A Critique of "Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA"

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

(The 1990 Massey Lectures of Richard Lewontin)

KEY TERMS: ideology -- postmodernism -- Darwinian theory -- Lysenko -- scientific method -- intersubjectivity -- reductionism -- interactionism -- romanticism

Lewontin's lectures have failed to fulfil the expectations raised by his professional credentials and his title and introduction. The latter implied that he would establish, presumably by means of logical argument and evidence, the "fact" that biology is merely an ideology like Marxism, Social Darwinism, and numerous other "isms" of the twentieth century. Another implication of his total message was that the theory of DNA is a "doctrine" -- and therefore presumably no more reliable than Marx's "to each according to his needs" and Spencer's "survival of the fittest" as applied to individuals. Not only did Lewontin fail to support these propositions; he did not even initiate the type of discussion necessary for a reasoned examination of them.

The introductory lecture in this series articulated the increasingly popular "postmodernist" claim that all science is ideology. Lewontin then proceeded to justify this by stating the obvious: that scientists are human like the rest of us and subject to the same biases and socio-cultural imperatives. Although he did not actually say it, his comments seemed to imply that the enterprise of scientific research and knowledge building could therefore be no different and no more reliable as a guide to action than any other set of opinions. The trouble is that, in order to reach such an conclusion, one would have to ignore all those aspects of the scientific endeavor that do in fact distinguish it from other types and sources of belief formation.

Indeed, if the integrity of the scientific endeavor depended only on the wisdom and objectivity of the individuals engaged in it we would be in trouble. North American agriculture would today be in the state of that in Russia today. In fact it would be much worse, for the Soviets threw out Lysenko's ideology-masquerading-as-science decades ago. Precisely because an alternative scientific model was available (thanks to the disparaged Darwinian theory) the former Eastern bloc countries have been partially successful in overcoming the destructive chain of consequences which blind faith in ideology had set in motion. This is what Lewontin's old Russian dissident professor meant when he said that the truth must be spoken, even at great personal cost. How sad that Lewontin has apparently failed to understand the fact that while scientific knowledge -- with the power it gives us -- can and does allow humanity to change the world, ideological beliefs have consequences too. By rendering their proponents politically powerful but rationally and instrumentally impotent, they throw up insurmountable barriers to reasoned and value-guided social change.

What are the crucial differences between ideology and science that Lewonton has ignored? Both Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have spelled these out with great care -- the former throughout a long lifetime of scholarship devoted to that precise objective. Stephen Jay Gould has also done a sound job in this area. How strange that someone with the status of Lewontin, in a series of lectures supposedly covering the same subject, would not at least have dealt with their arguments!

Science has to do with the search for regularities in what humans experience of their physical and social environments, beginning with the most simple units discernible, and gradually moving towards the more complex. It has to do with expressing these regularities in the clearest and most precise language possible, so that cause-and-effect relations among the parts of the system under study can be publicly and rigorously tested. And it has to do with devising explanations of those empirical regularities which have survived all attempts to falsify them. These explanations, once phrased in the form of testable hypotheses, become predictors of future events. In other words, they lead to further conjectures of additional relationships which, in their turn, must survive repeated public attempts to prove them wanting -- if the set of related explanations (or theory) is to continue to operate as a fruitful guide for subsequent research.

This means that science, unlike mythology and ideology, has a self-correcting mechanism at its very heart. A conjecture, to be classed as scientific, must be amenable to empirical test. It must, above all, be open to refutation by experience. There is a rigorous set of rules according to which hypotheses are formulated and research findings are arrived at, reported and replicated. It is this process -- not the lack of prejudice of the particular scientist, or his negotiating ability, or even his political power within the relevant university department -- that ensures the reliability of scientific knowledge. The conditions established by the community of science is one of precisely defined and regulated "intersubjectivity". Under these conditions the theory that wins out, and subsequently prevails, does so not because of its agreement with conventional wisdom or because of the political power of its proponents, as is often the case with ideology. The survival of a scientific theory such as Darwin's is due, instead, to its power to explain and predict observable regularities in human experience, while withstanding worldwide attempts to refute it -- and proving itself open to elaboration and expansion in the process. In this sense only is scientific knowledge objective and universal. All this has little relationship to the claim of an absolute universality of objective "truth" apart from human strivings that Lewontin has attributed to scientists.

