Tag Archives: Lewontin

To resist GMOs is to be anti-science? No, the contrary

I’ve been thinking about how the anti-science label tends to get assigned to anyone who tries to move the GMO debate to the level of political economy. (That is, away from whether GMO food is safe and towards who controls production and prices.) Continue reading

50 whys to look for genes: 39. Assign humans to groups that arose after dispersal from Africa

Population geneticist, Richard Lewontin “found that the majority of the total genetic variation between humans (i.e., of the 0.1% of DNA that varies between individuals), 85.4%, is found within populations, 8.3% of the variation is found between populations within a ‘race’, and only 6.3% was found to account for the racial classification. Numerous later studies have confirmed his findings” (wikipedia). Critics of Lewontin, Continue reading

50 whys to look for genes: 17. Evolution = change of gene frequencies in populations

Biology textbooks usually define evolution as a change of gene frequencies in populations over time.  A change in the frequency of some observed trait over time might be related to changes in environmental conditions and reversed if those conditions revert to earlier levels.


Evolution could be defined as a change of trait frequencies in populations over time, leaving for investigation whether the change is reversible, accompanied by a change of gene frequencies, and so on. Continue reading

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 http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/SenseMakingResponse.html)

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).

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.

Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology: A bibliography

In a 2011 graduate course on “Gender, Race, and the Complexities of Science and Technology,” students were asked to add an annotated reference or resource (=person, organization…) to the evolving googledocs bibliography each week.  (Annotations were to convey the article’s key points as well as its connection to the student’s own inquiries and interests.)  The result is as follows: Continue reading

Race and Biology: A Case Study Of Curriculum Development II

GivItAGo: …here’s my thinking —
1. Race is such an important issue in shaping culture, psychology, economics in the United States. So we have to address it whenever it can help to do so.
2. Reciprocally, there are many cultural, psychological, economic, and other facets to how people’s understanding and actions with respect to race are shaped. And the facets differ from person to person. So let’s think of the task of addressing race as one of helping students assemble a tool box from which they can draw when faced with race.
3. In our biology curriculum, we can help students assemble tools that relate to the facets of race where biology is involved, or, at least, is invoked.

