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It’s Even Less in Your Genes


In trying to analyze the natural world, scientists are seldom aware of the degree to which their ideas are influenced both by their way of perceiving the everyday world and by the constraints that our cognitive development puts on our formulations. At every moment of perception of the world around us, we isolate objects as discrete entities with clear boundaries while we relegate the rest to a background in which the objects exist.

That tendency, as Evelyn Fox Keller’s new book suggests, is one of the most powerful influences on our scientific understanding. As we change our intent, also we identify anew what is object and what is background. When I glance out the window as I write these lines I notice my neighbor’s car, its size, its shape, its color, and I note that it is parked in a snow bank. My interest then changes to the results of the recent storm and it is the snow that becomes my object of attention with the car relegated to the background of shapes embedded in the snow. What is an object as opposed to background is a mental construct and requires the identification of clear boundaries. As one of my children’s favorite songs reminded them:

You gotta have skin.
All you really need is skin.
Skin’s the thing that if you’ve got it outside,
It helps keep your insides in.

Organisms have skin, but their total environments do not. It is by no means clear how to delineate the effective environment of an organism.

One of the complications is that the effective environment is defined by the life activities of the organism itself. “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly,” as we are reminded by yet another popular lyric. Thus, as organisms evolve, their environments necessarily evolve with them. Although classic Darwinism is framed by referring to organisms adapting to environments, the actual process of evolution involves the creation of new “ecological niches” as new life forms come into existence. Part of the ecological niche of an earthworm is the tunnel excavated by the worm and part of the ecological niche of a tree is the assemblage of fungi associated with the tree’s root system that provide it with nutrients.

The vulgarization of Darwinism that sees the “struggle for existence” as nothing but the competition for some environmental resource in short supply ignores the large body of evidence about the actual complexity of the relationship between organisms and their resources. First, despite the standard models created by ecologists in which survivorship decreases with increasing population density, the survival of individuals in a population is often greatest not when their “competitors” are at their lowest density but at an intermediate one. That is because organisms are involved not only in the consumption of resources, but in their creation as well. For example, in fruit flies, which live on yeast, the worm-like immature stages of the fly tunnel into rotting fruit, creating more surface on which the yeast can grow, so that, up to a point, the more larvae, the greater the amount of food available. Fruit flies are not only consumers but also farmers.

Second, the presence in close proximity of individual organisms that are genetically different can increase the growth rate of a given type, presumably since they exude growth-promoting substances into the soil. If a rice plant of a particular type is planted so that it is surrounded by rice plants of a different type, it will give a higher yield than if surrounded by its own type. This phenomenon, known for more than a half-century, is the basis of a common practice of mixed-variety rice cultivation in China, and mixed-crop planting has become a method used by practitioners of organic agriculture.

Despite the evidence that organisms do not simply use resources present in the environment but, through their life activities, produce such resources and manufacture their environments, the distinction between organisms and their environments remains deeply embedded in our consciousness. Partly this is due to the inertia of educational institutions and materials. As a coauthor of a widely used college textbook of genetics,1 I have had to engage in a constant struggle with my coauthors over the course of thirty years in order to introduce students to the notion that the relative reproductive fitness of organisms with different genetic makeups may be sensitive to their frequency in the population.

But the problem is deeper than simply intellectual inertia. It goes back, ultimately, to the unconsidered differentiations we make—at every moment when we distinguish among objects—between those in the foreground of our consciousness and the background places in which the objects happen to be situated. Moreover, this distinction creates a hierarchy of objects. We are conscious not only of the skin that encloses and defines the object, but of bits and pieces of that object, each of which must have its own “skin.” That is the problem of anatomization. A car has a motor and brakes and a transmission and an outer body that, at appropriate moments, become separate objects of our consciousness, objects that at least some knowledgeable person recognizes as coherent entities.

It has been an agony of biology to find boundaries between parts of organisms that are appropriate for an understanding of particular questions. We murder to dissect. The realization of the complex functional interactions and feedbacks that occur between different metabolic pathways has been a slow and difficult process. We do not have simply an “endocrine system” and a “nervous system” and a “circulatory system,” but “neurosecretory” and “neurocirculatory” systems that become the objects of inquiry because of strong forces connecting them. We may indeed stir a flower without troubling a star, but we cannot stir up a hornet’s nest without troubling our hormones. One of the ironies of language is that we use the term “organic” to imply a complex functional feedback and interaction of parts characteristic of living “organisms.” But musical organs, from which the word was adopted, have none of the complex feedback interactions that organisms possess. Indeed the most complex musical organ has multiple keyboards, pedal arrays, and a huge array of stops precisely so that different notes with different timbres can be played simultaneously and independently.

