To understand and evaluate scientific knowledge, my aim is threefold. One, I wish to clarify the unique advantages of democratic Enlightenment scientific method, including its methodological collectivism, in producing knowledge permitting efficient democratic interventions, where inefficiency is a common critique of democracy. TBC.
My analysis will also clarify the limitations or alternative products of often-truncated scientific method and scientism in normal, non-democratic contexts, such as state-husbanded capitalist expansion and intensification. I will argue that our grasp of science should not be reduced to commercial science, as is common in social philosophy girded by interactionist studies of the laboratory. I will argue, rather, for the ongoing importance and universal benefits of a free global scientific community; and I will suggest how we should understand normal, non-sovereign science and scientific knowledge, given that the liberty of science can only be a utopia to strive for. Here I will make the distinction between agency and sovereign agency. TBC.
As a model for understanding how science works and doesn’t work, I recommend the comparative historical approach to science studies that Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield advanced in The Architecture of Matter (1962) and The Discovery of Time (1965). In addition, I recommend the social scientific approach carefully demonstrated in Pierre Bourdieu’s lectures upon symbolic revolution, Manet (2017).
I will show the importance of context–social, economic, and political–on scientific development.
The example I pursue below is the case of Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko, his state science, and the collaborative denunciation of his work by his abused scientific rivals, by populations disrupted, sometimes fatally, by his modernization management, and by communism’s capitalist rivals. Because Lysenko was so intimately associated with the Stalinist modernization, I would like to introduce some more measured reflections on Lysenko as a scientist and particularly on his scientific theories. Just as we blithely accept that the psychology profession cannot be reduced to its founding scientistic moment, in which invalid methods were deployed to justify for the funder, the US Army, the institution of inegalitarian, militarized social policy that has certainly resulted in millions and millions of excess and premature deaths in the US and abroad over the past century, so it is invalid to claim that scientific theories and experimental methods associated with “Lysenkoism” are either not scientific theories or operate uniformly across social contexts.
As a chief agronomist, Lysenko is recognized for contributing to the 20th century Stalinist modernization of Eurasia, and the very well-documented social, human, and environmental disruption and casualty that abrupt reorganization entailed. For the most part, Lysenko was no hero; he stands amongst the men and women who have chosen and will choose to ride power over democratic Enlightenment–in his case, not just the agrarian populations upended by agricultural modernization, but also the genetic science community in the USSR.
Yet it is also important to recognize that Lysenko’s betrayal of his colleagues did not result in his lionization within the communist context, but rather his excessive power was dismantled within his career, a significant difference from the capitalist context where betrayal of colleagues and the demos is rewarded with heritable wealth and permanently canonized as a universal virtue. This is to observe that where Stalinist modernization was as inhumane as, if much briefer than, the Late Victorian Holocausts engineered for imperial Anglo economic expansion, the self-critical and self-correcting capacity of communism is not structurally broken as it is in the exclusive power accumulation political economies.
We will remember that histories of science are formulated within larger social projects. The repetition and sacralization of the narrative of communist failure and violence is particularly important in the toolchest of the rival Anglo-American Atlantic empire, where fled many migrants upended by that modernization.
Lysenko was not as wrong or unscientific as his restored rivals or the capitalist Cold War community have preferred to simply depict him. His disinterest in the 1950s British geneticists’ Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was reasonable, given the modernization agenda he helped manage. Because it was a theory that was also fitted to a larger social project–the legitimation of Atlantic ruling class global power, the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology was marketed and adopted throughout the West, by commercial organizations, media, and scientists, in the highly idealistic way Lysenko identified, without consideration for its finer qualifications and limitations.
The Dogma tended to authorize social theories, scientific research programs, commercial science, and policies essentializing and reinforcing capitalist inequality, often at terrible costs to animal lives, the sustainability of smallholding farming communities, nutrition, soil health, water quality, race relations and institutionalized policies, underdeveloped countries’ economies, and so on. For example, a weakness of genetic determinism that has certainly perpetuated racialization is genetic determinism’s overextension of a species imaginary, assuming radical ontological difference and marginalizing environmental conditioning as a causal life development factor. Thus a cost which would have endeared it to authority in capitalist economies was genetic science’s contribution to the persistent crowding out (ghettoization) of democratic research investigating mutable socio-natural environmental causes of human suffering and stunting, such as war, pollution, or maldistributions of resources, credit, and cooperation.
