The Early Days of a Better Nation

Friday, February 25, 2011

Lysenko's Tomb

A few months ago Chris Williams, an OU history lecturer and political activist whom I've known for years online, asked me to give this year's Darwin Memorial Lecture to the Leicester Secular Society. I suggested the topic of 'Darwin, Dawkins, and the Left' because, a couple of years earlier, I'd put together a stash of notes and links for a blog post that I'd never quite got around to writing.

The event, at the Society's splendid Victorian red-brick Secular Hall on 13 February 2011, drew a large and lively audience, from that cross-section of radical England that you so often find in its socialist, secularist and peace movements. Their searching and informed questions often had me thinking fast on my feet, and have improved the talk I actually gave into the version that follows. It's a combination of the talk I didn't give with the post I didn't write. I've left for another post what I said about my creationist upbringing and how I got over it.

The first questioner, after my talk, pointed out that all the examples I'd given of people on the left misunderstanding or misrepresenting Dawkins came from what the questioner called 'the ultra-left', mainly the Socialist Workers Party. It's a fair cop. In my defence, I said that the SWP is the largest Marxist organization in Britain; that Alex Callinicos is a respected academic, public intellectual, and prolific author; and that Richard Seymour's blog Lenin's Tomb is (quite rightly) one of the most widely-read and influential far-left blogs.

I also pointed out that the tropes I was talking about are found well beyond the SWP's orbit. A couple of years ago, a reviewer in the Scottish Sunday Herald ( 12 July 2009), wrote:
And science is no more immune to opinion, fashion and political bias than any other endeavour of humankind. (Evidence of that, I would suggest, is Dawkins's 1976 The Selfish Gene, ushering in the Thatcherite era. The clue is in the title.)
So while my examples were mostly from the far left rather than the broad left, I don't think they're thereby irrelevant.

However, in honour of my main foil in this over-long ramble, I've changed the title of the post from the one I used for the talk.

From 1972 - 1976 I studied biology and then zoology at Glasgow University, and read popular works about evolution - Konrad Lorenz's On Aggression, Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape, Robert Ardrey's African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, Lionel Tiger's Men in Groups and I think Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox's The Imperial Animal. I soon found out that my teachers in biology and zoology didn't think much of these books, and that the message of most of these books was pretty conservative. They seemed to be saying, and quite often explicitly did say, that human nature was rooted in animal behaviour and was unchangeable. At the same time as I was learning about Darwin and evolution, I was learning about Marx and revolution. At that time, in the early and mid-1970s, there were very intense struggles going on in society, and an argument that was very much used by the conservative side in those struggles was precisely that the hopes of the left were futile and destructive because human behaviour was rooted in biology. This genetic determinism was quite prevalent and was linked to the argument that intelligence was genetically determined, and that the social inequalities between classes and races and sexes and nations were a straightforward consequence of differences in their genetic endowment. Workers and women and blacks and the Irish were just thick, and that was why they were what the left called oppressed, and that was that.

There were, of course, answers to these arguments from the left, some of them from distinguished psychologists and biologists, and I read them and listened to my lecturers who explained why the likes of Robert Ardrey weren't quite sound on evolution. This may help to explain but not excuse why, when I saw a copy of The Selfish Gene in the bookshop of Brunel University in 1976, I didn't read more than the title. I thought it was just more of the same.

Some time in the 1980s I read The Blind Watchmaker and was impressed enough to go and read the The Selfish Gene, and found that it was not at all what I'd thought.

The 'selfish' gene is, among other things, an explanation of how genes for 'unselfish' traits - traits that work against the individual organism's own reproductive fitness - can emerge and persist. It's because it doesn't matter to the gene's prevalence that its copy in one particular body is, let's say, eaten by a predator - as long as other copies of the same gene thereby get a better chance to be reproduced. To take a simple and familiar example, the 'gene for' the scut: the white underside of rabbits' tails. The white scut flashes like a warning light whenever a rabbit runs, and presumably makes the fleeing rabbit more visible to the fox. But it also makes copies of the same gene (or genes) in all the other rabbits more likely to get away.

The earlier 'group selectionists' explained this sort of thing - and there's lots of this sort of thing in biology - by arguing that behaviour or characteristics that benefited the group but not the individual were selected for because they helped the group survive. What the gene-selectionists showed mathematically was that this was unstable - that if selection took place at that level, genes that helped the individual to survive at the expense of the group (e.g. a rabbit without a white scut) would tend to spread through the population.

