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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 257-263 ( 25 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/bradie.html

Book Review

Thinking About Evolution: Historical, Philosophical, and Political Perspectives
edited by Rama S. Singh, Costas B. Krimbas, Diane B. Paul, and John Beatty
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 606pp.

Reviewed by Michael Bradie, Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403, USA.

The volume under review is the second volume of a two volume Festschrift celebrating the career of the Harvard biologist Richard C. Lewontin. Dick Lewontin has been a towering figure in population genetics in the second half of the last century in a career that has spanned 50 years. In addition to his signal contributions to population genetics, he has written extensively on the social, political and philosophical significance of genetics and evolutionary theory. He was a sharp critic of the application of sociobiology to human behavior that developed following the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in the 1970’s. He has consistently brought a Marxist perspective to his discussion of social and political issues as well as to the interpretation of theoretical and applied biology.

This second volume is a collection of 28 essays that explore these wider implications. Section A, “History of and in Evolutionary Biology,” contains seven papers. Section B, “Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology,” comprises eleven papers. Finally, section C, “The Politics of Evolutionary Biology,” includes nine papers. The papers by contributors are generally of high quality and interest although, as is to be expected from such volumes, somewhat uneven. Many, but not all, address themes that Lewontin has himself written about. The contributors include biologists, psychologists, philosophers, historians and political scientists. In addition, there is a bibliography of Lewontin’s publications from 1952 to 2000, and an index.

Chapter 1, “Natural History and Formalism in Evolutionary Theory, is by Lewontin and serves as an introduction to the three parts that follow. It points to the necessity of integrating historical considerations with formal models in order to gain a full understanding of evolutionary processes. One is often tempted to produce formal models of evolutionary change that ignore history. However, Lewontin argues, given the complex structure of evolving populations and the many-many maps from Genotype-space to Phenotype-space, such shortcuts do not suffice to completely account for the evolutionary changes that biologists are interested in. Appeals to the specific historical circumstances under which populations evolve, their age structures, fertility rates, etc., are necessary as well.

Section A, “History of and in Evolutionary Biology.”

Chapter 2 is an interview with Lewontin conducted, over the course of several years, by three of the editors, Costas Krimbas, Diane Paul, and John Beatty. At Lewontin’s request, the focus is on the history of population genetics in the second half of the 20th century and not on personal history. He sees the major focus of has work in population genetics as working out the implications of the problematic set forth by his supervisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, namely, “the description and explanations of patterns of variation in natural populations” (p. 22). Despite Lewontin’s reticence with respect to the details of his personal life, in the course of the interview, we are treated to a fascinating characterization of life in Dobzhansky’s laboratory at Columbia, and Lewontin’s subsequent tenures at North Carolina State, Rochester, the University of Chicago, and Harvard. His political interests, originally suppressed as he builds his career, begin to emerge as he establishes himself as a major figure in the field. Despite his openly Marxist leanings, he was enormously successful in obtaining and keeping government funding for his research and his labs. Given his central role in the development of population genetics, we gain a fly-on-the-wall view of the major developments in population genetics over the course of the past half century.

Chapter 3, by John Beatty, “Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper: Darwinism, Historical Determinism, and Totalitarianism,” targets what he sees as the “historically deterministic Darwinism of the critics of totalitarianism.” Both Popper and Arendt saw Darwinism and Marxism as promoting a progressivist and deterministic world view that contributed to the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Beatty notes that Lewontin’s Marxism is neither progressivist nor directional, although, admittedly, 19th century version of these views often had that flavor.

Chapter 4, “The Genetics of Experimental Populations: L’Héritier and Tesserier’s Population Cages,” by Jean Gayon and Michel Veuille, documents the development, by French population geneticists in the 1930’s, of the “population cage” which played a role in shifting Dobzhansky’s focus from field work to laboratory studies and thus helped shape the development of much of the subsequent work in population genetics.

Chapter 5, by Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer, “Did Eugenics rest on an Elementary Mistake?,” challenges the view that the eugenics movement in the United States in the early part of the 20th century was due to a failure to appreciate that selective breeding is an ineffective means of eliminating “undesirable” traits such as “feeblemindedness” from the population. The authors argue that after 1917 the mathematical implications of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium for eliminating rare recessives were generally well known and accepted. The “mistakes” of the eugenicists rested on presumptions that “feeblemindedness” was more prevalent in the population than in fact it was. This, coupled with a restrictive conception of human rights enabled the program to thrive. Its eventual decline can be traced not to the results of scientific insight (it won’t work) but rather to a changing tide of opinion driven by political and social events (atrocities committed by the Nazi’s in the name of eugenics) as well of the development of a more libertarian attitude toward the reproductive rights of individuals.

