Richard Lewontin on Levitt-Gross

ermadog at freenet.edmonton.ab.ca ermadog at freenet.edmonton.ab.ca
Tue Dec 4 15:54:53 MST 2001



On Mon, 3 Dec 2001, Louis Proyect wrote:

> 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." >

I have always been bothered by the language used to describe evolutionary
processes, both in high school textbooks, and, more importantly, in
popularization of these ideas. Consistently, there is talk of how an
organism developed such and such a feature "in order to" adapt to such and
such an environment. This language implies that there is some kind of will
at work, as though some bottom-feeding organism sat down one day and
thought to itself "my son's not going to be a bottom-feeder; he's going to
go to college and become a doctor"; and proceeded to throw herself up on
dry land and evolve into somethng that could walk upright.

I've always felt that this was an adaptation to religion. Specifically, to
the design in nature argument as proof of the existence of God. It would
appear to me that recent findings in the study of cells, and also the
human genome project, show that there is no pre-determined design inherent
in the basic building-blocks of living organisms. This more than ever
points to environment as the key factor in evolution.

If the implications are allowed to be explored despite the prevailing
idological climate, we will see the self-correcting mechanism of science
at work.

> 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.

And its modern manifestation, evolutionary psychology. I haven't studied
Dawkins. But even a quick reading reveals a methodology which reveal its
heritage from sociobiology.

> 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.

This authority is becoming increasingly under attack during the process of
globalization - i.e. the privatization of science. There have been several
stories in the news here in Canada of researchers at public institutions
being penalized when their results don't match the expectations of
corporations funding the research.

Joan Cameron


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