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dnaIn January 2011, an intriguing announcement arrived in my email inbox. The upcoming issue of The New Yorker was to contain “Social Animal” by David Brooks, The New York Times columnist and guru of middle-class American life. I could hardly wait to read “how the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life” like mine and those other lost souls around me in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Three days later, my mailwoman, Kate Bowman, delivered to my front door The New Yorker I eagerly awaited. Kate had jettisoned her Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy for the spiritual landscape of Northern New Mexico. I asked her what she thought of Mr. Brooks’ essay. She moaned, rolled her eyes, and said, “Now, I know that I was right to leave academia—unadulterated [baloney] is fobbed off as pearls of wisdom.” I always suspected Kate had become disillusioned in graduate school, and consequently I ignored her parting shot: “See if you think social scientists have made great strides in understanding human nature, filling in the atrophy of theology and philosophy.” Another moan, and then, “Give me Adi Shankara any day.” I shrugged off the mention of a ninth-century A.D. Hindu guru, for in Santa Fe even my furnace repairman teaches Sanskrit.

Speed-reading through the “Social Animal” in desperate search for profound truths about human life, I, too, moaned and rolled my eyes when I read about how the two made-up characters, Harold and Erica, sized each other up when they met for the first time. “Harold liked what he saw, from the waist-to-hip ratio to the clear skin, all indicative of good health and fertility.”[1] Erica’s smile pleased him, and he “unconsciously noted that the end of her eyebrows dipped down.” Brooks reports that Duchenne Guillaume, a French physician, observed in the mid-nineteenth century that the outer portion of orbicularis oculi muscle cannot be voluntarily controlled, so a smile where the tip of the eyebrow dips betrays a spontaneous, genuine emotion.

Erica, in contrast, was impressed by Harold’s symmetrical features, a sign of a strong immune system, and that he was slightly older, taller, and stronger than she, indicative of a good provider. Deep down in her genes, she knew that “while Pleistocene men could pick their mates on the basis of fertility cues discernible at a glance, Pleistocene women faced a more vexing problem.” Since a Pleistocene woman wrapped in a bear skin could not supply sufficient calories for a human baby that required years of care, she had to choose a mate “not only for insemination but for continued support.” Those Pleistocene women who chose short, weak, or old men with unsymmetrical features bred successfully but their offspring perished; in this way, natural selection gave present-day women the genes to select successful mates.

To test the “science behind everyday life” I went to the local Whole Foods Market to collect my own data. The tape measure never left my pocket, for I immediately saw that not one woman in the upscale grocery store exhibited the hourglass figure, a waist-to-hip ratio (WHR) of .7 that Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren had, and were supposedly desired by all men. The women in Whole Foods were Rubenesque, not unlike the damsels in the painting The Three Graces by Rubens. I suspected that buried in the scientific literature was a paper that purported to show that many indigenous peoples, such as those in southeast Peru, who have had little contact with the Western world, actually have a preference for high WHRs. These researchers, no doubt, concluded that a penchant for low WHRs is a byproduct of modern Western culture. Later, I did check the scientific literature and discovered that eighty-eight percent of American women fit into four basic body types: eight percent have the curvaceous, hourglass figure flaunted by 1950s movie starlets; forty-six percent are banana-shaped; twenty percent are bottom-heavy pears; and fourteen percent broad-shouldered apples. Vive la différence!

These days, no matter where I turn, I encounter questionable opinions about human nature based on evolutionary psychology and a neuroscience whose goal is to prove all members of Homo sapiens are mere machines. Even my roofer—every flat roof in Santa Fe leaks at some time—told me over a cold beer that altruism evolved in our hunter-gather ancestors to benefit their selfish genes. No doubt, he, like Mr. Brooks, was merely parroting mainstream evolutionary thinkers and their popularizers. Sociobiologist Edward Wilson and philosopher of science Michael Ruse assert that ethics is a biological adaptation to further reproductive ends and that the belief in the Golden Rule is a shared illusion of the human race.[2] That evolutionary psychology speaks of moral behavior caused by genes, not moral choice, is an outlook that stems from reductionism, the assumption that every whole is completely understandable in terms of its smallest parts and how they interact.

