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Biology Under the Influence

Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on the Coevolution of Nature and Society

Richard Lewontin
Richard Levins
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: NYU Press,
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Biology Under the Influence
    Book Description:

    How do we understand the world? While some look to the heavens for intelligent design, others argue that it is determined by information encoded in DNA. Science serves as an important activity for uncovering the processes and operations of nature, but it is also immersed in a social context where ideology influences the questions we ask and how we approach the material world. Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on the Coevolution of Nature and Society breaks from the confirms of determinism, offering a dialectical analysis for comprehending a dynamic social and natural world.In Biology Under the Influence, Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins provide a devastating critique of genetic determinism and reductionism within science while exploring a broad range of issues including the nature of science, biology, evolution, the environment, pubic health, and dialectics, They dismantle the ideology that attempts to naturalize social inequalities, unveil the alienation of science and nature, and illustrate how a dialectical position serves as a basis for grappling with historical developments and a world characterized by change. Biology Under the Influence brings together the illuminating essays of two prominent scientists who work to demystify and empower the public's understanding of science and nature.

    eISBN: 978-1-58367-393-5
    Subjects: Biological Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-4)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 5-6)
  3. Dedication
    (pp. 7-8)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 9-12)

    Biology Under the Influenceis a collection of our essays built around the general theme of the dual nature of science. On the one hand, science is the generic development of human knowledge over the millennia, but on the other it is the increasingly commodified specific product of a capitalist knowledge industry. The result is a peculiarly uneven development, with increasing sophistication at the level of the laboratory and research project, along with a growing irrationality of the scientific enterprise as a whole. This gives us a pattern of insight and blindness, of knowledge and ignorance, that is not dictated...

  5. Part One:

    • 1 The End of Natural History?
      (pp. 13-16)

      Biologists in the present century find themselves in a deeply contradictory position on questions of diversity and change. They are the inheritors of a nineteenth-century natural historical and evolutionary tradition in which the immense diversity of organisms and the long-term change that has occurred in the living world were at the very center of interest. There are millions of distinct species now extant representing less than 0.1 percent of all the species that have ever lived, and these too will become extinct. Yet only a minute fraction of all the kinds of organisms that might be imagined have ever or...

    • 2 The Return of Old Diseases and the Appearance of New Ones
      (pp. 17-22)

      A generation ago, the commonsense position of public health leaders was that infectious disease had been defeated in principle and was on the way out as an important cause of sickness and mortality. Medical students were told to avoid specializing in infectious disease because it was a dying field. Indeed, the Epidemiology Department at the Harvard School of Public Health specialized in cancer and heart disease.

      They were wrong. In 1961, the seventh pandemic of cholera hit Indonesia; in 1970, it reached Africa, and South America in the 1990s. After retreating for a few years, malaria came back with a...

    • 3 False Dichotomies
      (pp. 23-26)

      Our understanding of nature is deeply constrained by the language we need in talking about it, a language that is itself the result, as well as the replicator, of long-standing ideological practice. All of science, even “radical” science, is plagued by dichotomies that seem unavoidable because of the very words that are available to us: organism/environment, nature/nurture, psychological/physical, deterministic/random, social/individual, dependent/independent. A remarkable fraction of the radical reanalysis of nature that we ourselves have engaged in has revolved around a struggle to cut through the obfuscations that have arisen from those false oppositions.

      One aspect of the dichotomies of general/particular...

    • 4 Chance and Necessity
      (pp. 27-30)

      Since the major breakthroughs of quantum physics in the 1920s and 1930s and the discovery of random mutation as an evolutionary force, people have been asking whether the world is determinate or random. The usual implication ofrandom, whether it be a “random” number or a “random” mutation, is that some event has arisen that could not have been predicted no matter how much information was available about the prior state of the world. The spontaneous disintegration of a radioactive nucleus is said to be “random” because there is no difference in state between the nucleus and other nuclei up...

    • 5 Organism and Environment
      (pp. 31-34)

      Nothing is more central to a dialectical understanding of nature than the realization that the conditions necessary for the coming into being of some state of the world may be destroyed by the very state of nature to which they gave rise. As it is in nature, so it is in the study of nature. Darwin’s most powerful contribution to the development of modern biology was not his creation of a satisfactory theory of evolutionary mechanism. Rather, within that theory, it was his rigorous separation of internal and external forces that had, in previous theories, been inseparable. For Lamarck, the...

