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the Complete Review
the complete review - science



It Ain't Necessarily So

by
Richard Lewontin


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase It Ain't Necessarily So



Title: It Ain't Necessarily So
Author: Richard Lewontin
Genre: Science
Written: (2000)
Length: 341 pages
Availability: It Ain't Necessarily So - US
It Ain't Necessarily So - UK
It Ain't Necessarily So - Canada
  • The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions
  • Nine essays/book reviews originally published in The New York Review of Books between 1981 and 1998. Also includes letters written in response to the reviews, and postscripts updating the reviews.
  • The essays included are:
    • The Inferiority Complex
    • Darwin's Revolution
    • Darwin, Mendel, and the Mind
    • The Science of Metamorphoses
    • The Dream of the Human Genome
    • Women versus the Biologists
    • Sex, Lies, and Social Science
    • The Confusion over Cloning
    • Survival of the Nicest ?

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting and informative collection of pieces, more than mere book reviews.

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist A 9-10/2000 Rob Dorit
The Guardian A- 17/6/2000 Andrew Brown
Nature . 27/7/2000 Mark Ridley
New Statesman A- 3/7/2000 Kenan Malik
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 9/7/2000 Christine Kenneally
The Sunday Times A 11/6/2000 John Cornwell
Technology Review A 5-6/2000 Wade Roush


  Review Consensus:

  Very positive. Acknowledge that Lewontin isn't always correct, but that he presents his arguments well and that they are important arguments.


  From the Reviews:
  • "The pieces in It Ainít Necessarily So (...) should be read by anyone wishing to understand the intellectual history of biology over the past four decades. Opinionated? You bet, but also brilliant, and just about impossible to put down. The author is (bliss to a reader) impeccably candid about his point of view." - Rob Dorit, American Scientist

  • "The sweep and scepticism of his arguments is always exhilarating and usually spot-on. (...) This is a fine and important book, and a very necessary corrective to all sorts of popular fallacies. There is very little journalism that can bear rereading 20 years on: that Lewontin's essays stand up as well as they do is a testimony to the clarity with which he can see and make visible some very knotty problems." - Andrew Brown, The Guardian

  • "His writing is consistently elegant and readable, frequently funny, and abounding with provocative remarks." - Mark Ridley, Nature

  • "However unfashionable Lewontin's arguments may be, his ideas remain important for anyone wanting to make sense of contemporary biology, not because he is always right (he often isn't), but because he provides a necessary corrective to the facile character of much contemporary thinking about evolution, genetics and human nature." - Kenan Malik, The New Statesman

  • "Lewontin does not only debunk but also clearly conveys complicated information. Though challenging for the layperson, his book will reward persistent readers with a better understanding of the most controversial scientific issues of our day." - Christine Kenneally, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The painstaking, highly accessible, but penetrating quality of his work is essential reading for anyone interested in or involved in biological science, particularly the science of genetics. (...) What is unusual about Lewontin and his eloquent critique is that, apart from being extremely subtle and intelligent, he is a working biologist and a wonderfully stylish writer. (...) If you read only one book on genetics this year, make sure it is this one." - John Cornwell, The Sunday Times