In the grand scheme of reductionism, each higher level is explained in terms of the next lower level: society by its individuals, an organism—human or otherwise—by its organs, an organ by its cells, a cell by its molecules, a molecule by its protons, neutrons, and electrons. If reductionism is true, then Wilson correctly concludes, “All tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”[3] According to this outlook, historical events are reducible to subatomic events. In principle, the near-collapse of the world economy in 2008 or the election of a new president in the same year can be explained in terms of quarks and leptons. Biologist Peter Medawar, however, finds this nonsensical and ludicrous: “There is simply no sense in saying that politico-sociological concepts like electoral reform and the foreign exchange deficit can be ‘interpreted in terms of biology,’ and it is hardly less than idiotic to say that they can be interpreted in terms of physics and chemistry, though if the axiom of reducibility were true it would follow that they were so.”[4]

Is reductionism a reasonable goal of science or an “idiotic” quest?

Organic and Composite Wholes

To answer this question consider DNA, thought by many to represent the final victory of reductionism in biology. Through the analysis of data from x-ray crystallography, Francis Crick and James Watson, using only physics and chemistry, established that the physical structure of the DNA molecule is a double helix. But why DNA has the form of a double helix can be answered only by looking to a larger whole, the cell. When a cell divides, the DNA in the cell replicates itself by unzipping into two helical strands and incorporating new molecules from the surrounding medium in precisely the right order to form two identical copies of the original double helix. Thus, in molecular biology, the physical structure of a part, DNA, is understood in terms of the whole, the cell.

The units of heredity are genes. In molecular terms, a gene is simply several stretches of DNA. Like strings of letters taken from the entire alphabet, the chemical sequences that make up DNA have no meaning in themselves. The meaning of a string of letters is determined by a whole; information theorist Hubert Yockey gives an amusing illustration: “O singe fort! has no meaning as a sentence in English, although each is an English word, yet in German it means O sing on! and in French it means O strong monkey!”[5] Similarly, what particular sequences of chemical units have meaning as a gene can only be determined by looking to a whole—to the cell, to the organism, or to the pedigree of the offspring.

Huntington’s disease, for example, characterized by jerky, involuntary movements called chorea, and by mood swings, slurred speech, and eventually dementia, was first diagnosed in 1872 by New York physician George Huntington. He realized it ran in families. Geneticists, later, traced the disease back to two brothers from Suffolk, England, who immigrated to America in 1630. Huntington’s disease follows the classic Mendelian pattern of inheritance. Given a family history of the disease, Mendelian genetics can assign a probability of an offspring getting the disease but cannot predict with certainty who will.

Nancy Wexler, a clinical neuropsychologist, had a fifty percent chance of developing Huntington’s disease since her mother died of it. Determined to find the Huntington gene, she traveled in 1979 to three small villages in Venezuela on the shores of Lake Maracaibo, where Huntington’s disease is common. The disease had been traced to Maria Concepción, who lived in the early 1800s. She had 11,000 descendants, 9,000 of whom were alive during the time of Wexler’s hunt for the gene. Wexler and her team sent blood collected from 500 people to James Gusella at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He searched for random genetic markers. In 1983, when he found one, he narrowed the gene’s location to the tip of the short arm of chromosome 4.

Ten years later, six research teams, comprising fifty-two investigators from ten institutions, announced that the Huntington gene had been found. The gene responsible for the havoc wrought by Huntington’s disease is carried by all human beings; however, individuals with the disease have a defective version. One end of the defective gene repeats too often, what is in effect the molecular equivalent of a stutter: Unaffected people have fewer than thirty-five repeats, while people with more than forty are certain to develop the disease as adults; in those rare cases of more than sixty, a severe form of the disease occurs before the age of twenty.

