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March 05, 2005

The Conflict Within - The Left's Version of Creationism

I've now had two critiques against my post The Turning of the Tide and both shared a common thrust: the Left has no science luddites and they don't tolerate the subornment of science. The Left is above such tactics, or so say my critics.

What's especially baffling is that some of the Left's scientific icons and popularizers of science are quite flagrently offering suborned statements to their acolytes. Now, while the Left justly castigates the subornment of science by the Right's tactics of bribery and power politics it turns a blind eye to its own crimes of subornment paid for with adulation and desire to maintain ideological amity.

Regular readers of this blog are already aware of the antics of the Sociobiology Study Group, but new readers may profit from a recap for it would offer some history and could help put into perspective the recent statements of Steven Rose (which I'll get to in a moment,) which along with my critics, helped prompt this post. Rose, you may recall, along with Richard Lewontin and Leon Kamin, wrote a manifesto entitled Not In Our Genes that directed agitprop against sociobiology and is much beloved, as was Gould, by those who stand fast against research in genetics that would tread on, and threaten, their ideology.

E.O Wilson, writing about the attacks launched against him during the Sociobiology War, quotes Rose's co-author of Not In Our Genes Richard Lewontin:"There is nothing in Marx, Lenin, or Mao that is or can be in contradiction with a particular set of phenomena in the objective world." Wilson, in rebutting Lewontin, goes on to write, first a restatement of Lewontin's point and then his rebuttal:

True science, in other words, must be defined intrinsically to be forever separate from political thought. Ideology can then be constructed as a mental process insulated from science.

In formulating sociobiology, I wanted to move evolutionary biology into every potentially congenial subject, including human behavior and even political behavior, roughshod if need be and as quickly as possible. Lewontin obviously did not.

By adopting a narrow criterion of acceptable research deserving the title of science, Lewontin freed himself to pursue a political agenda unencumbered by science. He purveyed the postmodernist view that accepted truth, unless based upon unassailable fact, is no more than a reflection of dominant ideology and political power. After his turn to political activism, around 1970, he worked to promote his own accepted truth: the Marxian view of holism, envisioning a mental universe within which social systems ebb and flow in response to the forces of economics and class struggle. He disputed the idea of reductionism in evolutionary biology, even though it was and is the virtually unchallenged linchpin of the natural sciences as a whole. And most particularly, he rejected it for human social behavior. He said, in 1991, "By reductionism, we mean the belief that the world is broken up into tiny bits and pieces, each of which has its own properties and which combine together to make larger things. The individual makes society, for example, and society is nothing but the manifestation of the properties of individual human beings. Individual properties are the causes and the properties of the social whole are the effects of those causes. "

Now this reductionism, as Lewontin expressed and rejected it, is precisely my view of how the world works. It forms the basis of human sociobiology as I construed it. But it is not science, Lewontin insisted. It cannot be made into science. And according to his own political beliefs, expressed over many years, sociobiology or any other social theory based on the biology of individuals cannot even possibly be true. Here is how he summarized his postmodernist argument: "This individualistic view of the biological world is simply a reflection of the ideologies of the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century that placed the individual as the center of everything."

That much being understood, Lewontin concluded, and the shackles of bourgeois ideology cast aside, we are then freed to proceed along more progressive--that is to say, Marxist--political guidelines. These do not require scientific validation, at least not by any connection with genetics, neurobiology, or evolutionary theory. The genes, Lewontin declared, "have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that unique form of experience, social action." Hence the inviolable wisdom of Marx, Lenin, and Mao to which he alluded elsewhere.

Now I can come to the essence of the radical science movement. As loopy as it all may seem today, and especially after the collapse of world socialism, the argument has to be taken seriously, since it has been accepted to varying degrees by a few influential scientists, including Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levins, and Ruth Hubbard, who are highly regarded in the public eye as scientists, even as they continue to promote a Marxian view.

Here then is the argument in its raw form: only an anti-reductionist, non-bourgeois science can help humanity attain the highest goal, which is a socialist world. In the 1984 book Not in Our Genes, Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, all worthies of radical science philosophy, explained their purpose as follows:

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. This belief--in the possibility of a critical and liberatory science--is why we have each in our separate ways and to varying degrees been involved in the development of what has become known over the 1970s and 1980s, in the United States and Britain, as the radical science movement.

