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The dialectical biologist.


Marxism is primarily known (among its advocates) as a means of analyzing sociohistorical and economic development with an eye to guiding revolutionary practice. But the dialectical dynamics of change it highlights in society have seemed to many Marxists also to exist in the natural world. This extension of a primarily sociohistorical form of analysis to nature and science, pioneered by Engels in Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Diihring, has usually been either ignored or condemned within the Marxist tradition. It has also provided an entry point for attacks on Marxism by anti-Marxists.

Nevertheless there has been a long tradtion of Marxist analysis of science, and though Engels does not receive much explicit discussion in the articles collected in The Dialectical Biologist, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin give him their dedication: "To Frederick Engels, who got it wrong a lot of the time, but who got it right where it counted." Since Engels' era concerns have changed; by the time the authors of this book matured into biology and politics, conditions had led to a shift in emphasis from a predominance of cosmology and after-the-fact dialectical interpretation of scientific discoveries, such as was popular in the 1930s, to a much sharper historical materialist emphasis on the socioeconomic conditioning of science. Now internationally known in their respective fields of evolutionary ecology and evolutionary genetics, Levins and Lewontin were educated in the 1950s, a decade whose political tone was set by McCarthyism, the atom bomb, and the rise of the military-scientific-industrial complex; and whose biological tone was set by Lysenkoism, the solidification in evolutionary biology of the neo-Darwinist "modern synthesis," and the development of molecular biology and of cybernetic and systems methodologies. By the 1960s, a further dimension was added with the emergence of liberated zones and countries in the third world whose struggle to build socialism included a real material need to find a revolutionary mode of agricultural and technical development. The range of issues discussed in The Dialectical Biologist reflects these changing concerns of Marxists and scientists.

The Lysenkoism debacle and Cold War repression combined to effectively stifle the discourse on Marxism and science in the 1950s. The radical science movement that reemerged in the 1960s was occupied with the urgent tasks of ending the Vietnam war and supporting liberation struggles, and so was largely concerned with the misapplication of science. Yet Levins and Lewontin, who were and continue to be major figures in this movement, have learned from their praxis that there is no strict line dividing a transhistorically innocent pure science from a historically tainted applied science. One of the central themes of the book is that the scientific and the social are inextricably interpenetrated, and that the denial of this interpenetration is itself a political act.

The Dialectical Biologist is a richly varied and challenging book that reflects the all too rare lifelong commitment of two biologists to connect their science with their politics. The articles collected here are grouped into three sections and a conclusion. The first section, "On Evolution," is a critical discussion of issues in the theory of evolution. The second, "On Analysis," discusses mathematical and other methodological issues. The third, "Science as a Social Product and the Social Product of Science," shows that the substantive and methodological debates described in the first two sections are deeply rooted in questions of practice. And the "Conclusion: On Dialectics" is their explicit articulation of the worldview that underlies their overall approach.

It is probably in the article "The Problem of Lysenkoism" that all of these concerns come together, and that one can see most explicitly the interconnection of the multiple levels of analysis Levins and Lewontin bring to bear in their work. Lysenkoism, with its grand but misguided attempt in the 1930s and 1940s to dialectically revolutionize Soviet agriculture and genetics, and with the subsequent disgrace into which it fell, is clearly a watershed in the history of Marxist science. Any subsequent thinkers in this area, particularly in biology, cannot seriously evade coming to grips with it; but the Lysenkoist phenomenon is complex and contradictory. Thus Levins and Lewontin dismiss as overly narrow various prior attempts to attribute Lysenkoism to simple causes, ranging from the bossism of Stalin and Lysenko to the irrationality of agricultural collectivism, or to defend Lysenkoism as a triumph of dialectical materialism. Instead, they argue that Lysenkoism involves intertwined scientific, philosophical, and political struggles; and that an inadequate analysis can be misleading and even dangerous.

