(Feature) Biology as Ideology

RC Lewontin’s short collection of essays “Biology as Ideology” was formative for me.

As you might expect of a nearly 30-year-old book, parts of it have not aged well. His rant against the Human Genome Project, which in 1991 was threatening to consume several decades and millions of public dollars, seems a bit misplaced given the speed with which it eventually concluded.

The historical lesson is important however – predicting technologies that will exist in just five years’ time is nearly impossible. His conclusion as well is eerily prescient:

“Some farsighted biologists have cautioned against the disillusionment that will follow. The public will discover that despite inflated claims of molecular biologists, people are still dying of cancer, of heart disease, of stroke, that institutions are still filled with schizophrenics and manic-depressives, that the war on drugs has not been won. The fear among many scientists is that by promising too much [in the pursuit of funding and career], science will destroy its public image and [the public] will become cynical…”

In large part, that is exactly what happened this century with the anti-vaxxer movement, the cottage industry of climate change denial, and the rest, all of which have found fertile ground with a public skeptical of the human institution of science.

We can’t lay that at the feet of the HGP specifically of course, but rather at the larger university-industrial complex of which it was part. Just as there is a deep economic infrastructure that benefits significantly from military conflicts overseas, so too with scientific and technical research.

Our image of the private inventor is a lone man tinkering in his garage, soldering motherboards or the like. As with so much else, if that ever was, it ceased to be in the internet era. Development of the search technology that became the Google megacorp, for example, was a group effort funded by taxpayer dollars while the company’s founders were graduate students at Stanford. Everyone involved has since become ungodly wealthy – except the taxpayer.

In that sense, whatever else it claims to be, science is also a human activity and not simply the immaterial quest for truth. In Lewontin’s phrase: ”Science is molded by society because it is a human productive activity that takes time and money, and so it is guided and directed by those forces in the world that have control over time and money.”

This seems to me to be a very unremarkable observation, yet the zealousness with which some people feel the need to qualify or even dismiss it illustrates just how close to the nerve it cuts. If the influence over research by those forces of social control – not only what gets studied and who gets credit but how and whether the public benefits from any of it – were truly as benign as advertised, it would be enough merely to acknowledge them and return to work.

It was both disappointing and disillusioning to me as a younger man that dogmatic reductionists like Richard Dawkins (or Dan Dennett in philosophy) are widely popularized at the expense of thinkers like Lewontin, who is an evolutionary geneticist and professor at Harvard. (One wonders how well Stephen Jay Gould could’ve raised the public consciousness if he hadn’t died so young.)

Selfish gene theory, to take one example, reduces every organism, including every human being, to a watery gene vector whose only real purpose is to gain resources and/or social status in the race to reproduce.

Not coincidentally, that also happens to be exactly what capitalists think, that you are a status-driven consumer.

If that seems obvious to you, consider that it hasn’t been the case for almost all of human history. We are consumers, yes, but we are not only consumers – or rather we didn’t used to be. Odd to claim it’s our innate nature now.

It’s not that selfish gene theory is wrong or that it was created as a means of social legitimation. Not at all. There is solid science behind it. But as a description of the world, it’s incomplete. As a popular theory permeating the public consciousness – selfish gene theory is where we get the word meme – it is not simply the result of a disinterested search for truth.

One should always be especially skeptical of any scientific theory that legitimates the prevailing social structure. The odds of such a correlation obtaining at random are practically nil.

Like any good iconoclast, Lewontin marches under no popular banner. In addition to taking on reductionism, he roasts some of the anti-scientific assumptions of the environmental movement – specifically, what I call “The Amish Myth.”

This popular environmental ideology first accepts the religious belief that humans are exceptional and not a natural function of the earth, same as any other animal, and second, enshrines a state of the world as it was imagined to exist at a particular time and place in the past: namely, Europe just before the industrial revolution, in much the same way that the Amish have chosen to persist at exactly the same point in our socio-technological development.

Again, you either find that correlation likely to be random or not.

Never mind that the mythical earth imagined in the popular environmentalism never actually existed, it’s fundamentally anti-scientific to assign ANY particular natural environment sacred status, just as it’s unscientific to perpetually suppress forest fires, which are part of that biome’s natural cycle.

Lewontin writes:

”First, there is no ‘environment’ in some independent and abstract sense. Just as there is no organism without an environment, there is no environment without an organism. Organisms do not experience environments. They create them. They construct their own environments out of the bits and pieces of the physical and biological world and they do so by their own activities… If genes change in evolution, the environment of the organism will change too.

The second rule [of the real relation between organism and environment] is that the environment of organisms is constantly being remade during the life of those living beings. When plants send down roots, they change the physical nature of the soil, breaking it up and aerating it. They exude humeric acids. They change the height of the water table by removing water. They alter the humidity in their immediate neighborhood, and the upper leaves of a plant change the amount of light that is available to lower leaves… Moles and earthworms completely change the local topology. Beavers had at least as an important effect on the landscape of North America as humans did until the beginning of the last century. Every breath you take removes oxygen and adds carbon dioxide to the world…

Every living organism is in a constant process of changing the world in which it lives by taking up materials and putting out others. Every act of consumption is also an act of production. And every act of production is an act of consumption. When we consume, we produce waste products that are in turn the materials for consumption for some other organism.”

