|Steven Rose speaking at a SWP conference.|
Sunday, 9 February 2014
The Left’s Criticisms of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology
Of course ‘science is political’. Or at least it can be.
The National Socialists (Nazis) weren’t the only or the first to upholders of the ‘science of race’ as a basis of their racism. Despite that, in the last few decades it seems that the whole of sociobiology has been tarred with the same brush – and sometimes with a few good reasons.
But what if genetics does determine behaviour in many ways? It does. What if that behaviour or traits is sometimes race-specific even though the concept [race] is itself disputed by most scientists? It is. -
“… including Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin… formed ‘The Sociobiology Study Group’, noting… that theories that attempted to establish a biological foundation to social behaviour provided an ‘important basis… for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany’; and Wilson himself was drenched in water by protesters at a meeting…” (65)
Nationalist and even patriotic beliefs and policies can be connected to the Nazi movement as well; but that doesn’t mean that all forms of nationalism or patriotism will lead to Nazi racial policies or gas chambers. The eugenics movements in the early 20th century were too simplistic with their ideas. (Interestingly, the Marxists Steven Rose, Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin fail to mention the Left and Left-Liberal eugenics movements, in the UK and US, which were also very prevalent in the early 20th century.) However, perhaps they were only partly - or even mainly - wrong in much of what they believed. Apart from the Nazis, were the ‘biological foundations to social behaviour’ (65) emphasised by all eugenics movements as race-specific as they were with the Nazis? Perhaps eugenics need not have anything to do with race, at least not in the politicised and moralised way the Nazis understood race and races.
In any case, can, or should, politicians, or activists, directly stop scientific research in the first place? Can, or should, Steven Rose (who has been prominent in the Socialist Workers Party for a few decades) and Steven Gould tell scientists what they can and cannot do? Even if scientists or geneticists do come to certain conclusions about social behaviour, even about particular races or classes, nothing necessarily follows from that unless we, as political states and societies, allow it to follow. It may be true, for example, that certain races have particular predispositions to X or Y; but nothing will necessarily follow, politically or socially, from that.
Left-wing science exists just as much as ‘right-wing science’ (probably more so). Should we keep a firm check on the scientific research of Steven Rose and Gould as well, just in case it leads to Trotskyism or Stalinism or a set of policies like that of the Khmer Rouge? What if they show, scientifically (to them at least), that the best form of society is a Marxist society and thus that we should enforce, politically, this kind of society?
Perhaps there is a sociobiology of the left which simply goes under another name. In any case, of course there is ‘a biological foundation to social behaviour’ (65) whether or not it provided an ‘important basis… for the eugenics policies which lead to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazis Germany’ (65). Surely Gould, Rose and the rest can’t be denying this. If they aren’t, then they must be saying, or implying, that even if there are biological foundations to social behaviour, we mustn’t say that there are. Thus, sociobiology is not a fit subject of scientific research. Very Stalinist!
Let us see what precisely the problem is with sociobiology for these Marxist scientists like Gould and Steven Rose:
“In the eyes of the critics of reductionism, such a strategy results in the claim that complex behaviours are straightforwardly genetically determined. For example, Steven Rose, Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin assert in Not in Our Genes that ‘sociobiology is a reductionist, biological determinist explanation of human existence. Its adherents claim… that the details of present and past social arrangements are the inevitable manifestations of the specific actions of genes.’” (66)
First of all, because Rose, for one, is a member of the SWP, and Trotsky said that it is acceptable to lie in order to further an acceptable political cause, then anything Rose says about sociobiology should be taken with a pinch of salt – specifically when he talks about ‘scientific reductionism’ (that classic scare word). For example, whereas he claims that sociobiologists are reductionists when it comes to genes, he, as a Marxist, is also a reductionist when it comes to class and socio-economic realities which are equally seen to underpin all things. No one was more of a reductionist than Marx; who saw everything in terms of class struggle.
