Richard Lewontin on Levitt-Gross

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Dec 3 18:09:01 MST 2001

(Another gem from the "Science Wars" book. To save bandwidth, I have
omitted the part of the review that deals with Himmelfarb's
book--although the Gross/Levitt book is more germane to our
discussion anyhow. By Sokal's own admission, Levitt "recruited" him
to the fight against 'anti-science'. Gross and Levitt are a couple of
reactionaries as this review should make clear. Richard Lewontin is a
Harvard University biologist and a committed Marxist. I worked with
his son Jamie on projects in Nicaragua, including raising funds to
complete Ben Linder's hydroelectric project. Jamie was an engineer
and machinist on the project.)

A la recherche du temps perdu: A Review Essay

Richard C. Lewontin

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left
and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1994. 328 pages $25.95.

Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on
Culture and Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. 192 pages

THE political movements in Europe and America in the 1960s hat
Americans identify primarily with opposition to the Vietnam War were
not, at base, pacifist or anticapitalist or "counter-cultural" or
simply a revolt of youth against age--although they were all those
things. Rather, they were held together by a general challenge to
conventional structures of authority. They were an attempt to create
a general crisis of legitimacy. They were a "Call to Resist
Illegitimate Authority" and were made in the image of 1792 and the
revolt of the Paris Commune. The state, the military, the corporate
holders of economic power, those over thirty, males, white--all were
the sources of authority and legitimacy that maintained a social
structure riddled with injustice. Those who were in the forefront of
the struggles of the sixties knew what their revolutionary forebears
knew, that a real crisis of legitimacy is the precondition of
revolutionary change. But their attempt failed, and the main sources
of authority and legitimacy for civil and political life remain what
they have been for two hundred years, apparently unaltered in their
stability or sense of permanence.

There is, however, one bit of the body politic whose sores from the
abrasions of the sixties have never quite healed over, rather like a
bloody heel that is perpetually rubbed raw by a new shoe that doesn't
fit the old foot. It is the academy and its intellectual hangers-on
who, while not themselves professors, depend on academics to buy,
assign, review, and cite their works. No one was more troubled, hurt,
and indignant than the professional intellectuals when their
legitimacy was challenged. The state and the corporations, after all,
have long been the objects of attack. They are used to the fight,
they know their enemies and they have the weapons to hand. Their
authority can always be reinforced when necessary by the police, the
courts, and the layoff. Intellectuals, on the other hand, are
particularly vulnerable, because professional intellectual life is
the nexus of all strands of legitimacy, yet it has had no serious
experience of opposition. Despite the centrality of authority in
intellectual life, the academy has not, since the seventeenth
century, been immersed in a constant struggle for the maintenance of
the legitimacy of its methods and products; on the contrary, it
seemed for a long time to be rooted in universal and unchallenged
sources of authority. Then, suddenly, students began to question the
authority of the older and the learned. No longer were genteel and
civilized scholars allowed to propagate their political and social
prejudices without rude challenges from pimply adolescents. The
attack on the legitimacy and authority of the academy during the
sixties was met by incredulity, outrage, and anger. It produced an
unhealing wound that continues to be a source of pain to some
intellectuals, who see nothing but an irrational nihilism in the
rejection of traditional structures of academic authority.

Were it only the institutional authority of professors that was
challenged, the hurt would be nearly forgotten. For the most part the
control of the scholarly environment has returned to its former
masters-- although not without alteration: professors are no longer
free to make racist and sexist remarks in class without challenge,
and even quite innocent events may lead to serious struggles, making
many academics long for the days when they could say anything they
damn well pleased. But even more sinister developments have continued
the crisis in the academy, long after the rest of civil and political
society has restabilized. For the last three decades there has been a
growing attack on the very intellectual foundations on which academic
legitimacy is ultimately grounded. What was revealed even by the
rather unsophisticated attacks of thirty years ago has encouraged a
thoroughgoing foundational reexamination in every field. It is no
longer obvious to all that the methods and problematic of natural
science produce an "objective" picture of the world untainted by
ideology and by the social and political predispositions of
scientists, or that the Divina Commedia contains all that much of
universal or lasting value to someone uninterested in the history of
medieval and early Renaissance Italy (or without the ability to read
fourteenth-century Italian). What makes this attack even more
unsettling is that it comes from within. God grant us another Urban

The reaction to the foundational attack on the intellectual
presuppositions of the sciences and the humanities, following so soon
on the blows to the personal status of academics, has been the
creation of a literature of indignation, characterized for the most
part by the analytic coherence of a cry of pain. Among the most
recent expressions of hurt and anger are Higher Superstition: The
Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science by Paul Gross and Norman
Levitt, and On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture
and Society by the longtime protector of traditional values of the
intellectual family, Gertrude Himmelfarb.

