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Higher Superstition’: An Exchange

In response to:

Survival of the Nicest? from the October 22, 1998 issue

To the Editors:

Among the polemical lions of The New York Review, a few are by now (if truth be known) quite gone in the teeth. Richard Lewontin is one of the dentally challenged. Consider, for illustration, his obiter dictum on Higher Superstition, and thereby on us, its authors [NYR, October 22]. It and we are mocked as “naive” and “obtuse” for having dared to suggest that natural science is concerned with, and responsive to, the real world. (Advanced social thinkers, presumably, know better.) “Naive” and “obtuse” are odd charges coming from one who has for so long trodden the tortuous road of orthodox Marxism.

Nevertheless he must be serious in these derogations. Whether there is a real world or not, Lewontin does not doubt his own ability to know how things really are. And he has railed elsewhere against Higher Superstition, particularly in a review, a few years back, for the journal Configurations. He derided us there for choosing easy targets, for dealing with writers so foolish and insignificant as to be not worth refuting. We were also denounced for embracing the unspeakable—sociobiology.

Lewontin must have failed to notice, however, that a number of those simpletons and obscurities not worth refuting were members of the Configurations editorial board, or prominent fellow contributors to its pages. Presumably they didn’t notice, either. Even stranger was his failure to notice that Higher Superstition had nothing to say about sociobiology, favorable or otherwise. The only reference to it was in an endnote, added in proof, remarking that Andrew Ross (later to be a source of innocent merriment in connection with the Sokal hoax) is eager to defame E.O. Wilson in connection with sociobiology, but has nothing at all to say about Wilson’s powerful advocacy in aid of biodiversity and other ecological causes with which Ross likes to associate himself.

Mendacity? Well, no. It’s just that Lewontin’s gaze is so fixated on ancient political grudges that he can’t read the text immediately before him. If, indeed, he is so firmly convinced that science is not “a reality-driven enterprise,” we should wonder why he spent so much of his life doing population genetics, testing hypotheses about how evolution really works. But then, he does seem increasingly disengaged from scientific work these days. He sulks, sucking his paws and glaring at those who don’t share his political and philosophical quirks. Those, to be sure, manifest an admirable consistency, given that they are quirks, as longtime readers of The New York Review must know.

Paul R. Gross
Warwick, Rhode Island
Norman Levitt
New York City

Richard Lewontin replies:

I confess that I was delighted to read the letter from Gross and Levitt, and I briefly considered asking The New York Review to publish it without any response. Of course, the provocation I offered them was great and their annoyance understandable, but the result has been productive. Far better than I could have done, the authors provide the reader with an insight into the quality of thought and content that characterizes their book, Higher Superstition. More than that, however, there are bits of substance dimly visible through the haze that would repay some independent consideration. We can put aside remarks about my dental health (actually quite good), the treatment of E.O. Wilson (who is not referred to at all in my review and to whom, I am sure, we all owe thanks for putting his considerable public image at the disposal of threatened species), and the characterization of the editorial board of Configurations (who also seem irrelevant to my review and for whom I refuse all responsibility). There are more substantial questions to consider. The first concerns an important problem in the social practice of scientists, namely their claim to legitimacy when they speak on matters of the history, philosophy, and sociology of science. Especially as they grow older, natural scientists begin to think that they can be philosophers and historians, because, after all, these are intellectually “soft” domains in which any damn fool can operate as well as any other. In their hubris, scientists fail to appreciate the amount of craft, knowledge, and practice required to be even a minimally competent historian or philosopher. I was once appointed the chair of a committee to find an occupant for a newly endowed professorship of the history of medicine and I was aghast to find that most of the applicants were retired professors of medicine who, in their leisure years, had turned their minds to the social sciences. I share with the authors of Higher Superstition the belief that to write sensibly about science in-the-large one must be engaged daily in doing science in-the-small. As science is done, at least in biology, it is a social activity in which professors, professional visitors, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students are in constant interaction in a shared physical and intellectual space. A loss of contact with this activity means, however hard one may try, the loss of contact with the present state of a science and the loss of the material basis on which science can be evaluated. People who stop doing science must soon stop talking about it. I am conscious of this problem as I am only a year younger than Paul Gross, and I assure him that the day I stop doing technical scientific work I will stop writing for, or to, The New York Review.

