It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusionsby Richard Lewontin
Is our nature—as individuals, as a species—determined by our evolution and encoded in our genes? If we unravel the protein sequences of our DNA, will we gain the power to cure all of our physiological and psychological afflictions and even to solve the problems of our society? Today biologists—especially geneticists—are proposing answers to… See more details below
Is our nature—as individuals, as a species—determined by our evolution and encoded in our genes? If we unravel the protein sequences of our DNA, will we gain the power to cure all of our physiological and psychological afflictions and even to solve the problems of our society? Today biologists—especially geneticists—are proposing answers to questions that have long been asked by philosophy or faith or the social sciences. Their work carries the weight of scientific authority and attracts widespread public attention, but it is often based on what the renowned evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin identifies as a highly reductive misconception: "the pervasive error that confuses the genetic state of an organism with its total physical and psychic nature as a human being."
In these nine essays covering the history of modern biology from Darwin to Dolly the sheep, all of which were originally published in The New York Review of Books, Lewontin combines sharp criticisms of overreaching scientific claims with lucid expositions of the exact state of current scientific knowledge—not only what we do know, but what we don't and maybe won't anytime soon. Among the subjects he discusses are heredity and natural selection, evolutionary psychology and altruism, nineteenth-century naturalist novels, sex surveys, cloning, and the Human Genome Project. In each case he casts an ever-vigilant and deflationary eye on the temptation to look to biology for explanations of everything we want to know about our physical, mental, and social lives.
These essays—several of them updated with epilogues that take account of scientific developments since they were first written—are an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.
The second edition of this collection includes new essays on genetically modified food and the completion of the Human Genome Project. It is an indispensable guide to the most controversial issues in the life sciences today.
The New York Times Book Review
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The Inferiority Complex
"The Inferiority Complex" was first published in The New York Review of Books on October 22, 1981, as a review of The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould (Norton, 1981).
THE FIRST MEETING of Oliver Twist and young Jack Dawkins, the Artful Dodger, on the road to London was a confrontation between two stereotypes of nineteenth-century literature. The Dodger was a "snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy ... with rather bow legs and little sharp ugly eyes." Nor was he much on English grammar and pronunciation. "I've got to be in London tonight," he tells Oliver, "and I know a 'spectable old genelman lives there, wot'll give you lodgings for nothink...." He was just what we might have expected of a ten-year-old streetwise orphan with no education and no loving family; brought up among the dregs of the Victorian Lumpenproletariat.
Oliver's speech, manner, and posture were very different. "`I am very hungry and tired,'" he says, "the tears standing in his eyes as he spoke. `I have walked a long way. I have been walking these seven days.'" Although he was a "pale, thin child," there was a "good sturdy spirit in Oliver's breast." Yet Oliver was born and raised in that most degrading of nineteenth-century institutions, the parish workhouse, deprived of all love and education. During the first nine years of his life he, "together with twenty or thirty other juvenile offenders against the poor-laws, rolled about the floor all day, without the inconvenience of too much foodor clothing."
Where amid the oakum pickings did Oliver find the moral sensitivity and knowledge of the English subjunctive that accorded so well with his delicate form? The solution of this, the central mystery of the novel, is that Oliver's blood was upper-middle-class, though his nourishment was gruel. Oliver's whole being is an affirmation of the power of nature over nurture. It is a nineteenth-century prefiguration of the adoption study of modern psychologists, showing that children's temperaments and cognitive powers resemble those of their biological parents whatever may be their upbringing. Blood will tell.
Dickens's explanation of the contrast between Oliver and the Artful Dodger is a form of a general ideology that has dominated European and American social thought for the last 200 years, and is the central concern of Stephen Jay Gould's bookthe ideology of biological determinism. According to this view, the patent differences between individuals, sexes, ethnic groups, and races in status, wealth, and power are based on innate biological differences in temperament and ability which are passed from parent to offspring at conception. There have, of course, been countercurrents of "environmentalism" emphasizing the malleability of individual development and the historical contingency of group differences, but, with the exception of Skinnerian behaviorism, all modern theories of social development have assumed an irreducible nontrivial variation in innate abilities among individuals and between groups. Occasionally, the political consequences of extreme biologism have been so repugnant that environmental and social explanations of group differences have held temporary sway. So, the practical application of biological race theory by the National Socialist state discredited biological theories of racial and ethnic superiority for about thirty years, but by 1969, with the publication of Arthur Jensen's monograph How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?, it was once again not only respectable, but even popular, to argue that blacks owed their inferior social position to their inferior genes.
