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the Complete Review
the complete review - science

The Triple Helix

Richard Lewontin

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To purchase The Triple Helix

Title: The Triple Helix
Author: Richard Lewontin
Genre: Science
Written: 2000
Length: 129 pages
Availability: The Triple Helix - US
The Triple Helix - UK
The Triple Helix - Canada
La triple hélice - France
Die Dreifachhelix - Deutschland
  • Gene, Organism, and Environment
  • The first three chapters of this book were originally presented as lectures in the Lezioni Italiani in Milan
  • The first three chapters were originally published in Italian as Gene, Organismo e Ambiente

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Our Assessment:

A- : a welcome and well-presented reminder that DNA doesn't explain everything

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist A 9-10/2000 Rob Dorit
Nature B 27/7/2000 Mark Ridley
The NY Times Book Rev. A 16/4/2000 John R.G. Turner
Salon . 9/1/2001 Ralph Brave

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Triple Helix and It Ain’t Necessarily So take clear and direct aim at the way much of biology is now being done. Lewontin’s claim is radical and convincingly argued." - Rob Dorit, American Scientist

  • "Most of the points, and the examples Lewontin uses to make them, will already be familiar to biologists." - Mark Ridley, Nature

  • "This is a tough, challenging, and rewarding book aimed at persuading professional biologists to take account of what, Lewontin says, they all know already at some level of their consciousness. The general reader will find here a constructive critique of the limitations of science by a very successful and accomplished scientist." - John R.G. Turner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Lewontin lays out his position with devastating clarity; the science in the book should be accessible to most laypersons. However much our DNA may tell us about individual diseases, he says, ultimately reductionism provides a simplified and therefore false picture of both the interactions between the genes of any cell and the other parts of the cell and the interactions between a cell and all the other cells of an organism." - Ralph Brave, Salon

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:

       The sequencing of human DNA -- the Human Genome Project -- is one of the great scientific projects of our time. An enormous undertaking, it is thought that it will provide us with a marvelous map of how man works, a blueprint of the building stones that go into creating each individual. Among the most obvious uses will be the ability to identify genetic dis-orders -- places where the DNA has gone awry, leading to certain diseases, disabilities, propensities, weaknesses, strengths. Popular enthusiasm sees the DNA sequence as the key to a wide variety of questions, explaining almost everything about why each individual is the way he or she is -- physically and otherwise.
       As Richard Lewontin shows in this small but penetrating book: it ain't even close to being that easy. DNA can tell us a lot, but it is only a small part of a big picture and should not be considered solely in isolation. As the subtitle suggests, there is a complex interplay of gene, organism, and environment that determines eventual outcomes. In large part Lewontin's book is a call to scientists to remember this fact, and to adjust their research accordingly. As such it also serves as a useful reminder to the layman that scientists can be as blinkered as anyone, ignoring forests because they are so fascinated by individual trees.
       In the first chapter, Gene and Organism, Lewontin deftly reminds the reader what is too often forgotten in media accounts and the like: that genes are only part of how any organism develops. As Lewontin says:

Any computer that did as poor a job of computation as an organism does from its genetic "program" would immediately be thrown into the trash and its manufacturer would be sued by the purchaser.
       A number of simple examples (with useful diagrams) show how environmental factors play an enormous role in the development of organisms. Significantly, the consequences of these external factors are not predictable, even when restricted to a single variable (such as altitude, for growing plants, or temperature). All genotypes will react differently to different environmental conditions, making it impossible to generalize that certain conditions (excluding, of course, extreme conditions) are universally better (or worse) -- something that is understood by plant breeders (but, apparently, not as clearly understood by those dealing with (human) society).
       The second chapter moves on to Organism and Environment. Here Lewontin looks at evolution itself, focussing also on the role organisms play in (re)constructing their environment. Again, Lewontin emphasizes a perhaps unpopular perspective: his reminder that "Of all species that have ever existed 99.99 percent are extinct, and all species that currently exist will one day be extinct" is not the way most people prefer to look at the world. Nevertheless, Lewontin is absolutely correct in stating:
"The environment" does not exist to be saved. The world inhabited by living organisms is constantly being changed and reconstructed by the activities of all those organisms, not just by human activity.
       Naturally, this should not be taken as an excuse for man to do whatever he wants to the environment: the important point is that the world is constantly and inevitably changing.
What we can do is to try and affect the rate of extinction and direction of environmental change in such a way as to make a decent life for human beings possible. What we cannot do is to keep things as they are.
       The third chapter, Parts and Wholes, Causes and Effects, examines other issues relating to the understanding of organisms and evolution. Lewontin discusses the difficulties of the reductionist approach to understanding -- as, for example, with the Human Genome Project (sequencing human DNA), and shows some of its inherent limitations He also considers the distinction between causes and agencies, too readily forgotten when the scientist's focus narrows.
       The concluding chapter looks at Directions in the Study of Biology, a call to heed some of his criticism and adjust the study specifically of biological questions accordingly. Lewontin notes that "the earlier chapters in this book have a distinctly negative flavor", and he tries to spin them somewhat more positively here, nudging his colleagues to acknowledge what, deep down, they already know and adjust their research accordingly. A realist -- he acknowledges that money and finite resources place great constraints on scientific work -- he believes that new methodologies will permit progress in biological research.

       Brief but clearly-written and rich in examples, The Triple Helix is highly recommended. Too often the popular press (and scientists alike) simplify human biology to the machine-level: man as machine, DNA as the marvelous program running it. There is a wealth of knowledge to be gleaned from current research in DNA, but, as Lewontin so clearly shows, it does not hold all the answers, at least not when looked at by itself. The true picture is more complex, and scientists must also focus on that larger (and more useful) picture.

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The Triple Helix: Reviews: 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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