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Genes & Culture

In response to:

Stretch Genes from the July 16, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Peter B. Medawar is a distinguished immunologist. If we were to write about immunology with the same carelessness and lack of preparation with which he reviewed our book Genes, Mind, and Culture [NYR, July 16], he would be scandalized.

Medawar’s review is an exercise in literary criticism, with personal anecdotes, comments on our writing style, gratuitous (and wrong) speculations on our motives, and allusions to the history of ideas. It offers no account of the substance of the book. We would therefore like to repeat in capsular form what we consider to be some of the book’s principal original contributions, as follows. The literature on cognition is assessed with reference to the demonstrable presence or absence of innate bias in the development of mind and its capacity for choice. We state what is known about the physiological basis of such bias. The additional influence of the moment-to-moment choices of other societal members is also made explicit and the most likely ones tentatively identified from limited experimental data in social psychology. From this examination of the shifting patterns of individual choice, we develop models that permit the prediction of the pattern of variation among cultures. Thus the data of cognitive and developmental psychology are linked to cultural diversity in an explicit and predictive manner. Case histories, such as incest avoidance, are then examined in detail in an attempt to test and extend the theory developed to that point. We proceed to modify the basic theory of population genetics to incorporate cultural diversity and what is known about the idiosyncracies of human perception and decision making. From this work a series of concrete, hitherto unexpected predictions are made about the rate of genetic evolution under the influence of cultural diversity and, conversely, the rate of cultural change under varying degrees of genetic constraint. The theory proceeds in a quantitative manner around the entire circuit of gene-culture coevolution, from genes to cognition and the generation of cultural diversity to the modification of gene frequencies and back again. It is the first formal treatment to do so.

Medawar is a celebrated scientist with wide-ranging interests, but readers should note that he is not competent to judge a technical monograph on the particular subject we develop in Genes, Mind, and Culture, any more than we would be to review a comparable work in immunology. He recoils from the terminology, which he finds excessive. There is far less terminology than in the average beginning text-book in biology. It may be less familiar to Medawar than to behavioral scientists, but it is not excessive. Medawar is offended by the mathematical expressions, which he implies are not only excessive but beyond his grasp. Genes, Mind, and Culture contains fewer equations and at no greater level of difficulty than the average treatise in theoretical population biology, to which it is closely allied. All of the equations are employed to reach conclusions with a concreteness and precision that would otherwise be impossible.

At the close of his review, after avoiding the 90 percent or so of the book that contains the facts and ideas, Medawar rather abruptly cites with approval the assertion by Kenneth Bock that the universals of biology and genetic theory cannot account for recent history or the differences between cultures. It is a rule that when older, established scholars declare something to be impossible, it is about to happen. We have shown that the universals of gene-culture coevolutionary theory can already account for some recent history and a great deal of the differences between cultures. They can be treated in a way that constructs a bridge between the biological and social sciences, but without deemphasizing the uniqueness of the human species and the intrinsic interest of cultural diversity. This is the central conclusion of our book that serious readers are invited to consider and experts will no doubt severely test.

In Genes, Mind, and Culture we have provided a new conception of the relation between genetic and cultural evolution and a set of concrete, testable results. They cannot be refuted by expressions of distaste and appeals to authority.

Charles J. Lumsden

Edward O. Wilson

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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