This wideranging collection of provocative essayreviews from The New York Review of Books focuses on the biological sciences.
Lewontin (Agassiz Prof. of Biology/Harvard) finds himself at odds with some fashionable orthodoxies of modern biology. In particular, he is skeptical of the determinist streak evident in many proponents of genetics. In a brief introduction he sets the context. As he sees it, part of the problem originates with the migration into biology of physicists and chemists in the 1950s, thrusting molecular biology into the center of public attention. Congress may be unwilling to fund the supercollider, but it did not blanch at funding the Human Genome Project, touted as the cureall for myriad ills. Lewontin points out that, despite the geneticists' hype, in many cases the genetic expression of a congenital disease is not confined to a unique sequence of DNA. Moreover, identifying the genetic cause does not necessarily produce a cure. Lewontin's historical observations are also useful. For instance, while Darwin's formulation of natural selection as the driving force of evolution is not open to serious challenge, the pat notion of species often conveniently overlooks the considerable degree of variation within a species. As one would expect from an NYRB reviewer, Lewontin rarely dodges controversy—concerning the National Bioethics Advisory Commission's report on cloning, he wonders whether it was at all wise to give religious spokespeople input into a document on scientific policy. Likewise, he points out the key problem in research on human sexuality: whether the subjects can be trusted to tell the researchers the truth about their practices. The book's exploration of these and other issues is given additional depth by the inclusion of exchanges between Lewontin and some of the subjects of the reviews.
Wellwritten, insightful, and a useful reminder of the complex issues still unsolved in the biological sciences.