Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rotten Tomatoes?

Joe Weidman
SIC- Prompt #2 on Lewontin


The qualitative R.C. Lewontin has surely done quantitative chemistry. The non-linear R.C. Lewontin has surely reasoned in a cause-effect way in his lifetime. The observant R.C. Lewton has surely glossed over a few calculations for a smoother result. All scientists have at some point. What Lewontin argues is that modern science has gone bad; the once nutritious tomato has gone rotten, and we all are pursuing gene sequencing and other wasteful enterprises. He also posits that science is a social act at its root, and that the public cannot understand this ancient, simple act of defining nature that is science because of the complicated verbiage. Parts of what he says may have merit, but a lot of what Lewontin says in Biology As Ideology is misleading. Through a simple glance at a genetics paper taken from a journal on nature, a conclusion opposite and compelling against Lewontin’s can be drawn: science must break the world into parts, and those parts currently used in the world, genes or otherwise, are very useful to understanding the whole.
Yes, Lewontin has merit in a few statements he writes. Lewontin demands a “scientific understanding in which everyone can share,” a feat worthy of accomplishment (Lewontin 16). However, to make the masses understand science, the complexity and depth of understanding must be greatly reduced. No longer will one know a chemical, organism, or protein by name or shape, but instead everything becomes generalized and represented in shapes on a power point. Understanding in science should be universal, that is clear, but the way that is implemented will cause problems.
Lewontin is strongly against seeing the world as an, “indissoluble whole that we murder to dissect,” which is a gruesome way to put modern science. This is a cry against breaking down the holistic world into parts and studying the parts as a description of the whole. yes, Lewontin also sees the, “holistic view of the world [as] unreasonable,” but only spends a paragraph on that topic while a large portion of the book thus far is spent dissuading the reader that chasing the meaning of all the little parts that make up a whole is disillusionment (Lewontin 15). Lewontin clearly believes modern science to be focussing too much on the parts and not the whole. He desires a happy medium. But, as any reader could do, when another scientific paper of the modern world is put under Lewontin’s scrutiny, it successfully breaks down the whole into parts, and pulls forth a conclusion from them eloquently.
The paper titled, “The tomato genome sequence provides insights into fleshy fruit evolution” came from a simple web search of articles in  the journal “Nature”. It has informational graphs and gene explanations of the tomato plant. It is a mere seven pages long, but through the breakdown of the genes in a tomato plant genome, it successfully understands how tomatoes of different types respond to pathogens. “A total of 18,320 clearly orthologous tomato–potato gene pairs were identified,’ and these gene pairs were then used in growth experiments over time to determine which genotype produced the best phenotype of tomato that was resistant to pathogens (Tao 1). This helps tomato farmers because they now know which tomato genotypes to use to prevent crop loss. Lewontin may be right, the paper is quite complicated and calculations and chemicals litter its text, but it does its job, it produces understanding through breakdown of parts. The tomato is made of cells, which are made from DNA and cell replication, which is made from more DNA. The researchers have successfully analysed the parts and come to a conclusion.This is a concrete example of the work modern science is able to do, and the understanding it can produce.
This paper refutes what Lewontin argues because it works under assumptions that cannot be attacked if science is to exist. These assumptions mainly include that in order for scientific knowledge to be acquired, special tasks, words, substances, and conditions must be observed. Lewontin attacks that these specialties help science at all, yet almost all drugs or advancements have worked under these conditions or specialties. What Lewontin means when he attacks these assumptions is that he wants a new system of scientific method, one understandable and more universal to the items of the world being studied, not their parts. This is impossible because science cannot deal with the world universally with all its parts thrown together, even Lewontin knows that. This nonconformity is hypocritical though, as Lewontin has thought in the ways he ridicules and has become famous for publishing papers (as every scientist does to become notable) with complicated language that break down nature into parts. Science must systematically analyse the parts of nature to prove anything, as seen in the tomato paper. Conclusions of the whole can only be drawn from the study of the parts in a whole, a truth Lewontin wrongly refutes.
Works Cited:
Lewontin, Richard C. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA. 1st ed. Vol. 1. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1992. Print.