    • 6 The Biological and the Social
      (pp. 35-38)

      Struggles for legitimacy between political ideologies eventually come down to struggles over what constitutes human nature. At present, in its starkest form, the struggle is between a vulgar biological determinism, typified by sociobiology, and an extreme subjectivity. For determinism, all social phenomena are merely the collective manifestation of individual fixed propensities and limitations coded in human genes as a consequence of adaptive evolution. At the opposite pole, subjectivity claims that all human realities are created by socially determined consciousness, unconstrained by any prior biological and physical nature, all points of view being equally valid. At best, liberal thought attempts to...

    • 7 How Different Are Natural and Social Science?
      (pp. 39-42)

      A caricature of the study of “nature” and “society” sees social science as deeply corrupted by the subjective elements introduced by the observer, whereas natural science is carried out by objective means. And it is not only the positivist natural scientist, scornful of social science, who propagates this view.

      It is often argued, especially by social scientists, that dialectics is fundamentally different in natural science than it is in social science. The difference is said to come from the active participation of human beings in the dynamics of society and especially from the unique role of subjectivity. It is not...

    • 8 Does Anything New Ever Happen?
      (pp. 43-46)

      The tired, discouraged author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, writing in the second or third century bce, assures us that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “all is vanity.” More recently, the arch-Whig Francis Fukuyama allowed that perhaps thingsusedto happen, but now history has ended. In the time between the two, many quaint sayings repeated the same theme, including “You can’t change human nature" and “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

      Claims that phenomena are radically new or only the same old story do not arise from some general ideology but are meant...

    • 9 Life on Other Worlds
      (pp. 47-52)

      From the earliest years of the American space program, the detection of extraterrestrial life has been on the agenda. When theVikinglander arrived on Mars in 1976 it carried a device for detecting Martian life, an apparatus that was the result of a development program begun with the very first plans for landing an unmanned vehicle on the Red Planet. It was assumed that no little green men would be running around the surface and that life, if any, would be microorganismal. At the beginning of the program there were two competing schemes for detecting life. One consisted of...

    • 10 Are We Programmed?
      (pp. 53-58)

      Living organisms are characterized by two properties that make them different from other physical systems: they are medium in size and functionally heterogeneous internally. Because they are smaller than planets and larger than atomic nuclei, and because there are a large number of interacting processes occurring within them, organisms are at the nexus of a very large number of individually weak determining forces. Their behavior either individually or collectively cannot be described or predicted by reference to a few laws with a few parameters, unlike the laws of motion of the solar system or the laws of quantum physics that...

    • 11 Evolutionary Psychology
      (pp. 59-64)

      With the waning of religion as the chief source of legitimation of the social order, natural science has become the font of explanation and justification for the inevitability of the social relations in which we are immersed. Biology, in particular, plays a central role in creating an ideology of the inevitability of the structure of society because, after all, that structure is the collective behavior of individuals of a particular species of organism, a manifestation of the biological nature ofHomo sapiens. Biology has been supposed to provide the answers for two major questions. First, why, despite the ideology of...

    • 12 Let the Numbers Speak
      (pp. 65-70)

      After three centuries of reductionist science in Europe and its cultural inheritors, in which the problem of “What is this?” would be answered by “This is what it is made of,” modern science increasingly confronts the problems of complexity and dynamics. Whereas the great successes of science have been largely discoveries about isolatable phenomena or small objects in which a small number of determinate causes are operating, the dramatic failures have arisen where attempts are made to solve problems of complex systems and dynamics. It is no exaggeration to claim that complexity is the central scientific problem of our time....

    • 13 The Politics of Averages
      (pp. 71-74)

      It is commonplace knowledge that different sorts of averages give very different information about populations and thus can suggest different conclusions from the same basic data. The mean or arithmetic average household income, for example, simply takes the total income of the entire population and divides by the number of households so that one very rich family makes up for a large number of poor ones. If one wants to emphasize how well off people are the mean is the number to use. The median family income, in contrast, is the value below which half of all families fall, thus...

    • 14 Schmalhausen’s Law
      (pp. 75-80)

      Ivan Ivanovich Schmalhausen was a Soviet evolutionary biologist working at the Academy of Sciences in Minsk. In the 1940s his bookFactors of Evolutionappeared and was denounced by T. D. Lysenko, whose neo-Lamarckian theories of genetics were then on the ascendancy. At the close of the 1948 Congress of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Science it was revealed that Stalin had endorsed Lysenko’s report in which it was affirmed that the environment can alter the hereditary makeup of organisms in a directed way by altering their development. Schmalhausen was one of the few who affirmed his opposition to Lysenko...