(Continuing from previous post…)
(G. Changes “lessons” to “tools” on flip chart.)
Studio: This sounds OK, but it seems a bit laissez faire. Wouldn’t it be better to work out a coherent analysis of race in our society — even better, a program for students to develop their ability to address racism in their work and lives?
G: You might be right, but can we switch roles for a moment. Do you really think you’re going to be able to do that in a biology course?
S: Good point.
G: Moreover, do you really think we’d be able to convey that full blown social analysis or curriulum on race to biology teachers?
S: You might be able to present that, but that wouldn’t mean these teachers would take it up and use it.
Jokero: (popping up) No need to worry about Presenting an analysis — that’s the One P Program — old hat! Remember the 2Ps: “Perform to Provoke!” (sits down)
G: Sceptico, you said something right on just now. The goal should be for students to take things away and use them. Thus the image of tools for a tool box.
S: Do you know how people take up tools and use them — what makes this happen?
G: No, I don’t know. But let’s work out some tools first and then it’ll be easier to think about that.
S: OK. Why don’t you start with factual tools, given that I’m sceptical this category can be usefully separated from that of conceptual tools.
G: OK. Imagine I’m a teacher (puts on Pedago name tag). And I have students who know little about biology… (Studio comes on stage and addresses Pedago.)
Studio: People differ in skin color and that has a biological basis, why not other characteristics, such as intelligence?
G: Biologists have studied many enzymes that come in different forms, that is, you might have a different from from me and the difference would be coded in our genes. And biologist Richard Lewontin says they found that 85% of the variation among humans occurs among people within their own group, such as races, leaving only a fraction of variation among races.
S: (interrupts) Is that the exact fact he cites?
G: No — I plan to track down the info and to get good illustrations.
Studio: What does it mean 85% of the variation is within groups?
G: (Draws on fresh page of flip chart a scatter of dots and Xs) Imagine these points are the individuals in the human species and their position represents their differences. (Makes two greatly overlapping circles around them, and marks the center of each circle). The circles are two groups and the centers are the average of each group. The difference between the centers, the averages, is swamped by the scatter around the centers for each group.
S: (interrupts) This sounds very conceptual. What’s more you’ll need to go more slowly to get my students comfortable with these ideas.
G: OK. Another way of thinking about this is to say, if I gave you a point and you didn’t know what shape it was, would you be able to assign it correctly to the dots or the Xs? With much more variation within the group compared to between it, you’d be wrong a lot of the time.
Studio: But what if we looked at lots of enzymes at the same time — wouldn’t we be able to improve our rate of correct assignments.
G: That’s a very good question. Lewontin doesn’t talk about this. Let’s add that to the list of factual tools students might ask for. I suspect the answer is “no,” because of the amount of interbreeding there has been between people whose ancestors came from different continents.
Studio: How much interbreeding has there been? What’s the average fraction of European genetic ancestry in African-Americans?
G: You should also ask: What’s the average African genetic ancestry in people who don’t identify themselves as African-Americans or as hyphen-Americans at all?
Studio: OK. What’s the average African genetic ancestry in people who don’t identify themselves as African-Americans or as hyphen-Americans at all?
G: And what’s the range of these fractions among different people? — I’ll have to get answers to these questions and add them to our factual tool kit.
Studio: But once you do I have a new question for you — If the overall picture is of genetic overlap among races, does that rule out there being specific genes that differ more distinctly? If there weren’t, how could we tell races apart at all.
G: No, it doesn’t rule it out. Sickle cell genotypes are much more common in African-Americans. How common? — Let’s add that to our list, and also try to find out what other genes that’s the case for. (does so) But there’s no reason to link these kinds of genes with something socially significant such as intelligence or behavior more generally.
Studio: Why not? Dog breeds differ in appearance and also in behavior.
G: The example of dogs often gets brought up by students, so here’s another place where more facts would be valuable. How does genetic variation within dog breeds compare with variation among the averages for the breeds? (adds to flip chart)
S: Why don’t you proceed as if you had that information and the answer is more or less the same as Lewontin gave for humans.
G: OK. Try this, Studio: “Biologists have found that 75% of the variation among dogs occurs within breeds, leaving only a fraction of variation among breeds.”
Studio: That only shows that the genetic facts you’re giving us aren’t an adequate way of looking at the biology of dog breeds — we all know how breeds differ.
G: And if the genetic facts don’t seal the argument for dog breeds, why should they for human races. Hmmm. Sceptico, can I try another version of the facts?
S: Go ahead.
G: Try this instead, Studio: “Unlike humans, dog breeds can be distinguished genetically. But they can all interbreed, and will if allowed.”
Studio: Indeed. I think this is what has happened with humans. So races overlap more than they did in the past — racial categories are not as meaningful as they used to be. But, couldn’t there remain an average difference among races that corresponds to genetic differences?
G: You mean so that difference in test scores among races wasn’t simply a result of how races are brought up, educated, and treated in this society?
Studio: Yes.
G: Here’s where we need some conceptual lessons about what it means to partition variation into different sources — genetic and non-genetic. And about what among group differences do and do not mean for any individual. After all, on average men are taller than women, but there are some women taller than a majority of men. Focusing on the average difference contributes, unfortunately, to the cultural norm about men being taller than their female partners. This norm reduces the range of potential partners for tall women.
Studio: Tall heterosexual women.
G: OK.
G: And if the issue is not height, but average test score differences, it’s even more important not to use average differences to stereotype the range of individuals.
S: But that is done a lot in our educational system. Undertanding why this happens is another reason why I’m sceptical of teaching race in a biology class.
G: But this is where historical case studies come in. Let’s look at the recurring attempts to make race a biological issue and see how biology was debunked that was earlier accepted as established knowledge. Then ask students to consider that the same could be true for current science.
S: That seems too much for my non-bio-major students.
G: Au contraire — I suggest it’ll make it easier for them to get engaged.
S: I doubt that you have convincing evidence to back that assertion up.
Studio: Enough from you two. It’s time to hear from the “students,” that is the teachers in your audience. Didn’t you say, you were going to go through the dialog a second time to allow the audience to call time and question what we say?
G: So I did. Let’s give that a go.
S: Do you really think that’ll work with these students?.
J: Didn’t someone famous once say: “The first time a tragedy, the second time a farce”?
Prepared June 99 at a BioQUEST workshop, as a result of interaction with Steve Fifield, Raquell Holmes, and Joel Hagen.

An exchange with Lewontin in 1979

Found in a dusty folder, a letter I wrote to Dick Lewontin in 1979 and his response: PJTRCLexchange79