Richard Lewontin's "The Triple Helix" is a delightful literary composition in four movements consisting of three lectures and an essay on contemporary trends in biology and genetics. While the three in the triple helix metaphor refers to the interactive nature of a gene, an organism and an environment, it is also a reference to the notion that the human DNA (double helix) nucleotide-sequencing project is less than the be all and end all of genetics research.
In the first movement (Gene and Organism), Lewontin reviews major discoveries in biology from Darwin to the Genome Project. In his critique the author carps the metaphors of biology, especially the once useful words and phrases like Decarte's metaphor of the world as a "machine", general use of the word "development" (unrolling or unfolding of something that is already there) to mean ontogeny and embryo genesis and the "Holy Grail", i.e., the Genome Project (the project that determined the nucleotide sequence of the entire human genome). Using elegant examples from contemporary biology, Lewontin dispenses with the ideas (1) that a cell is anything much like a machine and (2) that as a blueprint, DNA sequencing would be sufficient to define anatomy, development and function.
In the second movement (Organism and Environment), the author clears up the meaning of "ecological niche". Accordingly, environment and organism are so closely related that, except in the laboratory, neither exists in the absence of the other.
"Organisms not only determine what aspects of the outside world are relevant to them by peculiarities of their shape and metabolism, but they actively construct, in the literal sense of the word, a world around themselves."
In movement three "Parts and Wholes, Causes and Effects"; the reader is treated to a glimpse into Lewontin's home life:
"As I write this chapter I think at one moment of the sentence I am writing, but then I wonder which sonata my wife will practice next, and then I recall the work done by the plumber today and then I return my attention to the manuscript."
Also included in movement three are (1) highly instructive lessons on values of fitness of nine genotypes in the Australian grasshopper (2) a discussion of variety among ceratopsian dinosaur horns and collars (3) a story about a Vermont man with a 150 year-old axe, and (4) the history of infectious disease in nineteenth century Europe.
In the finale, Lewinton dispenses with holism, Gaia, catastrophe, chaos and complexity theories and adds:
"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 . . . the fact that biological systems occupy a different region of the space of physical relations than do simpler physico-chemical systems . . ."
"New experimental techniques are in part induced by the problems that are under investigation by a community of scientists with common interests, but once those technologies exist they have great power in determining the questions that are asked."
The same is said of great men.