By George Martin Fell Brown
The evolutionary geneticist Richard Lewontin passed away in July. Lewontin was a pioneer in applications of mathematical techniques and molecular biology to population genetics and evolutionary theory. Research he carried out with J.L. Hubby on the genetic variation in the fruit fly Drosophila pseudoobscura helped kick off the field of molecular evolution. But his scientific endeavors were closely tied to political struggle. A socialist and self-identified Marxist, Lewontin was committed to the struggle against capitalism and all the wars, racism, and sexism that accompany it. This often put him into direct conflict with a scientific establishment eager to justify those ills.
His early political activism included a trip to Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1964, alongside astrophysicist Carl Sagan, to challenge creationism. As American society was rocked by the political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, Lewontin threw himself into the movement. He fought against the Vietnam War and provided assistance to the Black Panthers. He was one of the most prominent voices in Science for the People, which provided a radical, Marxist-influenced critique of the influence of capitalism on science.
Lewontin was particularly concerned with the attempts of capitalist apologists to use his own field of expertise, genetics, to justify the status quo. Armed with biological expertise and a dialectical materialist outlook, Lewontin became one of the most articulate critics of biological determinism.
Not in Our Genes
Biological determinism has a long history going back to the “social Darwinists” of Marx’s time, who conflated Darwin’s natural selection with capitalist competition. Immediately after World War II, such ideas went into retreat because of their association with the Nazis. But, in reaction to the growing radicalism of the 1960s, a new wave of biological determinism developed.
In 1969, the psychologist Arthur Jensen, wrote a prominent article in the Harvard Educational Review, arguing that programs to boost educational success among the black population were doomed to failure because, according to him, intelligence, as represented by IQ, was largely determined by one’s genes. In 1975, Lewontin’s colleague E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a more sophisticated form of biological determinism backed by a large corporate advertising campaign. While distancing himself from the overt racism of other biological determinists, Wilson and the sociobiology school sought to identify complex social phenomena with genetically determined phenomena in nature. Wars could be explained by aggression seen in baboons, inequality by hierarchies seen in the caste divisions in ants, and private property by territoriality seen in geese.
Lewontin devoted a large part of his efforts as both a scientist and as an activist to combating these ideas. As a scientist he adapted his research in genetic diversity from fruit flies to humans. This resulted in a landmark 1972 paper, “The Apportionment of Human Diversity”, published in Evolutionary Biology, which found that 80–85% of genetic diversity occurred within supposed “racial” groups and that genetic variation between the groups only constituted 1–15% of variation. As an activist he took part in protests against scientists who used their authority to prop up racism. And combining the two, he helped the Boston branch of Science for the People initiate the “Sociobiology Study Group” to systematically combat the ideas of Wilson and the sociobiology school.
The culmination of this work was the 1984 book Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature, co-written with the neurobiologist Steven Rose and the psychologist Leon Kamin.
Not in Our Genes scrutinized the studies that claimed to link IQ to genes. When looking at studies of twins separated at birth, it turned out that the twins studied often lived with close cousins and visited each other regularly, blunting their ability to distinguish between “nature” and “nurture”. Studies in adopted children would hold up correlations between the IQs of the children and their biological parents, while downplaying much bigger correlations that set them apart. The foundational research on IQ and intelligence, carried out by Cyril Burt, was shown to be outright fraud.
In critiquing sociobiology, Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin dissected the whole methodology of the school. Features attributed to human nature — territoriality, entrepreneurship, xenophobia, etc. — would be taken for granted, and the sociobiologists’ goal would be to find a biological explanation for them. Simplifications of both human and animal behavior would be applied to conflate the Vietnam War with baboons fighting each other. The existence of a genetic basis would be taken for granted and the sociobiologists would focus on coming up with “adaptive stories” for why the supposedly existent gene got selected for by evolution.
For instance, a textbook written by sociobiological anthropologists asked students to explain “Why do children so often dislike spinach, while older people usually like it?” The textbook’s answer was that spinach contains oxalic acid, which prevents the absorption of calcium. Since children need calcium to support bone growth and adults, it’s assumed that a gene that causes people to not like spinach as a child, but like it as an adult, would be selected. The complete lack of evidence for the existence of a like-spinach-as-a-child-but-not-as-an-adult gene was irrelevant. And the notion that children disliking spinach and adults liking it might not be universal was never considered.