The authors' critique of orthodoxy, from whatever sources, is particularly apparent in their approach to the scientific and philosophical issues of Lysenkoism. They show that the genetic orthodoxy against which Lysenko's theories rebelled was itself flawed, a point missed by most other commentators, who tend to accept the word of the scientific establishment as gospel. Lamarckianism (the pre-Darwinian theory that acquired characteristics are transmitted through heredity) was by no means dead in horticulture in the 1930s, so that it was not entirely out of line for Lysenko to take this approach. Yet the Lysenkoist alternative is weak even from a dialectical perspective, opposing orthodoxy's excessive genetic determinism with an equally excessive environmental determinism, and opposing the bourgeois overemphasis on structure rather than process not with a synthesis of these two dimensions but merely with the reverse imbalance.

Levins and Lewontin also try to recover the real substantive problems hidden by the only partly correct accusation that the Lysenkoists fudged data for political reasons. They show that beneath the charge that the Lysenkoists deviated from standard practices of measurement and evaluation lie formidable problems in measurement that remain unresolved until this day. These problems are posed especially sharply in the USSR, which faces extreme variability of weather and other growing conditions from year to year and place to place. Since statistical averaging becomes meaningless when the basis conditions are so variable, making useful generalizations comes to involve ignoring extreme data for legitimate reasons. Even today there do not exist clear procedures for handling this sort of problem, so that the attempt in this article to restore more complex texture to our understanding of Lysenkoism here once again has scientific as well as political implications.

The authors make excellent use of Lysenkoism to illustrate the complex interpenetration of science and politics in practice. The Lysenkoist movement occurred in a country that was attempting to build a new socialist society in the face of extreme material challenges and intense class struggle. On the one hand, there was famine and starvation, attacks from outside and the resulting growth of xenophobia, and widespread peasant resistance to collectivization and development. On the other hand, the socialist revolution generated optimism, a willingness to experiment, mass literacy, and in particular, excitement about science. In this highly charged context even issues of genetic theory became mass political concerns.

Partly as a reaction to the ideological excesses of the Lysenko episode, liberals both here and in the Soviet Union have adopted an "anti-ideological technocratic ideology." In opposition to this, Levins and Lewontin see the need to sharpen the dimension of class struggle in science, but also to make this struggle more complex. Essential to this project is a clarification of the nature and role of dialectics. In a section of the Lysenkoism article entitled "Can There Be a Marxist Science?" they sketch out what Marxist science and dialectics are not. "The error of the Lysenkoist claim," they say, "arise from attempting to apply a dialectical analysis of physical problems from the wrong end. Dialectical materialism is not, and has never been, a programmatic method for solving particular physical problems. Rather, dialectical analysis provides an overview and a set of warning signs against particular forms of dogmatism and narrowness of thought. . . . To attempt to do more, to try to distinguish competing theories of physical events or to discredit a physical theory by contradiction is a hopeless tasks."

These ideas are developed more fully in the article "Conclusion: On Dialectics," written especially for the volume. The main argument here is that the dominant mode of analysis in the physical, biological, and even social sciences is Cartesian reductionism, which produces a description of an "alienated world" that "mirrors the structure of the alienated social world in which it was conceived." This alienated physical world is "not only a structure of knowledge, but a physical structure imposed on the world." A dialectical alternative would lead not merely to a different kind of knowing, but also to a different style of intervention in material processes, at the very least more context-sensitive than its bourgeois predecessor.

The Cartesian mode is characterized by an ontological commitment to the ideas that systems are inherently composed of natural units "homogeneous within themselves"; that parts are prior to the wholes they make up not just in how we see things but in how they really are; and that "causes are separate from effects, causes being the properties of subjects and effects the properties of objects." The dialectical alternative that the authors propound is especially suggestive in the way it highlights multidimensional interactions in the behavior of complex systems. In contrast to the Cartesians, the authors maintain that wholes are relations of heterogeneous parts with no prior indepedent existence as parts, that properties of parts are acquired by being parts of wholes rather than having a prior alienated existence, and that a consequence of the interchangeability of subject and object or cause and effect is the interpenetration of parts and wholes. They say that change is a characteristic of all systems and all aspects of all systems, since elements recreate each other by interacting, and are recreated by the wholes of which they are parts. Because of this, persistence and equilibrium are not the natural states of things, as is often assumed by bourgeois science, but themselves require explanation. And they say, perhaps most controversially, that contradiction is not merely epistemic (in how we come to know about things) but ontological (in the way things are in themselves), and that it can exist in a number of ways: a change in parameters can destroy, the system as it previously existed, seemingly mutually exclusive categories can interpenetrate, and opposing principles can coexist.