Chapter 6, “Can the Norm of Reaction Save the Gene Concept?,” by Raphael Falk, argues that genes construed as “directive blueprints” downplays the role of the environment in the construction of phenotypes. The concept of a “norm of reaction,” first introduced in 1909, emphasizes the difference that different environments can make. Such considerations are relevant to current discussions the genetic bases of human behavior which often tend to conflate the concepts of “heritability” ( a measure of the proportion of genetic variance to overall variance of a trait) and “malleability” ( the degree to which phenotypic expression can be modified by environmental manipulations. Discussions of these issues often fail to take note of the fact that both the genetic variance and the environmental variance of a trait are functions of specific populations in a specific range of environments and are, indeed, functions of one another.

Chapter 7, ‘“The Apportionment of Human Diversity” 25 years later,” is an appreciation of Lewontin’s classic 1972 paper that established that the within-group variation in protein polymorphisms of the human populations is greater than the between-group variation. This was immediately seized upon by critics of the significance of biological concepts of races. Subsequent research has shown that this result holds at the DNA level as well. The result is that there are no non-random partitions of loci with low within-population variability that might serve as racial markers.

Chapter 8, “The Indian Caste System, Human Diversity, and Genetic Determinism,” by Rama Singh, is an interesting comparison and contrast of the Indian caste system and the British class system and American race history.

Section B, “Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology.”

Chapter 9, “Selfish Genes or Developmental Systems,” by Russell Gray, one of the leading proponents of the developmental systems approach, is a critique of the replicator/vehicle distinction that, Gray alleges, fuels “genic selectionism.” Gray defends the developmental systems approach against critics and concludes that the grounds for adopting the “gene’s-eye” view are inconclusive and that “the standard “gene-for” locution provides no basis for the assigning genes a primary developmental role and that the idea of genes as self-replicating are false” (p. 203).

Chapter 10, “The evolutionary Definition of Selective Agency, Validation of the Theory of Hierarchical Selection, and Fallacy of the Selfish Gene,” is by the late Stephen Jay Gould. In it, Gould argues that “The misidentification of replicators as causal agents of selection - the foundation of the entire gene-centered approach - rests upon a logical error best characterized as a confusion of bookkeeping with causality” (p. 208) Gould accepts that genes as replicators are important factors in evolutionary change but rejects the view that they are efficient causes of change. Rather, he claims, they are material causes. Genetic changes may or may not lead to phenotypic changes but phenotypic changes do signal genetic changes. So, he concludes, genes are better bookkeeping units than phenotypic traits but are not more basic (reductionism) nor causal (genic selectionism) nor the only replicators. This chapter is a (considerably) abridged and edited version of part of chapter 8 of Gould’s recently released magnum opus, “The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.”

Chapter 11, “Reductionism in Genetics and the Human Genome Project,” by Sahotra Sarkar, contrasts the relative success of molecular biology as vindicating the reductionist view that “biological processes will succumb to physical explanation” with the (more or less) unsuccessful attempts to explain biological processes in terms of genes. The Human Genome Project, at least as originally conceived, assumed genetic reductionism. If, as Sarkar contends, that project is non-viable then the claims for the Human Genome Project are called into question.

Chapter 12, “Organism, Environment, and Dialectics, by Peter Godfrey-Smith, addresses Lewontin’s “dialectical” approach to biological problems. One feature of this approach is Lewontin’s suggestion that organisms be seen to “construct” their environments rather than merely “react” to them. This dialectical approach runs the risk of eviscerating Darwinism altogether. Without some notion of environments as independent of organisms and some “atomizing” of traits under selection, Godfrey-Smith argues, Darwinian evolution cannot occur. Lewontin’s dialectical approach lumps together two different kinds of process that Godfrey-Smith wants to distinguish.. The first are cases where organisms modify themselves in response to environmental challenges. The second include cases where organisms modify their environments in response to environmental challenges. Only the latter, on Godfrey-Smith’s view, should be labeled as “organisms constructing environments.” Against Lewontin, Godfrey-Smith sees a role for both “adaptation” and “construction” as useful metaphors for describing the interactions between organisms and their environments.