Beyond debunking the bad science behind biological determinism, Not in Our Genes used a Marxist approach to explain the ideological basis for these ideas. Capitalism is, on the one hand, a stratified hierarchical society with massive inequality and class divisions. On the other hand, it’s a system driven by free markets and a principle of equality. Biological determinism is an attempt to reconcile those divisions, to claim that the free market simply sorts people into their natural hierarchies. Apologists for capitalism like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker attacked Lewontin for allegedly smuggling politics into science. But Lewontin clarified that political ideas were already being smuggled into science.
The Triple Helix
Lewontin often compared the struggle against biological determinism with “putting out fires”. Periodically a new intellectual — Wilson, Dawkins, Pinker, etc. — would come up with a new set of bad arguments that would have to be debunked. But the question still remained: If biological determinism is wrong, then what is right? This is where Lewontin’s dialectical materialist approach got to shine.
In outlining an alternative to biological determinism, Lewontin also had to challenge unscientific and anti-scientific ideas on the left. The Maoist milieux of the new left was one of the last hold-outs for Lysenkoism, a discredited Stalinist caricature of Marxism that denied the legitimacy of genetics altogether. Within the environmental movement, new age ideas developed, such as James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, which replaced the biological determinists’ crude reductionism with an equally crude holism. And, as the new left went into crisis, postmodernist ideas developed that were hostile to science. Lewontin in particular challenged Michel Foucault’s “anti-psychiatry” which argued that the concept of mental illness was just a narrative created to maintain hierarchies.
In contrast to these ideas, Lewontin adopted the Marxist method of dialectical materialism. As a materialist philosophy, this method recognizes that society and nature must be understood as material reality, independent of external spirits or abstract ideas. As a dialectical philosophy, it recognizes that, at any time, we are capable of only perceiving a partial mental representation of a complex universe in a constant state of flux. A dialectical materialist approach would involve understanding the inner contradictions in scientific categories, how they come into being, break down, and transform.
In articulating a dialectical materialist approach to biology, Lewontin collaborated closely with the ecologist Richard Levins. Most of their essays are collected in the books The Dialectical Biologist (1985) and Biology Under the Influence (2007). The essays in these collections covered a wide range of topics: from agribusiness and the environment, to modern scientific developments like chaos theory and cybernetics. Lewontin on his own outlined a positive, dialectical approach to genetics in his short book The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment (2000).
The Triple Helix starts by looking at the dialectical relationship of genotype — the actual makeup of the genes — and phenotype — the physical or behavioral properties of the organism. The relation of genotype and phenotype is often explained in simplified forms where each genotype will correspond to a specific phenotype, independent of environment. For instance, Gregor Mendel’s pea pods had three genotypes, two of which corresponded to green peas, and one of which corresponded to yellow peapods. Biological determinists expand this simplified example to the whole of genetics. But Lewontin drew attention to the full process from genes to proteins to organisms, each step of which involves interaction with the outside environment before it becomes a phenotype.
For instance, Lewontin pointed to more complicated examples like studies on the yarrow Achillea millefolium. Different genotypes of yarrow were studied in environments with different elevation. There were predictable differences between the heights of yarrows of different genotypes, but those differences didn’t amount to a “tall” genotype and a “short” genotype. One genotype grew very tall at low or high temperatures, but short at medium elevation. Another genotype had the opposite effect. Still another grew steadily taller the higher the elevation. The genetic differences weren’t meaningless, but they were also closely entwined with the environment. When moving from yarrows to humans, the environment now includes society, and attempts to reduce complex social phenomena to genes, as Wilson sought, inevitably fall flat.
In contrast to the sociobiologists’ attempts to explain evolution as a simple process of adaptation to a fixed environment, Lewontin also drew attention to the ways organisms alter their environment as well as adapt to it. Beavers dam rivers and trees block the sun from reaching saplings. Organisms also often seek out microhabitats within their environment with conditions more suitable to life, such as fruit flies going to a more humid region of their arid environment. With humans, this interaction with our environment is conscious and transcends sociobiologists’ attempts to explain society through “adaptive stories” about spinach.
