Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 8, 2006

Stephen Jay Gould, genetic engineering, and Marxism

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:46 pm

I just received email from Stuart Newman, a professor at NY Medical College and a subscriber to the Science for the People listserv, informing me that Gould “had only a fleeting relationship to Marxism” and calling my attention to an article he wrote about Gould and genetic engineering in the Oct. 2003 Rethinking Marxism. Fortunately, it is online at:

http://www.nymc.edu/sanewman/PDFs/RM%20Gould.pdf

This is an extremely important article and a model for seeing progressive thinkers in context. Although nobody can question Gould’s credentials as a fighter for social justice through works like “Mismeasure of Man,” Newman points out some basic flaws in his methodology which err on the side of a kind of mechanical Darwinism.

While some of this involves some fairly arcane but important discussions about how to interpret the Cambrian age, etc., the more relevant issue for me is how Gould dealt with the question of genetic engineering. To put it bluntly, he was nearly as off on this question as people like Virginia Postrel and the spiked-online gang.

Newman writes:

“In another essay, Gould (1997a) analogizes heightened concerns (often voiced by critics of genetic engineering of crops) about the stability of evolved ecosystems against disruption by exotic species to the Volkist nationalism of Nazi-era ideologues, though he ultimately ends up taking a characteristically moderate position.”

This is truly disappointing. As some of you might know, there was a fairly large-scale effort to smear the emerging green movement in Germany as having something in common with the Nazis. For example, see Luc Ferry’s “New Ecological Order,” which publisher U. of Chicago Press describes in the following terms:

“[Ferry] demonstrates that German Romanticism embraced certain key ideas of the deep ecology movement concerning the protection of animals and the environment. Later adopted by the Nazis, many of these ideas point to a profoundly antihumanistic component of deep ecology that is compatible with totalitarianism.”

It is really a cheap smear that I deal with at:

http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/ecology/nazi_ecology.htm

I must say that this does not completely take my surprise since–as Newman points out–Gould’s fellow progressive scientist and Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin also failed to understand the full ramifications of GM crops. In a June 21, 2001 NY Review article titled “Genes in the Food!”, Lewontin blithely assures his reader that:

“We find ourselves in a puzzling situation. None of the books on the subject of GMOs gives us any reason to think that the known dangers to human health and natural ecosystems posed by agriculture have become radically greater because of the introduction of genetic engineering as a technique. Nor do we even have a single case of a catastrophe that might have engendered widespread public anxieties.

“Yet in North America, and much more so in Europe, there is a widespread, passionate, and politically effective opposition to the use of recombinant DNA techniques in agriculture. Only a rare defensive newspaper advertisement paid for by the Council for Biotechnology Information speaks against the general consciousness, and we all know whom they represent. Is this just another chapter in MacKay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds?”

Finally, I was pleased to discover a favorable mention of the late Hans Jonas in Dr. Newman’s article. Jonas was a philosophy professor at the New School and author of “The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age.” I knew Jonas as an authority on German existentialism and phenomenology in the 1960s when I was his student but would learn more recently that he had evolved into a leading Green theoretician.

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