But over the years and right up to today, some people on the left still haven't read past the title. I remember some time in the early 1990s an article in Socialist Worker claimed that The Selfish Gene provided scientific cover for Thatcherism by saying that we were genetically programmed to be selfish.

A few years later, Alex Callinicos, a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party, took to task the materialist philospher Daniel Dennett for drawing on Dawkins's dangerous ideas. He wrote in the Summer 1996 issue of its journal, International Socialism
[Sociobiology's] ideological implications are made evident by the very title of one of sociobiology's founding texts, Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976).
But this doesn't mean that Callinicos hadn't read past the title. He goes on to say:
Dawkins declares, 'We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.'
So he'd read at least the first page of the preface. The impression of progress, however, is at once dashed:
Human beings must thus be seen as essentially the bearers of their genes, who use them as means to maximise their reproductive chances. The reactionary uses to which this idea can be put were made clear in Richard Hernstein's and Charles Murray's recent book The Bell Curve, which argues that black Americans' poverty can be explained by their biologically determined inferior intelligence as measured in IQ tests.

It should be emphasised that Dennett at no point shows any sign that he shares such repellent social views. [...] At the same time, however, the book is full of approving references to Dawkins' ideas and work [...]
See what he did there?

Reading this made my blood run cold.

In 2000, Julie Waterson, reviewing The Natural History of Rape wrote:
They want us to believe that theirs is a science book, using objective rules and laws. In fact it is a political book--similar to those used to justify capitalist greed (Dawkins' The Selfish Gene) and to condone racism (Murray's The Bell Curve).

A 2009 article and long comments thread on Lenin's Tomb, in which I participated, had a few highlights. In one comment, Seymour wrote:
Because Gould posits a much less reductionist model, much more pluralist in the way that selection works; and because he sees the struggle for survival as taking place at the level of the organism and not the 'selfish gene', he can argue that cooperation and mutual aid can be just as succesful pathways to reproduction as struggle and selfishness. Organs struggling against their environment can arguably do better by cooperation, depending on the organs in question and the environment in question. He doesn't have to explain altruism by reference to an altruism gene. For Dawkins, the sole unit of selection is the selfish gene, and the only route to reproductive success is selfish behaviour. The two views could not be more different. Dawkins offers a reductionist model that sees our morally laudable behaviour as a challenge or an affront to a natural order that is not just "non-moral" as Gould has it, but actually has immoral consequences by Dawkins' lights. Gould's conception allows for a great deal of flexibility, and Dawkins' doesn't.
I like the image of 'organs struggling against their environment'. I've had mornings like that. But seriously, this paragraph seems to get things entirely the wrong way round: if the unit of natural selection was the organism and not the gene, you would expect more selfish behaviour by individual organisms, not less!

In response to my hint that he might not have read the book, Richard responded:
It would be pathetic to rise to such baiting, and I considered it far better to just talk about the book in such a way that you might come away with the impression that perhaps you had pre-judged matters. So much for that. I certainly haven't read it 'cover to cover', but I've read enough of it to understand what it actually says.
I think that means 'No'.

The discussion sent me on a long and rather depressing trawl through other Marxist websites. In all fairness, some in the SWP have written reasonable and knowledgeable summaries of the debates in evolutionary theory. The most entertaining thing I found was a gem of an exchange on the website of one of the SWP's smaller competitors, where Clive Bradley trotted out all the usual pious objections, and Richard Dawkins quite unexpectedly responded, 'roasting [him] alive', as Bradley later acknowledged. It's well worth reading.

The more traditional Trotskyists Alan Woods and Ted Grant, in Reason in Revolt, their dialectical materialist guide to life, the universe, and everything, make heavy weather of Dawkins' metaphors:
According to Dawkins child adoption is against the instincts and interests of our "selfish genes." "In most cases we should probably regard adoption, however touching it may seem, as a misfiring of an in-built rule," says Dawkins. "This is because the generous female is doing her own genes no good by caring for the orphan. She is wasting time and energy which she could be investing in the lives of her own kin, particularly future children of her own. It is presumably a mistake which happens too seldom for natural selection to have ‘bothered’ to change the rule by making the maternal instinct more selective."
You'd never guess that Dawkins was writing about monkeys.

A likewise firm grasp of the wrong end of that very same stick was shown by Richard Seymour, in the thread I referenced earlier :
[Dawkins] tells you, for example, that natural selection favours lying, cheating, stealing children. He tells you that it favours a 'battle of the sexes'. He tells you that it favours competitive, selfish behaviour in such a way as to make, eg, the welfare state 'unnatural'. Now I am aware that he does not necessarily or wholly disapprove of the welfare state, and that he probably isn't a sexist or someone who looks unkindly upon children - but the point is that his inferences about human behaviour do have powerful ideological consequences even in the text's own terms.