That well respected scientists, two of whom, Lewontin and Levins, had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (and soon removed themselves in ideological protest) could advocate an approach to science guided by a radically sociocultural version of Marxism may seem odd today given recent history. But it helps to explain the distinctive flavor of the controversy at Harvard in the 1970s, in an atmosphere of unfettered political correctness. In the standard leftward frameshift of academia prevailing at that time, Lewontin and members of Science for the People were classified as progressives, admittedly a bit extreme in their methods, while I--Roosevelt liberal turned pragmatic centrist- -was cast well to the right. (All emphasis added)

This injection of rabid political ideology into science has a history within the Left and by no means is the Right immune from the same forces, but the Right doesn't seem to be self-delusional about its virtue on this matter. In an attempt to enlighten those who believe that the Left has no version of intellectual creationism in its midst, Razib, in his post Points of Departure pointed to an article published in The Nation entitled The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack and written by Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh. Let me add another voice of reason from the Left which also attempts to get out the message that the Emperor Has No Clothes, Melvin Konner's Darwin's Truth, Jefferson's Vision: Sociobiology and the Politics of Human Nature published in the American Prospect. Konner writes:

Sociobiology—also known as evolutionary psychology or neo-Darwinian theory—holds that many patterns of human behavior have a basis in evolution. Because this approach often suggests biological explanations of gender roles, it affronts many feminists. It has also drawn opposition from a group of biologists on the left who have raised general scientific and philosophical objections and have had great influence in shaping liberal opinion. The scientific critics have included highly respected figures in biology: Ruth Hubbard, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Jonathan Beckwith, among others. None in this group had done direct research on human behavior when sociobiology first emerged in the 1970s. Nonetheless, they immediately perceived a grave threat to liberal values, and their opposition has persisted ever since.

However respected the source, the criticism from this group has had little effect on the direction of scientific research: sociobiology is now firmly established as an accepted branch of normal science. As a result, liberal opinion about sociobiology has increasingly diverged from scientific opinion. If liberals are to understand why this has happened, they need to consider the possibility that Gould, Lewontin, and other prominent scientific critics were wrong in their attack on sociobiology in the first place.

[ . . . . ]

But because these scientists are so well respected—deservedly so, in the cases of Lewontin and Gould—their influence may extend beyond the power of their arguments. Neither has ever engaged in primary research in the human sciences, but both often proclaim sociobiology inapplicable to them.

[ . . . . ]

The danger, though, is that the "anti" position may become so congenial for liberals that they ignore the almost universal acceptance of neo-Darwinian or sociobiological theory among researchers in natural history and animal behavior and among many psychologists and social scientists. Studies motivated by such theory and apparently confirming components of it have routinely been published in leading refereed journals in all these fields for many years. Indeed, one need only read regularly the rest of the magazine for which Gould writes his column to see that this body of theory is now routinely accepted.

[ . . . . ]

Over the past 15 years systematic research on child abuse and pedicide by Martin Daly and Margo Wilson—research specifically motivated by neo-Darwinian theory—has shown that a child is between 10 and 100 times more likely to be assaulted or killed if he or she lives in a household that includes an unrelated male.

[ . . . . . ]

There is something perversely comforting about the Daly and Wilson finding. Child abuse in the presence of unrelated males is an equal-opportunity scourge, crossing boundaries of class, race, and religion. Sadly, biological mothers as well as stepfathers are guilty of the abuse; it is the presence of the unrelated male in the household that seems to count, whether or not he commits the abuse. Theory notwithstanding, this is a disturbing and puzzling phenomenon, but it is a human one. Or more precisely, it is a human extension of an animal phenomenon, and that perhaps disturbs us most of all.