Because biological determinism is a structure of social explanation that uses basic concepts in anatomy, evolutionary theory, genetics, and neurobiology, often in a corrupted form, its critique demands the powers of a historian of ideas and a professional biologist. Because the scientific methods and concepts involved are rather abstruse, criticism also requires a first-class writer. Fortunately, Gould is a professional historian, an evolutionary biologist and anatomist of great accomplishment, and a master at explaining science. The Mismeasure of Man is his examination and debunking of the scientific face of the fiction of Oliver.
Dickens's view of the origin of human variation was hardly exceptional; it permeated nineteenth-century literature: at times it appeared only incidentally as part of the substrate of unspoken assumption as, for example, in Felix Holt, when Esther Lyon is set to learning French on the assumption that her French ancestry will make it easy for her. At others, it is a central preoccupation, as in Eliot's Daniel Deronda. Daniel, the adopted son of a baronet, is a typical young English milord, whom we first meet at a fashionable Continental gambling spa. But then, mysteriously, in his young manhood, he develops an interest in things Hebrew, falls in love with a Jewish girl, becomes converted. The reader is not entirely astonished to learn that Daniel's mother was, in fact, a Jewish actress. The Law of Return, it seems, is only an expression of the inevitable.
A preoccupation with the power of blood was not simply what the French know as "the madness of the Anglo-Saxons." Eugène Sue, the most popular French author of the mid-nineteenth century, created in Les Mystères de Paris the archetype of the noble prostitute, somehow unsullied and saintly in the midst of her sordid existence. She was, of course, the abandoned child of a morganatic marriage. Among the goyim at least, true character apparently can be transmitted through the paternal line. But it is in the Rougon-Macquart novels of Zola that biological theories of character are given their most careful articulation. The Rougons and Macquarts were, it will be recalled, the two halves of a family descended from a woman whose first, lawful, mate was the solid peasant Rougon, while her second, illicit, lover was the violent, unstable Macquart. From these two unions arose an excitable, ambitious, successful line, and the depraved, alcoholic, criminal branch that included Gervaise and Nana. When Coupeau, Gervaise's husband, is admitted to the hospital for alcoholism, the examining physician asks him first, "Did your father drink?" As Zola says in his preface to the cycle, "Heredity has its laws, just like gravitation."
Zola's "experimental novels," as he called them, were the outcome of developments in physical anthropology as a scientific, materialist discipline, developments to which the first part of The Mismeasure of Man is devoted. In America, Samuel Rogers Morton had, in the 1830s and 1840s, measured large numbers of skulls of different human groups, including long-dead Incas and ancient Egyptians. The Anthropological Society of Paris had been founded in 1859 by Paul Broca, the leading European exponent of the theory that high intelligence and character were a consequence of larger brains, so that the mental qualities of individuals and races could be judged from the sizes of their skulls. The appearance, in the same year, of On the Origin of Species gave rise to an evolutionary view of human differences that placed each physical type on an ascending scale of progress from our apelike ancestors. In particular, criminals were seen as atavisms, apelike in both mind and body, but in a variety of forms, so that the founder of criminal anthropology, the Italian Cesare Lombroso, could tell a murderer from an embezzler at a glance. But Broca and Lombroso were only the inheritors of a long tradition that began with the natural philosophers of the eighteenth century.
The reductionist materialism of Descartes's bête machine and La Mettrie's homme machine led inevitably to the anthropometry of Broca and Lombroso. If mind is the consequence of brain, then are not great minds the products of great brains? Indeed, phrenology was a perfectly sensible materialist theory. Since acquisitiveness is a product of a material organ, the brain, then highly developed acquisitiveness should be the manifestation of the enlargement of one region of the brain. On the not unreasonable (although factually incorrect) assumption that the skull will bulge a bit to accommodate a bulge in the cerebral hemisphere, we might well expect an enlarged "bump of acquisitiveness" among the more successful members of the Exchange, not to mention Jews in general.
