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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 16.3 (2002) 239-241

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The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, Environment. Richard Lewontin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. 144. $22.95 h.c. 0-674-00159-1; $15.00 pbk. 0-674-00677-1.

The realm of immediate qualities contains everything of worth and significance. But it is uncertain, unstable and precarious. The first consideration induces us to prize consciousness supremely; the second leads us to deny reality to it as compared with the alleged underlying things with their fixity and permanence.

—John Dewey

Richard Lewontin's concise and tightly argued rebuttal of three models affecting current research in biology will be of particular interest to pragmatists, especially to readers of Dewey. Gracefully interlacing discussion of specific research with analysis of problematic assumptions at work in the metaphors driving genetic and developmental research, he offers the reader a theory of interaction of genes, organisms, and environment that he believes contemporary biology shortsightedly misses. At the same time he unambiguously affirms the need of sciencce for metaphor in any "attempt to explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly by human beings" (3). Thus, his aim is to show that if understanding in biological research is to continue to progress, metaphors suggesting fixedness must be replaced with metaphors suggesting process. Lewontin's view is that, currently, "[p]reformationism . . . has triumphed [in gene research], for there is no essential difference, but only one of mechanical details, between the view that the organism is already formed in the fertilized egg and the view that the complete blueprint of the organism and all the information necessary to specify it is contained there" (6). But the belief that a fixed essence resides in the genes (10) leads to bad biology because the development of an organism is keyed to the historical sequence of environments in which that development occurs. Lewontin shows this via a [End Page 239] series of intriguing cases. The morphology of the tropical vine Syngonium, for example, alters its leaf shape, leaf spacing, phototropism, and geotropism under different light conditions as it ascends or descends amongst trees, branches, and the ground (18-19). Lewontin concludes that "the organism is not determined by its genes, nor by its environment, nor even by the interaction between them, but bears a significant mark of random processes" (38).

Current metaphorical commitments in developmental biology contain reductive assumptions in the other direction. Developmental explanations have been trying to show the properties of living beings as mapping "the demands of the environment through adaptation" (47). Here the environment is taken as determining, the organism as responding. The language of adaptation supposes that environments are autonomous and independent. Agreeing with Dewey, Lewontin observes that living organisms are better thought of as reconstructing their worlds as they consume them. This means that inhabited environments will be different for succeeding generations. Lewontin's examples, ranging from the interactions of legumes with soil characteristics to the historical exchanges between pine forests, hardwood forests, and European settlers in New England, remind us that "the conditions which make possible the coming into being of any state are abolished by that state" (60). Thus, for Lewontin, there is no "sustainable agriculture" over the long term, no fixed environment to save, and extinction is the normal fate of any living thing. Neither are conceptions of nature as a balance or harmony consistent with biological reality. Patterns of exchange and dependence that can be observed at a particular historical moment of observation are always transitory in spite of our desire to see them as fixed or ideal. Lewontin reveals some unease with this conclusion by suggesting that we try to affect directions of environmental change so as to "make a decent life for human beings possible" (68). His suggestion assumes both the primacy of human life over others and the lucidity of "a decent life," each of which might be called into question by his thoroughgoing interactionism.

Lest the reader transfer her desire for fixity from genes and organisms to patterns of interaction, Lewontin's final argument sets out errors in biology...


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