Making science serve the people: the battle against biological determinism

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    nittany ram
    nittany ram


    Eugene Dardenne looks at the history of Science for the People and its determined struggle against those who tried to put science in the service of deepening oppression.

    April 19, 2017
    “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”
    — Donald Trump

    THE PRESIDENCY is in the hands of someone who denies the reality of climate science, and so it’s fitting that one part of the resistance will be the March for Science this coming weekend in Washington, D.C., and around the U.S.

    Science can prove that Trump and his cheerleaders in the right-wing media are peddling fake news, but it has more to offer.

    Democratic Party leaders accept the reality of global warming, but believe that responsible consumerism paired with cautious diplomacy will save future generations from irreversible climate catastrophe. They insist that climate policies must be “practical,” and so under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, we got carbon credits and a push for energy-efficient light bulbs and LEED-certified buildings.

    In their view, the reality of climate change was another problem to be solved by the free market and the State Department. For more than 20 years, these “solutions” to the climate crisis have failed to stop the increase in greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, much less reverse them.

    One could conclude that politics has been the problem. Science has done its part by identifying global warming and warning about its consequences, and politics betrayed the responsibility to do something about it.

    But to divide out science and politics like this concedes to the politicians and bureaucrats in the very arena where science could serve society. In the 1970s and ’80s, one organization gave a glimpse of how people could assert science in the service of social justice: Science for the People (SftP). This organization and the movements it was part of did more to promote a rational and just use of science in society than anything Al Gore could dream of.

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    IN 1969, the Harvard Educational Review published Arthur Jensen’s “How Much Can We Boost I.Q. and Achievement?” This article argued that 80 percent of intelligence was hereditary and that social inequalities could be explained by genetic inequalities.

    Claims like this about the biological supremacy of this or that group are nothing new in American politics. Jensen was just updating the older racist arguments of eugenics with a new shellac of pseudoscience to argue that supplementary educational efforts such as the federal Head Start program are futile.

    Fortunately, Jensen faced the determined opposition of Science for the People.

    During the following 20 years, Science for the People–both the organization and a monthly magazine with the same name–waged war on Jensen and the reactionaries who followed in his wake.

    Under the tutelage of Harvard University’s E.O. Wilson, the newly christened field of sociobiology aimed to polish up the cruder eugenics and biological determinism of Jensen and earlier “social Darwinists.” But like Jensen, Wilson was kept on the defensive as SftP activists exposed his work in service to the political establishment and even confronted him in person when he presented it.

    Nearly every issue of Science for the People contained a contribution to the polemic, and the Ann Arbor branch of the organization hosted a working group that published the important book Biology as a Social Weapon.

    SftP’s best-known members Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin were central players in the debate, and their writings remain the best critique of eugenics-themed explanations for social inequality.

    Lewontin pioneered the widely cited studies proving that there is greater genetic variability within races than between them. And Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is an indispensable takedown of IQ-based education policy.

    What was revolutionary about their approach was that, rather than leave the evidence open to interpretation, SftP authors always exposed the other side with a political explanation. As Lewontin wrote in his introduction to Biology as a Social Weapon:

    There are still rich and poor, powerful and weak, both within and between nations. How is this to be explained?

    We might suppose that the inequalities are structural, that the society…has inequality built into it and even depends upon that inequality for its operation. But that supposition, if taken seriously, would engender…revolution. The alternative is to claim that inequalities reside in properties of individuals rather than in the structure of social relations. This is the claim that our society has produced about as much equality as is humanly possible, and that the remaining differences in status and wealth and power are the inevitable manifestations of natural inequalities in individual abilities…

    Such a view does not threaten the status quo but, on the contrary, supports it by telling those who are without power that their position is the inevitable outcome of their own innate deficiencies and that, therefore, nothing can be done about it.

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    ONE SHUDDERS to imagine the consequences if the battle to expose biological determinism was left to the “realistic” Democrats rather than the Black Power and women’s rights movement supported by radical scientists.

    For his part, Jensen is remembered by the Southern Policy Law Center as “the father of academic racism.” But if not for the efforts of SftP, he might be known today as a respected evolutionary psychologist.

    Science for the People’s fight against biological determinism is instructive today for at least three reasons.

    For one, we should remember that a scientific argument enjoying far less consensus than climate change science has today was not only able to sway public opinion, but to defend the gains of social movements. Imagine the impact of a similar contribution today by climate scientists bringing their message directly to the environmental movement and communities on the front lines of climate change.

    Second, SftP’s experience combating eugenics is useful because the same debate has returned.

    The social movements of the 1960s and ’70s needed to recede before the right’s most deplorable ideas could regain any currency. The disappearance of organizations and publications like Science for the People by the late 1980s correspond with the re-emergence of ideas like Jensen’s.

    Enter Charles Murray, whose 1994 book (co-written with fellow racist and regular SftP target Richard Herrnstein) The Bell Curve relaunched the same debate that Jensen had triggered a generation before. In this latest round, Murray and Herrnstein claimed that genes could explain somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of cognitive intelligence (compared to Jensen’s hard 80 percent figure in 1969).

    The big difference was that by 1994, there was no mass left capable of exposing, let alone dislodging, the racism at the root of such “science.” So while Murray faced plenty of protests upon the book’s publication, there was no consistent campaign to challenge him.

    Another two decades on, Charles Murray’s notoriety has receded further into the past, and the media treat him as a misunderstood and persecuted victim of “political correctness” and campus intolerance.

    But the left shouldn’t shy away from debate in the face of arguments about “free speech” or “academic freedom” cynically advanced in Murray’s defense by university administrators and media commentators. Science for the People showed that it was possible to wage and win the fight against biological determinism by way of sustained polemic and links with social movements.

