Sunday, August 18, 2013

Interview of Lewontin

A 2004 interview with Richard Lewontin.  The whole transcript is well worth reading.  Lewontin is eminently sensible, I suppose what annoys Pinker-types is views like this:
On the specific side, genetics, in particular, has for its entire history, since the beginning of the twentieth century, except for a very brief period during the Second World War, genetics has been extremely -- what shall I call it? -- deterministic in its view of the causes of human and social behavior. Geneticists have been, if you like, imperialistic in saying genes are responsible for everything.

On the issue of disease, Lewontin has more to say than in his 1979 letter.

Let's take the case of the major killers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The major killers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up until the first decade or so of the twentieth century, were certain infectious diseases -- that's what killed people. Those infectious diseases were not waterborne diseases; they were airborne diseases. A major killer of children in the nineteenth century was measles. Now think of that. When I was a child, everybody had measles. Everybody in my class had measles. Nobody died of it. But in the nineteenth century, children died of measles.

The major killer of women of childbearing age in the nineteenth century was not childbearing; it was tuberculosis. Now, why is it that tuberculosis was the major killer of people in the nineteenth century -- the germs are still around -- and is now a very small fraction of the death rate? Very few people get tuberculosis now. People do, but very few, relative to the population. And children don't die of measles. Well, now, of course, they're inoculated against measles, but nobody in my generation died of measles, although measles are still a primary cause of child mortality in West Africa. The reason is because both tuberculosis and measles, in their severity and eventual effect -- and the probability of getting tuberculosis -- are closely related to nutrition.

Measles is a protein-consuming disease. If you already have a severe protein deficit, as children in West Africa do, and then you get the measles, you die. Measles actually destroys protein, it consumes protein. So if you're already underfed, you're in big trouble if you get measles. But if you're well-fed, as I was, and as my classmates in school were, then it's just an annoyance.

Tuberculosis was a chief killer during the nineteenth century because people were underfed. Women died more of tuberculosis than men because in nineteenth-century industrial England, for example, where the data come from, men were better fed than women. When there was meat to be had, and the man came home from the factory, the man got the meat and the women and children got what was left over. So as far as the causes of death are concerned in our society, environment -- social environment: pay scales, unemployment, social attitudes toward who deserves to get fed and who doesn't -- has had a profound effect on the causes of mortality.

So you're suggesting that the metaphors that we choose are, in part, the result of the political and social dynamics within science ...


The competition for resources and power, but also that they reflect the broader society and the decisions about, for example, the individual versus the community, or whatever dichotomies we might be talking about.

Yes, quite so. I mean, you don't want to think that the chief cause of death in your society is that people are underfed.