Friday, July 01, 2005

Biology Is Not Ideology

(Editor's Note: The following is an excellent article sent to us by guest poster Alon Levy. We are proud to post it here at the UTI Annex.)

About two weeks ago I read Richard C. Lewontin's book, Biology as Ideology: the Doctrine of DNA. Even before I read it, I expected to find it full of cheap shots at science, considering that I had read a quote from Lewontin's Not in Our Genes, "Science is the ultimate legitimator of bourgeois ideology." Reading this book vindicated my expectations, for while in Biology as Ideology Lewontin does not talk about bourgeois ideology, he does say similar utterly false things about legitimization.

Before I continue, let me say that in this article I will mostly refrain from attacking Lewontin's biology. I don't have the expertise needed to, for instance, evaluate whether Lewontin's critique of DNA tests in forensics has any merit. Rather, I will concentrate on attacking the political and philosophical ideas in the book, to which it devotes far more space than to biology. In particular, I will explain exactly how the book's claims about legitimization of social structures and political ideas have nothing to do with reality.

The book begins with a fairly long-winded and completely wrong account of how science legitimizes social institutions. Here the book violates a central tenet developed by Alan Sokal in "What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove" to distinguish legitimate social study of science from insane deconstruction:

There is nothing wrong with research informed by a political commitment, as long as that commitment does not blind the researcher to inconvenient facts. Thus, there is a long and honorable tradition of socio-political critique of science, including antiracist critiques of anthropological pseudo-science and eugenics and feminist critiques of psychology and parts of medicine and biology. These critiques typically follow a standard pattern: First one shows, using conventional scientific arguments, why the research in question is flawed according to the ordinary canons of good science; then, and only then, one attempts to explain how the researchers' social prejudices (which may well have been unconscious) led them to violate these canons.


By page 10 of the Harper Collins edition of Biology of Ideology, Lewontin has already violated that. In particular, he claims that Darwin's theory of natural selection was born of early capitalism: "What Darwin did was take early-nineteenth-century political economy and expand it to include all of natural economy." This would be a good place for Lewontin to provide a reference to show that this has any basis in reality, but he doesn't. Indeed, later on in "What the Social Text Affair Does and Does Not Prove," Sokal says, "Why did the majority view in the European and North American scientific communities shift from creationism to Darwinism over the course of the [presumably 19th] century? Again, numerous historical, sociological, ideological and political factors will play a role in this explanation; but can one plausibly explain this shift without any reference to the fossil record or to the Galápagos fauna?" And yet that is exactly what Lewontin does: he never says anything about the fact that Darwinism was true as far as Darwin's contemporaries could know.

Indeed, Lewontin's claim about Darwin is the first of many in which he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of intellectual and political history. Throughout the 19th century, the dominant intellectual view was that history was the story of human progress. Lamarckism accorded with that almost cornucopian view of human improvement, but Darwinism didn't. Widespread social support for the predatory capitalism that people usually associate with Darwinian evolution only came later. But Darwin discovered descent with modification in the 1830s, whereas Spencer (who, despite common belief, did not support predatory social Darwinism) published his major works in the 1850s.

Lewontin makes his next major subordination of science to ideology not three pages later, when he describes scientific reductionism and notes, "So, the ideology of modern science, including modern biology, makes the atom or the individual the causal source of all the properties of larger collections." This claim is wrong on two levels. First, scientific reductionism has little to do with ideology and much to do with simplifying the world as far as reality lets us. While liberal individualism and modern science emerged together out of the Enlightenment, they were always distinct, with liberal individualism rising out of John Locke's philosophy and modern science rising out of Newtonian mechanics. Second, the fact that biology even exists is testament to the fact that science is not completely reductionistic. After all, everything is reducible to interactions between roughly 57 fundamental particles; but no one except physicists is interested in reducing everything to interactions between fundamental particles, because the interactions between these particles soon become so complex that to understand anything scientists must look at higher-level phenomena. The greedy reductionist view that Lewontin attacks is two hundred years dead, and when it was alive it only concerned itself with mechanics.