Grant and Woods go on to raise the philosophical tone:
For Dawkins, human nature and motivation are to be understood by analysing human DNA. The same is true of James Watson (the discoverer, with Crick and Franklin, of the double helix) who said "What else is there but atoms?" They never allow the existence of either multiple levels of analysis or complex modes of determination. They ignore the essential relations between cells and the organism as a whole. This empirical method, which emerged with the scientific revolution at the birth of capitalism, was progressive in its day, but has now become a fetter on the advancement of science and the understanding of nature.
The fetter of the empirical method is certainly broken here.

And so on and on, right up to 2011, it goes:
I think it is well arguable that the bio-reductionism of Dawkins has always been inter-woven with a Thatcherite project of vicious, competitive individualism, egoistic bourgeois self-interest, and authoritarian national chauvinism, and now grounds an avowedly 'secularist' agenda which is a major vector for the revival of racism among middlebrow liberals who have already swallowed the neoliberal kool aid.


These people represent the basest elements, the ordure, of an imperialist culture whose degeneration is spiralling now that the crisis is eating away at even the perks and security of middle class employment. And there is further still to go. The adventures of the selfish gene have not ended at this nadir, I am sure.
To be fair, this outburst is in response to a remark by Dawkins in support of Pat Condell, an online comedian whose hostility to Islamism seems to have morphed into hostility to Muslims as such - but while Dawkins can well be criticised for that comment, it has no connection whatever with his advocacy of the gene-centred model of evolution.

What we see, over and over, is an apparent inability to grasp two simple points:

(i) that the selfish gene is not a gene for selfishness
(ii) that the gene-centred model of evolution is not about genetic determination or genetic determinism.

The perpetrators of this misapprehension also seem unaware that, as the radical anthropologist Chris Knight points out, the 'group selection' theory, which the 'selfish gene' theory displaced, was in fact the basis for the arguments advanced by some of the conservative popular biology works of the 1960s and 1970s - those of Ardrey, for example. These authors saw natural selection taking place at the level of societies, and argued that Western societies were losing out in the competition.

I suggest that part of the reason why geneticists and population-geneticists are not at all impressed by left-wing criticism - including criticism by left-wing scientists such as Gould, Rose, and Lewontin - is that several key figures in the development of these disciplines, notably J. B. S. Haldane and John Maynard Smith, were themselves on the left in 1940s and 1950s and had heard this kind of thing before. As Communists, Haldane and Maynard Smith had been severely burned by the Lysenko affair. In the Soviet Union at that time, mainstream genetics had been smeared as complicit in class privilege and racism. Lysenko wrote that all knowledge, including science, had a class basis. Not even Stalin fell for that. Looking over Lysenko's draft, Stalin scribbled in the margin: 'Ha-ha-ha! What about mathematics? And Darwinism?'

And it was indeed mathematics and Darwinism that buried Lysenkoism, as they also did for group selection.

The lesson, for a generation of left-wing scientists in Britain, was to regard dialectical materialism as irrelevant or dangerous to science. Decades later, the merest hint of it could still make their hackles rise. I well remember how one of them, the great entomologist and systematist R. A. Crowson, snapped 'That's irrelevant!' at me when I ventured a remark about speciation being an instance of 'quantity changing into quality'.

The lesson is unlikely to have been lost on the generation of geneticists and evolutionary theorists who were Haldane's and Maynard Smith's students. Nor was it lost on the 'mainstream' Communist parties. It may, however, have been lost on scientists from other disciplines (such as palaeontology, in the case of Gould and Lewontin, or neurology, in the case of Rose) which were spared the trauma, and whose encounter with Marxism was (as far as I know) mediated by the Maoist-influenced New Left of the 1960s. Still more has it been lost, it seems, on Trotskyism, which of course was innocent of the debacle.

In conclusion, I put it that the only kind of 'genetic determination' that Dawkins sees as possibly relevant to human social orders is 'kin selection and selection in favour of reciprocal altruism', which may have had powerful effects in the small, closely-related social groups of humanity's pre-history. And (as Chris Knight has also pointed out) if kin selection creates a biological basis for any human trait, it's fraternity.

So, brothers and sisters, why worry about it?

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Recent manifestations

On Sunday 13th February I gave a talk at the Leicester Secular Society's historic Secular Hall, on the persistent inability of some on the left to grasp what The Selfish Gene is actually saying. A full write-up is in the works but for the moment you can read the gist over at the Genomics Forum's blog.