Moreover, less developed races should have less developed brains, women should have smaller cranial capacities than men, the lower classes more sloping foreheads than the bourgeoisie. Thus one should be able, by the appropriate physical measurements, to characterize the mental, moral, and social attributes of individuals and groups. There are, however, two problems with this theory. First, there is the factual error. Despite all claims to the contrary, there are no differences in brain size or shape between classes, sexes, or races that are not the simple consequence of different body size, nor is there any correlation at all between brain size and intellectual accomplishment. Second, there is the conceptual error. Intelligence, acquisitiveness, moral rectitude are not things, nor the natural attributes of things, but mental constructs, historically and culturally contingent. The attempt to find their physical site in the brain and to measure them is like an attempt to map Valhalla. It is pure reification, the conversion of abstract ideas into things and their natural properties. While there may be genes for the shape of our heads, there cannot be any for the shape of our ideas. It is with an exposure of these two errors of biological determinism that Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is largely concerned.
The first problem is to explain how the zoologists and anthropologists of the nineteenth century could find, so consistently, that, for example, the brains of whites are significantly larger than the brains of blacks when, in fact, there is no difference between them. The answer seems to be, according to Gould, that the most eminent zoologists and anthropologists simply rigged the data. When Samuel Morton, in his Crania Americana of 1839, showed conclusively that American Indians had smaller craniums than Caucasians, he did so by including a large number of small-brained (because small-bodied) Inca skulls in his Indian sample, but at the same time excluding a number of Hindu small-skulled specimens from his Caucasian sample. When Gould recalculated the data using all of Morton's measurements, the difference between Indians and Caucasians disappeared. Paul Broca, faced with some very small brains of some very eminent professors, invented ad hoc corrections for age and postulated disease. As a last resort he appealed to the imperfection of institutions:
It is not very probable that five men of genius would have died within five years at the University of Göttingen.... A professorial robe is not necessarily a certificate of genius; there may be even at Göttingen some chairs occupied by not very remarkable men.
It is amusing to see Broca explaining away, correction by correction, a reported 100-gram superiority of the brains of Germans over Frenchmen. When, despite his best efforts, Broca found some measurements placing blacks higher than whites, he decided that, after all, those measurements were of no interest. And on it goes. The "objective facts" of science turn out, over and over again, to be the cooked, massaged, finagled creations of ideologues determined to substantiate their prejudices with numbers.
In his debunking of the "data" of anthropometry, Gould follows the model set by Leon Kamin's brilliant muckraking in the byre of IQ studies, but with somewhat different conclusions about the nature of scientific inquiry. Science, he argues, is a social activity, reflecting the reigning ideology of the society in which it is carried out, the political exigencies of the time, and the personal prejudices of its practitioners. Racist scientists produce racist science. It is not that they deliberately falsify nature, but that their unconscious prejudices lead them to largely unconscious biases in their methods and analyses, biases that bring them to comfortable conclusions. There are, after all, many ways of explaining observations. How are we to decide among them, except in the light of unspoken assumptions and predispositions?
Like Kamin, I am, myself, rather more harsh in my view of the matter. Scientists, like others, sometimes tell deliberate lies because they believe that small lies can serve big truths. How else are we to understand the doctored photographs discovered by Gould in the report by the American psychologist Henry Goddard on the pseudonymous Kallikak family whose good (kalos) and bad (kakkos) branches were the living counterparts of the Rougons-Macquarts?
For his part, Sir Cyril Burt, perhaps the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century, knew that intelligence was almost perfectly determined by the genes and he was quite willing to make up the data to prove it to people who needed that sort of thing. (His most notorious fabrication was aimed to show that identical twins brought up separately would still be of equal "intelligence.") Burt may indeed have been, as Gould says, "a sick and tortured man" during the last years of his life, but even his biographer, Professor Hearnshaw, admits that Burt was none too scrupulous about numbers at any time. Whether deliberately or not, there is no evidence that scientists are falsifying nature any less in the twentieth century than they did in the nineteenth.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the belief that great men had big heads and great criminals big noses had pretty much disappeared from the scientific scene, although it was still part of popular consciousness. When Agatha Christie's young Tommy sees a communist trade-union agitator for the first time, he observes that the fellow
was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance, were new to the young man, though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.
In place of measurements of skull and limb, biological determinist science began to measure intelligence itself. The IQ test, created by the French psychologist Alfred Binet in 1905 as a diagnostic instrument to help teachers help children, became, in the hands of its English-speaking adaptors, Henry Goddard, Lewis Terman, and Charles Spearman, an instrument for arraying everyone along a single scale of mental ability.