The extensive search required to find the Huntington gene clearly shows that for a physicist or a chemist, a gene is simply a sequence of chemical units, but for a biologist the function of a gene is determined by looking to some whole. No biochemist or geneticist could have looked solely at the chemical structure of a defective Huntington gene and concluded that it was the gene that causes Huntington’s disease. No gene is understandable in terms of itself alone.

Contrasting modern biology with Newtonian physics, we see that there are two kinds of wholes, organic and composite, that differ radically in how a part is related to the whole. An open encounter with any organism reveals that each part, in some way, always contains the whole. Consequently, a part is not separable from the whole, for if it could be separated, the part would no longer exist. Consider a jack rabbit in the desert Southwest, for example. The DNA in every cell of its body is unique to this individual jack rabbit. The entire rabbit is contained in every cell of its body; in a liver cell, for instance, is the information to build a pancreas, an eye, a brain, and every other part of the rabbit. If the whole were removed from a cell, it would be destroyed; no rabbit cell can exist without its DNA. Just as the Huntington’s disease gene could be understood only by looking to a whole; so, too, rabbit DNA can be understood only by looking to the organism. The rabbit cannot be explained solely by its organs, by its cells, or by the molecules in its cells because each of these parts also contains the whole.

Even the environment of the rabbit is present in some way in its parts. The coyote is present in the rabbit’s powerful back legs, desert plants in its sharp teeth, the earth’s gravitational pull in its bones, an oxygen-rich atmosphere in its lungs. The history of the universe is also present in the rabbit. The calcium atoms in its bones, the iron atoms in its red blood cells, indeed, every chemical element in its body came from stars that exploded billions of years ago. The matter of the rabbit is literally star stuff, and therefore the Big Bang, galaxies, and stars are present in the rabbit. Remove all traces of the atmosphere out of the rabbit, then its ears, lungs, and blood would no longer exist. Remove the earth’s gravity from the rabbit, then its bones would vanish. Remove the Big Bang, and nothing exists. The rabbit exists only as a part of a larger whole. If all the rabbit’s relations to its world could be eliminated, then it would cease to be.

Reductionism, then, rests on the assumption that the part is completely separable from the whole, and understandable in and of itself, which clearly is false for living organisms. In the Newtonian map of nature, where the primary constituents are separable pieces of matter moved by mindless forces, plants and animals appear as inanimate objects, no different from falling rocks or flowing rivers. However, a living organism must be understood as a whole, not as a summation of genes.[6] The failure of reductionism in biology does not mark the failure of science, but only the replacement of an unworkable assumption with a new mode of understanding that recognizes that in a living organism the part can only be understood in terms of the whole.[7]

Unlike the organic wholes of biology, the wholes of Newtonian physics are composite in that they can be separated into parts without destroying or altering the part. In Newtonian physics, the motion of a whole body is determined by the motion of its parts. The gravitational attraction of the Sun on each part of the Earth causes the entire Earth to move in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. Planets, clouds, oceans, and manmade objects do not possess the unity that organisms have. A lug nut from a 2003 Toyota Land Cruiser does not uniquely determine the individual vehicle it came from. For lifeless matter, the part is separable from the whole, and in this very limited region of nature, the principle of reductionism does apply.

The majority of scientists believe that reductionism is an essential element of the scientific method. Theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, for instance, assumes that “when we begin to consider the nature of physical reality it is instinctive to turn to the insights of so-called fundamental science, to start with elementary particle physics.”[8] If beginning with the smallest parts were an instinctive or natural inclination of the human mind, we would find it in each human being, irrespective of culture or historical era. And, of course, we do not.

