Primer on the complexity of biological processes and the role of science in society

Developing Just Leadership

Yahya Asmar

Jumada' al-Akhirah 28, 1422 2001-09-16

Book Review

by Yahya Asmar (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 14, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1422)

THE TRIPLE HELIX: GENE, ORGANISM, AND ENVIRONMENT by Richard Lewontin. Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. 136. Hbk. US$23.

Science is a process and a method, not a product. According to Western definitions, science is also self-correcting, thanks to its experimental method. The sciences have grown, taking on the characteristics of the cultures in which they operate, each defining the processes and products of scientific activity according to its own understanding of the world. This is because scientists do not work in isolation, as the mythology of science claims, but are often in powerful economic and political networks. These networks affect what science investigates, and what not; as has always been the case. Scientists are also human, and despite their attempts to achieve ‘objectivity’ the fact remains that science often requires educated best-guessing. All these factors contribute to a process that is essentially social.

Some scientists refuse to admit this, and cling to paradigms from another era, often because these suit their present political and economic positions. It is unwise, for instance, to admit that one’s research has limitations: one’s funding might dry up. Similarly, many scientists are emotionally involved in the paradigms that guide their work, deriving a sense of self from various scientific protocols. It is important to understand these phenomena, and also to investigate emerging paradigmatic and conceptual shifts, as science has now become the arbiter of meaning and reality, surrounding itself with an air of infallibility once claimed but increasingly relinquished by traditional religions. This power should bring the sciences under more careful social scrutiny. Despite the socio-political milieu in which scientists today work, many do not mind admitting methodological and conceptual shifts; they proclaim the reality of science in the face of massive vested interests. One such scientist is Richard Lewontin: well known for questioning established biological orthodoxies in previous works, he gives us a lucid analysis of the current scientific controversy on the limits of genetic determinism.

Lewontin admits that language to a certain extent constructs reality, and that language mediates the supposedly pure findings of all scientific investigation. Primarily by way of metaphor, language ‘thinks’ people as they use it to think. In other words, it is necessary to use metaphor as a shorthand, to avoid having to explain every word one uses. Metaphors are central to all use of language and, although usually studied only as poetic tools, they pervade all modern linguistic conventions, linking language with experience and visual images. But metaphors are culture-bound and change with the norms of daily life. As Lewontin suggests, scientific explanations of natural phenomena, "if they are to be not merely formal propositions, framed in an invented technical language, but are to appeal to the understanding of the world that we have gained through ordinary experience, must necessarily involve the use of metaphorical language." This happens in all the sciences: ‘waves’ and ‘particles’ in physics; ‘blueprints’ and ‘information’ in genetics. All the sciences depend on such metaphors.

Lewontin insists that those who rely on science must become aware of the changing nature of metaphorical language. For example, he discusses a new metaphor in biology: organisms "construct" their environments. This metaphor is replacing the nineteenth-century Darwinian metaphor of "adaptation", which assumed a complete separation of organism and environment. Lewontin synthesizes recent biological research to draw a picture of organisms in give-and-take relationships with their environments. To do this, he makes distinctions between "environment", which surrounds the organism, and "physical conditions" (such as glacial streams, volcanic ash deposits, and pools of water), out of which organisms "construct" environments. This reverses the classical metaphor of evolution from ‘inside out’ to ‘outside in.’ Environments overlap in myriad ways, yet each organism in a sense lives in its own environment, altering some parts of the environment and ignoring others.

To illustrate, he cites the example of plant engineers, who have tried to increase crop productivity by selectively breeding plants with desired characteristics of behaviour in sunlight, use of carbon dioxide and arrangement of leaves. But each new variation constructs its own environment, thus altering the parameters of the experiment. As a result, "the process must be carried out again, and again the redesign changes the conditions." This is akin to scientists "chasing not only a moving target but a target whose motion is impelled by their own activities." Lewontin sees in this seeming paradox a clue to a more realistic understanding of biology. As other biologists have also recently concluded, "adaptation to yesterday’s environment does not improve the chance of survival tomorrow." This is the ‘constructionist’ view of the relationship between organism and environment: that "the world is changing because the organism is changing", ie. that neither is static.