  • "Lewontin's skillfully crafted reviews (...) say less about the books themselves than about Lewontin's sharp-witted skepticism and humility about nature's mysteries." - Wade Roush, Technology Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       It Ain't Necessarily So collects nine reviews written by Richard Lewontin for The New York Review of Books, centered on the subject of human biology. It is only a selection of what he has written for The New York Review of Books, but -- though enjoyable pieces such as his review of Jurassic Park are not included -- it is a fairly well-rounded and certainly representative collection.
       Book reviews come in all shapes and sizes, with different fora serving different purposes. The New York Review of Books goes about reviewing differently than the complete review, which in turn goes about reviewing differently than The New York Times Book Review (to name only three of our favourite fora). Among the neat things at The New York Review of Books is that reviews there often serve for essayistic digressions by the likes of such lights as Lewontin. Reviewing several books at a go, the reviews often focus as much on the general issues under discussion as on the books themselves. (The New York Review of Books' reviews are also, notoriously, used as a substitute for actual perusal of the books under review -- neat summaries though they may be, this we certainly can not condone.)
       Lewontin "reviews" a wide variety of books here. Some essays focus on (or take as a starting point) a single book -- so, for example, Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 The Mismeasure of Man (in The Inferiority Complex), while others discuss (at least nominally) a larger number at one go -- eight books on Darwin (in Darwin's Revolution) and nine on the Human Genome Project (in The Dream of the Human Genome). Among the books considered are weighty tomes (such as Gerald Edelman's Topobiology) and comic-book treatments (such as Darwin for Beginners, which Lewontin hails as "a superb introduction to a very tricky subject"), as well as a report on cloning from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission and various sex surveys (repackaged into books).
       Some of the books under review do get short shrift from Lewontin, but on the whole he does say what needs be said about them, passing confident (if sometimes summary) judgement over them. Indeed, where he lingers it tends to be to pick (generally quite devastatingly) at the faults -- so in his discussion of Sex, Lies, and Social Science -- and so some authors may prefer that he pay only passing attention to their efforts .....
       The fun of the pieces is, in fact, that they are not simply tightly focussed book reviews, and that Lewontin uses the opportunity to consider the larger picture, providing an often much-needed context for the texts. His survey of Darwin-books, and his comparison of the literature on Darwin and on Mendel, are useful complements to the reviews of the individual books (that can readily be found elsewhere). His essay on the Human Genome Project, The Dream of the Human Genome, is a welcome critical look at the undertaking. (Lewontin is, as a critic should be, critical: not necessarily negative, but asking the right questions and pointing out patently mistaken arguments and beliefs.)
       The book also offers "Epilogues" to several of the pieces, especially the older ones. Rather than updating the reviews, they are presented in their original state, with the epilogues suggesting what changes or additions Lewontin would now make. There are also several "Exchanges" added to the pieces -- letters to the editor regarding them, along with Lewontin's responses. These are both informative and entertaining -- especially a statement from several University of Chicago sociologists regarding Lewontin's Sex, Lies, and Social Science, and Lewontin's gleeful reply.
       Lewontin writes well and confidently. His tempered tone is a welcome antidote to the gushing enthusiasm of so many who write on science. He is knowledgeable about the fields he discusses, and he presents his arguments clearly. Despite the Chicago professors' protestations, Sex, Lies, and Social Science provides a clear and correct discussion of many of the problems with the sex surveys at issue, with Lewontin explaining the methodological issues quite clearly. He is similarly expert on biological questions, as well as the complex tangle of Darwinian issues (a definitional minefield he deftly navigates and explicates).
       Lewontin also raises important questions that are too often pushed aside in the debate around the Human Genome Project, the forensic application of DNA technology, and cloning. He even dares mention that dirty, well-kept secret that receives almost nary a mention in the popular press -- the financial interests of those involved in biological research. His statement that "No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business" is a sad warning (which continues to go unheeded). He also makes a point of pointing out government complicity, ineptness, weakness, and injudicious use of its powers.
       Lewontin's politics may not always be popular, but these pieces aren't overly burdened by ideology. Lewontin's is a clear-headed voice here, warning of the danger of over-reliance on biology and science as it is (mis)understood and abused (intentionally or not) by scientists and professionals. His peek behind the scenes, suggesting some of the reasons for this state of affairs, is a welcome and necessary eye-opener.
       The collection is both entertaining and informative, whether about Mendel or cloning, women as the weaker sex or, especially, the Human Genome Project. There is, naturally, some lack of cohesion here -- there is some overlap, but these are pieces that don't necessarily fit together ideally. It is, however, a book to enjoy, piece by piece. Certainly recommended.

       We do have one major reservation about this collection: it comes without an Index. Given the varied topics and the many names mentioned we would have found an index most helpful.

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Links:

It Ain't Necessarily So:
  • New York Review Books publicity page
  • See also: On Online Alternatives, at the complete review Quarterly -- though it isn't quite so relevant any more, as The New York Review of Books has made most of their archive pay-per-view
Reviews: Richard Lewontin: Human Genome Project: Other books by Richard Lewontin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Richard Lewontin was born in 1929. He is a Research Professor at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard, and the author of numerous books.

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