Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Month Late, A Birthday Card For Richard Lewontin on His 80th by Anthony McCarthy

If you have an hour and a half to listen closely, this lecture given by Richard Lewontin in December 2007 is wonderful. It’s called Internalism and Externalism In Biology but what he says has implications for all of science and much of politics. Great insights into many of the issues often discussed on this blog are included.

Of particular interest to anyone who tries to use language precisely is his observation that it is impossible to use metaphors, leaving behind their burdens of metaphorical garbage unrelated to what is intended. Just talking about these things is loaded with difficulty. We can drown in those difficulties and the temptation is always to reduce them or to bypass them with pat explanations.

particularly like the part about the variable and unpredictable growth of cloned plants at various elevations from an experiment done in the 1930s. He doesn’t press the point this far but if such a simply observed and accurately quantified trait like height among genetically identical plants can have such varied and, most importantly, unpredictable expression in different environments*, how can anyone believe that they can find genetic determinants for illusive and transient states such as alleged behaviors in people of varied genetic inheritance and experience? That’s not even asking how could they be reliably discovered and noted.

I’d add the abilities to reason, to apply the feeling of justice, fairness and numerous others to that mix of complicating factors because people can radically change their previous behavior on the basis of these seldom mentioned agents of change. Among the reasons they might be more conveniently left out is that you can’t depend on them being consistently or accurately applied. The practice of not considering them doesn’t mean they aren’t active and important determinants of behavior sometimes.

Note this, I hope verbatim, quote in response to a questioner’s objection to Lewontin’s famous criticism of the baseless stories fashionable in biology and would-be biology today:

The issue to me, as an a priori materialist, is that the fact that I can make up a reasonable story only tells me about the nature of my brain. It doesn’t tell me about the world out there.

A good story that coheres in the mind is no substitute for physical (or historical...) evidence. You would think nothing could be more common ground in any rigorous subject, especially those which have findings about the real world as their stock and trade.

His challenger responded with the often asserted claim that you could experimentally test the assertions of these fables but Lewontin, who is probably in as good a position to know as anyone, points out that it hasn’t been done yet. He doesn’t state that their complexity probably ensures that they never can be. The possibility of this guess being right doesn’t dismiss the possible myriad of other potential explanations - if there was time I’d go into what he says about the possibility of constructing, theoretically, an infinite number of those. All of these created myths are equal in that they are equally unfounded in physical reality. Not necessarily just as a non-materialist, I have the greatest respect for his point of view, complete with reasonably polite rebuttal and full acknowledgment for the contingency in time of his ideas. Contingency is inherent to all of human attempts at understanding, particularly in science but certainly also in other areas of thought. But it becomes a requirement of the greatest importance to acknowledge that contingency in science, for social and political reasons as well as the inherent exigencies of the discipline itself.

If you haven’t ever seen him in action, this bravura performance is a good example of the quality and rigor of his thinking. It probably also shows why he isn’t as famous as his intellectual opponents. He’s habitually honest about the limitations of what we can know.

When you refuse to over-simplify the information you know is included in complex and often untidy reality and when you refuse to pretend to knowledge that is not available in order to attract a more casual audience, many will either be unwilling or unable to understand you. Honest incompleteness is less satisfying than a fictitiously complete synthesis. No matter how clearly you describe it, no matter how honest you are about the limits of what you are asserting, no matter how generously or honestly you acknowledge weaknesses in your preferred viewpoint as well as others. You won’t get a large audience when you don’t satisfy them. But audience satisfaction isn’t supposed to be the goal.

Simplified assertions about reality, simply and, especially, appealingly presented, will get you supporters who are happy to overlook those elisions and even distortions. The convenient omission of the fact that there are rather sizable holes in our knowledge is widely practiced, in many fields. Just So stories are told for the purpose of just getting on with things. The spreading popularity of them is an indication of an intellectual culture in deep trouble. And the motives driving us into the abysmal pit are generally external to the actual subject matter of science, history, law, etc. One suspects a lot of this done for little beyond its catalytic potential to propel professional advancement.

In fields for which reduction to even a relatively high level of synthetic simplicity is destructive of essential precision, a large fan base might well be a sign of dishonesty. Lewontin’s clear-headed discourse probably puts some of these ideas as plainly as they can be put without either distortion or falsification. But they’re probably not ever going to be useful for superficial wire reporting or well-compensated columnage.** It also won’t become the common received knowledge of a large fan base.

* He points out that when you do the analysis that the correlation is actually zero.

* * It’s also not useful to oligarches in search of scientific support for doing what oligarches want to do.