What suicidal impulse must have possessed Paul Gross and Norman
Levitt when they produced, as the first line for their book,
"Muddleheadedness has always been the sovereign force in human
affairs"? While reading the book I thought it might be amusing to
review it entirely through artfully arranged quotations from it,
producing a kind of autophagous destruction, but then I decided it
was not worth the considerable effort required to copy out all the
passages. Yet it is impossible to resist totally: "This is a book
that is content, in the main, to posture, rather than to argue. It is
driven by resentment, rather than the logic of its ideas" (91). "Very
few positions are analyzed at great enough length to make them
coherent; names and phrases are simply run in and out of the text as
props for [their] views" (51).

The argument of Higher Superstition is simple, although its rhetoric
is rococo:

(1) There is a set of antiscientific critics who comprise the
"academic left" and are the direct descendants of the Marxist or
Marx-inspired new-lefties of the sixties. Their program to devalue
science is the deliberate extension of the attempt to destabilize
bourgeois society, an attempt that failed politically but continues
to plague intellectual life.

(2) A great deal of nonsense has been written about science by the
"academic left," who, in fact, hate science. The claims of these
people are that the content and method of science are culturally
biased -- against feminine values, against non-Europeans--and are
tools for the oppression of groups without power. Moreover, according
to these critics, science is just another language, and like all
texts, the texts of science can mean many different things at
different times and in different contexts. Such people deny the
objective reality of the material world that is described by science.

(3) Science is a set of practices that has been developed in order to
produce an objective picture of the natural world. Scientists,
ofcourse, make mistakes like anyone else, but the results of science
that really last are those that are "written in nature." Moreover,
science is good for you. It is the one methodology that is guaranteed
to produce objective knowledge about the world, and it is the only
way to solve the world's problems. "The wretched of the earth want
science and the benefits of science."

The first problem with Gross and Levitt's thesis is that it is
impossible to tell what is meant by the "academic left," although
they spend a lot of energy trying to justify the term. It definitely
does not mean academics who are politically left: they exclude all
practicing scientists with leftist politics. Indeed, some of their
best friends are lefties. They love Steve Gould. Nor does it include
all leftist humanists and social scientists. They use, for example,
an article in the New Left Review by an admirer of Marx, Elizabeth
Wilson, to castigate the "academic left." On the other hand, the
academic left includes such well-known lefties as Paul de Man! Nor
does one have to be an academic to be included (Jeremy Rifkin is on
the list). Their archetype of the "academic left" is Stanley
Aronowitz, whose leftist credentials are for them that he is actually
a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left wing of
what used to be the Democratic Party. The hopeless muddle they make
of the category renders the term academic left useless for any
analytic purpose, yet it appears over and over, beginning with the
subtitle of the book itself. What is revealed is the unbroken
historical line that connects the present literature of indignation
with the struggles for authority and legitimacy of the sixties and
the still-present memories of clenched fists and cries of "Ho Ho Ho
Chi Minh!"

It is certainly true, and Gross and Levitt provide some lovely
examples, that some people have written nonsense about the method and
content of natural science. What is not clear from their treatment is
whether these examples of nonsense represent any significant or
threatening attack on rationality, any more than their own vulgar
six-page history of the Left in the United States threatens the
profession of political history, or their one-liners out of Cliff
Notes characterizing Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe, and Coleridge need
worry those who study European literature. By deliberately choosing a
few extreme examples--so extreme that they require only quotation and
not analysis--the authors have created a bogeyman meant to frighten
us so much that we will be distracted from considering the real
critique of naive reductionism and positivism. The vulgarity of their
approach prevents any serious analysis of the presuppositions,
methods, and results of what goes on under the name of Science.

