Reading Notes

R011000: Scientific Determinism - Misattribution of Reality

Lewontin, Richard C.  It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions.  The New York Review of Books (New York: 2000).  ISBN 0-940322-10-2.

Version 0.01 Last updated 2001-11-06-16:15 -0700 (pdt)



The idea of biological determinism.  

p.xvii: Beginning slowly in the 1950s, at the peak of the prestige and success of the physical sciences, physicists and chemists began to migrate into biology, becoming the founders of modern molecular biology.

p.xviii: The change from science as physics to science as biology is not merely a redirection of academic lives.  It reflects our general view of what we want to know about the world.  ... We really want to know is why some people are rich and some poor, some sick and some well, why a woman can't be more like a man, and why I can't live to be a sexually active centenarian.  In consciousness, as in science, the animate has come to dominate the inanimate and, in particular it is now widely believed that the main question of scientific investigation ought to be not what constitutes matter but what it is to be human.

p.xx: The ambitious program of the nineteenth century, to make biological phenomena simply the extension of the physical world, has been a remarkable success in the twentieth.

p.xxi: Two major domains remain to be satisfactorily included within the mechanistic program.  One [is] ... the problem of the development of form.   A great deal is known about the genes that encode various signals in development ..., but we do not have the faintest idea about how all of this is turned into the shape of my nose.

p.xxi: The other field of immense ignorance and conceptual poverty is the problem of understanding the central nervous system.  What is the mapping between the physical states and connections of brain cells and mental states?  

p.xxii: The success of the program of physicalizing biology has encourage the program, also inherited from the nineteenth century, of biologizing the psychic and the social. ... It is easy to think that if organisms are largely the consequences of genes that they have inherited, then the similarities and differences of organisms are the consequences of similarities and differences in their genes. 

p.xxiv: The strain of simplistic scientism that characterized social theory from the beginning of the nineteenth century continues to infect it today.

1.  Measuring What We Already See

"The Inferiority Complex," Chapter 1 in It Ain't Necessarily So, was published on October 22, 1981 as a review of

Gould, Steven Jay.  The Mismeasure of Man.  (Norton: 1981).

The exchange with Terry Tomkow and Robert M. Martin was published on February 4, 1982.

p.4: The 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.

p.12: The notion of heritability of IQ differences is scientifically unsupported.

p.13: The Mismeasure of Man looks beyond the politics, the data, and the frauds to address the central epistomological issue about intelligence: "Is there anything to be measured?"

p.14: The tests are laden with cultural and value assumptions, and the circumstances of testing are laden with questions.

p.14: The claim is made by their supporters that IQ tests measure a single underlying innate thing, general intelligence.  ... the ability to learn, a fixed feature immanent to different degrees in every fertilized egg.

p.15: The agreement of the results of various parts of the same tests have 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.  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.

p.16: 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.

p.17: [Lewontin wants to go farther.]  Biological determinism is the conjunction of political necessity with an ideologically formed view of nature. ... The problem ... is to reconcile the ideology of equality with the manifest inequality of status, wealth, and power.

p.19: 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."

p.22: Tomkow and Martin assert, intelligence is (if anything) a property of things (people).

p.30: Lewontin remarks, the height of a person is a natural attribute of a real object.  The average of the heights of a group of people is not an attribute of any real object. ... It is a mental construct.  Lewontin extends this idea to factors.  That does not make the calculated result for an individual a natural attribute or the measure of one.

p.32: It is not simply our "judgments of intelligence" but the very idea of intelligence that is a historically contingent mental construct.

pp.32-33: It is important to point out that the distinction between mental constructs and natural attributes is more than a philosophical quibble, even when those constructs are based on physical measurements.  Averages are not inherited; they are not subject to natural selection; they are not physical causes of any events.  There are no "genes for handsomeness" or "genes for intelligence" any more than there are "genes for saintliness."  To assert that there are such genes is a conceptual, not a factual, error and one that has major consequences for scientific practice and social analysis.

p.40: In the end, despite all the effort to make the study of social structures "objective," we always bring to the study of society an already formed social theory.

2.  Putting Darwin in His Place

 The Chapter on "Darwin's Revolution" was first published on June 16, 1983, as a review of

Miller, Jonathan., Van Loon, Borin.  Darwin for Beginners.   Pantheon (1982).  p.46: Meant to introduce the content and history of Darwinism to the layperson.

Smith, John Maynard (ed).  Evolution Now: A Century After Darwin.  W. H. Freeman (1982).  p.46: Meant to expose for a professional audience the internal state and modern problems of the theory itself.

Gale, Barry G.  Evolution Without Evidence: Charles Darwin and "The Origin of Species."  University of New Mexico Press (1982).

