Biology and Social Responsibility

By Holtzman, Eric | Monthly Review, July-August 1986 | Go to article overview

Biology and Social Responsibility


Holtzman, Eric, Monthly Review


BIOLOGY AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY

My starting point is a familiar, simple one: the natural sciences are simultaneously products of social forces and of individual scientists' curiosity awakened and channeled by these forces. Both of these facets must be kept in mind in analyzing the history of science and in planning for its future. In this paper I will explore this dual nature of science, at a general philosophical level and in the specific instance of modern biology, which in the past forty years, has seen a series of striking successes, with U.S. science playing a dominant role. Basic discoveries about the structure and function of genes, the immune system, brain function, biochemistry, etc., have provided both a new understanding of living systems and new abilities to manipulate them. The concrete results include new medical therapies, enhanced agricultural production, prenatal diagnosis of genetic diseases, and industrial uses of "engineered" bacteria and other microorganisms.

Does Science Serve by Serving Itself?

"Classical" viewpoints. Practicing researchers in "basic" natural science--the study of nature without an immediate practical goal--like to think of themselves as an autonomous intellectual community following agendas set by the internal history of science and adhering to principles of pluralism, openness, and competition, which are thought to assure "objectivity." For instance, scientists expect that important findings will be made public in sufficient detail to permit others to evaluate and reproduce them. While the influence of government or corporate funding agencies is recognized, these influences are rarely felt as intolerably coercive. Moreover, in the recent history of many of the basic natural sciences in the United States, the scientific community itself has had considerable control over funding priorities, and funds have been sufficiently plentiful for a broad range of ideas to have had a chance of gaining support.

Radical critiques. In contrast, the "radical science" movement, and many Marxists, emphasize that the pose of scientists as an autonomous group producing objective "knowledge" is illusory. The mirage of autonomy derives, the critics assert, from the congruence of the career interests of scientists and the economic interests of dominant social sectors. The institutional frameworks of science--academia, engineering firms, drug companies, etc.--involve class, race, and gender hierarchies of scientific workers. Only those near the top of these hierarchies can even claim to function autonomously.

The modern natural sciences are seen as creations of capitalism, representing particular modes of organizing efforts to understand nature better so as to exploit it better. Scientific knowledge is strongly colored by its production in a system that serves the needs of ruling social strata. Where science has immediate social implications, as in controversies over race and IQ, "objectivity" is felt to mask assumptions that orient research outcomes in favor of the status quo. But even at more subtle levels, science is believed by radical critics to be skewed. Tastes and thought patterns originating in scientists' social experience determine which problems they choose to study, and mark their products with many signs of the times. For instance, Stephen Jay Gould and others have argued that the emphases in evolutionary theory, as formulated during Darwin's time, owed much to Malthusian prejudices and economic liberalism. This led early Darwinians to focus too heavily on the individual's competition with other individuals, and to see evolution as orderly, steady, gradual improvement, rather than the more discontinuous, chaotic reality that actually prevails. Similarly, Marxists have argued that "dialectical" mind-sets would better deal with the dynamics in fields such as ecology, nervous function, and evolution, where hierarchical and reductionist viewpoints are currently overused.

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