Book Review: Not in Our Genes

I’ve been slacking on writing book reviews and so I need to get back to it so the next several posts will be just that (unless something happens in the news that warrants some interrogation).

My next foray into reviews will be a book that I hold in very high regard. It’s a book I use in my Anthropology of Science course (LBST 2213), a book that I view as (spoiler!) as one of the most important books ever written in science studies: Not in Our Genes:  (1984, second edition 2017) by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin.

I think it’s always important to present the people behind the work. Richard Lewontin (March 29, 1929- ) is one of the most important figures in genetics and first presented important and subsequently corroborated principles in population genetics. In 1972 he argued that most of the genetic diversity in the human species occurs within groups and not between them. This served as a direct critique of racialized science that held that different races were fundamentally different enough from one another. He has spent his career vehemently opposing biological determinism found in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Instead, he argued for a holistic, dialectical approach to studying organisms which will discussed below as it plays as the central premise of Not in Our Genes.

Steven Rose (July 4, 1938- ) is a neurobiologist and professor emeritus at the Open University, UK. His work spans neuroscience, genetics, sociology (along with Hillary Rose), and, as with Lewontin, extensively criticized deterministic arguments from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

Leon Kamin (December 29, 1927-December 22, 2017) was a psychologist and staunch critic of the heritability of IQ. Famously, Kamin interrogated work by Cyril Burt, who argued for the heritability of IQ and differential distribution between groups of people. Kamin was instrumental is exposing Burt’s work as fraudulent, finding that he had falsified much of his data and even invented research assists and subjects.

Not in Our Genes explores the biopolitics of doing human sciences, and the failures and dangers of reductive (both biologically and culturally deterministic arguments). The book is broken into ten chapters that explores the history of the emergence of biologically deterministic scientific arguments (and to a lesser extent, culturally deterministic arguments), and the use of science to legitimize social inequality (including studies of IQ, sex, social unrest, and mental health. They then close the book out with a criticism of sociobiology, and then provide a more holistic solution to the problem of determinism.

The book is contextualized both politically and historically. Science is never performed in a vacuum and the science of humans is inherently biopolitical. Humans can never have scientific objectivity when studying ourselves. It’s easy to have observer objectivity when studying quarks, fungus, and beetles; but there is not distance between the observer and the subject in human sciences. The authors argue that the prevalence of biologically deterministic arguments coincides with the rise of the “New Right.” The New Right is characterized by holding the individual as priority to the collective. Furthermore, an individual’s successes and failures are a consequence of their intrinsic characteristics and in the Genetic Age, it’s their genes. Rich people are rich because they are genetically superior and poor people are so due to lacking some genes that the rich have.

The authors trace this back to the emergence of bourgeois society. With the fall of feudalism and the disfavor of the “Divine Rights of Kings”, new justification was needed to legitimize the domination of the lower classes by the ruling class.

The history does an excellent job contextualizing the ideology, but the real work is done in the subsequent chapters. The authors critique the failures of the use of IQ and biological sex to explain differences in success and justify social hierarchy. They interrogate the assumptions of biologically determinism and demonstrate how explanations that only appeal to genetics to explain human behavior and evolution.

The authors are very clear that biology is important but is only part of the picture. They present the cake metaphor. Imagine this. Have you ever tasted cake? Well, what are the ingredients that make a cake?

  • 2 3/4cups all-purpose flour
  • 2cups sugar
  • 2teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2teaspoons baking soda
  • 1teaspoon salt
  • 1cup milk
  • 1/2cup canola oil or melted coconut oil
  • 2large eggs
  • 2teaspoons vanilla extract

Have you ever tasted raw flour? Does that taste like cake? Sugar? Does that taste like cake? Baking soda? Does that? Milk? How about that? No. No. No. No. None of the ingredients alone taste of cake. Well, lets mix them together. Does that taste like cake? No… it tastes like cake batter. We have to do something else; bake it! Now you can have the experience of delicious cake (once you frost it).

The authors are using this metaphor to illustrate that one cannot derive a whole from its constituent parts. Instead, the whole is the product of the relationship of the parts in a particular context. In the cake’s case, baked and then tasted by a human. For an organism, genes are insufficient to explain or understand the organism. They are very important but only a small part of the picture. The development of the organism is important. The evolution of the organism. The experiences that the organism has are important. And yet, this is still insufficient. This still assumes a divide and distinction between nature and nurture, biology and experience, the natural and the cultural.