Evelyn Fox Keller sees “The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture” as a consequence of our false division of the world into living objects without sufficient consideration of the external milieu in which they are embedded, since organisms help create effective environments through their own life activities. Fox Keller is one of the most sophisticated and intelligent analysts of the social and psychological forces that operate in intellectual life and, in particular, of the relation of gender in our society both to the creation and acceptance of scientific ideas. The central point of her analysis has been that gender itself (as opposed to sex) is socially constructed, and that construction has influenced the development of science:

If there is a single point on which all feminist scholarship…has converged, it is the importance of recognizing the social construction of gender…. All of my work on gender and science proceeds from this basic recognition. My endeavor has been to call attention to the ways in which the social construction of a binary opposition between “masculine” and “feminine” has influenced the social construction of science.2

Beginning with her consciousness of the role of gender in influencing the construction of scientific ideas, she has, over the last twenty-five years, considered how language, models, and metaphors have had a determinative role in the construction of scientific explanation in biology.

A major critical concern of Fox Keller’s present book is the widespread attempt to partition in some quantitative way the contribution made to human variation by differences in biological inheritance, that is, differences in genes, as opposed to differences in life experience. She wants to make clear a distinction between analyzing the relative strength of the causes of variation among individuals and groups, an analysis that is coherent in principle, and simply assigning the relative contributions of biological and environmental causes to the value of some character in an individual.

It is, for example, all very well to say that genetic variation is responsible for 76 percent of the observed variation in adult height among American women while the remaining 24 percent is a consequence of differences in nutrition. The implication is that if all variation in nutrition were abolished then 24 percent of the observed height variation among individuals in the population in the next generation would disappear. To say, however, that 76 percent of Evelyn Fox Keller’s height was caused by her genes and 24 percent by her nutrition does not make sense. The nonsensical implication of trying to partition the causes of her individual height would be that if she never ate anything she would still be three quarters as tall as she is.

In fact, Keller is too optimistic about the assignment of causes of variation even when considering variation in a population. As she herself notes parenthetically, the assignment of relative proportions of population variation to different causes in a population depends on there being no specific interaction between the causes. She gives as a simple example the sound of two different drummers playing at a distance from us. If each drummer plays each drum for us, we should be able to tell the effect of different drummers as opposed to differences between drums. But she admits that is only true if the drummers themselves do not change their ways of playing when they change drums.

Keller’s rather casual treatment of the interaction between causal factors in the case of the drummers, despite her very great sophistication in analyzing the meaning of variation, is a symptom of a fault that is deeply embedded in the analytic training and thinking of both natural and social scientists. If there are several variable factors influencing some phenomenon, how are we to assign the relative importance to each in determining total variation? Let us take an extreme example. Suppose that we plant seeds of each of two different varieties of corn in two different locations with the following results measured in bushels of corn produced (see Table 1).


There are differences between the varieties in their yield from location to location and there are differences between locations from variety to variety. So, both variety and location matter. But there is no average variation between locations when averaged over varieties or between varieties when averaged over locations. Just by knowing the variation in yield associated with location and variety separately does not tell us which factor is the more important source of variation; nor do the facts of location and variety exhaust the description of that variation.

There is a third source of variation called the “interaction,” the variation that cannot be accounted for simply by the separate average effects of location and variety. There is no difference that appears between the average of different varieties or average of different locations, suggesting that neither location or variety matters to yield. Yet the yields of corn were different when different particular combinations of variety and location are observed. These effects of particular combinations of factors, not accounted for by the average effects of each factor separately, are thrown into an unanalyzed category called “interaction” with no concrete physical model made explicit.

  1. 1

    Anthony J.F. Griffiths, Susan R. Wessler, Sean B. Carroll, and Richard C. Lewontin, Introduction to Genetic Analysis, ninth edition (W.H. Freeman, 2008). 

  2. 2

    The Scientist, Vol. 5, No. 1 (January 7, 1991). 

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