The book's second chapter is even worse than the first. It dwells on how science legitimizes the current political structure by producing an "ideology of biological determinism" (Lewontin's words, not mine). However, the actual evidence Lewontin offers ranges from spotty to spurious to idiotic. He claims that there is a fairly old idea that blood will tell, which biologists inherited from popular beliefs. His primary piece of evidence for that is the plot of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, wherein the idea is that Oliver was so out of place in his poor milieu because his biological parents were rich. This argument, however, doesn't stand up to even casual scrutiny; Oliver Twist was written between 1837 and 1839, almost thirty years before Mendel discovered the laws of inheritance. If Oliver Twist is an argument against modern genetic paradigms, then Asimov's Robot series is an argument against modern artificial intelligence paradigms, which it isn't. Further literary and theatrical works Lewontin produces postdate Mendel but not by enough; it took about 35 years for the scientific community to rediscover Mendel's discovery and about 30 more to start to synthesize genetics and evolution.

This brings me to another point of Lewontin's, eugenics. Eugenics is leftists' favorite example of how science entrenches authoritarian politics, leftists say. In reality, it's the only example; in the last four hundred years, there have been exactly two cases of science being subservient to the dominant social structure—eugenics in the early 20th century and anthropology in the late 18th and early 19th century—and in both cases the sciences involved were nascent. The gene-centered view of evolution dates back to the 1960s, long after the establishment abandoned eugenics (though for the reason that it was related to Nazism, rather than for the correct reason, which was that it was insane).

Eugenics' history actually underscores one of the aspects of the academia, namely that it is liable to believe certain things based on prejudice, but when there is strong evidence to the contrary, the facts win out. Since the biological community learned to properly fuse evolution and genetics, only cranks have supported scientific racism or eugenics programs. Nobody is accusing cognitive scientists of connection to false ideas of language, cognition, and artificial intelligence dating from the 1950s and made famous in countless science fiction works' depiction of robots. Even the shrillest Native American tribes bash anthropology's contradicting their mythology on grounds of cultural relativism rather than of anthropology's origins in trying to prove that whites were superior to non-whites. There's nothing special about biologists that merits associating them with eugenics.

In fact, science is not used to legitimize social structures at all. Lewontin may claim that science has replaced religion as the instrument that the establishment uses to keep the social order, but every political theorist you'll ask will tell you that it's true only in communist countries, and in those the government used not science but pseudoscience. In fact, the basis of the modern state's legitimacy is popular will, and the existing social structure claims that it is good not because it is divinely ordained or scientifically mandated, but agreed to by the majority of the populace. This view itself draws upon philosophy to justify itself, but is by and large independent of science.

In particular, while many conservatives and libertarians use the concept of natural hierarchy to argue against equality, for a long time they didn't, and indeed many still don't. In the late 19th century, robber barons did not justify the glaring inequality in the United States and Britain by positing that the rich were genetically superior to the poor, but by accusing the poor of moral failure. That squared a lot better with the libertarianism practiced at the time than would the racial pseudoscience of more recent times. In the United States, there are myths of equality of opportunity and the supremacy of individual choice, so the ideology of moral failure is much more effective in legitimizing inequality than genetic determinism could ever hope to be.

On the contrary, science has generally been on the side of the dispossessed and disenfranchised—especially social science, but to some degree natural science as well. First, the Enlightenment was after all a movement of emancipation from royalty and clericalism, even though it was more radical in words than in action. Second, the empiricist philosophy that guides modern science is evidently more amenable to liberty and equality than previous philosophical ideas, which gave too much emphasis to great classical works and disregarded the said works' contradictions with reality. And third, mainstream biology has pulled the rug out from under the legs of belief in natural inequality, with decisive evidence that there are no inherent differences between races or classes or nations in IQ; The Bell Curve is the work of cranks who never published anything in peer-reviewed journals in genetics or human population biology or human psychology.

Lewontin attacks science on several fronts. I have dealt with the legitimization front, but there are three additional though less important fronts he attacks on: objectivity, practical merit, and financial interests. I will deal with the first two in this order, but not with the third, which I am not informed enough to comment on.