Finally, Lewontin looked at the dialectical relationship between parts and wholes. The most obvious counter to the reductionist approach of biological determinists would be to adopt a holistic approach, disregarding individual differences in favor of ecosystems and society viewed as a whole. Lewontin rejected both, arguing, “To be ‘parts’ things must be parts of something. That is, there are no parts unless there is a whole of which they are the pieces.” (The Triple Helix, p. 79) As individuals in isolation, humans’ genetics don’t give them the ability to fly. But their genetics do give them the ability to form a society that can invent the airplane. But, although society can create the ability to fly, it’s still individuals doing the flying, not society.
This dialectical understanding of the relationship between genes, organisms, and the environment provides a valuable framework for approaching biology without falling into reductionist traps.
Changing the World
In Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, he remarked “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Lewontin was committed to this approach, and consciously tied his scientific research, not only with political commentary, but with the active struggle for social change. At the same time, this struggle for change was limited by the New Left milieux he operated in, which was heavily dominated by Maoist ideas.
Much of Lewontin’s political activities in Boston were with the International Committee Against Racism (InCAR). InCAR was a front for the Progressive Labor Party, an ultra-sectarian Maoist group that grew out of the fracturing of the 1960s New Left. In 1978, Lewontin was involved with an InCAR event where demonstrators at a symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science assaulted E.O. Wilson, dumping ice water on him and chanting “Wilson, you’re all wet.” This action failed to disrupt Wilson, or provide any meaningful challenge to his bad ideas. It did allow Wilson to portray himself as a martyr to “leftist intolerance” and get a standing ovation at the symposium. Moreover, the Progressive Labor Party was known for violently attacking rivals on the left just as much as figures on the right.
Lewontin’s also lacked clarity on the role of Stalinism. He opposed the attempts of the Soviet government to brand dissidents as mentally ill. And, as a geneticist, Lewontin unambiguously took a stand against Stalinist distortions of biology found in the Lysenkoist movement. Lewontin and Levins wrote an analysis of Lysenkoism, which appears in The Dialectical Biologist, which provides a lot of insight to both Lysenko’s failures, and the circumstances that allowed Lysenkoism to flourish. However, the analysis fell far short of understanding the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Lewontin himself dismissed the work of Leon Trotsky without consideration, which didn’t help matters. In this case, Carl Sagan, despite lacking Lewontin’s dialectical framework, was stronger politically than Lewontin.
As the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s receded, Lewontin functioned more as a political commentator, interpreting rather than changing. He had a column with the New York Review of Books commenting on various disputes about biology as they broke out. And he continued his scientific research. Lewontin insisted that his legitimacy as a writer rested on his scientific contributions and, when he retired from scientific research in 2014, he also stopped writing.
Since then, there has been a revival of interest in Lewontin’s ideas. In 2017, following Donald Trump’s attacks on climate scientists, the March for Science was held, the biggest coordinated demonstration of scientists in history. Science for the People was relaunched. Jacobin republished Lewontin’s early articles and Haymarket Books republished Not in Our Genes.
In that time, Lewontin’s fight against biological determinism has been vindicated. Sociobiology’s main tenets are largely discredited and its main contemporary successor, evolutionary psychology, is seen as a joke. Lewontin’s most vocal opponents, like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, have increasingly discredited themselves and aligned themselves with far-right forces like the “intellectual dark web”.
Biological determinism may be on a retreat similar to the aftermath of World War II, but it still hasn’t gone away. Jordan Peterson’s ruminations on lobsters are pale, almost farcical, imitations of Wilson’s work, but they maintain a certain popular following. In the face of a new wave of anti-racist struggle, a large portion of the ruling class is currently finding woke capitalism more useful than scientific racism. But that situation is unstable and biological determinism can make a comeback without a solid challenge from the left.
We are now in a world dominated by anti-racist struggle, environmental crisis, and exploitative tech giants. In this situation, a detached, politically neutral, approach to science is wholly inadequate. This is why Lewontin’s ideas will continue to have resonance.