Chapter 13, “Units and Levels of Selection: An Anatomy of the Units of Selection debates, by Elizabeth Lloyd, is an extremely useful dissection and analysis of the various issues at stake in the question of what constitutes the proper unit and level of selection. Without drawing any conclusions she carefully distinguishes four questions whose conflation often generates more heat than light in the literature. These are [1] At what level do the interactions occur which constitute the selective process? [the interactor question]; [2] “How large a chunk of the genome functions as a replicating unit? [the replicator question; [3] What entities acquire adaptations as a result of selection processes? [the manifestation of adaptations question]; and [4] What units ultimately benefit from selection processes? [ the beneficiary question]. Keeping track of what is at issue is a sine qua non for sorting out the claims and counterclaims that one finds in trying to navigate through the literature on these debates.

Chapter 14, “In Defense of Neo-Darwinism: Popper’s “Darwinism as a Metaphysical Research Programme” revisited,” is by Costas Krimbas. Krimbas defends the Popperian idea that neo-Darwinism is, to large extent, a metaphysical research program - that is, a nonfalsifiable guide to research as opposed to a falsifiable scientific theory. Many of the so-called tests of the theory of evolution, Krimbas argues, actually presuppose that the theory is true and serve to work out what the consequences of the acceptance of this model are.

Chapter 15, Elliott Sober’s contribution, “The Two Faces of Fitness,” is a challenge to using expected number of offspring as the “right way to define fitness.” I think Sober’s analysis shows that expected number of offspring is not always the best way to characterize fitness. This may come to the same thing but, strictly speaking, definitions can not be “right” or “wrong” just “useful” or “not useful.” The two faces of fitness referred to in the title are “viability” and “fertility.” Unfortunately, they do not always go hand in hand. Naively, for instance, one might think that in a competition between organisms or between traits, those with lower expected number of offspring have a greater chance of going extinct. But, Sober argues, using various mathematical models, the dynamics of population growth and probability of extinction depend upon variances, population structure and the time frame of interest to the investigator. In some cases, a better measure of the chances of survival is indicated by expected number of grand offspring or by relative rates of growth within or between populations.

Chapter 16, “Evolvability: Adaptation and Modularity,” by Jeffrey Schank and William Wimsatt, argues that “modularity in the mapping of genotypes into phenotypes is fundamental to the process of adaptation.”

Chapter 17, “Organism and Environment Revisited” by Robert Brandon explores two attempts to empirically model Lewontin’s dialectical approach to the organism-environment interaction (cf. Godfrey-Smith’s analysis in chapter 12). Brandon argues for distinguishing three concepts of “environment”: [1] an “external environment,” which constitutes all those factors external to the population of interest; [2] an “ecological environment,” which constitutes the subset of those factors that are relevant to the differential survivability and fertility of a given genotype of interest; [3] a “selective environment,” which dictates the differential survivability and fertility of variant genotypes of interest. Although Brandon finds only two studies explicitly designed to test Lewontin’s “constructionist” alternative to the “passive” received view, he argues that much of the recent work on frequency dependent selection should be construed as exemplifying Lewontin’s view that organisms “construct” their environments rather than passively “react” to them. As a further point, Brandon suggests that the evolution of higher levels of selection - their emergence and their dynamical contributions to multilevel selection, insofar as they involve frequency dependent selection, are grist for a constructionist mill. Of interest as well, is Brandon’s reading of the infamous “Spandrels” paper (that, lest we forget, Lewontin was co-author with Gould) as a “conservative” piece. The point of the critique of adaptationism, as Brandon reads it, was to remind us that factors other than selection are relevant to understanding the emergence of evolutionary patterns. Not every evolved trait is an adaptation, which is not to say that none are. However, in Brandon’s view, Lewontin’s “constructionism,” is revolutionary. It does not deny that adaptations exist but, rather, demonstrates that their production is much more complicated than we might have suspected.

Chapter 18, “An ‘Irreducible’ Component of Cognition,” by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, is a brief against naturalized epistemologies, in general, and evolutionary epistemologies, in particular. The “irreducible” component is the alleged normativity involved in cognitive processes that appeal to “truths of reason and abstract principles,” which, for the author, are necessary truths. These principles justify certain inferences but cannot themselves be justified by any naturalistic account. This may well be but I daresay this argument will not be convincing to those naturalists who eschew the traditional concept of “justification” and who reject the contention that any principles, no matter how abstract, are, in any absolute sense of the term, “necessary.”

