A Review of “Biology Under the Influence”

Debkumar Mitra 

Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, Monthly Review Press, New York/Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2009, Price: Rs 395

At the beginning of the last century, despite the advent of Darwin, practice of science became a tool of exploitation in the capitalist world. The very idea of science as an enterprise in search of the ‘ultimate, unadulterated truth’ gave it an Ur human status and capitalism recognised its power in the early days of Industrial Revolution in England. Science through its mirror technology attained the status of the saviour of human race and powered its way through the entire gamut of liberal education and got institutionalised as an academy of truth. This was too juicy an offer for capitalism in its nascent stage to ignore. And without effective resistance or little intervention it became one of the most powerful sources of exploitation. Everyone was still doing science but its fruits were enjoyed by Manchester cotton barons.

Though academics realised this slow appropriation of their discipline as a potent tool for exploitation much later, it took them little time to resist in the form oflewontin biology a search for an alternative definition of science. Marxist intervention in science started with Marx himself but it got diluted, at least in the public eye, with pamphleteer communists, especially of the Soviet kind, hawking Marxism as ‘scientific truth.’ Soon, Soviet programmes tried to establish the supremacy of ‘socialist science’ over ‘capitalist, essentially American, science’.

All along its 80-odd years of existence this new animal called ‘socialist science’ was nothing but a science-for-all programme. Not surprisingly, many of these programmes were in the area of biological sciences — genetics, health, agriculture and evolution. What got obfuscated was that science is essentially a human enterprise and whatever truth science discovers is not beyond us. To ignore the social underpinning and dialectics therein and posit scientific truth as sublime is, in a loose sense, creation of a new religion. This is often cited by fundamentalist reactionary forces as science stepping on the toes of religion, in both institutional and non-institutional sense. In fact, the invention of science-versus-religion idea is based on this misplaced notion that science is a new religious order. As Stephen Jay Gould had said,

“The text of Humani Generis focuses on the magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Church—a word derived not from any concept of majesty or awe but from the different notion of teaching, for magister is Latin for ‘teacher’. We may, I think, adopt this word and concept to express the central point of this essay and the principled resolution of supposed “conflict” or ‘warfare’ between science and religion. No such conflict should exist because each subject has a legitimatemagisterium, or domain of teaching authority—and these magisteria do not overlap (the principle that I would like to designate as NOMA or ‘nonoverlapping magisteria’).” (The emphases are mine)

An all-pervading genetic determinism, which one suspects is an extension of the ‘pristine truth above all,’ that dominates biological sciences these days, has further deepened the fault lines between religion and science. A determinist approach to biology needs revision. Gould, Leowntin, Levins and others have been fighting an intellectual battle over it for decades. The determinism programme got a boost, especially in molecular biology and later molecular genetics, with the publication of Erwin Schrödinger’s What is Life? in the 1940s. With discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, Schrödinger’s idea got further impetus and the current thought is that life is determined by genes. Of course, remarkable progress has been made in genetics but it is hard to believe that nurture has no role to play here. Despite acrimonious debates over the issue, the scientific community at large has successfully banished all protests to the fringes of scientific thought. Lewontin and Gould belong to this miniscule structure of resistance.

During the 50th year celebration of the publication of Schrödinger’s work, Gould gave a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin where he pointed the success of determinism in biology.

“I do not desire to denigrate this timely celebration by denying in any way the importance of What is Life?, but I do wish to suggest that Schrödinger’s key claim for an almost self-evident universality in his approach to biology is both logically overextended, and socially conditioned as a product of his age. Furthermore, these features of limitation may help us understand why a large subcommunity of biologists, including my own confreres in palaeontology and evolutionary studies, have been less influenced and impressed by Schrödinger’s arguments, and remain persuaded that the answer to ‘what is life?’ requires attention to more things on earth than are dreamed of in Schrödinger’s philosophy.”

That scientific method is ‘socially conditioned’ may escape the untrained eye, but to Lewontin and Levins these are apparent. However, their radical interventions have been grounded in the success stories of genetically modified crops, discovery of some disease-causing genes and cloning. The mathematical approach to biology has further compounded the woes. The universality of mathematical truth reinforced the idea of determinism further. Mathematical models of biological systems have been touted as ‘theoretical evidence’ for an elusive ‘theoretical biology’. Lewontin and his ilk face attacks from many flanks, postmodernists, sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, drug companies, creationists to name a few. With Marxists already under attack, radical scientists face insurmountable odds in getting their views across to people. Some of them, especially Lewontin and Gould, more so the former, have been waging a lone battle against this multi-pronged attack and have been successful in making the neo-Marxist (neo in the sense of new and as the term usually understood) approach to biological thought a part of the main table debate.

This is a significant book of essays not because of its imaginative use of Marxian thought in assessing science, more precisely science practise, and its impact; but also because it helps contextualise the post- Industrial Revolution Western knowledge system practises and their practitioners within the paradigm of Marxian thought. Thankfully, the ‘ism’ of Karl Marx is not assumed as a dogma but eloquently argued making it a pleasurable read. However, the essays of Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins provoke more questions about forces in play, in particular dialectics, in the multi-billion dollar enterprise called biological sciences. One doubts if it is at all possible to have a Marxist critique of Biology but one cannot agree more with them on the counts of an assessment of human impact of biological sciences through its practice and a need to create a debate over methods and tools that are being used to create such an impact.

This book is not meant for even those who have a stomach for Marxist critique. Quite a few of the thirty-one essays are all for specialists. If the word ‘dialectics’ attracts you to anything, approach this one with caution.

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