The examples used to put flesh on the bones of this framework--or, more accurately, the substantive concerns out of which this framework was abstracted--are largely in the theoretical areas of evolution and ecology, and the related applied areas of agriculture and epidemiology. A recurrent theme in the authors' thinking is the mutually creative relationship of organism and environment. Darwinian theory has generally assumed that organisms must adapt to an environment, with the environment calling all the shots and the organism passively following along. The title of the third article, "The Organism as Subject and Object of Evolution," shows that the authors take a much more complex stance. Indeed, they claim that while alienating the organism from its environment was a necessary abstraction at the time when Darwin was first formulating his modern evolutionism, it is now time for evolutionary theory to deepen itself by recognizing that the organism not only adapts to its environment, but constructs the environment as well.

In this article, and even more in the first article in the book, "Evolution as Theory and Ideology" (finally in print after years of circulating in typescript), these arguments are supported by biological detail enormously richer than generally found in philosophical discussions about the dialectics of nature. This substantive articulation of the behavior of complex living systems is an unusually sensuous and at times even playful embodiment of the sensitivity to contradiction and overdetermination that a Marxist worldview cultivates.

The articles in the section "On Analysis" represent attempts by the authors to incorporate dialectics into the research methodology of their respective disciplines. A common theme in their discussions of both ecology and human genetics is how statistical relations from sample populations have been reified into actual causes. For example, in "The Analysis of Variance and the Analysis of Causes," they show how a standard statistical technique, the "analysis of variance," has been misused in population genetics. They dismiss as "liberal pluralism" the misguided and usually politically motivated attempt to separate out genetic and environmental factors in phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in actually existing organisms) into merely additive components. The politically motivated attempt to separate out genetic and environmental factors in phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in actually existing organisms) into merely additive components. The politically insidious character of such a separation is clear, for example, in the claim that I.Q. is a measure of intelligence that is largely genetically determined. Instead, they argue that the strong interpenetration of genotype and environment that produces phenotype requires a dialectical approach which takes account of many complicated relationships over a wide range of value. They present a similar critique of the use of correlation analysis in the article "Dialectics and Reductionism in Ecology."

The section on methodology contains much more than a critique of the misuse of statistics. In "Dialectics and Reductionism in Ecology" there is a detailed discussion, using a graphical method that Levins developed, of a dialectical approach to the concept of community in ecology which shows that community structure, and not merely the additive effects of individual components, determines community behavior. The authors also challenge three fundamental and common confusions made in debates in science, and especially in ecology: between reductionism and materialism, between abstraction and idealism, and finally, between statistical and stochastic or random analysis.

These two articles are difficult to read, especially for those lacking a technical or mathematical background. However, sandwiched between them is a delightful and more accessible spoof, written by one Isidore Nabi, on how statistical techniques could lead to startling conclusions if applied to the motion of objects. Also included is some correspondence regarding the exposure of Nabi, a pseudonymous character who had been immortalized for some years in American Men and Women of Science. Nabi's cogent comments on the political economy of agricultural research (including his description of J. Upgill's ideal capitalist agricultural commodity which has zero food value and so can be consumed in infinite quantities) are found elsewhere in the volume.