Chapter 19, “From Natural Selection to Natural Construction to Disciplining Unruly Complexity: The Challenge of Integrating Ecological Dynamics into Evolutionary Theory,” by Peter Taylor, is a discussion of the problems that need to be addressed in order to integrate ecological dynamics with evolutionary theory. Taylor’s programmatic proposal is to replace the metaphor of “natural selection” with a “construction” metaphor that focuses on evolving historical lineages and how they “shape” themselves. This serves to extend Lewontin’s “construction” metaphors from individual organisms interacting with their environments to the lineages to which they belong and their interaction with their (evolutionary time-frame) environments.

Section C, “The Politics of Evolutionary Biology”

Chapter 20, “Battling the Undead: How (and How Not) to Resist Genetic Determinism,” by Philip Kitcher, is a critical assessment of the rationales behind both Lewontin’s dialectical critique of reductionism as well as that of the development systems theorists. Kitcher agrees with Lewontin’s claim that the “shapes” of norms of reaction cannot be accurately estimated from heritabilities. Basically, both are functions of specific environments and populations and extrapolations are both misleading and dangerous. On the other hand, Kitcher rejects the suggestion that this shows that the concept of a “norm of reaction” is incoherent. Secondly, much is made by both Lewontin and the developmental systems theorists of the presence of “developmental noise” in the generation of phenotypes. This prevents the glib prediction of phenotypic expression even when the alleged genetic and environmental factors have been identified. Kitcher dismisses this concern as a function of choosing coarse grained as opposed to fine grained characterizations of the environments. Again, the empirical details may be difficult to identify but this is a practical not a theoretical worry. Finally, Kitcher is unimpressed with the objection that organism and environment so “interpenetrate” one another that isolation of separable causal factors is impossible. Again, Kitcher sees at best a technical stumbling block and not an “in principle” one. There are, he insists, pragmatic reasons for choosing to focus on the genes - we know better how to partition genetic elements than we do environmental elements. Nevertheless, he cautions, one must always ask whether the implications of a given research program will lead both to desirable and applicable social policies. Finally, Kitcher raises the important consideration that it is not enough for the dialectical biologist and developmental systems theorists to criticize the standard gene-centered approach. The challenge is for these critics to develop viable alternative research strategies that working biologists could use to obtain results that might not otherwise be discovered or explainable from the standard point of view.

Chapter 21, “The Poverty of Reductionism,” by Steven Rose, is an edited version of a chapter from his book Lifelines. Rose argues that what he calls “neurogenetic determinism” results in both bad science and a shift in focus from the social factors that are relevant for addressing certain patterns of human behavior. The problem with this approach, as Rose sees it, is not that it is unethical or immoral but that it misidentifies the level of analysis appropriate for resolving social problems. Consider violence, for example. Rose sees the reductionist approach as, first, clustering together a wide range of human behaviors as expressions of violence under a single “scientific concept” identifiable with some genetic or neurological disposition (that’s the “bad science” part) and then using this identification to focus palliative concerns on the alleged genetic or neurological factors and thus ignoring the social and political environments which are contributing causes to the problems in the first place. Rose’s critiques are often characterized as overly ideological in nature but that should not get in the way of appreciating the legitimacy and importance of the concerns he raises.

Chapter 22, “Behavior Genetics: Galen’s Prophecy or Malpighi’s Legacy?,” by Evan Balaban, is a discussion of the influence of what Balaban calls “simplicity filters” on research in behavior genetics. The term “simplicity filter,” was coined by Donald Griffin to characterize the effect of preconceptions on the interpretation of observations. Of course, all data collecting involves the use of such “filters” but Balaban argues that research in behavior genetics is particularly prone to the distorting effects the use of such filter’s can produce. He identifies three filters, [1] What is the point of doing behavior genetics?, [2] Who does behavior genetics?, and [3] Choices of how to measure behavior. He then surveys the ways in which these filters affect the analysis and reporting of results. His fundamental worry is that as genetics studies are becoming more and more sophisticated, the development of sophisticated behavioral measures is lagging far behind. The result is that the more information we acquire, the less clear it will be how to understand, interpret and apply it.