    That any old racist with a book deal has the right to an honorarium is an idea that could only gain traction in the wake of the left’s–and Science for the People’s–decline.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    A THIRD lesson to take from Science for the People and its campaign against Social Darwinism is how when activists are armed with science, their solidarity can be most meaningful.

    For example, SftP consistently disputed the role for eugenics within the struggle to expand access to abortion. Two articles by Linda Gordon published in 1977 (see part one and part two) explained how the previous generation of birth control advocates was led by Margaret Sanger away from feminism and deep into the eugenics camp:

    The men who dominated the socialist movement [in the 1920’s and ’30s] did not perceive birth control as fundamental to their own interests, and their theory categorized it as a reform peripheral to the struggle of the working class. Eugenicists, on the other hand, once they caught on to the idea of urging birth control upon the poor rather than condemning it among the rich, were prepared to offer active and powerful support.

    As is always the case, the left’s weakness became the right’s strength–so what followed decades of population-control policy, complete with racist sterilization campaigns and family-focused birth control “options” that guaranteed very little to the underprivileged.

    Like all of SftP’s work, Gordon’s articles provided both the science to debunk the right and the politics to guide the left. In chronicling the history of the birth control movement, Gordon traced its rightward shift from the domain of the women’s movement into eugenics by way of the “professional” guidance of medical doctors and clinicians.

    Anyone currently engaged in the debate with Planned Parenthood over how to defend abortion access would do well to read Gordon’s pieces and learn how Science for the People conducted similar arguments 40 years ago.

    Biological determinism wasn’t the only target of SftP. In 20 years of organizing and publishing, the organization waged war against all kinds of oppressions and any “science” lined up in their defense.

    But this one example shows how radical scientists, at the service of social movements and armed with Marxism, can contribute to understanding the system we live under; wage and win an argument to expand society’s definition of human rights; and provide critical historical lessons to guide today’s activists.



    Why March for Science? Because when it is attacked, only the elite benefit

    Lucky Tran

    Lucky Tran is a science communicator based in New York, and holds a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Cambridge. He is also on the steering committee of the March for Science. These words and views are his own.

    I’m marching for science today because I’m mad. Yes, I’m a mad scientist. I became a scientist because I wanted to help people. In my career I’ve researched gene therapy, how to engineer new antibiotics and how to make better cancer drugs. But now what I do and care about has come under attack. I’m mad at politicians for hijacking science for their own selfish interests.

    I know that many people just love debating whether science should be political or not. But personally I’m not really too interested in spinning my wheels in this pyrrhic war. Science has always been political ever since we first used it to show that the Earth orbits the Sun. And right now, we haven’t any time to waste.

    The real question is who does science serve? When politicians are left alone to attack science with impunity, the answer is that science serves only the most elite, and is obstructed from helping all of us. As a result, real people get hurt, particularly our most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Look at lead poisoning in Flint. Or Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Or the Dakota Access Pipeline. Or the rising seas of Tuvalu. Or the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Or the measles outbreak in Europe.

    I’m marching because science needs to take a stand and fight for justice with the communities who are harmed by bad science policy.

    And while we’re here marching, we scientists need to recognize that we are extremely late – science has been under attack for a long time, not just in 2017. Our scientific community has been sitting on the sidelines watching in horror, afraid to get involved and be called biased. This strategy of ceding the floor has failed us terribly, as those with private political interests have gone ahead and polarized scientific issues anyway.

    I’m marching because democracy is not a spectator sport. Not even for scientists.

    Young people get this. Many of my young scientist friends are reacting to the assault on science by leaving the lab to work in communications, policy and advocacy. And they’re organizing the March for Science. Our generation is standing up right now because we are the ones who will suffer the most from bad science policy decisions.

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    It’s our cities that will be wrecked by climate change, it’s our bodies that will suffer from the dismantling of public health, it’s our jobs that will be lost to automation. We’re leading the fight because our heads are on the chopping block.

    It’s also significant that the science justice movement is being led by the people. The march was started by strangers connecting over social media and has bloomed into a global movement, 600 cities and hundreds of thousands of participants strong.

    In the past, the institutional structure of science advocacy has created a conservative bystander culture that has failed science abysmally. We need grassroots activists unfettered by protocol, and not content to just do better “outreach”. We need science advocates who can speak truth to power, organize in our communities, and to challenge problematic power structures with action. Scientists in the streets is a sign that politics as usual cannot continue.

    And as march for science, we are also defending the people who do science, because they’re under attack. Scientists are being gagged from speaking about research like climate change online (at the National Park Service and Department of Energy), and being banned from the country because of their background. This is especially troubling given our history of erecting institutional barriers that prevent prevent certain groups from participating in science (see Hidden Figures, Rosalind Franklin, or Henrietta Lacks).

    The attacks hit close to home for me because I was born in a refugee camp. I am only a scientist today because I benefitted from pro-refugee policies – why doesn’t the future generation have the same chance I did? When scientists face barriers, they can’t do their work in service of the public good, so we all suffer. That’s why the fight to stand up for scientists and science itself are one and the same.

    We’ve been speaking to many historians and seasoned scientists, and they all tell us: the March for Science is poised to be the largest science event in history. That’s poignant because, right now, changing history is absolutely what is required.

    We need another scientific revolution. The first scientific revolution transformed our understanding the natural world and changed civilization as we know it, making us healthier, happier and more productive. Today, we have huge scientific challenges ahead such as climate change, genetic engineering and automation. And yet we are stuck with the hand brake on and unable to act effectively as a society, because a few privileged people are blocking progress at the expense of the rest of us.

    That’s why we urgently need to transform the relationship between science, politics and society: our collective futures depend on it. That’s why I’m marching, because we need to change history. It’s time to join the revolution.

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