Epigenetics Prehistory: An Historical Science

“At the International Congress on the History of Science and Technology in London in 1931, they were galvanised by the dramatic intervention of a delegation from the Soviet Union led by Nikolai Bukharin…The Soviets rejected the Whiggish view of the history of science as a progressive, disinterested search for truth, insisting instead that science – even its greatest and most theoretical achievements – was driven by the political economy of the time…When, a few years later, an English translation of Engels’s Dialectics of Nature appeared with an introduction by the geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, a close associate at Cambridge, the group felt that at last they had the theoretical tools they needed.

Life could not be reduced to mere molecules, they argued, but neither was some non-materialist vital principle required to explain it. The material world consists in a multitude of entities and processes of various levels of complexity. Each level is governed by a set of organising principles dependent on, but irreducible to, those that govern lower levels. The properties of water cannot be deduced from the properties of hydrogen and oxygen. At each level of complexity, from molecule to cell to organism to ecosystem and society, new properties and organising relationships emerge, and to each belongs its proper science. Above all, the TBC insisted, the living world is self-organising and dynamic: it should be understood not so much as an assemblage of things but of dialectically interacting processes. Biology, unlike physics, is a historical science.”

Rose, Stephen. 2016. “How to get another thorax.” London Review of Books 38(17): 15-17.

Sociology, like biology and unlike philosophy, is an historical-comparative science, a product of the Enlightenment and the issuing, fraught, capitalist semi-tendency to attach some contested value to work, rather than simple, pure, brute warlord power over territory, assets, and life. As  historical-comparative sciences, biology and sociology are knowledges built upon and adjusting for both human capacities–including capacity for development, senses and dexterities, capacities of communication and organization, logic and rhetoric– and human limitations –non-omniscience, domineering organization and underdevelopment, environmental and social disorganization, resilience and adaptability through suffering and stunting, misdirecting rhetoric and marketing, and large-scale, pervasive violence capacity.

Science contrasts to philosophical knowledge, historically built upon and adjusting for the mere interests and autocratic perspective and experience of a hierarchy apex, asserting impossible, superhuman omniscience and refusing to recognize collective contribution–refusing humanity.

But just as capitalism easily drifts into brute power, sociology wrestles with both the diminishment of science to the commercial laboratory, and how to incorporate masterful philosophical arguments and styles derived to discredit and supplant democratic knowledge and to support imperial warlord power. In either case, the integrity of the difference is threatened with collapse.

When science is diminished to the commercial laboratory, in inegalitarian societies, it is funded and feted as a privileged site of highly-specified, secured-conditions knowledge. For example, a lab identifies as unreliable a technique for isolating and identifying epigenetic modification. That that technique is faulty is actually an inference from the observation that the epigenetic modification seems too prevalent. But what is the norm? This feeling and the inference are not pure logic, as it is presented in marketing. Rather they constitute an hypothesis, an expectation given by a specific theory. Nonetheless, when the argument is presented and marketed, it is quickly sold as an example of the superiority of efficient laboratory experiment, implicitly in contrast to the full range of scientific methodologies.

Yet science is not simply efficient knowledge. Philosophical knowledge and the knowledge of warlords–these are efficient knowledge. The laboratory scientists are producing one study; even published, it’s not yet definitive, it’s not scientific knowledge. It is a contribution. It is not science, which is definitively collective and aggregate. Science incorporates a range of craft contributions to knowledge over time and across physical and social space. Science has not yet established to what extent that lab’s theoretical interpretation of the finding–The epigenome should not, per theory, be so widespread; therefore the technique that finds it so must be unreliable.–corresponds to reality. We need more contributions to adjudicate the validity of the contribution. Hold yer horses, marketeers. Make way for science.

Superhuman agents in particular have the capacity to use this kind of knowledge, commercial lab knowledge, to intervene in the world, conforming it to a design that locks in incentives, ideas and feelings, and that directs a flow of power. Yet the reduction of science in theory and method to the commercial laboratory threatens the scientific difference with collapse, as Canguilhem’s successors through to Latour’s philosophical knowledge machine have demonstrated. The commercial laboratory dispenses with key components of science as an Enlightenment craft knowledge.