Research examples of environmental exposures causing transgenerational epigenetic dysfunction inheritance:
Overkalix study (Bygren et al 2014): Dutch famine cardiovascular mortality;
Wolstenholme et al (2012): Bisphenol A->neural genesàsocial behaviour;
Skinner lab (Washington State University) 2005-2013 studies): DDT, Vinclozolin, Methoxychlor, Plastics, Hydrocarbons (jet fuel). See work published by EE Nilsson (2018).
Both males and female parents’ diets can change inherited gene expression across generations: f: increase body size, reduce insulin sensitivity (Dunn & Bale 2011); impaired glucose intolerance and decreased insulin insensitivity (Wei et al 2014).
Source: Sadler-Riggleman, I. & M.K. Skinner. “Environment and the Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Disease.” Chapter 15 in Epigenetics, Current Research & Emerging Trends (2015), edited by Brian P. Chadwick.
Lysenko was a scientist licensed to address an historical, prioritized state-society requirement: reorganizing the production of food and other essential biological inputs to the massive Eurasian workforce and economic modernization agenda. As such, the scientist Lysenko was a theorist of the conditions of biological systems’ success and improvements; but he was also experimenting.
The scientifically-literate will also recognize that it is typically the case that mechanisms are discovered through the contributions of the community of scientists over time. After many decades of trying, usually in vain, to follow the Central Dogma and conceptualize genes as if they were computer code, for example, the limitations of that theory became increasingly difficult for the biological sciences community to overlook, and epigenetics researchers have recently begun to demonstrate some of the many crucial cellular mechanisms by which the organism’s experiences within and relations with her greatly human-organized context (environment) activate or suppress genetic information to produce specific organism functioning, phenotype, and phylogeny.
After capitalist states spent billions on the holy grail hunt for absolute genetic causation, biological scientists now recognize that within cells, complex biological intermediation crucially links genetic possibility and environmental conditioning. Some of that epigenetic intermediation of the environment has been found to be heritable, though reversible, as some of the scientific community, including Lysenko, long hypothesized–or in the case of the historical-materialist developmental biologists, previously demonstrated (For example, in Richard Lewontin‘s study of Achillea).
A recent anti-Lysenko, anti-Russian, anti-Marxist, conservative Cold War American chauvanist article in the Atlantic claims that para-genetic inheritance is impossible or valueless because epigenetic inheritance is always fleeting. This overdrawn rubbish claim is false as formulated, and completely irrelevant as a critique of either Lysenko or any other associated enemies and market competitors, even in a generous reading.
Epigenetic effects and epigenetic inheritance are not necessarily ephemeral. They are reversible, which is actually the advantage of changing the environment or epigenetic mediator over against interventions irreversibly mutating genes. Why would we want to permanently mutate genes? Why would we want to permanently mutate genes out of sync with their environment? One of the problems of genetic modification is that (in addition to the horrible experimental torture inflicted on legions of genetically-modified animals over the years), life changes, conditions change on Earth–which you would know if you were a Marxist, with their incorporation of Epicurean philosophy.
Once mutated by human intervention, it can be difficult for the gene to further shift. Who benefits from that excessive stabilization, bound as it is to a commercialized technological monopoly? Even in its ideal form, correcting disadvantageous genetics, CRISPR technologies are privately-owned, expensive, for-profit interventions, accessible exclusively to very affluent families. Most of the world cannot benefit from a capitalist technology, which must allocate advantages unevenly and as durably as possible to satisfy essential capitalist reproduction conditions of economic scarcity and duress. As such, genetic modifiers’ most tender ministrations also must in their main reinforce social inequality, exacerbating human social, economic, and political pseudo-speciation, moral exclusion, and predation.
Genetic manipulation can be overkill. It’s designed for, and can be of more benefit to, locking in genetically-modified seed firm profits, rather than to crop productivity or to human nutrition. From The Smithsonian to Current Biology to The Atlantic, it is very telling that the rabid Western attacks today on Lysenko and his Russian rehabilitation are executed by GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) marketers, who facilely equate profit hog-tied commercial science with science as a complete, semi-sovereign truth-seeking (collective) enterprise.
The Atlantic GMO marketer tries to blame Lysenko for the 1933 famine; yet the article The Atlantic relies on, a similar anti-Lysenko/anti-Russian/pro-GMO argument in Current Biology, merely implies that Lysenko “did not prevent” the famines. Agriculture was reorganized. That’s what caused the famine and malnutrition response in 1933, as such agricultural reorganizations have tended to across regions and history.
