Biology and Ideology

Why should we be concerned about biology and ideology? One good reason is that the use of biology for non-biological ends has been the cause of immense human suffering. Biology has been used to justify eugenic genic programs, enforced sterilization, experimentation on living humans, death camps, and political ambitions based on notions of racial superiority, ity, to name but a few examples. We should also be concerned because biological ideas continue to be used, if not in these specific ways, then in other ways that lie well beyond science. Investigating the past should help us to be more reflective about the science of our own day, hopefully more equipped to discern the ideological abuse of science when it occurs. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Not so many decades ago science represented the antithesis of ideology. Indeed, science rested securely on a pedestal, enshrined as the very “norm of truth.” According to the founding father of the history of science, George Sarton (1884-1956), the “main purpose” of science, pursued by disinterested scholars, was “the discovery of truth.” Convinced that science was the only human activity that “is obviously and undoubtedly cumulative and progressive,” he described the history of science as “the story of a protracted struggle, which will never end, against the inertia of superstition and ignorance, against the liars and hypocrites, and the deceivers and the self-deceived, against all the forces of darkness and nonsense.” (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

By the late nineteenth century, practicing scientists, as well as science educators and popularizers, were increasingly attributing the success of science to something called “the scientific method,” a slippery but rhetorically powerful slogan. In the words of the distinguished American astronomer Simon Newcomb, who devoted considerable thought to scientific methodology, “the most marked characteristic of the science of the present day … is its entire rejection of all speculation on propositions which do not admit of being brought to the test of experience.”‘ (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

To such devotees, science was not only true but edifying, totally unlike the “grubby worlds” of business and politics. As Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, an erstwhile chemist, declared at the opening of the American Museum of Natural History in 1878, science produced a “searching, open, humble mind … having no other end than to learn, prizing above all things accuracy, thoroughness, and candor.” Many of its practitioners, asserts the historian David A. Hollinger, saw science “as a religious calling,” “a moral enterprise.” Those who used science for ideological purposes often found themselves denounced as charlatans and pseudo-scientists. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Until well into the twentieth century neither scientists themselves nor the scholars who studied science linked science with ideology, a term coined in the late eighteenth century and typically employed pejoratively to designate ideas in the use of particular interests. Among the first to connect ideology and science were Karl Marx and his followers, who identified “ideologies” as ideas that served the social interests of the bourgeoisie. Western historians of science first encountered the linkage between science and ideology at the Second International Congress of the History of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931, when a delegation from the Soviet Union contrasted “the relations between science, technology, and economics” under the capitalist and socialist systems. The Russian physicist Boris Hessen, under intense political pressure at home to prove his Marxist orthodoxy, delivered an iconoclastic paper on “The Socio- Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia,” which described Newtonian science in the service of the ideological (that is, industrial and commercial) needs of the rising bourgeoisie. Despite his bravura effort, he died in a Soviet prison five years later, falsely convicted of terrorism. (Alexander and Numbers 2010)

Such “vulgar Marxism” exerted little influence on the writing of the history of science outside the Soviet Union. It was not until the 1960s that Marxism penetrated Anglo-American historiography, largely through the efforts of Robert M. (Bob) Young, an expatriate Texan working in Cambridge, bridge, England. In 1970, at a conference on “The Social Impact of Modern Biology,” he delivered a paper on “Evolutionary Biology and Ideology,” in which he “treated science as ideology.” He acknowledged that the term “ideology” traditionally had derogatory and political connotations that were connected with its popularization by Marx, who concentrated his use of it as a term of abuse for ideas that served as weapons for social interests. But Marxists were soon subjected to their own critique, and this led to Young’s general definition of ideology:

When a particular definition of reality comes to be attached to a concrete power interest, it may be called an ideology…. In its early manifestations the concept of ideology conveyed a sense of more or less conscious distortion bordering on deliberate lies. I do not mean to imply this…. [T]he effort to absorb the ideological logical point of view into positive science only illustrates the ubiquitousness of ideology in intellectual life…. We need to see that ideology is an inescapable level of discourse.

In contrast to earlier Marxists, who had damned ideology as inimical to good science, Young argued that all facts are theory-laden and that no science is value-free. The late historian Roy Porter described the efforts of Young and his fellow New Marxists as concentrating on “exposing the dazzling conjuring trick whereby science had acquired and legitimated authority precisely while claiming to be value-neutral.” Their goal was to liberate humanity from the thrall of science by demoting it from its privileged intellectual position and relocating it on the same level as other belief systems. Thus, at a time when some observers were declaring “the end of ideology,” a small group of historians of science was rushing to embrace it.