By scientific craft, we mean the methodical interpolation of theory–with its resistance supplied by logic and craft precedence–and thoughtful, rigorous, collective empirical exploration and verification–with its resistance supplied by the socio-physical world beyond the mind community. Without privileging and using these scientific kinds of resistances as knowledge resources, we do not dispense with resistance’s role in directing and shaping knowledge. We only revert to social power as the resistance directing and shaping our knowledge–as is done in religious knowledge and marketing. The specification of metaphysics is crucial to distinguishing the resistance our knowledge is based on.

Epigenetics is a case in point that scientific knowledge has the capacity to transcend  social power, including as it works through the efficiency bluster of commercial lab marketing. But at least under inegalitarian social conditions, science is still efficient in the sense that it takes only a century of biological science and science reduced to the commerical lab, contributors to science at marketing and funding odds, to tentatively merge, inform, and emerge in fuller scientific knowledge.

“In the nineteen-forties, Conrad Waddington, an English embryologist, had proposed an ingenious answer: cells acquired their identities just as humans do—by letting nurture (environmental signals) modify nature (genes). For that to happen, Waddington concluded, an additional layer of information must exist within a cell—a layer that hovered, ghostlike, above the genome. This layer would carry the “memory” of the cell, recording its past and establishing its future, marking its identity and its destiny but permitting that identity to be changed, if needed. He termed the phenomenon “_epi_genetics”—“above genetics.” Waddington, ardently anti-Nazi and fervently Marxist, may have had more than a biological stake in this theory.”–Mukherjee, S. 2016. “Same but different.” New Yorker, May 2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics.

Epigenetics emerged out of a scientific approach at explicit odds with capitalist social power’s knowledge, and while it could not dominate the scientific research agenda in such a socially-marginal position, it incubated through the scientific community’s collective, multi-method efforts to build knowledge, finally collectively identifying the limitations of genetic determinism with the Human Genome project. The Human Genome Project played an important turn-of-the-21st century role in confirming the limitations of genes, and thereby moving and expanding biological craft knowledge, thus the biological theory of genetic-environmental interpolation, into a broader research agenda-governing knowledge.

To advance scientific knowledge, commercial lab knowledge had to both contribute to the constraints of capitalist-directed socio-environmental design, and at its limit, eventually submit a bit to biological knowledge that could not fit an inegalitarian agenda systematically discounting universal life development and interaction. The commercial lab scientific reduction will try to incorporate and redirect anticapitalist scientific knowledge, as where a psychology lab was given huge grants in the early aughts to  use the lab to reduce epigenetic knowledge into a Mother-blame knowledge, where mothers are conceptualized, per psychological theory, as a sovereign, discreet, autonomous environment of preferences and individual choice. The marks of capital upon science that emerge in the commercial lab science reduction, that distort even trained scientists’ understanding of the scientific difference, continue to be branded by unchanged socio-environmental requirements to marketing in a capitalist social world of manufactured scarcity. But even diminished and partially-exiled, scientific knowledge advances beyond domineering interest, if perhaps in doing so, it functions less efficiently than philosophical decisionism or marketing.

An excellent example of fuller scientific knowledge is given in the revealing contrast between commercial laboratory’s confinement to medical knowledge versus biological knowledge. Biological knowledge–across basic animal and plant breeding, through entomology, and most strongly in the Marxist-fueled developmental biology knowledge forwarded by the research of Lewontin, Levin and Gould–has long scientifically established that organisms’ development is conditioned by the environment, including but not reducible to progenitors’ living conditions. By contrast, medical epigenetic knowledge is in its infancy and its findings are still highly contested. Commercial labs are only starting to work out experimentation with the environment-driven epigenetic intermediaries, histones, methylations, and RNA interactions modifying gene expression–for the purposes of producing profitable (if state-subsidized) interventions for the medical market, particularly cancer drugs.

What has been accomplished over the last century is that biological craft knowledge has been reunited with narrower commercial-lab medical knowledge. That is a mighty shift, not to be dismissed. This biological restoration produces anxiety, but some confidence that with privileged funding and the universalization of marketing, commerical-lab knowledge can control and contain fully-scientific biological knowledge. The latent threat to the power order is that, emerging from the same Enlightenment, sociological knowledge has, like biology, a comparative historical-materialist scientific core. Within the social sciences, great idealist capacity, enhanced by the capacity to work with positivism to bury metaphysics out of sight, has been built up over the neoliberal period. As per its method, “expert” cherry-picking and fetishizing historical cases of cartesian-boundary flaunting injustice–particularly focusing on Gilded-Age eugenics, this philosophical tradition will police the boundary between epigenetic findings and sociological knowledge of social construction. It will attempt to forbid, by its justice-of-the-exception argument, the organization of egalitarian collective agency to reduce crippling violations of shared humanity.

