspects of consciousness. Examples of this are: blindsight, (wherein people can see but are not consciously aware that they can see), sensory neglect after right hemisphere damage, (wherein people cannot place into consciousness any sensory input from the left side of their body or the external world) and changes in consciousness associated with temporal lobe seizures (smells, tastes, visions, emotions such as fear or even religious rapture). We know that severing the corpus callosum, thus disconnecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain, often results in two distinct and different "minds" in the same head. Further, we know that destruction of the hippocampus results in a consciousness devoid of new memories; destruction of the amygdala results in a consciousness that no longer experiences fear or anger, and that cannot recognize emotions in the facial expressions of others; destruction of a specific region in the prefrontal cortex results in a consciousness that is unable to make good decisions, even though all normal cognitive functions remain intact.
It seems an act of desperation to invoke consciousness as the wall that prevents our genes from influencing our behavior, given that scholars who study consciousness are perhaps even more deeply divided (and in the dark) about the true nature of consciousness than we (and the scholars we read) are about the role of genes in human behavior. If you don’t believe me on this, check out the proceedings of the biennial Tucson Meetings, "Towards a Science of Consciousness," or just the postings from the Quantum-Mind listserv, a moderated email discussion of just quantum theories of Consciousness (and it runs hundreds of pages)! Once you realize that every aspect of the concept of consciousness is hotly debated and nothing is agreed upon, invoking consciousness to explain ANYTHING is a smoke screen. It’s like invoking alien abduction as an explanation for a person’s unsettling dreams or emotional problems.
More desperate still is Lewontin’s claim that, "…(I)t is consciousness that creates our environment, its history and the direction of its future." Consciousness created the history of our environment, including the fossil record? This sounds like New Age mysticism, wherein we consciously "create" our own reality, even if that reality is a malignant tumor.
As for the issue of confusing causes and agents, it is he who seems confused, given his example. If bacteria are the agents of disease while the cause of the disease is socio-economic relations, then why do antibiotics cure infected people, whether rich or poor? And while it is true that poor people have poorer health than rich people, this hardly means that poverty causes disease. If "germs" are not a cause of some diseases, then why did the global elimination of the small pox virus totally eliminate small pox infections among both rich and poor? How was Jonas Salk able to devise a treatment that has eliminated the dread disease of Polio while leaving the socio-economic situation largely unchanged? Poor people are still poor, are they not? I think the logic here is terribly confused. I think his real goal is more subtle. If germs don’t CAUSE disease, then genes don’t CAUSE any aspect of behavior. It’s all socio-economic!
If Lewontin still believes that there is no evidence about the heritability of personality traits, he is in a diminishing minority of scholars. The evidence for such heritability continues to grow. The problem of separating nature from nurture has been overcome via studies of identical twins reared apart from birth. Such studies continue to expand the list of "traits" that are concordant with the biological parents and NOT the adoptive parents. Lewontin is fighting a rear guard action to maintain the specious position that human nature is totally malleable immensely flexible. This position can support Behaviorism and Marxism while rendering evolutionary psychology trivial if not altogether wrong. In the view of most authorities in Neuroscience, this position is simply untenable.
I could go on discussing Lewontin’s views but they are all pretty much as stated above - a wall must exist between our genes and our behavior so that only social factors influence humans. This passion for exclusion may derive from Lewontin’s political views. As a Marxist, he is committed to a human nature that is highly malleable. This is required of Marxism, just as it is of Behaviorism. If humans are NOT born as "blank slates," then neither socio-economic relations (class conflicts) nor contingencies of reinforcement can ever be fully adequate for explaining (and shaping) human behavior.