A small note on praxis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 21 17:12:34 MST 2002

>Marxists and Marxist activists.  If more academic
>research including that of Marxist professors
>is made freely accessible on the Internet,
>then it is going to become much harder
>for the academics to settle into mere scholasticism.
>Jim F.

Speaking of that, a significant breakthrough is taking place on the Science
for the People email list
(http://list.uvm.edu/archives/science-for-the-people.html) which was a
typical academic list up until recently--with nothing except crosspostings
from the left and bourgeois press, conference and job announcements, etc.
Somebody complained about the lack of serious discussion or debate and I
put in my two cents. That must have touched a nerve because the list has
become a rather lively place lately for opposing views on sociobiology. Ian
Pitchford, who is one of the co-moderators of the Evolutionary Psychology
mailing list (which has something like 5000 subscribers!), showed up and
began pushing his perspectives. That led to some interesting exchanges.
More recently, another sociobiologist and trained scientist of Puerto Rican
origin named Jose has picked up where Pitchford left off.

This is an exchange between Jose and Richard Levins, who along with
co-author Richard Lewontin, is regarded as the preeminent Marxist
scientists of our age. I am looking forward to the day when people like
David Harvey, Ellen Meiksins Wood, Michael Hardt, Zizek, Judith Butler et
al step down from the pedestals and engage with people on this kind of
level. I wouldn't hold my breath.


Stuart and company, I'd like to address something you raised about the
bigger question on the Genetics - <Brain/Behavior/Language (BBL)>
discussion goes to what you raised about explanation of biological
phenomena and the privileged position of genetics. OK, I agree that
genetics has no right to the privilege it enjoys right now (even that's
degrading with proteomics and glycomics etc.). I have to agree with the
notion you put forward with the Miles Davis example, why should one level
of organization (genetics) be privileged as to causation than another level
of organization (BBL) (Behavior). One might imagine a reason someone could
give is that biological polymers (like nucleic acids) contains information
and biological information flows from them: therefore their privilege. I
imagine someone might say that higher level structures don't or not in the
same way as nucleic acids. Whatever.

This raises the bigger question in biology...What causes what? Is causation
linear? If its not, people are gonna have a hard time thinking of a cloud
of causative agents of a particular biophenomena. They are also used to
thinking in chains of causation. A master molecule like DNA is convenient
in that way; DNA as prime mover (informer) of the chain of biological
causation. So what's the alternative? Clearly, it has to be a complex
systems idea...with biophenomena as emergent properties of a causative
cloud of factors. To throw a monkey wrench in the mix, not all factors are
equally weighted. Whatever the case, that complexity perspective is VERY
slowly being applied to biology. Luckily "Systems Biology" is back in
vogue. Never the less, this new biology has to account for the various
phenomena that are observed...like the FOX2P gene, and the others (FGF?)
that affect the brain and other biological phenomena that I've sent emails
about. People are doing work now and this work is real (however overblown
as per the press releases about fear) and has to be incorporated into
whatever is the "correct" view. This goes back to the question I originally
posed... "What is the role of biology in human behavior from a progressive

I guess that I would alter it slightly what's the role of genetics
(biology-cause its what I know) in BBL from a progressive perspective?. The
direction for an answer has to be in a better model--a complex systems
model. Is this a progressive view? That goes to the comment that someone
made about "Progressive Science" and Lysenko etc. On the one hand, we don't
want a science that slavishly adheres to a political doctrine against what
nature dictates. On the other hand, we know the scientific views of some
folks (sociobiology, Pinker et al) is right leaning. Doesn't that also
suggest that someone could be left-leaning (ie. Gould etc.) So I guess the
proper interpretation is that the right-wingers are doing "bad science".
The left-wingers or at least non-right-wingers, are doing good or ok
science (at least from our perspective).



There is no controversy about our being both social and biological entities
or that biology is important. But "biology" does not mean genetics.
Physiological differences accumulate during a life time, with the
parameters influenced by DNA included. If causation is non-linear and
emergent, a network of interacting variables is the place to look for
explanation. Then network properties become relevant: its branchedness,
occurrence of cycles, nodal variables with many connections and end-point
variables, resilience to perturbation and resistance to parameter change,
likelihood of oscillatory and chaotic behavior, etc. And the cause is the
whole network.

Furthermore these network elements are both biological and social: the
control of blood sugar includes the familiar pathways of physiology (sugar,
insulin, glycogen, adrenalin, etc) but also metabolic rate related to work
intensity; anxiety induced by a blood sugar drop or the work environment,
the degrees of freedom of the worker to adjust blood sugar flux
behaviorally(take a break or a snack), the interference of the foreman with
behavioral homeostasis, the intervention of the shop steward to offset the
foreman's stimulation of anxiety, etc.

We all share a common physiological subset of the system but it is imbedded
in a larger ecosocial network that depends on how we fit into society. If
there is a distinction between progressive and reactionary science it is
not so much specific conclusions about pathways but rather in a dialectical
framework: the truth is the whole; a problem has to be posed large enough
to accommodate a solution; things are more connected than generally
realized; things are the way they are because they got that way, haven't
always been that way and need not remain the way they are; currently
accepted fixed boundary conditions may be considered as variables; history
matters, both the history of the phenomenon under study and the history of
thinking about the phenomenon. Reactionary science generally tends to work
with more rigid categories, takes the social boundaries of a problem as
fixed, sees nature in a fragmented way, counterpoising natural/social,
physiological/psychological, heredity/environment, random/deterministic,
quantitative/qualitative understanding, and declines to examine the
development of science itself as an object of scientific inquiry.

Richard Levins

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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