Tao Lin, Guangtao Zhu, Junhong Zhang, Xiangyang Xu, Qinghui Yu, Zheng Zheng, Zhonghua Zhang, Yaoyao Lun, Shuai Li, Xiaoxuan Wang, Zejun Huang, Junming Li, Chunzhi Zhang, Taotao Wang, Yuyang Zhang, Aoxue Wang, Yancong Zhang, Kui Lin, Chuanyou Li, Guosheng Xiong, Yongbiao Xue, Andrea Mazzucato, Mathilde Causse, Zhangjun Fei, James J Giovannoni, Roger T Chetelat, Dani Zamir, Thomas St├Ądler, Jingfu Li, Zhibiao Ye, Yongchen Du, Sanwen Huang.Genomic analyses provide insights into the history of tomato breeding.Nature Genetics, 2014; doi:10.1038/nature11119

3 comments:

  1. I think your analysis of Lewontin's argument that we should not be breaking down science into such minute and complex details is spot on. I also thought it was interesting how you tied in a counterargument as well as an opinion of your own. The one thing I would recommend is to perhaps introduce your personal opinion of Lewontin's thinking more towards the beginning of the paper. Doing this may help improve the flow/organization, because your whole argument does seem to revolve around this, and announcing it from the start could help solidify what you're saying. I also liked how you pointed out Lewontin's own hypocrisy, and how it is virtually unavoidable in the face of science as we know it. Overall, I think this is a really effective essay.

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  2. Your introduction is a little long-winded, without really having a clear argument that relates your journal article and Lewontin’s work. You generalize too much here.

    “No longer will one know a chemical, organism, or protein by name or shape, but instead everything becomes generalized and represented in shapes on a power point.” -- Do you think he really means that no technical language should be used anymore, and everything should be reduced to where everyone understands it? I think his intention, at least, is clear: he thinks science obfuscates itself in an anti-democratic way, and that people are too poorly educated (which itself can be convenient for scientists, while also posing problems for them). You might fairly argue that he is too vague when he worries about the way that scientists communicate, but I think you’re in danger of inventing a straw man here. He clearly doesn’t want to replace laboratory science with powerpoint presentations.

    “Lewontin clearly believes modern science to be focussing too much on the parts and not the whole. He desires a happy medium. But, as any reader could do, when another scientific paper of the modern world is put under Lewontin’s scrutiny, it successfully breaks down the whole into parts, and pulls forth a conclusion from them eloquently.” It’s problematic that you don’t actually pay attention to what Lewontin says about the middle ground, but rather make it seem like he is in favor of a holism which he clearly is attacking. Maybe his “middle way” is nonsense in its own right, but you need to make that argument, not just assume it.

    “Lewontin may be right, the paper is quite complicated and calculations and chemicals litter its text, but it does its job, it produces understanding through breakdown of parts. The tomato is made of cells, which are made from DNA and cell replication, which is made from more DNA. The researchers have successfully analysed the parts and come to a conclusion. This is a concrete example of the work modern science is able to do, and the understanding it can produce.” -- What’s absent from this is any understanding of what Lewontin’s critique of this article would have been. Again, you imagine his viewpoint in very general terms which are in danger of being disconnected from what he actually says.

    So it’s not like he’d deny that we can learn things from analyzing tomato DNA. The question, rather, would be whether this is the correct way of analyzing our real problem. Speaking for myself, rather than Lewontin, I’ll say what the real problem is: our tomatoes are disease-resistant, efficiently grown, and have no flavor. The way we produce fresh tomatoes (as opposed to tomatoes for canning, which is a rather different story) has blatant flaws for anyone who actually likes tomatoes. I’m not saying that to be jerk - I’m saying it because tomato farms are rife with problems, from abusive labor conditions to usually producing a terrible product. None of that means that analyzing tomato DNA has no value - but you’re totally evading the actual nature of Lewontin’s critique, which is that scientific research is embedded in social conditions, and that the motivations for, goals of, and values of a research program always need to be understood.

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  3. Overall: Your insistent error is in thinking that Lewontin proposes some form of universal simplification. I think you’re thinking only in terms of extremes: either science is the way that it is (impenetrable to non-specialists), or it turns into mush - “powerpoint presentations.” But is it so absurd to even imagine a world in which the public understands science better, scientists communicate it better, and everyone is in better agreement as to what science is for, and what it should be doing? Even when you disagree with someone deeply (as you probably will continue to do with Lewontin) you need to be careful to understand what they are actually saying.

    Emma's suggestions about restructuring are excellent. One problem here is that both the actual details of the essay and your own focused analysis are put off in favor of a problematic summarization of Lewontin in general, where really you needed to use Lewontin in greater depth but probably less breadth.

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