Much of the history of the political use of IQ testing in America, especially in helping to justify the Immigration Act of 1924, has been recounted by Kamin, who demolished the "data" purporting to show the heritability of IQ differences. Unfortunately, the story of the Cyril Burt frauds is nowhere told in its full richness. Even the summary by Kamin in the book containing his "debate" with H.J. Eysenck is too brief to provide the excitement of psychology's Watergate, which had its own Woodward and Bernstein (Kamin and Oliver Gillie), its outraged denials by Burt's supporters, and its final days of capitulation in the face of the overwhelming evidence of wholesale fakery. And Gould has other fish to fry. The Mismeasure of Man looks beyond the politics, the data, and the frauds to address the central epistemological issue about intelligence: "Is there anything to be measured?"
IQ tests vary considerably in form and content. Some are oral, some written, some individual, some given in groups, some verbal, some purely symbolic. Most combine elements of vocabulary, numerical reasoning, analogical reasoning, and pattern recognition. Some are filled with specific and overt cultural referents: children are asked to identify characters from literature ("Who was Mr. Micawber?"); they are asked to make class judgments ("Which of the five persons below is most like a carpenter, plumber, and bricklayer? 1) postman, 2) lawyer, 3) truck driver, 4) doctor, 5) painter"); they are asked to judge socially acceptable behavior ("What should you do when you notice you will be late to school?"); they are asked to judge social stereotypes ("Which is prettier?" when given the choice between a girl with some Negroid features and another with a doll-like European face); they are asked to define obscure words (sudorific, homunculus, parterre).
Moreover, the circumstances of testing are laden with tensions. Gould, after reviewing the content of the army classification tests of the First World War, describes at length the intimidating and alien atmosphere in which the tests were given. Complex commands were given just once, in a military style, in English to men many of whom were recent immigrants and some of whom had never before held a pencil. When Gould gave the army beta test, designed for illiterates, in the prescribed style to his Harvard undergraduates, sixteen out of fifty-three got only a B and six got a C, marking borderline intelligence.
The claim is made by their supporters that IQ tests measure a single underlying innate thing, general intelligence, which itself does not develop during the lifetime of the individual but is a cause of the individual's changing overt behavior. In the jargon of educational psychology, "fluid" intelligence becomes "crystallized" by education. Intelligence, so viewed, is not what is learned but the ability to learn, a fixed feature immanent to different degrees in every fertilized egg.
The evidence that there is a unitary intellectual ability is that the results of different tests and of different parts of the same test are correlated with each other. Children who do well on pattern recognition tend to do well in numerical reasoning, analogical reasoning, and so on. But the claim is spurious. IQ tests, like books, are commodities that can yield immense profits for their publishers and authors if they are widely adopted by school systems. A chief selling point of new tests, as announced in their advertising, is their excellent agreement with the original Stanford-Binet test. They have been carefully cut to fit.
Moreover, the agreement of the results of various parts of the same tests has also been built into them. In order for the original Stanford-Binet test to have won credibility as an intelligence test, it necessarily had to order children in conformity with the a priori judgment of psychologists and teachers about what they thought indicated intelligence. No one will use an "intelligence" test that gives highest marks to those children everyone "knows" to be stupid. During the construction of the tests, questions that were poorly correlated with others were dropped, since they clearly did not measure "intelligence," until a maximally consistent set was found. The claim that something real is then measured by these selected questions is a classic case of reification. It is rather like claiming, as a proof of the existence of God, that he is mentioned in all the books of the Bible.
A good deal of The Mismeasure of Man is taken up with a lucid explanation of the abstruse statistical method used by mental testers to extract a single dimension, g, that is supposed to measure general intelligence. This method, factor analysis, takes a collection of different measurements and combines them into a single weighted average, where the weights are derived from the observed correlations between the measurements. The error, as explained by Gould, is not in the arithmetic, but in the supposition that, having gone through the mathematical process, one has produced a real object, or at least a number that characterizes one. As Gould points out, the price of gasoline was well correlated with the distance of the earth from Halley's comet in recent years, but that does not mean that some numerical combination of the two values measures something real that is their common cause. Even with Gould's help, the reader may remain mystified. The very complexity of the statistical manipulation is part of the mystique of intelligence testing, validating it by making it inaccessible to nonexperts. After all, look how complicated quantum mechanics is, and you can use it to blow up the world.
