Biology as Politics: The direct and indirect effects of Lewontin and Levins

Introduction to my essay review of

Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health, by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Monthly Review Press, 2007

In “A Program for Biology,” one of this collection’s thirty-one essays, the Marxist biologists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (hereon: L&L) list recent “big mistakes” in scientific approaches to complex phenomena: “the green revolution, the epidemiological transition [from infectious to chronic diseases], sociobiology, the reification of intelligence testing, and the current fetishism of the genome.”  They attribute such mistakes to the “posing [of] problems too narrowly, treating what is variable as if it were constant and even universal, and offering answers on a single level only” (p.81).  What they point to is not simply the “philosophical tradition of reductionism,” but also “the institutional fragmentation of research, and the political economy of knowledge as a commodity” (p.9).  Indeed, their critical position extends beyond science to rejection of “the greed and brutality and smugness of late capitalism” (p.373).

Their anti-capitalist stance notwithstanding, the foci or starting points of L&L’s essays, like their 1986 collection, The Dialectical Biologist, lies in research in the life sciences.  Regarding the green revolution, for example, L&L see:

 …that a view based on unidirectional causation leads to the expectation that since grasses need nitrogen, a genotype that takes up more nitrogen would be more productive; since pesticides kill pests, their widespread use would protect crops; and since people eat food, increased yields would alleviate hunger (p.84).

The actual outcomes did not end up matching such simple causation because:

 …the increase in wheat yield was partly achieved by breeding for dwarf plants that are more vulnerable to weeds and to flooding; the killing of pests was accompanied by the killing of their natural enemies, their replacement by other pests, and the evolution of pesticide resistance.  The successful yield increases encouraged the diversion of land from legumes.  The technical packages of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and mechanization promoted class differentiation in the countryside and displacement of peasants (p.84).

“A Program for Biology” ends with three fundamental questions for the study of complexity:

Why are things the way they are instead of a little bit different (the question of homeostasis, self-regulation, and stability)?  Why are things the way they are instead of very different (the question of evolution, history, and development)?  And what is the relevance to the rest of the world? (p.86)

The third question, rephrased in a later essay as “how [do we] intervene in these complex processes to make things better for us”? (p.115), invites… readers to ask what L&L’s essays tell us about having an effect—direct or indirect—on the complex processes of the production and application of scientific knowledge.  The essay review approaches this third question as it relates to social studies of science and technology and L&L’s contributions from four angles:

  • a more vigorous culture of science criticism;
  • a visible college of Marxist scientists in the USA;
  • inquiries into the diverse social influences shaping science; and
  • motivating readers who want to pursue their science as a political project.

Indirect contributions—influences on and appropriations by other actors in the wider realm of biology as politics—are discussed as well as the more direct effects.

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