By Phil Webster
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Biology Under the Influence

This article is over 13 years, 6 months old
Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Monthly Review Press, £17.95
Issue 327

Apologists for capitalism love those scientists who claim that the inequalities, competition and conflict inherent in the capitalist system are the inevitable consequence of “human nature” and of biologically determined inequalities between people.

Those apologists will not like this book, subtitled Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture and Health. One of the main achievements of Lewontin and Levins is to destroy scientifically the foundations of theories such as sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which claim that everything about human behaviour and society can be explained by our genes.

The authors are not new to this battle. Over 20 years ago Lewontin co-authored Not in Our Genes with Steven Rose and Leon Kamin, and he is also the author of the excellent The Doctrine of DNA. The late Stephen Jay Gould was also part of the small community of radical scientists fighting against the currently dominant trend of genetic determinism. But Lewontin and Levins are even more radical than Gould in that they are explicitly Marxists.

The other main aim of Lewontin and Levins is to show that a dialectical approach can and must be applied to science as a whole. Some Marxists are doubtful about the usefulness of dialectics, especially when applied to the natural sciences. This book ought to convince those doubters. The authors show the necessity of applying a dialectical materialist method in science if we want to gain a full understanding of the world. They argue for “a dialectical emphasis on wholeness, connection and context, change, historicity, contradiction, irregularity, asymmetry, and the multiplicity of levels of phenomena, as a refreshing counterweight to the prevailing reductionism”.

This dialectical approach is reflected in the essays in this book, which cover a wide range of topics, including the relationship between disease and capitalism; the ecological threat posed by capitalism; the complex intermeshing of the biological and the social; the relationship between the natural and social sciences; the interaction between the organism and its environment; the falseness of the view of the brain as a computer; and the uses and misuses of statistics.

For Lewontin and Levins, science under capitalism has a dual nature. On the one hand it has added to our understanding of the world. But on the other hand, “as a product of human activity, science reflects the conditions of its production and the viewpoints of its producers and owners.”

Two words of warning. Firstly, a few – but not many – of the 31 essays in the book are rather heavy going for non-specialists. Secondly, the authors are too uncritical of what they describe as “Cuban socialism”. But overall this is an excellent book from two Marxist scientists who believe that the goal of science should be “the creation of a just society compatible with a rich and diverse nature”.

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