Not enough hours in the day


Yikes. I have been buried in work — we’ve just begun a week of interviews for job candidates, and I’m on the search committee, so I’ve been tied up all last night, all day today, and this evening. And what time hasn’t been occupied in service work has been involved in preparing for tomorrow’s ecological development class.

The big project tomorrow is a critical analysis of Richard Lewontin’s The Triple Helix. It’s a short book, but it’s packed to the gills with concepts they may not have encountered before…and most importantly, concepts they may not have questioned before. So I had to put together a framework for discussion. I’ll let you read it, too, although it’s not going to be very useful unless you’ve read the book as well.

The book is only 3 meaty chapters long with a concluding summary. I’m trying to provoke some arguments with these questions.

I. Gene and Organism

Lewontin complains about metaphors: what’s wrong with the DNA as blueprint metaphor?

We have a bias in our language. The word “development” implies an “unrolling” of a program. Is that a good explanation of the process?

We talked about preformation vs epigenesis on the first day. I told you that preformation is an untenable explanation, but Lewontin argues that preformation has won. How?

He explains that there is a deep difference between transformational vs variational change. Explain.

Brenner, p10: he claimed that with the complete sequence of DNA, he could compute the organism. What’s wrong with that statement?

Similarly, Gilbert, p11: with the genomic sequence, we will know what it means to be human. Do you believe it.

He gives several examples of complicating “transformations”:
p19: Explain phototropism, geotropism
p21: What are norms of reaction

Contrast fig 1.8 (p 29), Jensen’s IQ model, with 1.6 (p25), Drosophila viability as a function of temperature. What’s the obvious flaw with Jensen’s hypotheses?

Leads up to fig 1.10 — what are all these different theoretical patterns? Can you explain what each one means?

II. Organism and Environment

Adaptation and fitness…what are they? What’s wrong with the idea of an organism “fitting” to an environment?

p44: “Adaptive explanations have both a forward and a backward form”. Explain what he means.

What’s the problem with these modes of explanation? See discussion of Orians & Pearson results for an explanation.

p47: “the organism is the object of evolutionary forces”. Is this reasonable?

Lewontin says the concept of construction best captures the process of evolution. Explain.

He objects to the search for life on Mars for what reasons? (not that he thinks we shouldn’t look, but that he thinks the methods are wrong)

p54: “If one wants to know what the environment of an organism is, one must ask the organism.” How did he arrive at that conclusion?

p57-58: Explain Van Valen’s “Red Queen hypothesis”. Why is it somehow different from what Lewontin proposes?

p68: “Save the Environment!” But “the environment” does not exist to be saved. Is Lewontin a (shock, horror) an anti-environmentalist? What is the point he is making in his conclusion?

III. Parts and Wholes, Causes and Effects

A critique of the analytical, reductionist examination of the organism as a machine. This is generally how we teach biology; Lewontin argues that much of it is invalid. How would you alternatively expect biology to be taught?

p74: What are the current failures of that analytic approach? (with the understanding that that approach might still succeed, with enough time and data).

p77: What is the problem of the development of the human chin? What is the “error of arbitrary aggregation”?

p81: “Only a quasi-religious commitment to the belief that everything in the world has a purpose would lead us to provide a functional explanation for fingerprint ridges or eyebrows or patches of hair on men’s chests.” Does finding a functional explanation for any of those things invalidate the criticism? Why or why not?

Explain Tables 3.1 and 3.2. What do they tell us about the relationship between fitness and genetics when more than one gene is involved?

p90: When you see the variation in ceratopsian horns, how do you personally try to explain it? What is your default explanation?

p96: What are the “acute problems” in genetics? How much of it is a genuine problem with the scientific approach vs. attempts to shoehorn our explanations into simplistic causal models?

Lewontin gets political in the last page of this section, blaming environmental problems on “an anarchic scheme of production that was developed by industrial capitalism and adopted by industrial socialism”. What do you think?

IV. Directions in the study of biology

Lewontin admits that he’s been negative and strongly critical in the earlier parts of the text, so he has a brief epilogue in which he tries to advocate for some positive directions we can take. What are some ideas you might have?

It’s entirely possible we’ll only get two or three questions in, if we get argumentative, and that’s OK!


  1. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Ooh, I’d love to be fly on the wall for your class in the morning. Sounds like a very interesting discussion.

  2. anthrosciguy says

    My first, glib, but I think pretty good odds thought is to agree with Lewontin on anything he says re biology. I’ve always admired his work, and the one time I saw him talk, to a small group in the early 80s, he was super clear and easy to understand when he talked about subjects that in other hands would be made obscure.

    Those giants Newton mentioned? Lewontin is one of those, IMHO.

  3. jrkrideau says

    Bloody H. I may have to go borrow the book and as far as I see I only understand one word in twenty.

  4. chigau (ever-elliptical) says

    I would like to dispute the notion that you can’t shoot first and ask questions later.

  5. rq says

    Well, if you rearrange the letters in “Lewontin” you get “Il Newton”, so that must mean something.
    Anyway, will have to try and get my hands on this book – though it seems as if the discussion will be just as or more interesting, too!

  6. petesh says

    That’s a great book and, in the small-format hardback I have, a beautiful one. Please do report back!

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    The word “development” implies an “unrolling” of a program.

    And the word “evolve” implies a rolling out, as of a carpet.

    Is that a good explanation of the process?