So who says that sociobiologists, or E.O Wilson in particular, claim that ‘complex behaviours are straightforwardly genetically determined’ (66)? Rose et al say this; but do all the sociobiologists also say this? I doubt it. As scientists, they would probably say that nothing so ‘complex’ is that ‘straightforward’. If it were straightforward, they wouldn’t need to study it for years. We’d all know about the sociobiological facts! In any case, what’s inherently wrong, or wrong across the board, with reductionism in science? Indeed it has been mightily successful in science. Not only that: it is at the very core of all science in some way or another. Indeed Rose et al are all reductionists in their own ways. It’s just that their reductionisms, say, sociological reduction, are the right reductions, not the wrong ones. In addition, behaviours may well be ‘genetically determined’, but not ‘straightforwardly’ so. Is Rose simply saying that this is false, or that it is a politically dangerous idea? I don’t think that he believes that it is both false and politically dangerous – just the latter.
So in the quote from Rose and the rest we have two scare words to contend with: ‘reductionist’ and ‘determinist’. Are these positions and ideas just plainly false across the board? Or are they, instead, just politically dangerous (according to Marxists)? There must be a degree of genetic - and other kinds of - determinism. Similarly, reductionism in science can’t be all bad or all wrong. As I said, Rose is a reductionist, just not a genetic reductionist. He is an socioeconomic (political) reductionist.
This gross simplification of sociobiology is a Trotskyite attempt to denigrate it. No doubt Wilson has never talked about - or even hinted at - the ‘inevitable manifestations of the specific actions of genes’ (66). Indeed there is very little that is necessary or ‘inevitable’ outside logic and mathematics. And Wilson would no doubt accept this. Not only will Rose be a reductionist of some kind, as I argued, but he will also be a determinist of some kind too. Indeed a Marxist determinist who believes that everything 'is the outcome of class struggle and the economic realities which underpin the superficial manifestations of belief-systems and ideologies' (all those which aren’t Marxist, that is).
Is Wilson a reductionist and a genetic determinist? Perhaps we should let him speak for himself.-
“… in his 1998 book, Consilience, Wilson notes that ‘all biologists speak of the interaction between heredity and environment. They do not, except in laboratory shorthand, speak of a gene “causing” a particular behaviour, and they never mean it literally.’” (66)
Of course Rose would say that this is all obfuscation on Wilson’s part. Perhaps he would say that because he is judging Wilson by his own Trotskyist standards. That is, being a politico, that’s precisely what Rose would do (for the benefit of the revolution and the working classes) if he needed to. As far as I know, Wilson, unlike Rose, is not directly involved in - or connected to - any political movements or institutions. He is not, for example, an active ‘neo-Con’ or anything like that. Rose, on the other hand, is an active member of the SWP and has been for over three decades.
If Wilson didn't emphasis the ‘interaction between heredity and environment’ (66) he would probably be laughed out of court by just about every scientist. Indeed it is hard to even make sense of genes being solely responsible for all social behaviour regardless of the environment. Would that thesis even make sense? However, what Wilson may say, along with scientists like Helena Cronin, is that this is a false dichotomy in the first place. It is not a case of genes or environment. It isn't even a case of a 50/50 split between genes and environment. The environment itself, or society, is itself a product of our genes; at least to some extent. If society is itself a product of genes, then the dualism of genes/environment hardly makes much sense in the first place. There would be no society without pre-existing genes for, say, social (or anti-social) behaviours.
And just as the genes/environment split may be a dualism too far, so too may be the reduction/synthesis duality:
“Major science always deals with reduction and re-synthesis of complex systems, across two or three levels of complexity at a step. For example, from quantum physics to the principles of atomic physics, thence reagent chemistry, macromolecular chemistry, molecular biology, and so on – comprising, in general, complexity and reduction, and reduction to re-synthesis of complexity, in repeated sweeps." (68)
This in itself shows the importance of reduction in all the sciences. Not just between the sciences; but also within them. For example:
molecular biology →macromolecular chemistry →reagent chemistry →atomic physics → quantum physics
Or the other way around:
quantum physics → atomic physics → reagent chemistry →macromolecular chemistry →molecular biology
We move in both directions; not just in the reductive redirection, as it were. That is, we can move from ‘complexity to reduction, and reduction to re-synthesis of complexity, in repeated sweeps’ (68). In fact, we have to‘re-synthesise’ in order to make sense of the reduction. And we make sense of the complexity by means of the reduction. It works both ways.