Sense-making contextualization of “Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins”

Author: Peter Taylor

“Biology as Politics: The Direct and Indirect Effects of Lewontin and Levins”

(Sense-making contextualization following

a) The essence of the project is…
Promoting a form of science criticism that is engaged with the political dimensions of biology at the same time as making sense of my limited impact in this area since I wrote an essay review of the previous L&L collection 25 years earlier (when I was finishing my PhD with them).

“‘Science criticism’, unlike art and literary criticism, is not a widely accepted enterprise in our culture, but that would be an apt label for the essays of Lewontin and Levins reviewed here.”  L&L belong to a category of scientists who “have tried to express their dual commitments—to science and to political change.”


b) The reason(s) I took this road is (are)…
My approach to science combines a personal proclivity to learn by probing what others had taken as given + formation as a undergraduate student in the early 1970s at an Australian university that was known for its political, environmental, and counter-cultural activism.  This combination led to my wanting “to shape… scientific practices and products self-consciously so as to contribute to transforming the dominant structure of social and environmental relations.” (from Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement, 2005)

This continues: “In retrospect, I would read in the broad terms of the critique of science an overoptimistic assessment of the potential, on one hand, for the social movements of the 1960s and 70s to bring about radical restructuring of social relations and, on the other hand, for people to transform their lives accordingly—including, in this context, for scientists to redirect their research.  Yet the 1970s critique of science was a key aspect of the context in which I first began to engage with the complexities of environmental, scientific, and social change together, as part of one project.”


c) The best of what I have achieved is…
• The syntheses presented in two books Unruly Complexity and Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement (2012).

• Innovation over 30 years in teaching critical thinking about science in its social context.

• An emphasis in all of the above on reflexive analysis of “the complexity [or heterogeneity] of resources or practical commitments involved in knowledge construction in any particular area.”


d) What has been particularly helpful to me in this project has been…
Being invited into or being able to organize spaces in which to experiment (see c), stretch the terms, find support from others on the margins, and recover when things did not work out so well.

“L&L’s politics is also one of considerable generosity to students and colleagues, even those who may have discounted their advice or moved away from the collectives they brought them into.”


e) What has hindered me has been…
• A tendency to position myself at margins, reinforced by my proclivity to learn by probing what others had taken as given (which draws me away from the centre of any field I am in).

• The counter-cultural context of the late 60s to early 70s dissipated in the 80s, but I did not think through the changed conditions as I continued to pursue the ideal of prefiguring the desired future in experiments in the present.


f) What I am struggling with is…
• Getting clear enough to be able to wake up each day feeling good about what I am going to focus on, which means not feeling frazzled by the many other things I allow myself to be or feel responsible for.

• A question asked of me recently by a younger researcher and activist: What do I do with my scholarship?


g) What would help me now is…

Apprentices (in some form) who would make demands on my time, care, and clarity and, thereby, help me address the issues I have been hindered by (e) and am struggling with (f).


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