The section on applied biology is not limited to the muck-raking or the purely political economic analysis characteristic of so much left writing. Rather, the authors stress the complexity, heterogeneity, and multiple levels of the phenomena they treat. Thus their discussions of agriculture emphasize the complex interpenetration of economic and ecology; and their approach to epidemiology, in "Research Needs for Latin Community Health," shows that human health is a function of a wide range of factors ranging from the biomedical to the psychological and social.

The articles "The Commoditization of Science," "The Political Economy of Agricultural Research," and "Applied Biology in the Third World," though written at different times and places, have certain common themes. First, science under capitalism, and in particular scientific research, have become commodities: research is a business investment, so that spending on research competes with other corporate priorities; the division of labor has become an important part of research, so that most scientists have fragmented, specialized skills; schools train scientific equipment has become a major industry. As an example they examine changes that have occurred in the nature of agriculture. Farming, though still largely done by individual farmers, today is really only a very small part of agriculture as a whole, which also includes production and distribution of inputs (seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, equipment) and the processing, distribution, and sale of farm outputs. The role of agricultural research is to serve the needs of this entire system. And farmers come to believe this is in their best interests, since "the conditions of their part of production are set by the monopolist providers and buyers of farm inputs and outputs."

An important goal of science and scientific research, especially in developing third world countries, is social control. This operates in many ways: by its high cost, by making production dependent on foreign experts, by developing a "technically progressive entrepreneurial rural bourgeoisie" which can "cool out peasant rebelliousness and provide a more flexible base of political support for international capitalism," and through research establishments and schools whose structure, pedagogy, and much of whose staff have been imported from industrialized countries.

From their long-term involvement in postrevolutionary third world technical and agricultural development, Levins and Lewontin have an unusually clear perception of the historically contingent character of Western science. The bourgeois conditions of scientific work control the ideology of scientists, making them individualistic, elitist, sub-specialized, pragmatic Cartesian reductionists. The authors' theory and praxis challenge this. This is particularly apparent in their work in the third world, where there is more room to struggle for an alternative model of scientific and technical development that they describe as "thought intensive," which is a stage of development beyond labor or capital intensive. In their own words, "We have to raise anew the questions of conducting practical research in a fundamental way, finding the appropriate subdivisions of the sciences, reconciling the conflicting needs for specialized knowledge and broad overview, integrating professional and popular knowledge, and training revolutionary scientists."

Levins and Lewontin have made a real advance over prior discussions of dialectics in applied biology and specifically in the areas of population and community biology in which they specialize, and their work will undoubtedly prove quite provocative and useful. Nevertheless, their approach is limited, and its weaknesses show up when they discuss other areas of inquiry. Scattered throughout the volume are examples drawn from the physical and social sciences, a fair number of which are either trite and mechanical, or manifest some misunderstanding of the issues in the other domains. The problems are especially apparent in their discussions of human nature and human culture. Their article "What Is Human Nature?" is largely devoted to debunking conceptions, including some classical Marxist ones, of transhistorical, transcultural descriptions of human nature. While in other places they provide an alternative to a dichotomized debate, in this context they adopt a dichotomizing strategy themselves. Arguing that the Marxian claim about human labor being the distinguishing capacity of our species is overly general and in any case politically uninformative, they counterpose an emphasis on historically and environmentally conditioned human diversity and heterogeneity. However, between the universalism they reject and the cultural relativism they substitute lies a whole universe of discourse and analysis which they essentially fail to acknowledge. They do not recognize that it might be possible to develop a social theory and praxis in which an understanding of species capacities such as language and emotion is interpenetrated with historically and ecologically contextualized materialist analysis. But while relativism may be useful in opposing imperialist Eurocentric or androcentric cultural analysis, it implies an infinite human malleability and thus cannot illuminate the central political questions of why oppression is harmful, or what moves people to resistance.

