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Monthly Archives: March 2005

The Doctrine of DNA

And some more from Lewontin’s The Doctrine of DNA

The transfer of causal power from social relations into inanimate agents that then seem to have a power and life of their own is one of the major mystifications of science and its ideologies

Which is an as readable, and enjoyable, argument against genetic reductionism as you could hope to find. I’m guessing that many people would say their reductionism is a methodological tactic rather than a ideological commitment, but Lewontin’s characterisation of popular discourse is accurate enough, i fear, to convince that however tactical genetic reductionism may be when adopted by scientists it becomes far less self-conscious as it migrates into the public sphere.

[note to self: avoid writing sentences that long and convoluted in the future]

Anyway: yes, society is not a reflection of individual level traits. Yes, organisms and environment co-create. Yes, locating causes in a single physical matter (like DNA) allows us to ignore the wider causal context. There’s lots to nit-pick about Lewontin’s arguments, but without the anchor of some particular example i think it would get so lost in the rhetorical and connotive terrain that it wouldn’t be worth it. Highly recommended

biology as ideology

The most important fact about human genes is that they help to make us as big as we are and to have a central nervous system with as many connections as it has. However, there are not enough genes to determine the detailed shape and structure of that nervous system nor of the consciousness that is an aspect of that structure. Yet it is consciousness that creates our environment, its history and the direction of its future. This then provides us with a correct understanding of the relation between our genes and the shape of our lives.

Our DNA is a powerful influence on our anatomies and physiologies. In particular, it makes possible the complex brain that characterizes human beings. But having made that brain possible, the genes have made possible human nature, a social nature whose limitations and possible shapes we do not know except insofar as we know what human consciousness has already made possible. In Simone de Beauvoir’s clever but deep apothegm, a human being is “l’etre dont l’etre est de n’etre pas,” the being whose essence is in not having an essence.

History far transcends any narrow limitations that are claimed for either the power of genes or the power of the environment to circumscribe us. Like the House of Lords that destroyed its own power to limit the political development of Britain in the successive Reform Acts to which it assented, so the genes, in making possible the development of human consciousness, have surrendered their power both to determine the individual and its environment. They have been replaced by an entirely new level of causation, that of social interaction with its own laws and its own nature that can be understood and explored only through that unique form of experience, social action.

R.C. Lewontin (1991). The doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology

Links for 22nd of March 2005

end the offal lottery

My friend James emails to say

I have received an exclamation mark-strewn plea from my niece to sign the petition to improve British school dinners currently being promoted by TV’s own loveable mockney pan-jockey He Who Must Not Be Named Lest The Sun Turn To Ashes And The Seas to Pus. I must say that I think this is a good idea, despite the abominably geezerish nature of its champion. It takes a moment to sign at:

Let’s free future generations from ‘pizza’ in those big silver trays, awful white buns with shocking pink icing, and the offal lottery of SAUSAGE ROLLS.

See you all soon.

James x

Seems like a Good Thing, although when I tried to sign it someone had already used my email address and they won’t let me put my name down (cheeky!)

Quote #88

A good story is something with an interesting premise that builds logically to a satisfying and suprising conclusion

William Goldman, ‘Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures In The Screen Trade’

links for 13th of March 05

‘Imagining Argentina’ benefit screening @ the showroom

[local news warning]

The local branch of the Medical Foundation (providing care & support for torture survivors) is sponsoring a screening of Imagining Argentina, starring Emma Thompson and Antonio Banderas at the Showroom on Thursday March 10, 6.30pm.

The film will be followed by a discussion led by a former prisoner of the Argentine junta, Perico Rodriguez, who was freed following a campaign by Amnesty Internationald and later helped found the Medical Foundation. Perico now works as a counsellor with the organisation.

More info here

Links for 5th of March 2005

The homage of reason

Jefferson advised his nephew to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason rather than of blindfolded fear”

found in Francis Wheen’s “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” (2004, p106)

The Humean Assault

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

David Hume, The Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section xii, part III)