Instead, organisms and their environment (including culture for humans) are inextricable from one another. There is no organism without their environment but there is also no environment without the organisms that inhabit it. Here I will present an excerpt from the book (p. 273-274).

First, organisms construct their environments out of bits and pieces of the world. The dead straw in a garden is part of the active environment of a phoebe because the phoebe gathers that straw to make its nest. The stones in the garden are not part of the phoebe’s active environment, although they are in direct physical proximity to the straw, but they are part of the active environment of a thrush, which uses them to break snails on. Neither the straw nor the stones are part of the active environment of a woodpecker that lives in the dead beech at the foot of which both stones and straw lie. Which pieces of the world are relevant and how these relevant bits are related to each other in the life of an organism change as the organism itself develops, either in its lifetime or in evolutionary time. All living plants and animals are covered in a thin layer of warm air created by their metabolism. A small parasite, say a flea, that lives on the skin of an animal is submerged in that warm boundary layer which constitutes part of its environment. Should the flea grow larger, however, it will emerge from that air made into the cold stratosphere a few millimeters away from the animal’s skin. It will have put itself into a new environment. While it is a commonplace that human beings can reconstruct their environment at will, it is not always appreciated that environmental construction is a universal feature of all life.

Second, organisms transform their environments. Not only human beings but all living beings both destroy and create the resources for their own continued life. As plants grow, their roots alter the soil chemically and physically. The growth of white pines creates an environment that makes it impossible for a new generation of pine seedlings to grow up, so hardwoods replace them. Animals consume the available food and foul the land and water with their excreta. But some plants fix nitrogen, providing their own resources; people farm; and beavers build dams to create their own habitat. Indeed, a significant part of the natural history of New England is a consequence of the actions of beavers raising and lowering the water table.

Third, organisms transduce the physical nature of environmental inputs. Changes in external temperature are felt by one’s body organs not as heat but as change in the concentration of certain hormones and sugar in one’s blood. When one sees and hears a rattlesnake, the photon and molecular energy that excites one’s eyes and ears is sensed by one’s internal organs as a change in adrenaline concentration. Presumably the effect of the same sight and sound on another snake rather than on a human would be quite different.

Fourth, organisms alter the statistical pattern of environmental variation. Fluctuations in food supply are damped out by storage devices. The potato tuber is a damping device for the plant that human beings have captured for their own purposes. But small differences can also be magnified, as when our central nervous systems pick out a signal from background noise because our attention is called to it. Organisms integrate fluctuations to record only the total, as for example plants that flower only after a sufficient number of accumulated degree-days above a critical temperature have been experienced

Organisms are both the result of and the cause of their environments. Of course, this is not news in 2018 (as it may have been for those in 1984… that hadn’t read The World of Living Things (1941) by Kinji Imanishi). Evolutionary theory today doesn’t merely rely on natural selection but also niche construction. This dialectical relationship between the organism and its context is now evident and yet still, as Stephen J. Gould called them, Darwinian Fundamentalists still ignore the context.

Despite the fact that Not in Our Genes was published in 1984, it still resonates with 21st century life. Nicholas Wade (A Troublesome Inheritance: 2014), Jon Entine (Taboo: 2000), Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now: 2018), and David Reich (Who We Are and How We Got Here: 2018) all appeal to the notion that we are merely the products of our biologies.

This book remains relevant and important over 30 years later. I will continue to teach out of this book because it engages the students with the problems inherent in deterministic arguments (genetic determinism, culture of poverty, etc.) and, while more holistic approaches are more difficult and don’t give us neat, simple answers, it does provide a clearer view of the natural world, the histories and evolution of organisms, and the lifeways of living organisms. For humans, these holistic approaches serve to combat notions of racial, gender, etc. immutability, incorporate a broader perspective for solving human ills, and avoid the trap of treating people as merely the product of the genes, relegated to whatever fate their biologies have dealt them.

Read this book! It is excellent!

5 Comments Add yours

  1. leonigp says:

    I have read the first edition, appreciated and enjoyed it for the writing and the critical presentation of research which still influences commonly held opinions.

    Is the 2017 edition revised?, i.e. incorporating data and examining discussion published after the initial publication in 1984?


    1. There is very little different albeit a new preface. The logic and the dialectical approach in the book still holds up and the overall argument is still quite strong despite being 34 years old.


      1. leonigp says:

        Thank you.


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