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Issue 42, October 1999

Science and ideology

The Darwin Wars
By Andrew Brown, 1999, Simon & Schuster, 12-99
Reviewed by Geoff Jones

OVER THE years we have got used to books on Marxism by authors who hate socialist ideas. There is now a new genre - books on science by authors who hate scientific ideas. Andrew Brown's is one of these (he hates socialism as well).

His subject is the development of ideas of human individuality and free will in the light of modern genetics and Darwinian evolution. Anyone expecting a detailed introduction to these subjects, however, would be disappointed. Instead we get a story of a battle between 'goodies' and 'baddies'. In general the baddies are scientists, particularly left-wingers, and the goodies philosophers and sociologists, particularly those of a religious bent.

His starting-off point is the sad tale of the mental breakdown and suicide in 1974 of a talented geneticist George Price. The Darwinian theory of natural selection taken together with genetics can be read as implying that there is no place for altruism or self-sacrifice in evolution. Thus, since those phenomena evidently exist in human society, there must be some space for human development separate from natural selection and separate from 'programming' of our actions by our inherited genetic make-up. Price apparently developed a set of mathematical formulations which demonstrate that the phenomenon of altruism could have been 'genetically programmed' into humans. This, according to Brown, drove him into a spiral of manic attempts to prove himself free of such programming and finally to suicide. The rest of Brown's story is his attempt at a history of the struggle to establish the limits to the use and value of Darwinian ideas.

 

Brown's first 'baddie' is Richard Dawkins, inventor of the concept of the 'selfish gene', the idea encapsulated in the saying 'a chicken is an egg's way of making more eggs'. In this view humans are mere robots controlled by genes. This was not Dawkins' actual view, but in Brown's thinking the metaphor was so powerful that it took over the discussion, and Dawkins is made to carry the responsibility for this.

Brown then introduces a 'goodie', EO Wilson, founder of 'sociobiology'. This concept attributes all social interaction to genetic programming developed by natural selection over hundreds of thousands of years. Brown portrays Wilson as an innocent attacked by ideologues, persecuted by 'Marxists' because of claims that sociobiology gives genetic justification for the status quo in society. Of course, that was exactly how it was taken up, but that is apparently of no interest to Brown.

We now meet the prize baddies, Richard Lewontin, Steven Jay Gould, and Steven Rose, who opposed both the 'selfish gene' and 'sociobiology' arguments. Brown does not give any details of their arguments, however, merely quoting some off-the-cuff remarks by the famous geneticist John Maynard Smith and sinking to the unforgivable statement that 'it is relevant that all are Jewish'.

Brown admits that by the mid-1980s Lewontin and co had won the ideological argument but lost the political argument. But he seems completely to miss the importance of this statement. Where do the 'ideology' and 'politics' come from?

 

He gives a brief discussion of his new 'goodies', the founders of 'evolutionary psychology', a more sophisticated form of sociobiology, but then drifts off into a discussion of the nature of religion. This, to be honest, raises more interesting questions than the first two-thirds of the book, but demonstrates that he has not really grasped the nature of scientific enquiry. This is demonstrated by his use as the last line of his book of a formula written without definitions of its component functions - as empty of meaning as a religious icon.

Basically, Brown's story describes an ideological debate contested on broadly political lines. Those favouring Darwinist adaptation, whether in sociobiological or 'evolutionary psychological' guises, are 'right'. Those opposing, whether 'Marxist' or 'influenced by Marxism', are wrong.

There are the germs of a fascinating historical analysis here on the relationship between scientists and the ruling ideology of a particular era. Over the past century, scientific concepts have been used again and again to 'prove' that human beings are inherently and unchangeably unequal. Originally the 'proofs' were aimed to give a straightforward demonstration of the 'innate superiority' of the 'white race' over 'asians' 'mongols' and 'negroes'. Later, and more subtly, measurements of 'Intelligence Quotients' were used to demonstrate the importance of the 'upper classes' and to try to suppress the breeding of 'inferiors'.

Today, the ideas of 'genetic determinism' are used to justify inequalities and oppression in capitalist society as being innate and unchangeable. These concepts are used in everyday political argument, often against the wishes of their originators. Each time the 'science' which underlies them is shot down, they rise again later in a slightly different form. Brown dimly sees this (hence his comment on Lewontin et al winning the ideological argument but losing the political argument) but cannot develop the idea, perhaps because he seems wedded to the notion that capitalist democracy is the only feasible social construct, and that anyone who thinks differently must be dishonest or literally mad, like George Price.

 

For a real discussion of the issues involved see, in particular, The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, The Doctrine of DNA by Richard Lewontin, and The Mismeasure of Man, by Steven Jay Gould.


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