How Richard Lewontin Allowed His Marxist Obsession To Diminish The Scientist In Him

How Richard Lewontin Allowed His Marxist Obsession To Diminish The Scientist In Him Richard Lewontin
  • Richard Lewontin was a brilliant evolutionary biologist. He was also a Marxist.

    How much did his ideology colour his vision and what can we learn about the academic Left from that?

Richard Lewontin was a brilliant evolutionary biologist who made sterling contributions to the discipline of population genetics. He was also a Marxist.

As a biologist, he also agonisingly witnessed the Lysenko episode: that sordid saga of Marxist inquisition that hunted and killed geneticists in all the provinces that the Supreme Soviet ruled.

Lewontin knew who was right and who was criminally wrong and he valiantly battled to dissociate Marxism from what came to be known as Lysenkoism.

In the book The Dialectical Biologist (1985), a collection of essays authored by himself and another Harvard biologist and Marxist co-traveler Richard Levins, (1930-2016) he argued vehemently that Lysenkoism was in fact against the genuine Marxist principles. Here is an excerpt so that one can understand the kind of manoeuvres they unleashed to salvage the situation:

We ... cannot accept the view that philosophy must (or can) be excluded from science, and we deplore the anti-ideological technocratic ideology of Soviet liberals. At the same time, we cannot dismiss the obviously pernicious use of philosophy by Lysenko and his supporters as simply an aberration, a misapplication, or a distortion dating from an era that is often brushed aside with the label of cult of the personality (with or without naming the person in question). Nor is it sufficient to note that despite Lysenko, Marxism has had signal successes, including its pioneering work in the origin of life. Unless Marxism examines its failures, they will be repeated.
Levins & Lewontin, 'The Problem of Lysenkoism' in 'The Dialectical Biologist', Harvard University Press, 1985, pp.165-6

Here, what Levins and Lewontin mean by 'philosophy' can dangerously morph into ideology. The devil is in equating Lysenkoism with supposed Marxist philosophy-inspired 'signal successes.' The claim of ‘signal successes’ attributed to Marxism particularly, is with respect to the ‘pioneering work in the origin of life' and was a reference is to the work of Oparin and Haldane.

In 1924, the Soviet bio-chemist Alexander Oparin had come out with a solution to the mystery of the origin of life - that it could have come out of natural chemical processes in the conditions of the early earth. In 1928, British polymath, JBS Haldane, too had come out independently with a similar solution. The hypothesis became quite popular as a plausible explanation for the origin of life.

In 1952, Stanley Miller conducted an experiment simulating what were considered as the primitive earth conditions under the supervision of Harold Urey. In 2010, three years after the death of Stanley Miller, the vials of the famous Urey-Miller experiment were opened and more than 20 amino-acids, the building blocks of proteins, were identified. This was just as speculated by the Haldane-Oparin hypothesis.

Both Haldane and Oparin were Marxists. Hence, Levins and Lewontin projected this as a ‘signal success’ of Marxism. However, this was more a biased speculation on the part of Levins and Lewontin than factual validation. In fact, what turns out to be factual regarding both Haldane and Oparin should be more disturbing than assuring to a biologist who wants to eulogise Marxism.

In their book on the origin of life, Chemist Jeffrey Bada, who, under the guidance of Urey Miller participated in the 1952 experiment, and Christopher Wills, a chemist and an evolutionist, deal with this aspect in detail:

... It is tempting to speculate that the materialist worldview of Marxism encouraged both Oparin and Haldane to think about subject that, in earlier religion-dominated cultures, would have been considered dangerously heretical. But although Haldane had no problems, Oparin actually had great difficulty publishing his ideas. His thesis, which incorporated his model, was rejected by his professors. Only later was he embraced by the Communist regime. ... Even though he was one of the leading geneticists and biological geniuses of this century, Haldane never published any criticism of the anti-Darwin plant breeder Trofin Lysenko, who with Stalin's blessings essentially destroyed all genetics research in the USSR for decades. ...In his books, Oparin makes frequent reference to the pseudobiological writings of Friedrich Engels and occasionally to Lenin as well, because this was the politically correct thing to do. ... Far more discomfortingly, Oparin was a supporter and an acquaintance of Lysenko. and this helped him to prosper under the Stalinist regime.
Christopher Wills, Jeffrey Bada, 'The Spark of Life: Darwin and the Primeval Soup', Oxford University Press, 2001 pp 269-70

Wills and Bada also point out what Oparin said in an American interview he gave in 1971:

It is easy for you, an American to make such accusations. If you had been here in those years, would you have had the courage to speak out and be imprisoned in Siberia?