In recent years, Gould and others have taken to criticizing sociobiology for being overzealous in its application of Darwinian principles. For example, in the New York Review of June 12, 1997, Gould pigeonholes his opponents as "Darwinian fundamentalists" or "ultra-Darwinians" who cannot respect any process in evolution other than natural selection. He correctly points out that natural selection is not the be-all and end-all of evolution. Asteroid impacts have drastically changed the earth's climate, flora, and fauna; after one such event the dinosaurs and many of their contemporaries became extinct. Also, many DNA mutations are neutral—they have no adaptive or functional consequence, and so they happen randomly. Finally, there are inertial properties of organisms called developmental constraints, which slow down evolution or shunt it along a finite number of favored paths. These processes are not up for argument. Everyone, including alleged ultra-Darwinians, agrees with Gould that they are important.

The problem is only with Gould's straw man: a Darwinian thinker so ignorant and rigid as to deny the reality of the aforementioned, universally accepted facts. Do "ultra-Darwinians" have difficulty with mass extinction by asteroid impact? Hardly. In fact, such extinctions wipe the slate of life on earth more or less clean, giving natural selection much freer reign for the next few million years as the earth fills with life again. Do "Darwinian fundamentalists" ignore neutral mutations? Of course not, although the "selfish gene" theory itself provides an interesting hypothesis about how DNA can change within a genome without having any effect on the organism, or even having a detrimental effect, by duplicating itself and "hitchhiking" along.

[ . . . . ]

In a similar vein, in his recent criticism Lewontin has exaggerated sociobiologists' inflexibility on the question of group selection. In a review last October of a book about unselfish behavior by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in the New York Review, Lewontin praises the authors' work as "subversive" and "radical" in the sense of requiring that current orthodoxy be overturned. Lewontin is right to think that a great deal is at stake here, especially for the human sciences. If group selection is powerful and important, then so is group functionalism. And if group functionalism is valid, then the standard social science model—the organic model—is much less vulnerable to Darwinian revision than many of us think. If groups have been selected as functional entities despite individual competition within them, then altruism and cooperation do not need neo-Darwinian explanations.

But, actually, theoretical hostility to group selection has waned considerably among evolutionists, and it has been given a legitimate role even by many like E. O. Wilson, George C. Williams, and John Maynard Smith whom Gould would call "ultras." So when Lewontin characterizes group selection as "anathema" to "nearly all evolutionary biologists," he is substantially behind the curve. Sober and D. S. Wilson are far more open-minded about levels of selection than Gould and Lewontin are; they offer their theory not as a replacement for sociobiology but as an addition. Indeed, the same intellectual developments that Sober and D. S. Wilson call "great insights" and "advances" Gould and Lewontin have viewed as products of reactionary cultural trends and threats to liberal political philosophy—not to mention being silly and wrong. (All emphasis added.)

The ideology of these critics seems to be so strong that it is leading them by the nose to make rash, and incorrect, statements but these statements play very well with their targeted audience. In fact, I debated titling this post either Scientic Whoring from the Left or Playing to the Crowd: The Leftist Creationism but Steven Rose's recent hypocritical statement in the London Times, couched in the form of a strawman will allusions to Speilberg's Minority Report, pretty much clinched the title for me, for it addressed the battle between pandering and truth. So what did Rose say? Here's an excerpt from the Times:

At the heart of Rose’s concern is the battle being fought between philosophers, sociologists and psychologists over neuroscientific descriptions of human nature.

[ . . . . ]

He sees menace in the smug reductionism of so-called “neuro-philosophy”, which dismisses traditional views of human responsibility as mere unscientific “folk psychology”. Rose is pleading for an understanding of neuroscience and human identity that invokes not only the complex interaction between our genetic make-up and environmental influences, but the existence of authentic moral agency. At the same time he insists on the importance of our evolutionary and individual histories. Among the “bad hats” of neuroscience he cites the late Nobel prizewinner Francis Crick, who liked to say that we are “nothing but a bunch of neurons”. Crick thought that free will was just a tiny brain mechanism called “anterior cingulate sulcus” and that consciousness was no more than a specific rate at which brain cells oscillate. These radically reductionist approaches, Rose reports, have resulted in the idea that humans are no more than predictable, manipulable cyborgs.

