Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Steven Rose & the Anti-Sociobiology Marxists

Sociobiology, as the name suggest, is the scientific application of biological theories and data to (human) social phenomena. Indeed is is deemed to be a branch of both biology and sociology which incorporates - amongst other sub-disciplines - genetics, zoology, evolution, anthropology and ethology.

Sociobiology also integrates the relatively new fields of evolutionary psychology and human behavioural ecology. In terms of the details within these fields, sociobiology investigates such things as pack hunting, territorial fights, mating patterns and the hive activity of social insects.

The term 'sociobiology' itself dates back to the 1940s. However, it didn't become widely used - both within and outside of science - until Edward O. Wilson's book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis was published in 1975.

E.O Wilson himself once described sociobiology as the “extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization”.

Ad Hominems against the Anti-Sociobiology Marxists

The philosopher Philip Kitcher has said that when people mention the Marxist beliefs of anti-sociobiology - or “not in our genes” - scientists it effectively amounts to an ad hominem attack. (Well an analytic philosopher like Philip Kitcher - who's also a critic of sociobiology and a colleague of Richard Lewontin at Columbia University - would say that, wouldn't he....umm?)

In other words, rather than tackling the scientific arguments and evidence of these scientists, people like myself rely on ad hominem arguments/attacks instead.

So, I suppose, the following piece is one large ad hominem.

Nonetheless, why can't we do the ad hominem bit (if that's what it truly is) of mentioning, say, Steven Rose's virulent Marxism; and then get on with the arguments against his scientific positions?

It's not as if I'm going to be saying the following:

Steven Rose, who was part of the 'radical science movement', is a Marxist. Therefore I won't even bother reading what he has to say about genetics and sociobiology.

In addition, when I say that Steven Rose is a Marxist, is that strictly speaking an an argument “against the man” (ad hominem)? After all, Rose classes himself as a Marxist and Richard Lewontin (one of the founders of “against sociobiology” group) has freely admitted that his ideological views have influenced his scientific work.

What Philip Kitcher must also realise is that most people (Left, Right and center) can't deal with the fine detail of genetics, sociobiology or evolutionary psychology because they aren't qualified to do so. (They aren't qualified to speak on the “a priorior other esoteric areas of Kitcher's analytic philosophy either.) Yet surely that doesn't mean that all of us non-professionals should keep our mouths shut on all these issues. Indeed is Steven Rose himself qualified - a neurobiologist, not a political scientist or economist - to pontificate on “capitalism” and the “Tory government”, as he sometimes does?

Nonetheless, if I were a scientist working in the field of genetics, neurobiology or psychology, then perhaps my mentioning the fact that these people are Marxists simply wouldn't be cricket. Similarly, if I were a student or professor at a philosophy departmental seminar (at Philip Kitcher's Columbia University) and I mentioned Steven Rose's prior Marxism, then I know full well that such a thing would certainly be taken to be a sacrilegious act against argument and philosophical debate.

It may also be the case that these people have done some good science. However, perhaps any genuinely good science they have done was simply a result of their not seeing seen any direct - or even indirect - political implications of that science. When politics or ideology impinged on their work, on the other hand, then it's very reasonable to assume (according to what they have said themselves) that politics/ideology will have been paramount; whereas science would have simply been its servant. And that may still be the case even if much of their academic - though still politicised - scientific work is chock-a-block with scientific jargon, charts, graphs, innumerable references and footnotes and all the other trademarks of academese (which, I'm suggesting, can sometimes hide or disguise deep ideological/political bias).

Consequently, surely it's conceivable that the prior Marxist theories of these anti-sociobiology scientists are actually extremely relevant to arguments and philosophical debates about sociobiology, genetics and the like!

So despite all those caveats, I would say that if you aren't a scientist (or a professional philosopher of science), then extreme scepticism about the views of these political-activist scientists is very wise indeed.

Biography (or Ad Hominem)

Even Steven Rose's fellow Leftists at the UK newspaper The Guardian have described him as a “polemicist of the left”. Another fellow scientist, Patrick Bateson, said that Rose “may be the last of the Marxist radical scientists”.

By almost anyone's standards, the Socialist Workers Party's Steven Rose is a fanatical ideologue. (The SWP is a self-described “revolutionary anti-capitalist party”.) Indeed Rose could hardly disagree with the fact that he, according to Richard Dawkins, gives “ideology priority over truth”.

That statement shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who understands even a little bit about Marxism.