The second issue concerns Gross and Levitt’s curious belief, as revealed in the subtitle of Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and its Quarrels with Science, that any claim of social and ideological influence on the process and content of science is a form of Marxist madness. In this they are simply ignorant of the development of the sociology and history of science as disciplines. Marxists certainly subscribe to the claim but they hardly have a monopoly on it, nor was it invented by a postmodern pinko cabal. The long-reigning dean of the sociology of science, Robert King Merton, in his famous 1938 book, Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England, argued that English science of that most productive period was a product of a Puritan consciousness, and that the subject matter of Newton’s Principia was driven by the demands of the English economy. Moreover, the much more radical doctrine that reality is socially constructed, against which Gross and Levitt inveigh, is precisely the inverse of the ideology of the founders of the Soviet state, who claimed to be founding a “scientific society” rooted in a “scientific socialism.” No phrase is more common in the rhetoric of Marxism than “objective conditions.”

Finally we come to the question of what constitutes “obtuse ignorance of the actual state of science.” That ignorance is not to be confused with ignorance of the current practice and results of some science. I would be greatly surprised if Gross were ignorant of current experiments in developmental biology, for example. Rather, it is ignorance of the immense diversity of canons of evidence that characterize different sciences, of the powerful role that metaphors play in the conceptualizations in different sciences and in directing their experimental programs, and in the degree to which prior ideological commitment governs what scientists say about the real world. Gross and Levitt ascribe my foolishness to an excessive concentration on population genetics and evolution. Does that mean that these fields are not part of science? What about human behavioral genetics, most of whose published experiments would not pass the methodological and statistical requirements of standard animal breeding journals, largely because of the special difficulties involved in studying humans? Or behavioral ecology, which consists largely of telling plausible but unfalsifiable stories? And then there is developmental biology, completely dominated at the present time by the manifestly false assumption that all the information necessary to specify an organism is contained in that organism’s genes, while totally ignoring the uncontroversial fact, supported by copious data, that the environment in which development occurs makes an important difference.

Why do developmental biologists continue to use and take seriously metaphors like “program” or “computation” or “code of life” or “blueprint” when considering the relationship between genes and organisms? Perhaps we should exclude from science everything that is not physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. All biologists know that DNA is not “self-replicating,” but is manufactured by a complex protein machinery in the cell, yet when they describe the results of molecular biology to students in lectures and textbooks and to the public in trade books, newspapers, or television, they almost always speak of “the master molecule that is self-replicating.” Well, that’s biology. At least physics doesn’t suffer from ideological predispositions. Of course Einstein did argue against quantum uncertainty by saying that “I shall never believe that God plays dice with the universe.” For Gross and Levitt, science consists of uncontroversial lawlike statements that describe what is “really” true about the physical world, like Newton’s laws, or the law of combining proportions in chemistry, or Mendel’s laws. It is that simple structure that we all learned in high school. “Obtuse ignorance” is a kind of clumsiness of thought that makes it impossible to consider matters in their real ambiguity and complexity.

It is our experience that the collection of practices that we include within “science” does a much better job of enabling us to manipulate the material world than thinking beautiful thoughts or prayer (although, of course, mental states can influence our physical bodies). But much of what we would like to know cannot be known, and much of what we would like to do cannot be done, even by the best methods available. Science is a social activity carried out by organisms with a limited central nervous system and severely limited sense organs. It is, moreover, carried out by organisms who have already gone through a considerable period of individual socialization and psychic maturation before they become employed as scientists, in a social setting that has a history that constrains thought and action. The state of science should not be confused with the state of the universe.

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