Last week's LSE event on Science Fiction and International Orders was live-blogged by Stephanie Carvin. I've done a full write-up, which should appear in the next issue of the online magazine Salon Futura.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Science Fiction and International Orders

On Thursday 17th February (i.e. this Thursday) I'm taking part in a free but ticketed event at the LSE, with Paul McAuley and Jon Courtenay Grimwood. It's part of the LSE Literary Festival, Wednesday 16 - Saturday 19 February 2011, which is on the theme of 'Crossing Borders'.

All welcome, but remember to get a ticket.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The battle of Tahrir Square means we can all be human again

For the past thirty years humanity has existed only as an animal species. The appropriate science for its study has been zoology. Great advances have in fact been made in that field, notably through the application of genomics. But humanity as a rational and political animal died in 1979, and went to hell. There it did what the damned do: tormented others and itself. The instrument of torment was identity. As some philosopher said, identity politics is zoological. If we don't see our partial struggles as part of a general project of human emancipation, we turn on each other and fight over crumbs.

In Tahrir Square last week thousands of people stood up to a counter-revolutionary mob and fought it back, yard by yard over a long day and night, with sticks and stones. In those few hours they proved in practice that the human being's conscious will can change history. They brought the human subject and human emancipation back into politics. Whatever the immediate outcome in Egypt, this consciousness will not go away. We can all go back to being human. That doesn't mean we will all love each other. It means we can fight each other for good reasons.

As someone said on Twitter: 'Yesterday we were all Tunisians. Today we are all Egyptians. Tomorrow we will all be free.'

And that's your grand narrative, all you post-modernists, rising up and coming right back in your face!

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Friday, February 04, 2011

Space Rockets

Going to space with rockets: path dependent locked-in fluke or inevitable result of technological synergy?

We report - you decide.

(Thanks to Jack Crow in comment to post below for pointing these out.)


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Thursday, February 03, 2011

Poetry competition results

As a great poet said, 'Now is the hour of the furnaces, and only light should be seen'. But life, and poetry, and even poetry competitions, go on even when the world is shaking. So ... belatedly, here's an account, with links to the winners and their work, of the event at the Scottish Poetry Library last Saturday. The quality as well as volume of entries - from around the world - was high, and the competition attracted published as well as beginning poets. Kelley Swain, who has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the Forum and took part in our Social Session on poetry, has given the competition and the winning entries a generous and detailed write-up in New Scientist's online Culture Lab.

One of the judges, Kona MacPhee, who spoke after Steve Sturdy had introduced the event and the work of the Forum, was very enthusiastic about the importance of science fiction, recounting how she had read all the SF stories of H.G. Wells in childhood, before going on to talk about the importance of poetry as a means of developing an emotional understanding of the consequences and implications of the sometimes arcane new life sciences.

All in all, a very successful and heartening event, and a worthwhile project, of which all involved and especially Pippa can be proud.

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This is not 1979 ... or 1989

Like many others I've been following the Egyptian Revolution in real time, flipping back and forth from Twitter (#Jan25 #Egypt #Tahrir are the hashtags to watch, and journalist Mona Eltahawy's tweets and retweets, along with the frontline reports (and amazing photos - and now live images!) of socialist journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy, who also blogs here, are good ones to follow) to the Al Jazeera live coverage.

Just two comments for the moment. In yesterday's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes on Israeli official reactions to the revolution:
They recall that the Tehran crowds which won western hearts 31 years ago also looked secular and modern – only to be rapidly displaced by a dictatorship of the ayatollahs.
The Tehran crowds of 1979 did not look secular and modern - the streets were a sea of black chadors - and almost the only western hearts they won were those of people on the left who were assured by their Iranian comrades - godless and feminist to a man and woman - that what looked like a movement to put the ayatollahs in power was really something quite different underneath. This was true to an extent. But:
In the period leading up to the February insurrection, the left as an independent tendency within the mass movement did not exist. It simply merged with the Khomeini dominated movement, tail ending the reactionary leadership.
Juan Cole gives a very clear analysis of why nothing like that is happening in Egypt today, or is at all likely to.

So, not another 1979. 1989? Yes, in the sense that the revolution reverberating across North Africa and the Middle East is a geopolitical earthquake - with the difference that the regimes under threat are more repressive, and more far strategic for the Western powers than the East European regimes were for the USSR. And yesterday's and today's terrible events are a grim reminder that these dictatorships are, for a multitude of reasons, far tougher to crack than the bureaucratic socialist shells that collapsed under the weight of the crowds in 1989.

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