Because ideologies, on the other hand, do claim to represent truth, they are incapable of generating a means by which they can be corrected as circumstances change. Legitimate science makes no such claims. Scientific tests are not tests of verisimilitude. Science does not aim for "true" theories purporting to reflect an accurate picture of the "essence" of reality. It leaves such claims of infallibility to ideology. The tests of science, therefore, are in terms of workability and falsifiability, and its propositions are accordingly tentative in nature. A successful scientific theory is one which, while guiding the research in a particular problem area, is continuously elaborated, revised and refined, until it is eventually superseded by that very hypothesis-making and testing process that it helped to define and sharpen. An ideology, on the other hand, would be considered to have failed under those conditions, for the "truth" must be for all time. More than anything, it is this difference that confuses those ideological thinkers who are compelled to attack Darwin's theory of evolution precisely because of its success as a scientific theory. For them, and the world of desired and imagined certainty in which they live, that very success in contributing to a continuously evolving body of increasingly reliable -- albeit inevitably tentative -- knowledge can only mean failure, in that the theory itself has altered in the process.

Another source of confusion in Lewontin's lectures is his way of shifting from legitimate biology to pre-scientific fields of the social studies without warning his listeners that the two areas of scholarship are not to be equated in terms of their status as sciences and (consequently) the reliability of their products. In the guise of an attack on Darwin's theory of natural selection he persistently pointed out the flaws in Herbert Spencer's ideological social theory involving "survival of the fittest" among a cohort of individuals, and in the similarly ideological "pop" sociobiology which misinterprets and distorts the work of its founder E.O. Wilson and employs it as a tool of racism. Lewontin continuously refers to the more far-out, unsubstantiated hypotheses from these various schools of thought as "scientific knowledge", implying that they are the claims of legitimate science, and in shooting them down (no difficult task, by the way) implies that he is refuting Darwin's theory.

It is difficult to take seriously Lewontin's description of science as merely an "institution of social legitimation" no different from the Christian Church in an earlier historical era. Does he really rub shoulders with scientists so naive or confused about epistemology that they believe their products to represent a "universal truth" beyond the possibility of human experience: perhaps a truth revealed only in technical jargon and statistical symbols to the Harvard-anointed priesthood? And does this circle of Harvard scientists actually still see all reality -- including living organisms and the social level of relations -- in terms of the two-century-old Newtonian machine model (still unarguably useful and reliable at the level of physical interaction on planet earth, by the way)? Apparently presuming to speak for all scientists he says, "We think it is a clock!" -- not merely like a clock in much of its workings. Really? What a pity!

It was sad to find Lewontin resorting to the old bogey man of "reductionism" in reference to the science of genetics. So "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts". Big deal! What modern scientist, necessarily beginning with the analysis of those relations most simple and accessible, would claim that what he has thus discovered amounts to all there is? In fact, legitimate science does not employ "holistic" conceptions at all! And Lewontin refutes the obsolete nature/nurture dichotomy. Another earth-shattering discovery! But that's not all. He informs us that the organism and environment actually interact, and in the process both are altered. Another breakthrough! How could he not be aware that Darwin's principle of natural selection implies and requires precisely such interaction? Perhaps Lewontin should read the works of interactionists like John Dewey, George Herbert Mead, Julian Huxley, Jean Piaget and -- yes, that former Harvard colleague, B.F. Skinner, who wrote, "The human skin is not really that important a boundary".

One of the many unfortunate consequences of Lewontin's confused message is that the only sound part of it might well be overlooked. His rejection of the harmful old doctrine that "human nature cannot be changed" indicates that he is at least aware of the fundamental premise of social science. And his warning concerning the foolishness of the currently popular, romantic notion of disallowing any environmental change so as to maintain "harmony with nature" is badly needed. This is the arena where we can really benefit from the advice of biologists, but only if it is based on science and not on personal ideology. However, when Lewontin reveals that he does not yet know the difference between the two, he forfeits all claim to credibility.