Meanwhile, scholars of a less radical persuasion were also undermining the notion of science as a value-neutral enterprise. In 1958 the philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson, who would soon found the Indiana University program in the history and philosophy of science, published Patterns of Discovery, which described all observations as “theory-laden.” Influenced in part by Hanson, the historian of science Thomas Kuhn published his best-selling The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), by far the most influential book ever written about the history of science and one of the most important books on any topic published in the twentieth century. In his slight monograph, Kuhn challenged Sarton’s cherished notion that science was cumulative, arguing instead that scientific paradigms are incommensurable mensurable and therefore that science does not progressively approach a truthful description of nature. Although he insisted that “there is no standard higher than the assent of the relevant community” in determining the boundaries of good science, he shied away from equating science and ideology. In fact, he used the latter term only to dismiss a commitment to the cumulative nature of science as “the ideology of the scientific profession.” Some critics denounced Kuhn’s work for promoting “irrationality and relativism”—and many postmodernists and other denigrators of science drew inspiration from it in their attempts to undermine the privileged status of science—but Kuhn never joined the revolutionaries. He took pride in the description of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as “a profoundly conservative book.”

(….) The most influential blow to the traditional separation between science and ideology came in the 1970s and 1980s from a group of scholars in the Edinburgh University Science Studies Unit dedicated to creating a thoroughgoing sociology of scientific knowledge. Unlike such pioneers in the sociology of science as Robert K. Merton, who explored the impact of social factors on the growth of scientific institutions but left scientific knowledge untainted by ideologies, the Edinburgh scholars advocated a “strong programme” that treated science like any body of knowledge, vulnerable to psychological, social, and cultural factors. These “constructivists” insisted on treating “true” and “false” scientific claims identically and on exploring the role played by “biasing and distorting factors” in both cases, not just for unsuccessful or pseudo-science. Contrary to the claims of some of their critics, they never asserted that science was “purely social” or “that knowledge depended exclusively on social variables such as interests.” “The strong programme says that the social component is always present and always constitutive of knowledge,” explained David Bloor, one of the founders of the Science Studies Unit. “It does not say that it is the only component, or that it is the component that must necessarily be located as the trigger of any and every change.”‘

(….) In the early 1980s a young historian of science at Edinburgh, Steven Shapin, collaborated with Simon Schaffer on a landmark book that dramatically illustrated the applicability of the “strong programme” to the history of science. In Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, which the authors described as “an exercise in the sociology ology of scientific knowledge,” Shapin and Schaffer sought to identify the role played by ideology in establishing trust in the experimental way of producing knowledge about the workings of nature. As good constructivists, they treated the views of Thomas Hobbes (the loser) symmetrically with the opinions of Robert Boyle (the winner). In the end they concluded that “scientific activity, the scientist’s role, and the scientific community have always been dependent: they exist, are valued, and supported insofar as the state or its various agencies see point in them.”

By the 1990s the sometimes acrimonious debate over ideology and science was dying down. Although a few historians of science held out for value-free science, the great majority, it seems, had come to accept a moderate form of constructivism-not so much for ideological reasons but because the evidence supported it. While rejecting the radical claim that science was merely social, they readily granted the propriety, indeed the necessity, of exploring the constitutive role of ideologies in the making of science. Ideologies had morphed from antiscience to the heart of the scientific enterprise.

But the flow has gone both ways, not only “outwards” from biology into the worlds of politics, philosophy, or social structures, but also “inwards,” with whole scientific programs being shaped by ideological concerns…. At other times there is more of an iterative process of “co-evolution,” as occurred in theories about “racial hygiene” …, whereby the ideology shaped the biology, which in turn was used to prop up the ideology.

(….) [I]deology provides an interpretative framework that serves a social purpose, motivated by ethical, religious, or political convictions. The history of biology does certainly evince ideologies as either motivating or as being justified by certain kinds of scientific research and declaration, and most of the contributors investigate episodes in the history of biology in which biological science has become thoroughly entangled with social causes.

(….) [F]irst systematic investigations of the natural world in the early modern period attracted prestige by their support for natural theology and for the moral order. Even Descartes’ idea of animals as machines without souls, invoking thereby a sharp demarcation between human and animal, was employed as part of the argument for design. (….) Biological ideas connecting life and matter played a central role in the materialistic arguments of the French philosophes, which in turn were employed in the subversion of the social order. (….) [T]he eighteenth century also saw something of a reaction against the mechanistic analogies that had proven so influential in the natural philosophy of the preceding century, reformulating an “Enlightenment vitalism” that sought to revive ideas of nature ture as a dynamic system. This renewed emphasis on the internal driving forces and systematic organization of living things was used to generate a new science of humanity, which in turn was deployed to argue for particular economic and political structures. From the structure of organisms to the structure of societies has often been a short step in the history of biology.

One of the striking insights highlighted by this [history] is the way in which the ideological application of biological concepts is shaped by place as well as time. In some cases the same biological ideas have been used during the same period for quite opposite ideological purposes in different countries. The biology that in France was utilized by the philosophes to subvert the social order was in Britain used as a key resource for natural theology, whereas in Germany it was being used politically as an analogy for the structure of nation states.

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