I recently read It Aint Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions, a compendium of articles that geneticist Richard Lewontin wrote for the New York Review of Books. He reviews books on scientific subjects and offers an insider's perspective on the practice of scientific research. He discusses what was and wasn't revolutionary in Darwin's theory; the Human Genome Project and the commodification of scientific discovery; the abiding allure of biological determinism and reductionism; and the uphill battle women face in scientific academia. To Lewontin, empirical inquiry is as much about the political and cultural context of scientific research as the research itself. In addition, science writing for Lewontin isn't just about conferring knowledge to a lay audience, it's a problematic process where experts often exploit the credulity of their readers to further an agenda.
His writing is erudite and witty, and he comes off as a cranky social critic as much as a career scientist. Quotes from his reviews should give some idea as to his tone:
"A great deal can be learned by reading books. Much of what can be learned from the content of a book is, of course, untrue, but there is a reliable source of information on the front and back of the title page."
"Natural scientists, in their overweening pride, have come to believe that everything about the material world is knowable and that eventually everything we want to know will be known. But that is not true. For some things there is simply not world enough and time."
"The strain of simplistic scientism that characterized social theory from the beginning of the nineteenth century continues to infect it today. The extraordinary increase in the knowledge of the mechanistic details of inheritance and evolution has only changed the language in which that scientism is expressed."
"But if we truly live in a meritocratic society, how do we account for the obvious passage of social power from parent to offspring? It must be that intrinsic merit is passed in the genes. The doctrine of grace is replaced by the Laws of Mendel."
"To say that genes are influential is to say nothing, because genes are somehow influential in all traits of all organisms. What is required for a program of alteration of a trait is an understanding of its actual mediation."
"Modern historians of science seem still to be dazzled by Victorian values."
"What may be imprisoning is philosophy of science which uses oversimplified models to explain the dynamics of the scientific process."
"That leaves us with the two hard problems: What is going on inside my head as I write these words, and how, starting from a single fertilized egg in my mother's uterus, did I develop the brain, eyes, and fingers that make it all possible? The problem is not simply that we do not have single coherent stories to tell about these processes, but that we do not know how to produce well-framed questions of whose relevance we are sure. Instead we have faddish models that succeed each other at five- or ten-year intervals, driven largely by changes in available technology in other branches of science, rather than by any coherent intellectual program."
"It may turn out, in the end, that the providers of capital have been just as deluded by the hype of the human genome [project] as has anyone else. Judging by the results so far the prudent investor may be better off spending a week at Saratoga. Only a foolhardy person would predict that no gene therapies will ever be commercially successful. Even at Saratoga long shots pay off once in a while."
Many of the authors of the reviewed books predictably take offense to Lewontin's critiques, and (though Lewontin has the last word) their responses are printed in full:
"We are puzzled by the review of our book, The Social Organization of Sexuality, because it is professionally incompetent and motivated by such an evident animus against the social sciences in general."
This was a marvelous read from an intelligent, culturally perceptive author. Lewontin is a committed skeptic whose experience in the trenches of scientific academia make it difficult for him to stomach the presumption of many researchers or the breathless optimism of a lot of science writing. To my way of thinking Lewontin isn't a defeatist or a naysayer. He simply values science very highly, because he expects a lot from it.