"It seems to me that to organize on the basis of feeding people or righting social injustice and all that is very valuable. But to rally people around the idea of modernism, modernity, or something is simply silly. I mean, I don't know what kind of a cause that is, to be up to date. I think it ultimately leads to fashion and snobbery and I'm against it."
Jack Levine: January 3, 1915 – November 8, 2010
Monday, February 10, 2014
Caution To The Wind
Because I'm miserable with my aching arm and the remain of a cold, I'm throwing caution to the wind and posting a letter that Richard Lewontin sent to the New York Review of Book in 1990. Just because I re-read it and I like it. You can read Maynard Smith's response which doesn't really deal with the points Lewontin raised, here .
John Maynard Smith, in his recent review of Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind [NYR, March 15], has made a couple of remarks about the recent history and sociology of biology that need to be challenged both as factual claims and as descriptions of motivation.
In explaining the probable resistance to Penrose’s ideas among biologists as probably a consequence of the difficulty of the physics, he writes that: “Sociologists are hostile to sociobiologists for the same reason: if E.O. Wilson is right, they will have to learn some genetics.”
First, the fact: “Sociologists” are not hostile to sociobiology. Many are but many were quite positive toward the theory from its inception, and not only sociologists, but political scientists, cultural anthropologists, economists and other social scientists as well. My reprint files are filled with papers by social scientists explaining every human social phenomenon from aggression to zealotry using the theory of inclusive fitness. Second, the ascribed motivation: The implication that if only social scientists had the intellectual leisure to learn genetics they would embrace sociobiology, or at least give it a serious hearing, misses the point. I am not as ready as Maynard Smith to say where the ignorance of genetics reaches its greatest depths. The retreat of some early enthusiasts from sociobiological theory, and its rejection by many social scientists from the beginning, do not come from their ignorance of the facts of history, but from their knowledge of the phenomena of human social existence. By its very nature, sociobiological theory is unable to cope with the extraordinary historical and culturalcontingency of human behavior, nor with the diversity of individual behavior and its development in the course of individual life histories. Sociobiological theory depends upon typologies (“men would rather believe than know,” “sociologists are hostile to sociobiology”) which fail to correspond to actual contingencies. Sociologists who have rejected sociobiology have done so because it cannot be cashed out. It is too theoretically impoverished to deal with real life. My guess is that those social scientists who remain committed to the theory do so in the mistaken belief that a simplistic biological theory will do what simplistic social theories have not.
A bit further on in his piece, Maynard Smith again juxtaposes a “fact” about people with an assumption of motivation. “The people who are going to like this book best, however, will probably be those who don’t understand it. As an evolutionary biologist, I have learned over the years that most people do not want to see themselves as lumbering robots programmed to ensure the survival of their genes.”
Unless he has been carrying out a stratified sampling poll of Great Britain, John surely means “most literate and educated people, professors, students and people who write letters to the editors” since those are the people that he, and I, mostly know and hear from. But if what he says about them is true, then they are extraordinary masochists as well. They have made a best-seller out of The Selfish Gene in which the robot metaphor first appeared, and a popular intellectual figure and modest academic success out of its previously undistinguished author, Richard Dawkins, With enemies like these, people have no need of friends. Of all the vulgar errors about biology presently circulating. the notion that we are “lumbering robots blindly programmed” by our genes which “control us body and mind” (Dawkins’ original dictum) is surely the most popular by a long shot.
Is Maynard Smith suggesting that if only people could conquer their irrational dislike of the idea and understand it better, they would see that we really are such robots? He is among the world’s best biologists, and he knows as well as I do that every individual in every species is the unique consequence of a developmental process that is, at every moment, an interaction between the internal and external, between genes and environment. No organisms, not even ants, but certainly not human beings are robots controlled by their genes. But perhaps the ambiguity of his prose has misled me into asking whether he holds a view he does not have.
So for the sake of the “people,” let’s have a clear and unmistakable declaration. Putting likes and dislikes aside, and speaking as an eminent biologist, tell us, John, are we robots or aren’t we?