Part of the problem is that insofar as their social analysis is rooted in their polemic with sociobiology and other forms of biological determinism, they allow the terms of their discussion to be determined too much by an ideologically dangerous but intellectually unworthy opponent. The authors themselves acknowledge that their work reflects "the conflict between the materialist dialectics of our positive commitment and the mechanistic, reductionist, and positivist ideology that dominated our academic education and pervades our intellectual environment." But the problem also concerns the way they have defined the dialectic. What the authors present here can be characterized as a nontotalizing and nonteleogical dialectic. They stress complexity, emphasizing how the interplay of a system's heterogeneous parts produces contradiction and change. This framework, which is in large part a strikingly creative appropriation and transformation of systems analysis, shows tremendous power in highlighting the complex dynamic of real living systems, penetrating behind naive assumptions about stability and homeostasis, and revealing blind alleys resulting from either proto-dialectical or bourgeois idealist attempts to explain things through overly simplified models.

On the other hand, they barely mention developmental patterns. Levins and Lewontin claim kinship with a school of dialectical analysis in biology that flows from Marx, which they distinguish from dialectical schools in psychology, anthropology, and sociology that they describe as tracing their origins to Hegel. Their approach to dialectics is also a departure from the "levels of integration" tradition, which traces its roots to both Hegel and Marx and has been prevalent in prior dialectical approaches to biology. On the other hand, there are dimensions of dialectics, as these other approaches and even Marx himself (and not just Hegel) used it, that their approach does not touch. These have to do with qualitative change, where an altered system not only negates but also incorporates and transforms what went before. At the human level, the authors' framework does not seem to be able to let them theorize systems which become reflexive and conscious of themselves. Transformation of consciousness is a qualitative change.

That quantity can be transformed into quality is a dynamic they discuss from time to time, but when they talk about how this happens, they turn to a cybernetic vocabulary, describing a system that begins to oscillate so such a degree that there occurs a change in its very defining parameters. They never get to the point of using this same vocabulary for moving beyond saying this change will occur to characterizing qualitatively how this change might look, so that it is not clear from what they say how their framework would contribute to illuminating this central problem of classical dialectics. It would be interesting to see what would come of confronting the problem of self-reflection or of consciousness from such a nontotalizing, biologically sophisticated perspective. But the authors, possibly because their fields of ecology and genetics do not challenge them in this direction, essentially sidestep this issue--and it does not appear, in fact, that there is any self-reflection in their choice to do this. Thus, on a foundation for a full dialectical approach to what they themselves recognize as the centrally important problem of the interpenetration of the social and biological, their framework is valuable but incomplete. And these weaknesses may even limit the usefulness of their approach in areas of biology such as development, neurobiology, or behavior, where characterizing qualitative change should be of the essence.

There is an irony here. From Lukacs onwards, opponents of the idea of dialectics in nature have maintained that a dialectical approach is only appropriate for human history and consciousness. But the very way Levins and Lewontin have shown the relevance of dialectics to nature seems to limit its relevance to the level of human culture.

In terms of its production, the book could have been improved by better proofreading, more attention to establishing continuity among (and sometimes even within) articles drawn from disparate sources, and the inclusion of a short glossary. Yet even with its technical and substantive limitations, this book remains a very important political, intellectual and scientific contribution. It is politically significant for a number of reasons. First, our materialism should encompass nature, which is clearly a part of material reality. Moreover, the struggle to develop a viable dialectical materialist approach to science is related to the struggle to overcome the economism that has crippled the vision and creativity of the left. Second, the book takes dialectics out of the abstract and shows in rich detail its applications in concrete settings ranging from biological theory to agriculture in the third world. This demystification of dialectics. and of scientific practice, can contribute greatly toward enriching political and practical debate.

At this historical juncture it makes sense that important political insights should come from biologists. With the increasingly devastating impact of technology on the environment and human health, the essential human connection with nature, which was initially a central part of the Marxian worldview, needs to be restored to its rightful place of importance in left critique and practice. The left has been lagging behind groups such as the German Greens in bringing these issues to consciousness; but a dialectical analysis is much needed if these progressive biologically conscious political movements are to gain incisiveness. The Dialectical Biologist is a major step in this direction.
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Author:Herbert, Martha R.; Shapiro, Joseph
Publication:Monthly Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1986
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