After unpacking the metaphorical basis of language and its implications for science, Lewontin considers the Western scientific method itself. Usually called reductionism, it seeks answers by dissociating wholes into parts. But this method has limitations: once dissociated, the object is no longer what it was. Accordingly, this scientific method lends itself best to those problems that can be solved easily with reductionism, and encourages scientists to ignore difficult problems that might lend themselves better to other methods. As Lewontin notes, "Scientists pursue precisely those problems that yield to their methods", while neglecting other problems. "Pointing to their undoubted successes in dealing with the relatively easy problems," Lewontin concludes, scientists "then assure us that eventually the same methods will triumph over the harder problems."

Lewontin examines the impact of this question-selection process on the study of human development, suggesting that "What developmental genetics has done is to substitute a question that it can answer for one that it cannot, but without explicit acknowledgment of the switch." Lewontin links these perceptual problems to scientific dependence on the machine metaphor, from Descartes’ clock model, which limits the kinds of questions scientists can answer because both the metaphor and their methods are limited. He provides several case studies of this phenomenon and its consequences from the natural sciences, ranging from causality and developments in genetics to chromosomal variations and polymorphisms in biology, with detailed examples from recent scientific literature. This discussion leads to Lewontin’s main conclusion: he rejects the current scientific convention that genes determine the organism, and proposes a more organic outlook based on interactions between genes, organisms and environments.

Lewontin rounds out his survey of recent trends in the life sciences by considering some possible future directions for biology. Although he criticises reductionism as it is currently practised, he does not suggest that we abandon it altogether, or replace it with an amorphous holism. Lewontin seeks a middle ground on which elements of reductionism and holism combine: "The world is divided into nearly independent subsystems within which are effective interactions but between which there are no palpable relations. The problem of science is to find the boundaries of those subsystems." Such an approach, he believes, can eliminate the pitfalls of reductionism by maintaining systemic integrity, while avoiding the pitfalls of holism. Treading this middle ground, Lewontin considers specific methods such as delineating effective subsystem boundaries and seeking diversity as a special case in general systems. He also suggests that scientists further develop recent theories of catastrophe, chaos and complexity, and that they continue to develop the relationships between function, shape and form. Above all he sees the necessity of abandoning the mechanistic basis of modern western science, and seeking instead a biological epistemology that "distinguishes living systems from other physical phenomena," by paying attention to the "openness" of living systems, and "the characteristic exchange that occurs between the inside and the outside."

Lewontin also suggests that "Rather than searching for radically different ways of studying organisms or for new laws of nature that will be manifest in living beings, what biology needs to do to fulfill its program of understanding and manipulation is to take seriously what we already know to be true." While this seems possible in theory, Lewontin knows that it is often the political, social and economic factors influencing scientific research that prevent scientists from reaching this simple conclusion. As he puts it, "scientists do what they know how to do and what the time and money available to them allow them to do." The strength of Lewontin’s work is that he can straddle the fence between being a working scientist and being a committed social theorist, realising how science and society interact to create knowledge. He concludes by insisting that "Progress in biology depends not on revolutionary new conceptualizations, but on the creation of new methodologies that make questions answerable in practice in a world of finite resources." In other words, science must recognise its limitations.

Lewontin cites enough detailed scientific research to justify his arguments, yet avoids the condescending, technical style of many scientists. Lewontin thinks that scientists should come to terms with the social reality of their own inquiries, while ordinary people should be able to understand the scientific debates behind the headlines. But, despite questioning them, Lewontin abandons few of the conventions of modern science. His work helps to demystify science, increasingly important when scientists wield great political, economic and even philosophical power. Books like this can help to keep science from becoming a new religion with a priesthood that serves only the selfish interests of the current social order. Lewontin enables ordinary people to ask basic questions about science in society, and what science can and cannot do, in order to render scientists answerable to the societies in which they work.

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