Rose’s timely book warns of the self-fulfilling prophecies of reductionist explanations of human nature for future policy in mental-health and the criminal-justice system. In order to behave freely and responsibly, he argues, it is crucial we believe we are free. We have to grasp the authenticity, scope and limits of human freedom. The spread of “neurogenetic” determinism (the idea that everything is fated in our genes and brain chemistry), he warns, could lead to a state of affairs in which a Twinkie Defence could be invoked for any and every human action and circumstance. This is not a matter, as Rose points out, of merely excusing crimes: it could result in the not too distant future in our locking up as “dysfunctional” individuals diagnosed genetically or through brain scans before they have done anything deemed to be dangerous. “Our ethical understandings may be enriched by neuroscientific knowledge,” he asserts, “but not replaced.” Rose insists that only through confirming our belief in freedom and moral agency can we “manage the ethical, legal and social aspects of the emerging neurotechnologies”.

I'll give Rose credit - he certainly has mastered the techniques of Gould and Lewontin, as Konner described above, specifically arguing against the strawman, vilifying your opponent. and Rose has done them one better, with his allusions to Hollywood-style scaremongering about pre-emptive arrest and detention.

Why, though, do I think he's being hypocritical? Perhaps he really believes what he speaks. Perhaps he believes that there is indeed a Ghost in the Machine. But I don't think so, especially when you compare his remarks about Crick's statement on free will to his own statement about his work but note that the statement is targeted to a different audience than that of his book. His interview in The Edge:

One of the things that I was doing at Cold Spring was talking about a new molecule that we've discovered — a little peptide , five amino acids long, which seems to be able to rescue the memory loss that you get with the disorder of the Alzheimer proteins.

[ . . . . . ]

They turn out to be a group called cell adhesion molecules. That is, they're molecules whose job is to stick together the two sides of the synaptic junction, the business end of the relationship between one cell and another.

[ . . . . . ]

And it turns out that the normal functioning of this molecule is necessary for long-term memory to be made; if we stop the molecule from functioning — you put an antibody into the brain which binds to the molecule, or a specific bit of RNA which stops it being synthesized — then the memories can't be made.

Then if you look at the structure of this molecule, the amyloid precursor protein, it turns out that there is a very small section of it which is just a few amino acids long which seems to have some very special properties. It's those properties which you can mimic by making an artificial peptide, and it's that it turns out will rescue the memory which is lost otherwise.

So, Rose castigates Crick for his statement that we are "nothing but a bunch of neurons” and then tells a scientifically inclined audience about his work on a molecule that is vital for the formation of long-term memory.

On the one hand he has no trouble in promulgating his narrow reductionist view on the processes of life, specifically that component of consciousness that we call memory, and which has significant influence over our choices, but he chooses to characterize Crick's statement in the most absurdist terms imaginable, portraying Crick as believing that all of life is beyond our control and the sum of our chemical and biological processes is no more than the parts. For his lay audience he alludes to a Ghost in the Machine, but for those interested in the minutia of his work, be blows the ghost away.

Why does Rose engage in this form of hypocrisy? Well, he certainly plays to the crowd and his ideological proclivity towards Marxism is well known:

He may be the last of the Marxist radical scientists," says his friend and collaborator Patrick Bateson, now provost of King's College, Cambridge, "but he won't be the last radical. Steven is not always right; but he has been very brave in some of the things he has said. He can be astonishingly articulate in circumstances where I would simply seize up. And he does have the most extraordinary energy.

[ . . . . ]

Mary Midgley, the philosopher and a friend, attributes the breadth of Rose's interests to Marxism, because Marxists were forced to think in large terms about society as a complicated system of inter-reacting mechanisms.

[ . . . . ]

The tradition of politically radical biology into which he was inducted at Cambridge was certainly Marxist and often Stalinist, descending though figures like JBS Haldane and JD Bernal, a great scientist who none the less wrote an obituary of Stalin which described him as "a great scientist [who combined] a deeply scientific approach to all problems with his capacity for feeling and expressing himself in simple and direct terms". But, Rose says, he himself was never particularly "Sovietophile". He always employed researchers from eastern Europe - no more reliable way of ensuring that his lab was full of anti-communists.