Gould's view of the biological determinists is that they are doubly blinded: first, by their own racial and ethnic prejudices, and second, by what Gould calls "Burt's real error," the vulgar reductionism that leads them to reify an abstract statistical entity. Yet the analysis is somehow incomplete. With its emphasis on the racism of individual scientists, and on their epistemological naiveté, The Mismeasure of Man remains a curiously unpolitical and unphilosophical book. Morton, Broca, Lombroso, Goddard, Spearman, and Burt make their appearance as if from a closet, and smelling a bit of mothballs. They are "men of their time," displaying antique social prejudices which on occasion come back to haunt us in the form of "criminal chromosomes" and a brief eruption of Jensenism. Their biological determinism appears as a disarticulated cultural artifact, nasty and curious, like cannibalism, but not integrated into any structure of social relations.
Biological determinism is the conjunction of political necessity with an ideologically formed view of nature, both of which arise out of the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These revolutions were made with the slogans "Liberty, equality, fraternity" and "All men are created equal." They meant literally "all men," since women were excluded from social power, but they did not mean "all men," since slavery and property qualifications continued well into the nineteenth century. Still, one can hardly make a revolution with the cry "Liberty and equality for some!" The problem for bourgeois society (and for socialist society, as well) is to reconcile the ideology of equality with the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power, a problem that did not exist in the bad old days of Dei Gratia. The solution to that problem has been to put a new gloss on the idea of equality, one that distinguishes artificial inequalities which characterized the ancien régime from the natural inequalities which mark the meritocratic society. As the Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein puts it:
The privileged classes of the past were probably not much superior biologically to the downtrodden, which is why revolution had a fair chance of success. By removing artificial barriers between classes, society has encouraged the creation of biological barriers. When people can take their natural level in society, the upper classes will, by definition, have greater capacity than the lower.
Equality then becomes equality of opportunity, and those who fail do so because they lack intrinsic merit. But if we truly live in a meritocratic society, how do we account for the obvious passage of social power from parent to offspring? It must be that intrinsic merit is passed in the genes. The doctrine of grace is replaced by the Laws of Mendel.
The emphasis in The Mismeasure of Man on racism and ethnocentrism in the study of abilities is an American bias. IQ testing was widespread in France long before there were significant numbers of Algerians there, and Sir Cyril Burt's most influential educational invention, the British eleven-plus exam, long antedated the influx of West Indians and Pakistanis. Lombroso's criminal anthropology had nothing to do with race and ethnicity, but with the same classes laborieuses, classes dangereuses that concerned Eugène Sue. In America, race, ethnicity, and class are so confounded, and the reality of social class so firmly denied, that it is easy to lose sight of the general setting of class conflict out of which biological determinism arose. Biological determinism, both in its literary and scientific forms, is part of the legitimating ideology of our society, the solution offered to our deepest social mystery, the analgesic for our most recurrent social pain. In the words of Charles Darwin, quoted on the title page of The Mismeasure of Man, "If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin."
The disarticulation of social relations, the alienation of man from land, the creation of what C.B. MacPherson calls "possessive individualism," began in the fourteenth century with the market-town corporations, and slowly became the dominant mode of our society. They brought with them an alienation and objectification of nature. The natural world was seen less and less as an organic unity, an extension of the Mind of God. Like the body social, the body natural came to be an assemblage of elements, interacting with each other, yet each possessing its intrinsic and independent properties. No longer do we "murder to dissect," but rather do we expect to discover the true nature of the world by taking it to bits, the bits of which it is truly made. In this sense Descartes was as much a founding father of our society as Paine or Jefferson.
It is easy to criticize the vulgar materialism of Spearman and Burt, who thought of intelligence sometimes as a form of elementary energy, sometimes as a liquid that could be crystallized, but it is not clear that anything else could be expected from them. The reification of intelligence by mental testers may be an error, but it is an error that is deeply built into the atomistic system of Cartesian explanation that characterizes all of our natural science. It is not easy, given the analytic mode of science, to replace the clockwork mind with something less silly. Updating the metaphor by changing clocks into computers has got us nowhere. The wholesale rejection of analysis in favor of an obscurantist holism has been worse. Imprisoned by our Cartesianism, we do not know how to think about thinking.
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