They further point out that Oparin might have derived the idea from the work of Mendeleev 'who had proposed a similar scheme to explain the origin of petroleum.’

Going through the works of Lewontin, one finds that his fascination with Marxism seems to stem from his disenchantment with what he considered as the reductionist obsession and corporatisation of science.

Secondly, he was in a quest for a holistic paradigm even as he detested what he called ‘obscurantist holism’. He, along with Levins, pitted dialectics as the holistic approach against reductionism.

Criticising extreme reductionist tendencies developing in molecular biology, they wrote in their conclusion in Dialectical Biologist:

As against the reductionist view, which sees wholes as reducible to collections of fundamental parts, we see the various levels of organization as partly autonomous and reciprocally interacting. We must reject the molecular euphoria that has led many universities to shift biology to the study of the smallest units, dismissing population, organismic, evolutionary, and ecological studies as forms of "stamp collecting" and allowing museum collections to be neglected.
'The Dialectical Biologist', 1985, p.288

The ideological sleight of hand is in making dialectics the opposite of reductionism and then implying dialectics as the monopoly of Marxist philosophy.

Veteran evolutionary scientist John Maynard Smith had pointed out that dialectical ideas are not the monopoly of Marxism and a person with dialectical ideas need not and should not on that account alone be labelled a Marxist. He recounts a conversation he had with another giant in evolutionary biology Ernst Mayr (‘No one could be less Marxist than Mayr’):

I remember once asking him whether the geneticist Richard Goldschmidt had been a Marxist, because his writings were permeated (for the worse, in my view) by dialectics. His reply was to remind me that only illiterate Anglo-Saxons have to get their dialectics from Marx and Engels: he and Goldschmidt had been raised on a diet of Hegel.
John Manyard Smith, 'Molecules are not enough', London Review of Books, Vol.8 No.2, 6-Feb-1986

Unfortunately this is a flaw that ran throughout the works of Lewontin. His ideological prejudices and biases, and his categorization and essentialization of those whom he considered as his ideological enemies and hence enemies of the state, affected his writings.

The ideological rift between Dawkins and Lewontin is well known. Here is how his colleagues and Lewontin attackedRichard Dawkins, accusing him of biological determinism. But the attack turns political, twisting the words of Dawkins:

Time and again, despite their professed belief that their science is ‘above mere human politics’ (to quote Oxford sociobiologist Richard Dawkins), biological determinists deliver themselves of social and political judgments. One example must suffice for now: Dawkins himself, in his book The Selfish Gene, which is supposed to be a work on the genetic basis of evolution and which is used as a textbook in American university courses on the evolution of behavior, criticizes the ‘unnatural’ welfare state where we have abolished the family as a unit of economic self-sufficiency and substituted the state. But the privilege of guaranteed support for children should not be abused. … Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of raising are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion.’
Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin & Leon Kamin, Biology, Ideology and Human Nature: Not in Our Genes, Penguin Books,1990, p.8

Lewontin gives an impression that Dawkins is against welfare state because he considers it ‘unnatural’. But when one goes through what Dawkins has actually written, it is something entirely different:

Contraception is sometimes attacked as 'unnatural'. So it is, very unnatural. The trouble is, so is the welfare state. I think that most of us believe the welfare state is highly desirable. But you cannot have an unnatural welfare state, unless you also have unnatural birth-control, otherwise the end result will be misery even greater than that which obtains in nature. The welfare state is perhaps the greatest altruistic system the animal kingdom has ever known. But any altruistic system is inherently unstable, because it is open to abuse by selfish individuals, ready to exploit it. Individual humans who have more children than they are capable of rearing are probably too ignorant in most cases to be accused of conscious malevolent exploitation. Powerful institutions and leaders who deliberately encourage them to do so seem to me less free from suspicion.
Richard Dawkins, 'The Selfish Gene', Oxford University Press, 1976:2006, pp.117-8

Here one should remember that family planning in democratic countries, is far more humane, despite aberrations.

In fact, Fidel Castro spoke of those with ‘revolutionary genes’ and those without. Marxism-Maoism in China has lent itself to the justification of Han supremacism. Actually in the Marxist universe ‘biological determinism’ takes even a more dangerous form – yielding to officially sanctioned racial persecutions.