My microbiology professor in medical school made this point often. We’re all closet mammalists, he said, actively prejudiced against most of the rest of the tree of life. The world we’re creating is a paradise for bacteria and many kinds of insects, which will flourish and diversify in our abundant waste.

Raising one class of creatures over another is not scientific. It’s ideological.

”A consequence of the universality of environmental change induced by the life activity of organisms is that every organism is both producing and destroying the conditions of its existence. There is a great deal of talk about how we as human beings are destroying the environment. But we are not unique in the fact that our life processes are recreating the world in a way that is in part hostile to the continuation of our own lives. Every bacterium uses up food material and excretes waste products that are toxic to it.”

You can test that claim at home with a petri dish and a cheek swab.

”Organisms ruin the world not only for their own lives but for their children as well… White pines can form an almost pure stand in an old field and many such white pine stands could be seen in New England earlier this century. However, they do not last. The pines make dense shade that is inhospitable to the growth of their own seedlings, and so they cannot replace each other. As the pines die or if, as in New England, they are cut wholesale, what comes next are hardwoods, whose seedlings have been waiting around for a little opening.”

When The Matrix came out, I remember I actually laughed out loud in the theater when Agent Smith told Neo “all organisms naturally seek a balance with their environment.” No, they don’t! Given the opportunity, many species of rodent will breed to the point of population collapse.

Not that the good professor or I are anti-environment. Quite the opposite. We’re opposed to the kind of social engineering that demands science conform to an a priori ideological truth.

This is the question of cause, or rather what kinds of explanations we will accept as causes.

”Modern biology is characterized by a number of ideological prejudices that shape the form of its explanations. One of those major prejudices is the nature of causes… nowhere more evident than in our theories of health and disease. Any textbook of medicine will tell us that the cause of tuberculosis is the tubercle bacillus… Modern scientific medicine tells us that the reason we no longer die of infectious diseases is that scientific medicine has defeated the insidious bacterium…

What is the evidence for the benefits of modern scientific medicine? Certainly, we live a great deal longer than our ancestors. [But] a very large fraction of the change in average life expectancy is a tremendous reduction in infant mortality. The gravestones of people who died in the middle of the 19th century indicate a remarkable number of deaths at an old age. In fact, scientific medicine has done little to add years for people who have already reached maturity. In the last 50 years, only about four months have been added to the expected life span of a person who is already 60 years old…

As we all know, in modern Europe women live longer than men, but they used not to. Before the turn of the century, women died sooner than men did, and a common explanation offered by scientific medicine is that a leading cause of death was childbirth fever… But a look at the statistics reveals that childbirth fever was a minor cause of death during the 19th century, even of women of childbearing age. Nearly all excess mortality was a consequence of tuberculosis, and when tuberculosis ceased to be a major killer, women ceased to have a shorter lifespan than did men…

There was no observable effect on the death rate after the germ theory of disease was announced in 1876 by Robert Koch. The death rate from infectious diseases continued to decline as if Koch had never lived. By the time chemical therapy for tuberculosis was introduced in the early part of this century, more than 90% of the decrease in the death rate from that disease had already occurred…

The progressive reductions in the death rate were not a consequence, for example, of modern sanitation, because the diseases that were the major killers in the 19th century were respiratory and not waterborne…

As far as we can tell, the decrease in death rates from the infectious killers of the 19th century is a consequence of the general improvement in nutrition and is related to an increase in the real wage. In countries like Brazil today, infant mortality rises and falls with increases and decreases in the minimum wage. The immense betterment of nutrition also explains the drop in the higher rate of tuberculosis among women than among men. In the 19th century in Britain, working men were far better nourished than home-bound women… So there have been complex social changes, resulting in increases in the real earnings of the great mass of people, reflected in part in their far better nutrition, that really lie at the basis of our increased longevity. Although one may say that the tubercle bacillus causes tuberculosis, we are much closer to the truth when we say that it was the conditions of unregulated capitalism…

In the past 20 years, precisely because of the decline in infectious disease as an important cause of ill health, other single causes have been raised as the culprits of disease… But to say that pesticides cause the death of farm workers or that cotton fibers cause brown lung in textile workers is to make a fetish out of inanimate objects. We must distinguish between *agents* and *causes*… Asbestos and cotton lint fibers are not the causes of cancer. They are the agents of social causes, and it is only through changes in those social forces that we can get to the root of problems of health. The transfer of causal power from social relations to inanimate agents that then seem to have a power and a life of their own is one of the major mystifications of science and its ideologies.”