According to most - or even all – Marxists, it is the case that ideology, politics and power can never be separated from science or indeed from truth itself.

And that fundamental Marxist position, no doubt, explains why Steven Rose sees politics and ideology in the work of so many other non-Marxist scientists: scientists who, on the whole, haven’t - unlike Rose himself - been activists in political groups and movements for most of their lives.

Thus is all this simply an example of one individual (Steven Rose) psychologically “projecting” his own ideological and political obsessions into the minds of other scientists?

Now for a small amount of words on two of the other well-known anti-sociobiology scientists.

Richard Lewontin has also described himself as a “Marxist”. Indeed he has happily admitted that his ideological views have affected his scientific work.

Gould Jay Gould (who died in 2002) said that he was “brought up by a Marxist father”. He described his own politics as “left of center”. Gould also said that Noam Chomsky's books had a great influence on him.

(Interestingly enough, Noam Chomsky once - sort of - came to the defence of sociobiology; though he did so only by committing exactly the sin I'm accusing his fellow Leftists of committing. Chomsky argued that there may, after all, be some room for sociobiological positions; though only because he thought that “it was important for political radicals to postulate a relatively fixed human nature in order to be able to struggle for a better society”.)

Some Science

The Politics of Science

The philosopher Julian Baggini (in his What Philosophers Think) commented on the political misgivings (about sociobiology) of the anti-sociobiology group. He wrote:

“… Steven Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin… noting… that theories that attempted to establish a biological foundation to social behaviour provided an ‘important basis… for the eugenic policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany’; and E.O. Wilson himself was drenched in water by protesters at a meeting…” (65)

Of course science can be political; or at least scientific theories can become politicised.

Racial science” is obviously connected to the Nazi movement. However, that doesn’t mean that sociobiology will lead to Nazi policies or gas chambers.

So let's put the boot on the other foot.

What about science as practised and endorsed by left-wingers or Marxists? Should we, for example, keep a firm check on the scientific research of Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin as well? It could, after all, lead to Stalinism; or to a regime or set of policies like that of the Khmer Rouge or Chairman Mao's Red Guard; or even to the filling of a future Gulag with “Islamophobes”, “bigots”, “racists”, “reactionaries”, patriots, nationalists, “xenophobes”... and sociobiologists. (Think here of Soviet science and how nonconformist scientists were treated.)

And what if Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin (or Marxist scientists like them) scientifically show that the best form of society is a socialist one and that we should bring such a society about – by force if necessary? (Marxism itself was deemed a science; until that view became largely unfashionable in the 1960s.)

Now let's get back to “right-wing” sociobiology.

Even if scientists or geneticists do come to certain conclusions about social behaviour, nothing necessarily follows from that unless we, as political cultures and democracies, allow it to. (Marxists such as Steven Rose have never trusted either the people or democratic processes.)

In any case, obviously there is “a biological foundation to social behaviour”; whether or not it provided an “important basis for the eugenics policies which lead to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazis Germany”. Surely Lewontin, Rose and the rest can’t be denying this. So if they aren’t, then they must be saying - or implying - that even if there are biological foundations to social behaviour, we mustn’t say that there are. Thus these Marxists are saying that sociobiology is not a fit subject of scientific research.

And that, surely, is a very radical position to uphold. Indeed it was Stalin's position! (It's like a scientific version of the Left's “no platform” policy: this time for sociobiology rather than for “far right” political groups and individuals.)

In other words, should we allow political activists (who also happen to be scientists) to stop certain – or many! - areas of scientific research? Should scientists like Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin ever be allowed to determine what scientists should and shouldn't do?

Gene for....

Let's see what problems Steven Jay Gould , Steven Rose and Richard Lewontin had with sociobiology:

In the eyes of the critics of reductionism, such a strategy results in the claim that complex behaviours are straightforwardly genetically determined. For example, Steven Rose, Leon Kamin and Richard Lewontin assert in Not in Our Genes that ‘sociobiology is a reductionist, biological determinist explanation of human existence'.”

E.O. Wilson has never talked about – or even hinted at - the “inevitable manifestations of the specific actions of genes”. Indeed there is very little that is necessary or inevitable in the world (outside logic and mathematics).

And who says that sociobiologists, or E.O Wilson in particular, claim that “complex behaviours are straightforwardly genetically determined”? Steven Rose et al say that; though not the majority of – or any – sociobiologists. As scientists, sociobiologists would say that nothing complex is straightforward. If it were straightforward, then they wouldn’t need to study it for years. We’d all know the sociobiological facts.