    • 15 A Program for Biology
      (pp. 81-86)

      Recent internal developments in biology and social science urge the necessity to confront the rich complexity of the phenomena of interest at the same time that the large-scale practical problems of greatest concern—eliminating poverty, promoting health, and equity and sustainability—call for more integral, multilevel, and dynamic approaches than those to which we are accustomed. Both areas of knowledge are grappling with ways to escape from the unidirectional causation,a prioricategories, hierarchies of “fundamentalness,” and rigid disciplinary boundaries that have dominated thinking and have led to some of the big mistakes of recent times. Most of these, such...

  6. Part Two:

    • 16 Ten Propositions on Science and Antiscience
      (pp. 87-100)

      Since radicals began to look to science as a force for emancipation, Marxists both as social critics and as participating scientists have grappled with its contradictory nature. Because there is such a rich diversity of Marxist thought about science, I cannot claim that what follows is “the” Marxist position. I only offer in schematic form some propositions about science that have guided the work of at least this Marxist scientist.

      1. All knowledge comes from experience and reflection on that experience in the light of previous knowledge. Science is not uniquely different from other modes of learning in this regard.


    • 17 Dialectics and Systems Theory
      (pp. 101-124)

      In a generally sympathetic review ofThe Dialectical Biologist, and in personal conversations, John Maynard Smith argued that the development of a rigorous, quantitative mathematical systems theory makes dialectics obsolete.¹ Engels’s awkward “interchange of cause and effect” can be replaced by “feedback”—the mysterious “transformation of quantity into quality” is now the familiar phase transition or threshold effect. He noted that “even in my most convinced Marxist phase, I could never make much sense of the negation of the negation or the interpenetration of opposites.” He could have added that hierarchy theory grasps some of the insights of “integrated levels”...

    • 18 Aspects of Wholes and Parts in Population Biology
      (pp. 125-148)

      Since the seventeenth century, the mechanistic reductionist worldview associated with Descartes has dominated European and American thought about nature and society. According to this view, the world is made up of separate objects, things. These things are essentially passive; they normally remain the way they are but can be set in motion by external causes. They can be examined in isolation from one another and their properties measured. The resulting quantitative differences are the most important things about them. Finally, once we have measured and described them, we can combine them into structures that will behave according to the properties...

    • 19 Strategies of Abstraction
      (pp. 149-166)

      Complexity is now in fashion. Books, meetings, even whole institutes are devoted to complexity. It is a recognition that the long traditions of reductionist science, so successful in the past, are increasingly inadequate to cope with the systems we are now trying to understand and influence. The great errors and failings of attempts to apply science to matters of urgent concern have come from posing problems too narrowly, too linearly, too statically. Infectious disease did not disappear as was predicted thirty or forty years ago. Pesticides increase pest problems, antibiotics create new pathogens, hospitals are foci of infection. Food aid...

    • 20 The Butterfly ex Machina
      (pp. 167-182)

      In 1963, MIT professor Edward N. Lorenz published an article with a set of three differential equations meant to describe atmospheric conditions.¹ The solutions to these equations did not do what was thought to be the only decent thing for variables whose motion was described by equations, namely, either approach an equilibrium or a permanent repetitive oscillation. Instead, Lorenz’s variables ended up with trajectories more like a tangled skein of yarn, and every time the equation was solved numerically on a computer the results were different. Then others began to look for similar behavior elsewhere. Robert May showed that even...

    • 21 Educating the Intuition to Cope with Complexity
      (pp. 183-198)

      The central intellectual problem of our time is that of complexity. The great successes of science so far have still been problems that are conceptually simple, although solving them may have been quite difficult. We answer well the classical question “What is this? What is it made of?” But the great errors both of theory and practice have concerned problems where the complexity was unavoidable. Thus pesticides increased pests. Antibiotics created new diseases. Infectious diseases did not disappear but have reemerged among humans, animals and crops. Economic development has caused poverty.

      Faced with ever more urgent problems of complexity, we...

    • 22 Preparing for Uncertainty
      (pp. 199-218)

      The world is always surprising us, overthrowing beliefs based alike on tradition, superstition, common sense, or science. It is necessary to understand the ubiquity of surprise in order to prepare for the surprises yet to come.

      In recent decades we have learned that the “inert” gases such as argon or neon do in fact form compounds, thus overturning our understanding of the chemical bond; that most of the matter in the universe may not be in stars or planets but exists as interstellar gas, the so-called dark matter; that deep sea thermal vents, where conditions were thought to be unsuitable...

  7. Part Three:

    • 23 Greypeace
      (pp. 219-220)


      Luke Emaea Drive

      Vista Pestosa, FL 09399

      Dear Occupant,

      I am writing to you because I believe you are one of those special people who care. Although there have been many groups formed to promote the conservation of mountains and forests, nobody seems to care about America’s most threatened and neglected habitat, the toxic waste dump.