If it had not involved sending to prison the genetic scientists, Lysenko’s would have been a fair scientific effort, trying to improve productivity by experimenting with environmental conditions and change factors other than permanently mutating genes. Though hegemonic capitalists prefer to modify the environment to augment and secure exclusive wealth accumulation (thus tending to require an understanding of the morally-excluded environment–“factors of production”–that includes de-humanized humans), experimentally modifying the environment to enhance the organism has been done before. It will be done again. It’s not anti-science. It’s anti-ruling order. It’s democratic Enlightenment.
Lysenko’s experimental, agricultural context-optimizing scientific project was oriented toward economic modernization, and its inhuman implementation time frame was forced by World Wars. If Russia had not been economically-stunted by its ruling class and imperial rivals previous to the USSR, and if Russia did not have to battle Germany, Austria, and other conservative empires also trying to maintain power or overcome the British Empire’s rival-stunting effects, Lysenko’s theories and experiments may not have received so much state support.
Rather, his scientific work may instead have routed through the global scientific community, where, moderated by peer review (assuming the Russian geneticists were perfect scientific gentlemen and didn’t suppress it) to reinforcing findings in developmental biology, it might have perhaps permitted the biological sciences to advance more efficiently past over-investment in the capitalist core’s politically-overdetermined genetic-determinist research agenda.
Soviet Agricultural Productivity, Without the Hysteria, In Context
- “For a brief period in the 1920s, compelled by circumstance amid the daunting wreckage of Civil War, the new Soviet state became the world centre of development economics. In swift order arrived Preobrazhensky’s model of surplus mobilization from agriculture (1926), Feldman’s theory of capital accumulation (1928) and Chayanov’s model of the peasant household (1925). While the Soviet Union has since received its traumatic quietus, the topic at stake in these discussions — industrialization of a largely rural, middle-income economy, in a territory subject to repeated military incursions — never quite vanished.”–Churls Gone Wild
- From elsewhere in the interwebs, a reliable, informed, but anonymous exchange:
- “With regard to export during the 1933 famine, it is important to note that exports were curtailed in that year as a result of the battle with starvation, which the central government launched once it was informed of what was going on in the Ukraine (but also in other regions).” The Russian ruling class, which despite the theories of elite nimbleness, was sclerotically unable to move on from its former role as the military guardian of the inbred European ruling class, had left the country in an economic shambles. “Unfortunately, at that time, the grain exports of the USSR were the only thing the country had to finance its industrialization, and anyone who criticizes Stalin for his callousness in this regard has to understand that there simply was not any other way to industrialize and prepare for war.”
- “The main problem of Soviet agriculture overall was transport and storage related wastage. Upwards of 1/4 of all production went to waste because of the lack of transport or storage infrastructure and its poor maintenance.”
- The arable land is in the southwest.
- “I think Soviet agriculture was actually fairly good for what it had to work with. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that a higher percentage of a population works in agriculture. There’s really no use for a lot of the workers displaced from agriculture in the U.S. A lot of them were moved to worthless service jobs, so it looked like they were doing something.” A fifth of American workers were structurally redirected into the military, and into militarized policing, surveilling and guarding other workers.
- Total factor productivity, Russia/USSR and North Dakota compared:
- “The USSR started importing grain (in the Khruschev era, at the turn of the 1960s) only as the result of a decision by the party to dramatically increase the population’s meat and poultry consumption. This required vast quantities of feed grain, and this for the most part is what the USSR imported from Canada, the US, and Argentina. This is not an issue of collective farms vs. private farming, nor of the efficiency of farming between different eras. Ordinary people began to demand more than the autarkic system could supply, and so the USSR bought grain from abroad.” “Meat consumption takes up a huge amount of resources compared to low meat consumption. It takes at least 10x more resources to feed grain to animals and eat them instead of eating grain and vegetables directly. Meat consumption grew rapidly in the 70’s in the Soviet Union, and had almost reached the level of the U.S. by this time. The Soviet Union actually had fairly large increases in agricultural production during this time, but meat consumption grew even faster. In the 1980’s, the price of meat stayed the same as in the early 60’s, but wages grew significantly during this time. This fueled the demand for more meat consumption.”