Chapter 23, “Identity Politics and Biology,” by Ruth Hubbard, is a comparison of the strategies developed by members of four oppressed groups in either accepting or rejecting the labels imposed upon them by their oppression. The four groups she focuses on are [1] women, [2] African-Americans, [3] gays and lesbians, and [4] persons with disabilities. She briefly explores the ways in which members of such groups adopt and “biologize” identities for themselves. She ends with a caveat about the dangers of accepting any one label as definitive.

Chapter 24, “The Agroecosystem: The Modern Vision in Crisis, the Alternative Evolving,” by John Vandermeer, is a critique of the development of ‘industrial agriculture’ with some suggestions for developing alternative practices. The socioeconomics of agriculture has long been an applied interest of Lewontin’s. Vandermeer notes that industrial agriculture is a multi-national enterprise dominated by selling monopolies (e.g., for seeds) and buying monopsonies (a few multinational buyers for agricultural products), a heavy dependence on inorganic fertilizers and pest controls, and a focus on mechanical rather than human and animal labor. The impact of these developments is to stifle the growth of Third World economies and the promotion, thereby, of unstable political institutions in those countries. Vandermeer’s alternative suggestion is to advocate implementation of practices that reverse these structures and treating agroecosystems as the ecological systems that they are.

Chapter 25, “Political Economy of Agricultural Genetics,” by Jean-Pierre Berlan, explores another aspect of the capitalization of agriculture. The history of the development of hybrid seeds is briefly reviewed. The development of hybrid seeds is construed as analogous to the development of copy-protected software. The end result is an increase in profits or value for seed producers and breeders at the expense of the utility for farmers and consumers.

Chapter 26, “The Butterfly ex Machina,” by Richard Levins is a critical assessment of the implications of “chaos theory.” The emergence of chaos theory has led many observers and commentators to proclaim the death of general laws, trends, regularities and patterns and as signaling the triumph of randomness over order. Strictly speaking, however, chaotic systems are a subset of non-linear systems, not all of which can be made to become chaotic. Levins shows how patterns can be found even in “chaotic” systems governed by the logistic equation.

Chapter 27, “Evoking Transmutational Dread: Military and Civilian Uses of Nuclear and Genetic Alchemies,” by Robert Haynes is a discussion of the risks involved in peaceful nuclear and genetic technologies. After a careful review, and drawing upon his own experience on some Canadian Nuclear Commissions, he concludes that the public often harbors irrational fears of the potential catastrophes that might result from the use of such technologies. He concludes that scientists need to take the forefront in developing careful assessments of these technologies and in communicating, to the public at large, in an effective way, the real risks and benefits arising from their use.

Chapter 28, “What Causes Cancer?: A Political History of Recent Debates,” by Robert Proctor, is a plea for recognizing that diseases such as cancer have cultural and political causes as well as material ones. Tobacco, for instance, may contain carcinogens but it has to be produced, distributed, and its use encouraged in order for it to become a leading cause of cancer. Political, economic, social and even journalistic interests all become co-conspirators in the along with the chemicals and genetic factors in production of high cancer rates.

This is a hefty book. The contributed papers raise important social, political, historical, philosophical and economic issues. The writing is generally at a high level and, for the most part, non-technical. The papers should be accessible to a wide audience of those who are interested in the larger social implications of work done in population genetics. As such, this volume serves as a fitting and worthy tribute to the cosmopolitan interests and intellect of Richard Lewontin.

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© Michael Bradie.

Professor Bradie has published numerous articles on the philosophy of science and epistemology. His recent publications include "Assessing Evolutionary Epistemology," "Darwin and the Moral Status of Animals," "What Does Evolutionary Biology Tell Us About Philosophy and Religion," and "Models, Rhetoric, and Science." A book on evolution and ethics, The Secret Chain: Evolution and Ethics, was published by SUNY Press in 1995. Most recently, he was the guest editor of Biology and Philosophy for an issue honoring Richard Lewontin.

In addition to his professional roles at Bowling Green, Professor Bradie has been a Visiting Scholar at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard (1984), Visiting Scholar in the History and Philosophy of Science Department, Indiana University (1986), and a Visiting Fellow at the Center for the Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh (1992-93).


Bradie, M. (2002). Review of Thinking About Evolution: Historical, Philosophical, and Political Perspectives edited by Rama S. Singh, Costas B. Krimbas, Diane B. Paul, and John Beatty. Human Nature Review. 2: 257-263.

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