The memory of such contortions - for Stalin had murdered every honest geneticist in the Soviet Union - does something to explain the bitterness of the controversies into which the Roses were drawn in the 70s and later. These started with the notion, popularised by Hans Eysenck, that IQ tests measure an independently existing general intelligence, of the sort that separates us from animals; and that this quality is largely, measurably, determined by our genes. From that it would follow that there might be IQ differences between different races or classes; and, if there are, there is a limited amount that governments can do to bring about equality between races and classes.

As part of a general assault on what he called "genetic determinism", Rose attacked every aspect of this argument, which seemed to him bad science in the service of bad politics. Even today, when he concedes that IQ tests may be quite useful as a way of measuring test-passing abilities, he maintains they are useless as a measure of general intelligence. Patrick Bateson, who thinks Rose overstated the case against the tests, says: "The resistance to the notion that IQ might mean anything was partly based on another strongly held instinct on Steven's part, namely that nothing is wholly dependent on biological makeup. This led him into a position of attacking the tests at exactly the time when they were being quite widely accepted."

But the IQ tests were merely a warm-up for his major controversial struggle, against the whole complex of ideas - "Darwinian" if you believe in them, "ultra-Darwinian" or "Darwinian fundamentalism" if you don't - represented by Richard Dawkins and Helena Cronin in this country, and EO Wilson, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker in the US. Rose, along with his American friends Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, has fought a tireless polemical war against the claim that a Darwinian analysis has much to tell us about human nature or the organisation of society. This claim has gone by various names over the years; nowadays it is mostly known as evolutionary psychology: in the 70s, an earlier version was known, after EO Wilson's book, as sociobiology.

Over the years, the level of abuse has toned down - though two years ago Rose used the threat of a libel suit to force the obliteration of a speech bubble in a comic book on "Evolutionary Psychology for beginners" which he felt put stupid words into his mouth. But the underlying principle of his attacks has always been the same: that social causes are more important and interesting in human affairs than biological ones.

Originally the complaint against sociobiologists was that they were all either right-wingers or dupes of the right. This wasn't fair or true at the time - unless you take everyone who disagrees with you politically to be a dupe of the right.

Clearly, Rose is following the same playbook used by Jared Diamond, who on the one hand, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, much beloved by those on the Left, downplays genetic variation as having little import, and on the other hand, in a study published in Nature, clearly targeted towards a scientific audience, advocates the study of ethnic differences in testis size.

One glaring question remains though, what does Rose hope to gain by using such tactics? In addition to his Marxist worldview, he's clearly arguing against the liberalization of reproductive laws and, as is to be expected, he advocates state guidance of people's reproductive choices:

The varied pattern of regulation leads to reproductive tourism in which well-heeled people from well-regulated countries go to less well-regulated ones to buy services, whether to choose the sex of a child, use pre-implantation genetic diagnostics, or ensure fertilisation by the sperm of a dead partner. While it is probable that the children conceived are likely to find themselves in a loving family, there is something unnerving about the way that a number of would-be parents court the media, exposing their intimate family life to such public scrutiny.

[ . . . . . ]

The need for more and more reproductive technology because of increasing problems in having children starts at the wrong end. Yes, it is true that women are having children later because they have to establish their careers first. Yes, it is true many men's sperm count is reduced. But instead of working at the curative end, if we began with the preventive, Britain would put serious money into affordable high-quality childcare so that women who wanted them could have their babies younger. We need a society that promotes reproductive health rather than expensive technological fixes.

Rose, like his fellow travellers Gould and Lewontin, doesn't want his worldview, which has been extensively shaped by Marxist philosophy, to come crumbling down. The solutions proffered are state centered, gene-phobic, and premised on the extreme malleability of human nature. Further, like Diamond, he knows what sells and what his fans want to read and hear. He panders to the ideology, whether he truly believes in the Ghost in the Machine or not, and despite the warnings offered by Ehrenreich, McIntosh and Konner, the faithful of the Left lap up the ideologically reassuring pablum and turn a blind eye to the reality unfolding before them. The core of this faith is that human nature is malleable beyond limits that now exist, and like I've written before, along with my co-bloggers, it is that faith in the face of reason that binds one faction of the Left to their faith-based counterparts on the Right and like on the Right, the Left has its charlatans and hypocrites delivering these sermons.

Posted by TangoMan at 01:32 AM