According to Lewontin, one of the ways in which science has replaced religion is its reliance on a small clique of experts who claim to be objective and are hidden from public scrutiny. Actually, it is in a way true that science pretends it is objective, in the same way I pretend my name is Alon Levy (lest anyone misinterpret this sentence, Alon Levy is indeed my real full name). If you pick up any work on the history of science, you'll see that scientists engage in vicious politics and do their best to shoot down ideas they don't like, regardless of their merits; you may also read about scientific geniuses whose work the establishment ignored for decades. But science accepts true ideas relatively rapidly, with little concern for their political implications—witness the acceptance of Darwinism, which I showed above to be less in tune with contemporary political dogma than Lamarckism, as well as the rapid acceptance of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. It took 35 years for people to look at Mendel's research and about 40 for continental drift theory to gain traction after it was first proposed, but besides the fact that these were exceptions to the rule, they were nonetheless accepted extremely quickly by the standards of every other enterprise—religion, national icons, and even political ideology all take much longer than 40 years to change their views.

The second claim in the same attack is that like religion, science works like a secretive cult: "Once the truth about nature is revealed, one must accept the facts of life. When science speaks, let no dog bark. Finally, science speaks in mysterious words. No one except an expert can understand what scientists say and do." This argument is one of the prime examples of Lewontin's total ignorance when it comes to history. Science started out very simple to understand, and three hundred years ago an educated man knew everything there was to know about science. But as it advanced, the body of knowledge it accumulated piled up, and gradually there was a process of specialization. The scientific establishment is hierarchical, but its rigid insistence on empirical results, testability, and falsifiability makes its hierarchism very different from that of religion with its use of revealed truths. In addition, science strives for simplicity, that is making ideas as easy to understand as possible. And finally, in science everyone can learn and possibly overthrow old ideas if he's right, subject to a certain level of intelligence and the ability to afford going to university.

Lewontin also plays down the practical merits of basic scientific research. The usual argument defenders of the academia advance in support of science is that it has increased life expectancy in the first world by 30 years in the 20th century. Lewontin demolishes that argument by associating the increase in life expectancy with reduction in infant mortality and betterment of social conditions. But there are additional fairly well-known arguments he brushes off or ignores. First, he claims that "There was no observable effect on the death rate after the germ theory of disease was announced in 1876 by Robert Koch" (p. 44). Koch devised postulates to help determine which pathogens cause which diseases, but germ theory goes back to Louis Pasteur, who discovered germs in the 1850s; it's not surprising that if you look at the wrong place, you won't find anything. Second, he talks about the eradication of smallpox and how it used 18th-century medicine, but in fact it used thoroughly modern methods; the smallpox vaccine just happened to be the first vaccine ever discovered. And third, he ignores the near-eradication of polio, which used vaccines developed in the 1950s, and has the prefix "near" only because of anti-vaccination myths promoted in northern Nigeria.

The results of basic research have increased life expectancy. Lewontin's claim that "in the last 50 years, only four months have been added to the expected life span of a person who is already 60 years old" (pp. 42-43) is a lie; in the United States, life expectancy at 60 increased from 15.91 between 1939-41 to 20.9 between 89-91, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention; and more importantly, life expectancy at 20 increased from 42.79 in 1900-02 to 51.2 in 49-51 to 58.2 in 2002. On a somewhat unrelated note, basic research has made our lives better in ways other than increasing our life expectancy—for one, the Internet is the result of 50 years of basic and applied research most of which had nothing to do with connecting computers, and for two, see below on the Human Genome Project.

Besides attacking the fundamental tenets of scientific research, the book also attacks certain specific concepts, which I will deal with now. First, I will talk about the heritability of IQ, which Lewontin denies; and then, I will defend the Human Genome Project, which he attacks as useless and ideological. Please note that in both parts, especially in the first, I will rely on very recent data, which postdates 1991, the year of publication of Biology as Ideology, so strictly speaking they should not reflect negatively on the book.

IQ, or intelligence quotient, is partly heritable, by which I mean that the IQ of one's biological parents predicts one's IQ to a certain extent without considering any environmental factors. The book claims that experts accept the heritability of IQ based on three studies of identical twins, of which one was fabricated (and, I presume, not used anymore, judging by Dawkins' granting that in his scathing review of Not in Our Genes, published in 1987) and two did not properly control for environmental factors. However, there are several IQ researches that compare identical and fraternal twins, and show that identical twins' IQ scores are much better correlated than fraternal twins'.