The "science" of Gross and Levitt is something out of a high school
textbook. It is the Law of Combining Proportions, the motion of a
falling body in a vacuum, the ratio of round to wrinkled peas in the
second generation of a hybrid cross. They know that there are serious
problems in epistemology, but they announce their intention to ignore
these problems because they have already been disposed of by others:
"This is a book about politics and its curious offspring, not about
epistemology or the philosophy of science; we cannot therefore
refute, in abstracto, the constructionist view. . . . Nor are we
obliged to do so: serious philosophers have been at it for decades"
(48). Decades, indeed! Since Plato's cave.

What Gross and Levitt have done is to turn their back on, or deny the
existence of, some of the most important questions in the formation
of scientific knowledge. They are scornful of "metaphor mongers," yet
Gross's own field of developmental biology is in the iron grip of a
metaphor, the metaphor of "development." To describe the life history
of an organism as "development" is to prejudice the entire
problematic of the investigation and to guarantee that certain
explanations will dominate. "Development" means literally an
unrolling or an unfolding, seen also in the Spanish desarollo, or the
German Entwicklung (unwinding). It means the making manifest of an
already predetermined pattern immanent in the fertilized egg, just as
the picture is immanent in an exposed film, which is then
"developed." All that is required is the appropriate triggering of
the process and the provision of a milieu that allows it to unfold.
This is not mere "metaphor mongering"; it reveals the shape of
investigation in the field. Genes are everything. The environment is
irrelevant except insofar as it allows development. The field then
takes as its problematic precisely those life-history events that are
indeed specified in the genome: the differentiation of the front end
from the back end, and why pigs do not have wings. But it ignores
completely the vast field of characters for which there is a constant
interplay between genes and environment, and which cannot be
understood under the rubric of "development." Nor are these
characters trivial: they certainly include the central nervous
system, for which the life history of the nerve connections of the
roundworm is a very bad metaphor.

The study of evolution is filled with ideological prejudices whose
influence is increasing. Notions of "optimality," "strategy," and
"utility" have been taken over from economics and are the organizing
metaphors of fields of biology, like sociobiology that Gross and
Levitt so admire. Yet there is no "hard science" here. In its place
is a collection of imaginative stories with no empirical test that
can put them into the frame of analytic genetics on which
evolutionary theory is claimed to be built. One of the most
extraordinary developments in evolutionary studies has been the
coming into dominance of metaphors of selective adaptation for
explanations at the level of whole organisms, while, simultaneously,
explanations in population genetics have become characterized by
reference to historical contingency, "random walks," and "gamblers'

Even molecular biology, with its talk of "self-reproducing" genes
that "determine" the organism, is ideological in its implications.
DNA is certainly not "self-reproducing," any more than a text copied
by a Xerox machine is self-reproducing; in fact, it is the machine
that is interesting and needs to be understood. So it is the total
cell machinery that needs to be understood if we are to understand
both the production of new DNA and how the information in the DNA is,
in fact, turned into flesh. Higher Superstition is not a serious book
about the problems of understanding and constructing science. It is,
instead, one long fit of bad temper, taking as its object the most
vulnerable and easiest targets. Its authors remind one of the father
who, having been told off by his wife and children, goes out and
kicks the dog.

The body of writing to which Higher Superstition and On Looking Into
the Abyss belong, while appealing to transcendent standards, is,
ironically, the product of a particular historical moment in the
development of European culture. In a movement that began with the
growth of the noblesse de robe in prerevolutionary France, technical
and intellectual competence has increasingly become a pathway to
upward social mobility. More secure and, from all attitudinal
surveys, more prestigious than entrepreneurship or state service,
intellectual activities increasingly have provided status, material
well-being, and some forms of social power. Professional
intellectuals, chiefly academics, have only relatively recently found
themselves to be a major source of authority and legitimacy in
European bourgeois society. An important part of that power is the
image that intellectuals speak for no special interest, time, or
group but are the conduits into society of the eternal verities.
Thus, they have not appreciated the degree to which they, like any
other source of legitimacy, necessarily become identified with the
general structures of authority, and so they are unprepared for the
attack on their authority that periodic crises of political
legitimation must bring. In reading these books I saw before me
Masaccio's bathetic image of Adam and Eve, faces screwed up in
anguish, shedding bitter tears and covering their genitals as they
are expelled from Paradise.


This essay previously appeared in Configurations 3, no. 2 (spring
1995): 257-65.

Louis Proyect, lnp3 at on 12/03/2001

Marxism list:

PLEASE clip all extraneous text before replying to a message.

More information about the Marxism mailing list