Science & Ideology
Not in Our Genes.
by Richard C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin.
Pantheon. 368 pp. $21.95.
For over a decade a group of scientists on the radical Left, Science for the People (SFP), has pursued a campaign against studies of human behavioral genetics. Not in Our Genes is a major contribution to that campaign, and the authors make no secret of their political purpose:
We share a commitment to the prospect of the creation of a more socially just—a socialist—society. And we recognize that a critical science is an integral part of the struggle to create that society, just as we also believe that the social function of much of today’s science is to hinder the creation of that society by acting to preserve the interests of the dominant class, gender, and race.
Given this ideological commitment, it is not surprising that the authors condemn human behavioral genetics, intelligence testing, and sociobiology as worthless and even pernicious. Moreover, they attack the motivation as well as the conclusions of scientists engaged in these fields, projecting upon them an aim as frankly political as their own, but opposite in intention. All work in these areas is seen as serving a prejudiced society: “It is precisely to meet the need for self-justification and to prevent social disorder that the ideology of biological determinism has been developed.” Even more, those whom they label “biological determinists” are accused of continuing the earlier misuses of genetic theories to rationalize racial discrimination.
In their passion to discredit genetic studies, the authors even go so far as to reject Seymour Kety’s classic demonstration of the major role played by heredity in schizophrenia. Yet studies such as Kety’s are in fact a necessary step toward the identification of abnormal genes; and while Lewontin et al. clearly fear that this knowledge will be used for reactionary eugenic measures, in actuality it provides the most promising approach, through the fantastic power of molecular genetics, to understanding the disease and to developing specific therapies.
Some of the views of the authors on behavioral genetics and on psychometric testing seem idiosyncratic or just plain silly: for example, in psychometric testing “human action is itself reduced to individual reified lumps objectified in the black box of the head.” And in a gross distortion of history and of science the authors write:
[IQ] test items that differentiated boys from girls . . . were removed, since the tests were not meant to make that distinction; differences between social classes, or between ethnic groups or races, however, have not been massaged away, precisely because it is these differences that the tests are meant to measure.
This statement is inexcusable. As anyone in the field knows, boys average slightly better on spatial items and girls slightly better on verbal items, and their overall averages are equalized by adjusting the proportions of various kinds of items, not by removing differentiating ones. The other groups mentioned cannot be equalized in this way because they do not have compensatory areas of high performance, even in non-verbal tests.
While most of Not in Our Genes repeats earlier arguments made by Science for the People, it is important to note one novel position that seems to represent a major shift. After many years of denouncing so-called “biological determinists” and struggling to convince the world that genes have little to do with behavioral differences between individuals, Lewontin and his colleagues (and also Stephen Jay Gould in his recent writings) now state their conviction that intelligence is the product of interactions between genetic potentials and environmental inputs, and that both sources are substantial. This, as it happens, is the position that has long been held by serious students of the subject. Unfortunately, although the authors now have an opportunity to end a lot of sterile polemics, they deny that their opponents hold this interactionist view; the denigrating epithet “biological determinist” is repeated by them, in a depressingly familiar political tactic, on virtually every page. Moreover, the title of their book forces one to suspect that the authors’ own conversion to interactionism is a matter less of conviction than of tactics. One’s skepticism is reinforced by their comment on J.B.S. Haldane and H.J. Muller, two distinguished earlier geneticists and Marxists who “argued (along lines that we would not) that important aspects of human behavior were influenced by genes.”
In addition to attacking what they call “biological determinism,” the authors also spend a good bit of time tilting at “reductionism”: the attempt to understand complex systems in terms of the properties of their components. They condemn contemporary pharmacological research as simplistic because it seeks drugs that hit a specific target; and they even object to testing the blood-alcohol level of possible drunken drivers because a variety of different moods can be associated with the same level. In place of this “reductionist” approach they expound their faith that dialectical materialism offers a more powerful analytic tool:
We would counterpose the understanding of . . . revolutionary practitioners and theorists like Mao Tse-tung on the power of human consciousness in both interpreting and changing the world, a power based on an understanding of the essential dialectic unity of the biological and the social . . . as ontologically coterminous.
But if the insights of the dialectic are so valuable for biomedical science, one wonders why the Soviet Union has not developed a single useful antibiotic. It is sad indeed to see how these intelligent scientists, in their dedication to seeking a better society through Marxism, feel obligated as well to apply the murky principles of dialectical materialism to science.
Why trouble to review such doctrinaire material? The reason is that some highly respected publications have greeted this book enthusiastically, as a serious scientific contribution. Yet as I hope to have made clear, however briefly, the fundamental aims of Not in Our Genes lead to a distorted picture, feed a growing anti-science sentiment, and undermine the very foundation of science: the commitment to objectivity. To be sure, scientists approach the ideal of objectivity only imperfectly, and sometimes are guilty of unconscious bias; but if their practice remains honest, the resulting errors can eventually be corrected. By contrast, any deliberate introduction of ideological preconceptions, à la Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin, compromises the integrity of science, today no less than in the time of Galileo.