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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Ross S. Feldberg

We will be reading chapters 1 and 3 from R.C. Lewontin’s Biology As Ideology (Harper Perennial) 19991.

In this section of the course, we will examine how science can be used to justify certain social beliefs or practices. There are many clear historical examples of this (for example, the characterization of runaway slaves as suffering from a disease, the Soviet rejection of Mendelian genetics for ideological reasons in the 1930s, the Nazi practice of “racial science” to justify prejudice against Jews). It is, however, much more difficult to look critically at one’s own society or time and identify those beliefs that we think are scientifically proven, but in which science is used as a cover for dearly held “truths.”

I think you will find Lewontin full of interesting ideas and insights, although you may not agree with everything he says. What I would like you to do is to keep track of what information and ideas are new to you, and your reaction to them. The key here is your reaction, for this is what transforms passive reading to active learning. You can agree or disagree with his point of view, but you need to express your response in writing. Some questions that you might consider in your reading.

  1. Many people would point to the rigorous methodology of the scientific method and say that science has an existence independent of the culture it is found in. What is Lewontin’s perspective? What is your opinion?

  2. In what ways (historical or current) has religion been used for ideological purposes?

  3. Can you think of any examples (historical or current) of science being used for ideological purposes?

  4. Lewontin takes an unusual position related to causes and effects, discriminating between causes and agents. Was this convincing to you? What other examples might one use for this? In what way might this approach be useful?

  5. Lewontin says that theories of human nature are important. Why do you suppose he makes this point? Do you think American society has an implicit view of human nature?

1. Other Discussion Points

In Chapter 1, Lewontin raises two critical issues which I would like you to think about:

  1. What are the social influences that determine what problems are worthy of study?

  2. Think about it – what gets funded and why? Public health vs. high tech equipment? Space station vs. renewable energy resources. Those are ultimately political issues. How are they decided currently?

    1. To what uses do we put scientific knowledge?

Science is itself a social institution that functions within a broader social institution. We can understand science as a dual process by which social institutions control what scientists do while at the same time using what scientists produce to support those institutions. Q. The challenge for you is to put this in concrete terms!

In Chapter 3, Lewontin deals with the notion that effects are generally traced back to single or isolated causes. Indeed this is an essential element of modern reductionist science. He applies this idea to health (TB and life expectancy) and to the idea that genes are the “cause” of specific behaviors and illnesses. The chapter starts well, but then gets into a debate about the usefulness of the Human Genome Project which is somewhat dated. (Although there are still many questions about how this project was oversold, there is little doubt that the basic knowledge derived from the project has been of value.)

2. Additional Reading

There have been several very detailed books and reports on the conflict between the Bush administration and the scientific community.

  • Politics and Science in the Bush Administration. Prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman, Rep, California 2003

  • Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush administration by Seth Shulman (University of California Press) 2006

  • The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney (Basic Books) 2006

    and the on-line critique of Mooney’s arguments with his responses

  • Looking for a Fight: Is there a Republican War on Science? John Holbo, ed. (Glassbead Books) 2006.