The Triple Helix is the title of a short work by Richard Lewontin, a professor of Genetics at Harvard University. In this book, Richard Lewontin criticizes much of the popular and scientific views of genetics, saying that they oversimplify the complicated processes of organisms.

The Triple Helix of the title is (of course) a pun on the Double Helix of DNA, as well as a reference to genes, organism and the environment, the three factors that feed back on each other to create themselves. Lewontin says that this complicated model is more accurate than the simplification of the Central Dogma, (that DNA code for RNA, which codes for protein that makes the organism). He points out that quite apart from the fact that DNA only codes for amino acid sequences that can later be folded in many different ways, small amounts of "developmental noise" can effect an organism's entire life history. He also criticizes the idea that all of an organisms genetic characteristics are somehow the result of some the law of survival of the fittest. The cover of my edition of the book has a picture of the two horned African rhinoceros and the one horned Indian rhinoceros. Lewontin says that this is probably not because conditions in Africa favor a rhinoceros with two horns, but is rather just a result of random factors.

Not only are Dr. Lewontin's ideas very interesting, and very clear, but he is a skillful writer. While I wouldn't say he is necessarily influenced by any 20th century philosophers, he has a style somewhat reminescent of Martin Heidegger, as when he points out that the word "development", often used in biology to mean growth, is the inverse of "envelope", and means to unfold something that is already present. The idea of unfolding is inappropriate in many organisms, since a tree is not genetically codified to have a certain shape or number of branches. The tree grows these branches, and does not "unfold" them. Another idea that is presented in somewhat Heideggerian language is Lewontin's refutation that organisms fit into "niches" in the environment, as if the environment was a door covered with locks and organisms were keys that fit into it. Lewontin points out, in a more than semantic sense, that organisms don't just fit into niches, that they create niches, and indeed even create the environment around them.

For a one hundred twenty page book, this book is packed full of ideas. I find it quite refreshing, especially since "genetics" has become a synonym for "that is the way that it is" in non-scientific discourse, and is held up as an excuse for alcoholism, sex drive, aggression and even such social factors as language, social class and intelligence. While, as it says on the inside dust jacket "This book is not a manifesto...nor a brief for a new theory", it does provide a good critical voice for the current genetic mania in the popular press.

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