      Toxic waste dumps are a truly American habitat. They were not made by the nibbling of ants or the trampling of elephants’ feet; they were totally unknown throughout most of our Earth’s history; and they have not been detected on any other planet....

    • 24 Genes, Environment, and Organisms
      (pp. 221-234)

      Before the Second World War, and for a short time after it as a consequence of the immense notoriety of the atom bomb project and the promise of nuclear energy, physics and chemistry were the sciences of greatest prestige and the image of what natural science should be. When Americans were polled about the relative prestige of various occupations, they rated chemists and nuclear scientists above all other branches of learning, and even practitioners of such “soft” disciplines as psychology and sociology were rated above mere biologists.¹ The philosophy of science was essentially the philosophy of physics, and in his...

    • 25 The Dream of the Human Genome
      (pp. 235-266)

      Scientists are public figures, and like other public figures with a sense of their own importance, they self-consciously compare themselves and their work to past monuments of culture and history. Modern biology, especially molecular biology, has undergone two such episodes of preening before the glass of history. The first, characteristic of a newly developing field that promises to solve important problems that have long resisted the methods of an older tradition, used the metaphor of revolution. Tocqueville observed that when the bourgeois monarchy was overthrown on February 24, 1848, the Deputies compared themselves consciously to the Girondins and the Montagnards...

    • 26 Does Culture Evolve?
      (pp. 267-296)

      In his well-known essay “Two Cultures,” C. P. Snow reported a gap between the literary and natural-scientific cultures. Acknowledging that “a good deal of the scientific feeling” is shared by some of his “American sociological friends,” Snow was well aware that there was a degree of artificiality in limiting the number of cultures to the “very dangerous” one of two. Yet, he based his binarist decision largely on the cohesion of the natural-scientific and literary communities that made of them cultures “not only in an intellectual but also in an anthropological sense.”¹ The intellectual division of labor and the development...

    • 27 Is Capitalism a Disease?: The Crisis in U.S. Public Health
      (pp. 297-320)

      The scientific tradition of the “West,” of Europe and North America, has had its greatest success when it has dealt with what we have come to think of as the central questions of scientific inquiry: “What is this made of?” and “How does this work?” Over the centuries, we have developed more and more sophisticated ways of answering these questions. We can cut things open, slice them thin, stain them, and answer what they are made of. We have made great achievements in these relatively simple areas, but have had dramatic failures in attempts to deal with more complex systems....

    • 28 Science and Progress: Seven Developmentalist Myths in Agriculture
      (pp. 321-328)

      In the third world, the view of “science” as unqualified progress is expressed in developmentalism, the view that progress takes place along a single axis from less developed to more developed, and therefore the task of the revolutionary society is to proceed as quickly as possible along that axis of progress to overtake the advanced countries. The consequence of this view is the rapid reproduction of the worst features of world (capitalist) science and technology, the uncritical acceptance of the “modern.” Developmentalism fails to recognize that the pattern of modern technology is not dictated by nature but is developed through...

    • 29 The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian
      (pp. 329-342)

      We are all familiar with the classical story of how capitalism came to dominate industrial production and how capitalist relations of production swallowed up the individual artisanal producer. We recognize the power that the capitalist mode has to infiltrate and finally transform other forms of the organization of production and exchange. We sometimes think that the power of that transformation is so great that all of the significant action already occurred in the past, at least in Europe and North America, and was essentially over by the end of the nineteenth century. In the society we inhabit, it is a...

    • 30 How Cuba Is Going Ecological
      (pp. 343-364)

      The question I will try to answer is: How is Cuba doing it?¹

      While the world environmental problems continue to worsen despite intensive research and rhetoric, how come a poor third world country besieged by a hostile neighbor has been able to embark on an ecological pathway of development that combines sustainability, equity, and quality-of-life goals? How did it achieve a commitment to an integral program of protected areas, ecological and organic agriculture, public health levels behind only the Scandinavian countries, environmental education, occupational health, urban planning and economic development compatible with environmental protection, and compliance with the major world...

    • 31 Living the 11th Thesis
      (pp. 365-374)

      When I was a boy I always assumed that I would grow up to be both a scientist and a Red. Rather than face a problem of combining activism and scholarship, I would have had a very difficult time trying to separate them.

      Before I could read, my grandfather read to me from Bad Bishop Brown’sScience and History for Girls and Boys.¹ My grandfather believed that at a minimum every socialist worker should be familiar with cosmology, evolution, and history. I never separated history, in which we are active participants, from science, the finding out how things are. My...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 375-390)
  9. Index
    (pp. 391-400)