on Lewontin on biology

James Devine JDevine at lmumail.lmu.edu
Thu Sep 14 12:51:48 MDT 1995

Lisa writes: >>We really do agree on essentials, don't we?  It
may seem I've spent the whole post quibbling, but what Lewontin /
Wilson actually say or think or do is not really the main

Right! No more quibbles from me (at least on this subject). BTW,
Lewontin's obnoxious attitude in the Tanner lectures (which I
haven't read) may reflect the small amount of time allowed to
present his ideas or his frustration with resistance to his ideas
from his colleagues (which for all I know may be partly his

As for Lisa's question of what the "ideological overlay" of
science is, I would say that it's reductionism. In economics (my
field), the main form of reductionism is to try to explain
everything in terms of individual choice. In biology, as I
understand it (since it's not my field), people want to reduce
all of evolution to adaptation and all behavior to genes. Note
that these are usually pre-analytical biases, often not stated
explicitly or justified philosophically, which guide research
(what questions are investigated) and the interpretation of
research.  As various critics (Lewontin, Gould, etc.) argue,
these biases are not really based in science.

(BTW, reductionism can be a useful first step: let's break this
issue down into its parts. The problem comes when no effort is
made to see the whole.)

>>Perhaps some points we should address are What should a
marx-informed critique of biology / determinism look like?  And
What is to be done about effects of science upon society, or What
should be done to affect science?  Or what should biology do, or
would do differently if marx/soc/revolutionaries had our way?<<

Levins and Lewontin's  THE DIALECTICAL BIOLOGIST is a good start,
because their emphasis is on doing new stuff rather than
criticizing the profession. I've read this book, but not being a
biologist I can't really criticize it. But someone has to do
constructive criticism of that book.

I'm sorry if I've volunteered Lisa for yet another job. So she's
exempted. ;-)

for socialism from below,

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

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