biological & genetic determinism (fwd)

glevy at glevy at
Wed Sep 13 18:48:58 MDT 1995

If someone wanted to be really nice, they could cc Jim when replying. --Jerry

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 13 Sep 1995 15:10:40 -0700
From: James Devine <JDevine at>
To: glevy at
Subject: biological & genetic determinism

Jerry, could you please forward this to the Marxism list (and
forward any replies to me)? Thanks ahead of time.

Browsing through the Marxism list's archive, I found the
following, which I believe is by Lisa Rogers:

Lewontin polemicizes against >>"genetic determinism" which he
claims to include _all_ relevance of biology in any form, and
especially any evolutionary implications to understanding human

I recently read Lewontin book (NOT IN OUR GENES, with Rose and
Kamin) and I don't think this is an accurate description of
Lewontin's views. (See also Levins & Lewontin, THE DIALECTICAL
BIOLOGIST.) Or at least not of his views at the time of that book
(about 10 years ago).

Lewontin is definitely launching polemics, criticizing those such
as E.O. Wilson, who want to explain everything in terms of
genetics or biology (reducing human social behavior to ant
behavior, for example). I think this might lead to some
over-emphasis on some points, in order to counteract the
pernicious politics of the genetic determinists.  But at the time
of the book, he wasn't opposed to genetic or biological
explanation _per se_. Similarly, he and his co-authors opposed
totally _cultural_ or environmental explanation (though they are
very clear from the start that they spend less time attacking
that view even though they think it's wrong).

Lewontin et al are definitely not opposed to biology as a field,
since they use what they call mainstream biology textbooks in
their argument against determinism. I think they see a
biologically-determinist ideological overlay which contradicts
the scientific basis of biology. Like Stephen J. Gould, they
don't oppose the idea that adaptation via natural selection is a
major part of evolution but instead say that you can't explain
all traits in terms of adaptation to the environment.

What Lewontin et al argue is more of an interactionist view,
where both "nature" and "nurture" play a role, though they claim
to have gone beyond that to produce something more profound. At
any one time, human behavior is _limited_ by genes, but
cultural/technological matters determine the extent to which
these limits are reached. Dynamically, cultural/technologial
evolution (which is more Lamarckian in that acquired
characteristics can be inherited) has taken the driver's seat
from Darwinian biological/genetic evolution (which happens more
slowly and is influenced by the first kind of evolution).

In recent months, I have been reading up on autism (because my
son has a relatively pleasant version of it) and related
disorders such as attention deficit disorder. I remembered that
Lewontin et al had attacked the use of ritalin in managing ADD's
effects. I said: oho! here's a hole in Lewontin's armor: ritalin
and related drugs sure seem to work at my kid's school (though he
doesn't need it). But then I realized that what Lewontin et al
were saying was that such medications can not be used as a
"silver bullet," a simple method for solving a complex problem.
Though their polemical style may have made it hard to understand,
what they were saying fit _perfectly_ with what my son's school
does (in conjunction with psychiatrists): they not only use drugs
but also psychology; they actively involve parents in all of the
treatment/education, teaching both the parents and the kids. It
turns out that constant consultation with the parents, based on
their observation of the kids, is necessary to effectively use
the medications, since ritalin (for example) can work for awhile
and then another drug is appropriate, or the needed dosage may
change. The treatment is _never_ totally pharmacological.

I too was dissatified with the idea that human freedom is like
the freedom of particles in Brownian motion. But I think they
were trying to wrestle with a big question of free will vs.
determinism, which is very hard to solve.

for socialism from below,

Jim Devine      jdevine at
Los Angeles, CA (the city of your future: the modern home of slavery)

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