Nonetheless, even if sociobiologists don't say or claim such things, it's clear that these Marxist scientists think that sociobiology itself is reductionist and determinist.

Here's one sociobiologist, E.O Wilson, speaking for himself on this matter:

... all biologists speak of the interaction between heredity and environment. They do not, except in laboratory shorthand, speak of a gene 'causing' a particular behaviour, and they never mean it literally.”

Behaviours are indeed ‘genetically determined’; though not ‘straightforwardly’ so. Is Steven Rose simply saying that this is false? Or is he saying that it's a politically dangerous idea?

If E.O Wilson didn't emphasis the “interaction between heredity and environment”, he would be laughed out of court by just about every other scientist. Indeed it's hard to even make sense of genes being solely responsible for all social behaviour regardless of the environment. Does that thesis even make sense?

What E.O. Wilson may say, along with philosophers of science such as Helena Cronin, is that this is a false dichotomy in the first place.

It's not a case of genes or environment. It isn't even a case of a 50/50 split between genes and environment. The (human) environment, or society, is itself a product of our genes (at least to some extent). There would be no society without pre-existing genes for social (as well as anti-social) behaviours.

Reductionism & Determinism?

Steven Rose and the rest of the anti-sociobiology group often (very often!) use two scare-words in relation to sociobiology: reductionism and determinism (“vague terms of abuse”, according to Steven Pinker).

Are these scientific positions and methodologies plainly false? Or are they, again, simply deemed to be politically dangerous by Marxists?

E.O. Wilson himself puts his position on scientific reductionism it this way:

Major science always deals with reduction and resynthesis of complex systems, across two or three levels of complexity at a step. For example, from quantum physics to the principles of atomic physics, thence reagent chemistry, macromolecular chemistry, molecular biology, and so on – comprising, in general, complexity and reduction, and reduction to resynthesis of complexity, in repeated sweeps.”

This shows the importance of reductions in most or all the sciences: not just between the sciences; but also within them.

But now let's turn the tables on Mr Steven Rose.

It can quite easily be argued that Rose is a reductionist himself, as well as a determinist. Isn't he, in fact, a Marxist determinist who believes that everything is the outcome of (not his words) “class struggle and the “material economic realities” which underpin such “superstructural manifestations as belief-systems, religions and ideologies”? (All belief-systems and ideologies which aren’t Marxist, that is.)

So whereas Steven Rose claims that all sociobiologists are reductionists when it comes to genes; he, as a Marxist, may well be a reductionist when it comes to class and socioeconomic realities. These are seen, by Marxists (even by the sophisticated ones), to underpin all things. Indeed no one has ever been more of a reductionist than Marx himself. Marx saw almost everything in terms of the various historical “class struggles” which grew out of the socioeconomic “material conditions” of each age. And If I am caricaturing Marxism (which I don't think I am), then perhaps Steven Rose has similarly caricatured sociobiology; as well as E.O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and other scientists.


Some people may be willing to accept that E.O. Wilson and other sociobiologists are right-wing or conservative. (Even that claim can be disputed in E.0. Wilson's case. Wilson is a fan of Obama, a keen warmist and environmentalist and he once described himself as a “liberal”.)

However, it can't have endeared E.O. Wilson to Steven Rose, Richard Lewontin, etc. when in a discussion about communism and socialism he said:

What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn't it work in humans? Because we have reproductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring.”

Nonetheless, saying that doesn't make E.O. Wilson a Nazi or a racist. And yet this is precisely the label he was tarred with by these Marxist scientists. Despite that, Steven Rose and other Marxists would no doubt say that it simply doesn't matter if E.0. Wilson is a Nazi or a racist. What matters is that his views and research can still be used and quoted by Nazis and/or racists. And this position precisely mirrors the situation in which other Marxists – and no doubt Steven Rose himself - claim that the words of the non-racist and non-fascist critics of Islam and some Muslims are also dangerous because they too can still be quoted and used by what they call “fascists” and/or “racists”.

And the consequence of this is... what? That both sociobiologists and the critics of Islam should remain silent? Or even that they should be silenced?

All this is very strange when you consider the fact that according to many people the exact left-wing equivalent of Nazism or fascism (especially Nazism) is revolutionary Marxism – and that's precisely what these critics of E.O. Wilson and sociobiology are. Indeed Steven Rose has been an active member of the the UK's Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for decades.

Now are these extreme Marxists the best people to listen to or read if you want to discover the truths and falsehoods of sociobiology?

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