An extensive study done by Eric Turkheimer and published in Psychological Science in November 2003 shows that in middle- and upper-class families, IQ has very high heritability, whereas in lower-class families environmental factors predominate and genes contribute almost nothing to variation in intelligence. The explanation for that is that everyone has a certain potential for intelligence that is mostly genetic, but low socioeconomic status can prevent people from realizing their full potentials. Lewontin calls this the empty bucket or innate capacity metaphor and derides it, "But there is no more biology in the innate capacity metaphor than there is in the notion of fixed genetic effects." But now we know that the innate capacity metaphor is exactly right.

One of Lewontin's targets in the book is the Human Genome Project, to which he devotes an entire chapter. He argues that the projected cost of three billion dollars is a waste of money, that the HGP will yield no useful result, and that the HGP's motivations are ideological rather than scientific. The argument about money is moot now that the Project is complete, but even 13 years ago it was bad, for compared to the United States' GDP, 3 billion dollars over 10 years of research are small change.

As for useful results, here is where Lewontin once again advances fringe ideas. In page 50 he says that since every two individuals differ in about one base pair in 500 (actually according to Wikipedia's "Single Nucleotide Polymorphism" article it's one in 100-300), making a copy of the genome of one individual is worthless because there will always be substantial variation between normal individuals. But what Lewontin doesn't say is how many of these variations in nucleotides cause variations in amino acid sequences, which is especially egregious considering that this appears just two pages after he rants about how proteins rather than genes make things and how people say that genes make proteins and replicate themselves only because of ideology "that places brains above brawn" (he doesn't offer a shred of proof, as usual).

In fact, sometimes mutations of single nucleotides cause huge effects. 10% of Europeans are immune to AIDS because of a change in a single nucleotide, which changes a codon that codes for an amino acid to a stop codon, thus truncating a protein, which results in immunity. Researchers are already working on a way to transfer the immunity-conferring gene to non-immune people; if they succeed than that alone will be more than worth the three billion dollars spent on the HGP. Lewontin's single example of a genetic disorder caused by numerous variation isn't enough, but my single example of an immense genetic boon caused by a single nucleotide polymorphism.
The claim that the HGP rests on an ideology of genetic determinism is false, too. Lewontin culls many quotes from leading geneticists that show immense optimism toward the HGP's goals, and uses these as his main argument that it's all about ideology. But looking at other ambitious projects shows that this naiveté always occurs, regardless of what the project is. Eight years ago, everyone talked about the Internet would cause a total revolution in world affairs; six years ago, the buzzword was "new economy," meaning the hi-tech boom; four years ago, the NASDAQ had already crashed and yet another cornucopian dream had been shattered. David Criswell, the leading proponent of lunar solar power, believes that it will more or less solve all of the world's problems. When Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, everyone started talking of the revolutionary way it would transform society. When building many large hydroelectric dams became practicable, bureaucrats started dreaming about how it would finally provide clean energy and do away with the pollution of coal plants. In similar vein, the leading researchers of the HGP exaggerate its effect and importance.

If Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins are popularizers of science, then Lewontin is a popularizer of anti-science. Toward the end, Biology as Ideology is not very problematic—indeed, I doubt that Dawkins or E. O. Wilson, two leading sociobiologists the book attacks will disagree with the gist of the last chapter, which is about humans molding their own environment and transcending genetic limitations. However, the first half of the book or so is full of insane arguments, ideological extremism, cheap shots at strawmen, and plain falsities. Lewontin attacks science using four main arguments—it legitimizes the existing social structure, it claims to be objective but isn't, it has no practical merit, and it is influenced by financial stakeholders—but the first three of these are simply false, and the fourth's importance is at worst moderate. True to its name, Biology as Ideology shows how biologists can twist the facts to serve an ideology, but it is not Lewontin's opponents who do it.

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gonesavage said...

I ripped Lewontin a new one in my blog too: http://gonesavage.blogsome.com/2006/02/27/lewontins-logic/

We have to read it for philosophy class, and when I handed it in, that afternoon my prof emailed me-- I thought she was gonna ream me, but she said I have a strong argument that could put a serious wedge into his book. And you do too! :)

gonesavage said...

Oops, I should just link it:
Lewontin's Logic

RSD said...

I think you and Lewontin are arguing on two different realms of "science". Yours being a very idealized one. Lewontin is simply trying to get people to see the significance of the "why" and not the "how" of research and analysis. The HGP is a clear example of overemphasizing the "how" which overshadows the more relevant "why"s of scientific endeavors.