The Soviet Union, which officially outlawed eugenics, developed at the same time 'a Marxist conception of historical development with European anthropological theories about cultural evolution'. Prof. Ian Law who specializes in ‘racism and ethnic studies’ explains:

This was based on the view that there were ancient, historical, primordial ethnic groups which were to be classified, shaped and privileged as the building blocks of nations, with the state constructing modern nationalities as an essential step on the road to socialism with these nations merging with the advent of communism, constructing a new ‘ethnicised modernity'. Race was defined in Marxist Leninist terms as sociohistorical backwardness not biological inferiority, with some groups seen as doomed to extinction and others persecuted for having the ‘wrong’ ethnic origins and claims to group identity
Ian Law, 'Red Racisms: Racism in Communist and Post-Communist Contexts', Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, pp.17-8

In his review in 'New Scientist' of the aforesaid book Dawkins pointed out how dangerously close in terms of 'the same role and lack of content' was their use of the term 'biological determinist' as the label 'Mendelist-Morganist' was in 'the vocabulary of an earlier generation of comrades'. (This was a veiled and dignified reminder of Lysenko episode).

Here is an interesting thought experiment. We all have seen how the West, despite all its real and perceived faults, has provided a free and level platform where both Dawkins and Lewontin could debate and interact. Now suppose Lewontin was the science commissar of Cuba and Dawkins was the same kind of biologist that he is now but living in Cuba—where would he have ended?

Perhaps Dawkins would have ended up as Vavilov - that geneticist who defied Lysenko and subsequently died in prison. But it should be said that it is to the credit of the Left clout that, to this day this scientist - a martyr for science in our own times, has never been celebrated for his sacrifice and principled stand, as he should be. There is no Vavilov day, no paintings showing his suffering and for standing alone for the truth in the face of power. No exhibitions for the students to see what it means to be a true person of science and integrity.

Dawkins would have suffered the same fate had Lewontin be a commissar of science in a Stalinist West in some alternate universe.

In 2007, Lewontin and Levins came out with another collection of essays - a sequel to The Dialectical Biologist. The essay they wrote on Cuba’s scientific establishment is cringeworthy because it is almost uncritical regurgitation of official Cuban propaganda. Here is a sample:

Though Cuban science has a special style, it is very much influenced by the Marxist dialectical philosophy of science, with its emphasis on historicity, social determination of science, wholeness, connectedness, integrated levels of phenomena, and prioritizing of processes over things. All doctoral candidates must study Social Problems of Science and Technology, which emerged in the 1990s as a distinct field of study.
Lewontin & Levins 'Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health', Monthly Review Press, 2007, p.351

What the last sentence actually means is that a Marxist indoctrination is compulsory to all the students of science. This is exactly what could make a future Lysenko possible. Now let us consider what actually was the situation in Cuba:

In Cuba, as in other socialist countries, central planning was oblivious to local environmental circumstances, lack of ownership rights led to the improper use and neglect of natural resources, the all-powerful state did not allow for citizenship involvement in decision making, and the manner in which rewards for individual managers was determined depended on complying with leadership directives, regardless of results. These systemic problems of socialism, together with centralization of political power, were aggravated in Cuba by Castro’s personalistic governing style, his utter control over decision making, his whim to follow whatever technological fads he fancied, and his meddling in Cuba’s development policies, which in many instances have led to the implementation of poorly assessed economic initiatives with adverse environmental consequences.
Sergio Diaz-Briquets and Jorge Perez-Lopez, 'Conquering Nature, The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba', University of Pittsburg Press, 2000, p.5

The problem in Cuba is further compounded by the fact that the entire socio-political process is camouflaged in scientific jargon. So anyone who complies with the official stand and statistics, with the official theory in vogue, shall be considered progressive and any scientist questioning the official stands will become an ‘enemy of the people’.

Marxist ideological flirtations with science lead to fertile grounds for breeding Lysenkos.

In short, even a genius of a biologist like Lewontin allowed himself to be vulnerable to support a future Lysenko, all because of the opiate of Marxism.

Another dangerous strand that runs throughout the writings of Lewontin is the use of labels like 'bourgeois scientists' and 'progressive scientists.' In India we have seen what such labelling can do. It can create a mediocre science establishment and stifle creativity and fresh thought.

In the end, the legacy of Lewontin is triple-fold.

For one aspect, he was a brilliant scientist who defied the conventional dominant positions in science and made us see evolution in refreshingly different ways.

Second, he dealt a strong blow to the concept of race and dethroned it as a decisive biological category.

Three, he however allowed his science to authenticate his ideological biases which had already shown a destructive capacity towards free science.

The quest for a holistic understanding of his subject matter made Lewontin accomplish great feats in science and his blurring of the boundary between this genuine quest and his Marxist obsession, diminished the scientist in him.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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