There are more examples of this than could be easily summarized, but the story of leaded gasoline comes to mind. The incalculable suffering and violence that occurred as a result of latent lead poisoning in the last century was not caused by atoms of lead but a social system that takes little notice of such effects when they don’t impact the wealthy and powerful.

The Romans were aware of lead poisoning. They used lead to make pipes because it was economically efficient to do so, just as it was economically efficient for us to add tetraethyl lead to gasoline to increase engine compression. The Romans didn’t switch to a different metal, despite lead’s pernicious effects, because the primary recipients of lead-pipe-borne water, those who carried the burden of economic efficiency, were the plebs. Those who benefitted from it were the patricians.

The difference, then, between Roman society, which did not make the change, and modern Western society, which did, is not an improved understanding of the world – i.e. science. Both societies understood, if only empirically, that lead was poisonous. Rather, the difference was the social structure – the locus of power.

In that sense, I might disagree with Professor Lewontin that the cause of the tuberculosis epidemic was *specifically* capitalism. Rather, it was a social system, including capitalism, that allows one group to benefit at the expense of another. Theocracy, aristocracy, and oligarchy all had the same drawback. Any improvements over those older systems is not so much the result of capitalism as democratic reforms of it: child labor and occupational safety laws, a minimum wage, etc.

This kind of stuff matters for several reasons. The naïve view of science popularized by the university-industrial complex, what is sometime called scientism, is first and foremost a tool of legitimation and exploitation. And to the degree it creates a straw man that is easily slain, it leads (albeit unintentionally) to an increase in anti-scientism. Like the bacteria in the petri dish, it fosters an environment that leads to its own destruction, and with it, the advances in social and material well-being that genuine science brings.

It also impacts general human happiness. By now I think it’s fairly well known that despite being the longest-lived, most materially well-endowed society in history, we are unhappier than ever. Part of that is surely the fault of the naïve scientific worldview.

People continue to believe, for example, that their genes largely determine the bounds of their lives. Even if they are not explicitly aware of it, the view of the world taught in grade school and repeated throughout popular culture is that if one is exceptionally fat or talented, that is at least partially and nontrivially the result of one’s genes, which are inalterable.

”It is our common prejudice that even if one had practiced the violin from a very early age, one would not be able to play as well as Menuhin, and we think of him as having special neuronal connections. But that is not the same as saying those neuronal connections were coded in his genes.”

There was already overwhelming evidence in 1991, when this book was written, that what genes code for is not one specific, inalterable phenotype but rather a wide and extremely complex array of outcomes entirely dependent on environment.

Childhood nutrition is a greater predictor of overall health in adulthood than is genetic code. Indeed, the two human traits most highly conserved between parents and offspring are religion and political affiliation, neither of which are genetically determined – unless you suppose you are Christian because you inherited the Christian gene and your neighbor a Muslim for the same reason.

Average IQ of adopted children, while correlated with the IQ of their biological parents, is closer in absolute value to the average IQ of their adoptive parents. Similarly, 70% of the socioeconomic status you will achieve in life is predicted by the socioeconomic status of the parents that raised you.

We all know this. Regardless of genetic endowment, the children of rich people tend to be rich, even when those children are adopted.

Genes matter, absolutely. But they are hardly determinative.

So why are we continually told that they are? The simplest explanation that fits the facts is that that myth is a stable social control strategy. Certainly, it subtly encourages people not to demand widescale change, for if genes are largely determinative, then those who tend to the top of society must be there because they deserve it and any attempt to produce a different set of winners is not only doomed to fail but will actually oppose the natural order of things.

Popular science – specifically, reductive genetic determinism like selfish gene theory – legitimates the social order exactly as the church did in the prior era. It tells us that although we may not live in the best of all possible worlds, how things are approximates the best of all practically possible worlds. So shut up and get back to work.

If one were very cynical, one would note that science education itself subtly, almost perniciously reinforces this strategy. After all, if knowledge were actively withheld from us by those in power, such as the ability to read was in that prior era, we would know to actively seek it, as the oppressed always have (usually for their children).

Yet, these days we are all given a rudimentary science education. Science is not only NOT withheld from us, we are actually compelled to learn it in school.

Only we’re not. We’re compelled to learn the content of science. We make students calculate velocities and memorize the citric acid cycle, neither of which teach the non-specialist anything of lasting value, certainly not that the world – the human environment, which includes both the “natural” world we’ve constructed and the world of society – is manufactured and therefore malleable.

Not that I have any hope science educators will be so enlightened as to free their students from the periodic table. The primary function of education – how it’s been manufactured – is not to turn out enlightened citizens but rather technically competent workers for the post-industrial economy.

If you don’t believe that, or if you merely believe it cynically, consider how university students with “non-productive” majors like sociology or history of science are regularly chastised for exercising intellectual freedom at the expense of something “economically productive.” It’s as if the last thing in the world we want is for anyone to be too curious.

If you’ve ever been the chastiser, The Matrix surely has you.