Richard Lewontin:

"Biology as Ideology" (Harper, 1991)

(Copyright © 2015 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Lewontin's point here is that science is not the absolute truth that it pretends to be because it is funded and manned by society and therefore ends up reflecting the ideas that are popular in society. Science serves two purposes: 1) to find out how we can manipulate nature; 2) to explain how nature works. Lewonting points out, though, how many inventions happened without science (in fact, one could argue that the entire industrial revolution owed very little to the scientific revolution). Science has also come to play another role in the secular society. Science has become the "legitimizing" force of secular society, replacing the old feudal and religious forces. Science claims to be objective and universal, and therefore a major improvement over aristocracy and church when it comes to legitimizing the social order. One problem is that science can be understood only by an elite: most of the population has to trust the scientists the same way that their ancestors used to have faith in the priest or the king. Lewontin, instead, argues that science is strongly influenced by the dominant ideology. Therefore Darwin was inspired by Malthus for his "survival of the fittest" theory and by Victorian gender roles for his theory of sexual selection. Physics became reductionist when individualism became dominant. The industrial world sees the universe as a clockwork. And 20 years after Lewontin wrote this book we can add that the society of the computer age sees DNA as a software program that determines what the individual does. Lewontin criticizes the view that one can separate causes and effects. At the same time he critizes the holistic view that everything affects everything else ("my gardening has no effect on the orbit of Neptune because the force of gravitation is extremely weak and falls off very rapidly with distance").

As far as the "nurture vs nature" debate goes, Lewontin forcefully denounces what he calls the "ideology of biological determinism", that he views as an excuse to justify the status quo in society: that skills depend on genes, that those genes are inherited and that society is naturally hierarchical. Defenders of this ideology forget that randomness plays a major role in determining the evolution of the neural connections, i.e. of the brain. Furthermore, the interaction between genes and environment is far more complex. We know that a change in environment can change the way genes are expressed. But it the opposite is also true: an individual's vulnerability to changes in the environment depends on genes.

The most neglected cause of diseases is society itself. It has little to do with genes. Lewontin points out that much of the gain in life expectancy has come from reducing infant mortality, and that women now live longer than men because they stopped dying of tuberculosis. However, the decline in respiratory diseases predates modern medicine (and was largely independent of modern sanitation): it started in the 19th century and it would be difficult to find a "medical" cause. Lewontin thinks that the decline in respiratory diseases was simply a consequence of better living standards, in particular nutrition. Hence Lewontin concludes that the "cause" of tuberculosis is not the bacillus per se, but the society that does not provide adequate nutrition. Social and economic forces are the real "cause" of most diseases. He gets technical to explain why genes can't be considered the "causes" of diseases: genes don't make proteins, nor do they make copies of themselves. What makes proteins and copies of genes is a complex apparatus. Genes provide a mere blueprint. It is wrong to assume that genes matter in explaining a disease more than the apparatus that makes proteins. Lewontin's favorite target is the Human Genome Project, that was barely underway when he wrote the book. Lewontin thinks that the whole idea of identifying the genes responsible for diseases is misled. The reasons behind the Human Genome Project are 1. the vanity of scientists, 2. the commercial value of such a project, both in terms of all the equipment that corporations will be able to sell to the labs and in terms of the new technologies that corporations will be able to turn into new products. Lewontin predicted that people would still "be dying of cancer, of heart disease, of stroke" despite the inflated claims of the Human Genome Project. (It is too soon to decide whether he was right or wrong: give genomics a bit more time). To show his point that economic and social factors prevail over genetics, he takes a detour intro agriculture. Hybrid corn has been hailed as one of the great inventions of the century, but Lewontin points out that modern breeders know how to create high-yield plants that would match hybrid corn in yield. The real advantage of hybrid corn is that the farmer has to keep buying from the source because the seeds of a hybrid plant are not hybrid themselves. A high-yield non-hybrid corn would make seeds that the farmer could reuse to plant more of it and would therefore make the farmer independent of the source. Therefore the hybrid method has been applied to all sorts of plants and animals. The reason we have hybrids is not that their yield is high but that the profit for the corporation that makes them is high. The "cause" is commercial in nature.

No wonder then that Lewontin takes issue with the very premises of sociobiology and of Dawkins' idea of "gene selectionism" (that bodies are simply vehicles for genes to reproduce and live forever). Lewontin argues that all the theories about altruism are just that: plausible theories, with no empirical evidence to back them up. Ditto for genetic theories of homosexuality.

Finally, about environmentalism, Lewontin points out that "the" environment does not exist: today's environment is not yesterday's environment. Nature changes all the time. "Saving the environment" is a meaningless motto because there is no such thing. The "environment" is a process of continuous transformation of which we are part as actors as the rest of the living world is. We exist because billions of living beings over billions of years changed the environment. There is no balance and harmony in the environment. However, humans do have the power to "plan" the changes that they will cause. And this comes from the gift of consciousness. Much of the power of humans comes from their society: humans fly, but that is because society created airplanes and airlines and airports. Society does not fly though, it is the individual that flies. Books extend the memory of individuals. And so forth. The role that genes play in this game has been, according to Lewontin, wildly exaggerated because in the end we have to thank genes only for making us as big as we are, so that we could create a tool-based civilization and our brain could be complex enough to be conscious.

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