A few scientists, like geneticist Richard Lewontin, understand that the cultural influence that permeates science “comes in the form of basic assumptions of which scientists themselves are usually not aware yet which have profound effect on the forms of explanations.”[9] He adds that reductionism—“that the whole is to be understood only by taking it into pieces, that the individual bits and pieces, the atoms, molecules, cells, and genes, are the causes of the properties of the whole objects and must be separately studied if [scientists] are to understand complex nature”—is a cultural belief that stems from individualism.[10]

In the territory of nature, in contrast to the Newtonian map of the cosmos, living organisms, are not mere collections of cells, nor “essentially bundles of simple quarks and electrons,” as physicist Murray Gell-Mann maintains. You and I are not the sum of our brains, hearts, livers, glands, and nerves, nor are the various communities we belong to a mere collection of isolated individuals. To say, as Crick does, that we are “nothing but a pack of neurons”[11] is clearly “idiotic.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore


[1] All quotations from David Brooks are from his article “Social Animal,” The New Yorker (January 17, 2011).

[2] See Michael Ruse and Edward O. Wilson, “Evolution of Ethics,” New Scientist 17 (October, 1985): 51.

[3] Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), p. 266.

[4] P. B. Medawar and J. S. Medawar, The Life Sciences: Current Ideas of Biology (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 165.

[5] H. P. Yockey, “Information in Bits and Pieces,” BioEssays, 17 no. 1 (1995): 85-88.

[6] Steven Jay Gould, a leading evolutionary theorist, reached the same conclusion from a different argument, see Steven Jay Gould, “Humbled by the Genome’s Mysteries,” The New York Times (February 15, 2001).

[7] John C. Polkinghorne, “The Nature of Physical Reality,” Zygon 26 (June 1991): 221. Italics added.

[8] In Buddhism a flower or a lion is said to be empty, meaning that the flower or the lion has no independent existence separable from everything else; nothing exists in isolation.

[9] R. C. Lewontin, Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA (New York: Harper, 1992), p. 10.

[10] Ibid., p. 12.

[11] Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis, (New York: Scrib­ner’s, 1994) p. 3.

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3 replies to this post
  1. A very enjoyable article. It seems that evolution itself is not a reductionist process, but quite the contrary as life takes on more and more complex forms over time and ends up jumping from the biosphere as such to the noosphere, the development of conscience (and consciousness). Reductionism as a philosophical approach is rather tedious though sometimes useful for exploring specific aspects of existence ceterus paribus. That said, useful and proper reductionism has one goal: to understand origins in order to understand life itself. Take DNA. Given that the theory of evolution through natural selection is the most probable given current data for all life on Earth, then DNA itself is the result of an evolutionary process which brought its component parts together . This is a very interesting question. Reductionism which help better illustrate the goal is useful but in sociology it has its limits. After all – to use the example of mating – it is quite obvious reproduction and fertility are not the only or even the primary traits humans desire in their spouses because humans have a complex and elaborate set if motivations for loving one another. Statistics show that the more intellectually advanced (educated ) a human female is, the less likely she is to reproduce early and often. In other words the greater the noosphere the farther we go from being simple animals within the biosphere. Of course that means that intellectually challenged humans lile those who read the New York Times, the New Yorker or attend Harvard might well choose mates merely on the basis of reductionist animal criteria…

  2. I think that your mail delivery woman, Kate, had it right with the exception of Adi Shankara. It is amazing the unadulterated garbage thinking that goes on in academia. And government. And the media. Sigh!

  3. Good article. Enjoyed it. Well written. Wow, atheist Richard Dawkins seems to go with this sort of thinking which, as the article points out, seems rather faith-based. I would go farther to say reductionism is patently impossible. You have to have assumptions, context, hypotheses, heck, you have to have the ability to operate pencils, notebooks, math, computers, coffee machines etc. Everything is inherently connected. I don’t think Karl Popper is this reductionistic.
    Also, even if one took a point the article is (correctly) against and tried to say all human behavior is deterministic, it still can’t be reductionistic because behavior is incredibly over-determined. There’s basal-limbic (lust) reactions, but there’s also primate herd mentality, some of it probably culturally learned, and there are behaviorally reinforced stimulus response links in addition to that. With multiple levels of determinism… I don’t see how it is either deterministic nor reducible.

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