Gribbin, John., Cherfas, Jeremy.  The Monkey Puzzle: Reshaping the Evolutionary Tree.  Pantheon (1982).  p.46: Concerned with the quest for that mythic pot of paleontological gold, the Missing Link.

Eldridge, Niles., Tattersall, Ian.  The Myths of Human Evolution.  Columbia University Press (1982).  p.46: Likewise concerned with the quest for the Missing Link.

Futuyma, Douglas J.  Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution.  Pantheon (1983).  p.46: Immediately relevant work that defends Darwinism against the real besiegers.

Kitcher, Philip., Kitcher, Patricia.  Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.  p.46: Also defends Darwinism against the real besiegers.

Ruse, Michael.  Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies.  Addison-Wesley (1982).  Forword by Ernst Mayr.  p.46: Sees subversives within the very citadel, conspiring to destroy what the barbarian hordes are unable to shake.

p.44: There have been only two real revolutions in biology since the Rennaissance.  The first was the introduction of mechanical biology by William Harvey and René Descartes. 

p.45: The second biological revolution, to which we attach the name of Darwin, is still being consolidated.

p.48: "There is no disagreement in science about whether evolution has occured.  There is bloody warfare on the question of how it has occured."

p.53:"There are two basic dynamic forms for evolving systems.  One is transformational, in which the collection of objects evolves because every individual element in the collection undergoes a similar transformation.  ... Most physical systems and social institutions evolve transformationally.

p.54: "The alternative evolutionary dynamic, unique as far as we know to the organic world, and uniquelly understood by Darwin, is variational evolution.  In a variational scheme, there is variation of properties among individuals in the ensemble, variations that arise from causes independent of any effect it may have on the individual who possesses it.  That is, the variation arises at random with respect to its effect.  The collection of individuals evolves by a sorting process in which some variant types persist and reproduce, while others die out.  Variational evolution occurs by the change of frequency of different variants, rather than by a set of developmental transformations of every individual."

p.55: Darwin's problem, and that of anyone trying to produce a theory of evolution, was to explain two apparently distinct features of the organic world, diversity and fit.

p.56: Darwin claimed that it was the sorting process among variants that produced the fit of organisms to the environment.

p.67: Before Darwin, the central issue for science sas to discover the Platonic form that lay behind the imperfect reality ... Variations among organisms was thought to be ontologically distinct from the causes of their similarity, a smiliarity that we glimpse but dimly.  If only we could eliminate the noisy confusion of the material objects themselves, the true relation coould be seen.  Darwin revolutionized our study of nature by taking the actual variation among actual things as central to the reality, not as an annoying and irrelevant disturbance to be wished away.

p.68: "Geneticists, who are supposed to know better, will sometimes talk about a gene's determining a particular shape, size, or behavior instead of reminding themselves that if genes determine anything, it is the pattern of variation of a developing organism in responses to variation in the environment.

"This error of geneticists is particulary ironic, because it was Gregor Mendel who, unknown to the rest of the scientific world, had, contemporaneously with Darwin, solved the other leading problem of biology by making variations his object of study.  Mendel solved the problem of why offspring look like their parents by studying the patterns of differences between them.  He discovered, as Darwin had, that similarity and variation are inextricably intertwined aspects of the same reality.

p.72: "I have come to realize, however, that Darwin's variational theory, as revolutionary as it was, depended upon a prior and more radical epistemological break with the past.  Darwin's theory of evolution was that variations among organisms arose from causes that were internal to the organism and whose nature was independent of the demands of the external world.  That is what is meant when we say that mutations are 'random.' ... All sorts of mutations occur and it is only those that, by chance, enable to organism to survive better that will spread throughout the species.  So the internal forces that give rise to variation are causally independent of the external forces that select them.  The internal and the external, what we now think of as the gene and the environment, meet in the organism.  This alienation of internal from external forces, of inside from outside, with the organism as their nexus, is fundamental to the Darwinian view.

3.  Mendel's Progress


4.  Who Am I and How'd I Get Here?


5. The DNA Fetish


6.  Biological Determinism and Gender


7.  Measuring Pretense

8.  Clone Thyself

9. Altruism and Survival




0.01 2001-11-06-16:16 Improve Capture of Notes (orcmid)
I succeeded in renewing the book a second time, and now it is due again.  I have been going back and placing Post-Its at various places.  I will make notes on those and take the book back for sure, slightly overdue, by Thursday, November 8.
0.00 2001-10-16-17:02 Begin Capturing Notes (orcmid)
I have renewed the book once and still not put my notes in a form that works.   So, today, I put down a sketch that lets me return the book to its shelf (Dewey 576.5 L59i at the West Seattle Library) until I can check it out once more and complete my second pass over the material.

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