This text asks the question: are our personalities and capabilities predetermined by our genes? Using tools of population genetics, it argues that biological differences are a small part of what makes individuals unique....
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Human Diversity Reviews
Lewontin provides an alternative perspective to that of Wilson, Dawson and others regarding the role of biology in our behavior. Lewontin starts his book by repeating the standard line that we are products of both biology and the environment, but the book is really an argument that we are in all important respects products of our culture and environment. He has an explanation for all the reputed obvious examples of biology’s impact – size is influenced by nutrition, identical twins have been raised in similar environments, sexual differences are due to expectations (“act like a man,” “be lady like”), and so forth. A master violinist is nothing without opportunity he says, and even so-called inborn differences are caused by “developmental noise” during the fetal period. The bottom line here is that cultural differences in all significant respects account for our diversity, and biology counts for not very much, other than some basic physiology like blood types.Lewontin argues that the obvious differences we see on race and skin color, dress and manners, are products of culture and the environment, but underneath he states that there is “little genetic differentiation between populations.” We are, in essence, one and the same. If we are in essence the same, what does this mean? Lewontin includes pictures of facial expressions from across the globe “that appear as biological features” but he says these are really social products, “an unconscious mimicry of those around us.” Well, yes, and why is there such a thing as “unconscious mimicry,” and might not Darwin’s observation about our social nature and evolution’s design to bring us into group life have a thing or two to do with it? Lewontin writes that, “There is no characteristic of any human being that is not in a continuous state of developmental transformation throughout life.” That not only speaks to environmental determinism, but also removes the organizing core from life itself. Whatever that core might be, it has to be there. Otherwise, why do we turn out to be human as opposed to a house fly? Lewontin has us as blank slates, but I’m thinking animal breeders know what they are doing in getting the physical, temperamental and behavioral traits they want, although Lewontin might respond that these examples apply to animals, only.To argue for biology’s role is not to deny environment’s influence in molding us to be who we are. That’s all part of the evolutionary process. We act in the world, and the world acts on us, and we change as a result. We have needs that are universal, but culture and environment provide the specific content. We need to be part of a group, but the group molds us in specific ways. It is not, not biology. It is not even biology AND the environment. Isn’t it biological form and environmental content?But it’s deeper than that. In discussing diversity, Lewontin states that there is variation around the norm. Here he emphasizes cultural explanations for variation, not genetic. But I’m thinking there are genetic explanations. Pygmies are short, but they’re not 1 foot 2 inches either. That’s why Michael Jordan didn’t grow to be 12 feet tall. Interestingly, a minor league scout sized up Jordan’s prospects for professional baseball and said Jordan would not make it to the majors: “No wrist speed.” That’s physical structure, of course, but presumably evolutionary variation also applies to behavioral and temperamental traits too.It’s hard to decipher whether Lewontin is fighting the ideology of genetic determinism or promoting an ideology that we can be whoever we want to be. Rightfully, he points out that there are problems with stereotyping. There are problems with the whole survival of the fittest mentality, and the classist arguments about the ‘unfit.’ But in fighting these, we don’t have to deny our species and individual biological natures. We can and should celebrate our differences and the freedom to be ourselves, whoever we are biologically, as well as culturally, unless of course we do harm to others.
There certainly seems to be a lot of diversity in the levels at which the Scientific American books are written. While, for example, Sexual Selection by J.L. and C.G. Gould is very thorough and contains plenty of challenging ideas, this entry in the series is at the other end of the scale of complexity. Can you write for complete outsiders to a subject matter without talking down to them? No doubt, but Lewontin didn't always succeed in doing so.In fact, the first chapter is very inauspicious indeed, very nearly condescending, let's-all-get-along-children along with social analysis on the level of Marxism-for-little-tots (especially noticeable since I just got through reading some much more sophisticated social and cultural history). Things do get better when Lewontin gets down to the actual science. The sections on basic genetics are very clearly written, though perhaps too long. The best thing in the entire book is chapter six, explaining some statistical concepts, and such ideas as variance and heritability. I have photocopied and saved those very clear explanations.But there is a very serious problem with the book -- there are not only no "further reading" sections, but no references. Lewontin will state that "a study" said such-and-such, but not give an exact reference to the study. This would pass in a public lecture, but is not appropriate in a book. Again and again, Lewontin mentions only studies that support his statements, gives very little space to disagreements, does not mention current puzzles and unknowns, and makes it sound as if the subject is much more closed than it can possibly be!I'm really frustrated with this -- such a contentious, active field of study deserves much more depth. Of course, the book is 25 years old now, so pretty out of date in any case.
The book deals with reasons for genetic human diversity. Dry as hell, but he's thorough.