- “The family farms in the United States and Canada are exploitative in the sense that the majority of them hire vast quantities of seasonal immigrant labourers, who work long hours and for low pay, without citizenship or labor rights. In Canada these seasonal labourers are selected to come over from poor countries like Haiti and the DR, to work a few months while living in barracks, and then forcibly sent home. Unfortunately for many crops, the conception that family members and maybe one or two helpers can run the whole operation is simply untrue.” That has never been how farming has worked. It was either collectivist, or, as with capitalist farming, it has relied on a combination of oil slaves and cheap, unfree labour.
- Altieri & Fuenes-Monzote. 2012. The paradox of Cuban agriculture. Monthly Review.
- The Original Fake News: One of the problems of commercial scientism is the large, unjustified role that marketing hype plays in its knowledge production. Grassini, Eskridge & Cassim (2013) have shown that while Green Revolution technology is consistently assumed, per economic theory/marketing hype, to produce infinite and exponential increases in crop productivity, the global historical record shows that oil, genetic, chemical, mechanization, and other technological modifications to agriculture and silviculture can only improve crop productivity linearly, and that productivity will plateau. “Trajectories in national average yields are driven by changes in crop management practices, crop genetic improvement through conventional breeding and genetic engineering, climate and interactions among these factors, under influence of surrounding social, economic and political environments”30. Moreover, the application of commercial scientism to fisheries has only resulted in epic depletion. Of course, capitalism has incentivized highly-disruptive dust bowls, pollution, and devastating species extinction, but even where it “works,” for example the agricultural Midwest, the product is not food for the masses, as advertised (including in mathematized economic theory), but excessive stabilization of agro-ecosystems around financialized land rents, resulting in irrational public supports for the unhealthy corn and soybean pulp manufacture and distribution that secure those rents.
- Magnan, Andre. 2015. “The financialization of agri-food in Canada and Australia.” Journal of Rural Studies 41: 1-12.
Monthly Review has published some recommended accounts of communist science in the 20th century.
Foster, JB. 2015. Late Soviet Ecology.
Wallace, R. 2016. Revolutionary Biology. On Christopher Caudwell (nee Christopher Sprigg), a darling of JB Foster. Interesting note for Marxist police: Caudwell started out impure. On Caudwell’s epicurean swerve:
For a short period, in 1926–7, Christopher was sub-editor, and later editor, of the journal of the Association for British Malaya, whose principal aim seems to have been the development of the rubber and tin markets. The views of British Malaya were those of the upholders of the British Empire and were probably not uncongenial to the Sprigg brothers, for during the General Strike of 1926 they were among those who volunteered to replace the striking workers.
But by a personal path winding out of the Labour Party’s impotence, the economic crisis, the rise of the British Union of Fascists, the malaise of bourgeois culture, his scientific materialism, and readings in Marx, Caudwell joined the CPGB in 1934.
Unfortunately, due of course to financial exigencies, Marxists in capitalist societies don’t interpret this kind of thing as any reason for reducing the vitriol of their peer policing and shunning, but instead as a firm case for embracing Salon Bolsheviks with a conservative streak. There are after all only two forms of contribution: money, and labor delegated to another’s direct aggrandizement.
A separate note on the current flush of anti-Lysenko articles in the capitalist American media market:
The Smithsonian, The Atlantic, & Current Biology all have recently (2018) sponsored feverish Cold War denunciations of Lysenko.
They were written by GMO marketers, who make the argument that Stalin/Russians = epigenetics = anti-science.
The most telling thing is that they describe epigenetic interventions as useless because “temporary.” Epigenetic interventions are not temporary. They are reversible. Whereas engineered genetic mutation is excessive stabilization, bound to a commercialized technological monopoly.
The Cold War genetics author-marketers explicitly argue that epigenetic and environmental research will take global resources away from proper All-Anglo-American genetic modification industry monopolization. Commercial scientism proliferates biased knowledge, as confirmed by the Union of Concerned Scientists. 2009. Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically-engineered Crops.
Epigenetics’ potential political advantage over genetic determinism is that it does not support genetics’ overextension of the species imaginary, in which radical ontological difference is assumed, marginalizing environmental conditioning as a causal life development factor.
As sociologists have already observed, epigenetics’ political disadvantage, relative to genetic determinism, is its capacity to restore patriarchal Mother Blame, the capitalist-friendly environmental reductionism. Watch for assumptions and arguments that reduce science to laboratory technique. While seeking political and funding advantages in the capitalist context, this misrepresentation of science will suggest that the only environment that can be studied scientifically is the womb-as-lab.
Simoncelli, Tania. 2003.
Jabr, F. 2013. “Gattaca a Reality.” Scientific American.