 

 

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Post-cartesian Epigenetics Bibliography

Costa, DL, N. Yetter & H. deSomer. “Intergenerational transmission of paternal trauma among US Civil War Ex-POWs.”

Hendrickx, K. & I. Van Hoyweghen. 2018. “An epigenetic prism to norms and values.” Perspective 9(63): 1-5.

Loi, M. 2013. Social epigenetics and equality of opportunity. Public Health Ethics 6(2): 142-153.

M’hamdi, H.I., I. de Beaufort, B. Jack & E.A.P. Steegers. 2018. “Responsibility in the age of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) and epigenetics.” Journal of Development Origins of Health and Disease 9(1): 58-62.

Morriseau, T. 2019. “Continuing the legacy: Discovering new insights into the role of genes and the environment in Type 2 diabetes in Oji-Cree youth.” Research Life, Winter V. 1: 17.

Mukherjee, S. 2016. “Same but different.” The New Yorker, May 2. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/05/02/breakthroughs-in-epigenetics

Notterman, D.A. & C. Mitchell. 2015. “Epigenetics and understanding the impact of social determinants of health.” Pediatr Clin N Amer 62: 1227-1240.

Rose, Stephen. 2016. “How to get another thorax.” London Review of Books 38(17): 15-17.

Rothstein, M.A., H.L. Harrell, and G.E. Marchant. 2017. “Transgenerational epigenetics and environmental justice.” Environmental Epigenetics: 1-12.

Sadler-Riggleman, I. & M.K. Skinner. Environment and the epigenetic transgenerational inheritance of disease, Chapter 15 in .

Vandenbergh, M.P., D.J. Vandenbergh & J.G. Vandenbergh. 2017. “Beyond Lamarck: The implications of epigenetics for environmental law.” Mich J. of Envtl. & Admin. Law 7: 1-31.

TBC

The Canadian Right-wing Academic Argument Against Environmental and Social Justice

A McGill historian of science, looking as much like Foucault as he can, in 2018 published an article, with a fellow conservative holding physical science credentials, in which he makes an argument that epigenetics should not be linked as a rationale to egalitarian policy change.

After a two-paragraph intro to epigenetics, Canadian Foucault-Latour coins three neologisms, three sins, to package his argument for prohibiting a bridge between physical science findings and egalitarian social policy:

1) “Mischaracterization”: This is the (dubious) problem where the Historian of Science doesn’t agree with findings–for example, that epigenetic information can be transmitted intergenerationally, and he selects those particular epigenetic findings to dismiss as inconclusive.

2) “Extrapolation”: This is the problem (for Canadian Foucault-Latour) where scientists bridge the physical and social sciences, particularly including social epidemiologists, to suggest that with the theory-backed, mechanism-identified evidence of correlation and time-order, we can make a scientific claim that the material world and institutionalized social relations impact human health, and thus changing institutions, design, and infrastructure can reduce the socio-material harm.

Canadian postmodernist doesn’t say here how he defines science, but it’s probably commercial laboratory science, per postmodernism’s capitalism-accommodating idealist reduction. Along with positivists, discourse-totalizing postmodernists are a Cartesian Praetorian guarding the sacred boundary between the human, idealist world(s) and the base, material projection.

The article is basic, and extremely light on the empirical evidence. Yet with masculinist aesthetics, it presents errant pedantry as technocratic rigor. The McGill third arm of policing–not particularly well supported– is to attribute to mostly-unidentified other scholars a lack of his own fine appreciation of the connection between genetics and epigenetics. He decides this is the 3) “Exceptionalism” sin. This is raw crank. Even in pop culture accounts of epigenetics, the historical relation between the Human Genome Project and the growth of epigenetics is emphasized. The authors need to spend more time reading other people’s academic work, and less time in the patio party conversations.

It is a very thin article evincing a cursory familiarity with the substantive topic–which is not a survey of epigenetics. It is how epigenetics are being approached by anti-cartesians. Extremely thin on data, the article is only justifiable by an overinvestment in either positivism or in the postmodern, idealist, theoretical reduction of science to the commercial lab. It is a “textbook” recent case in reactionary “critical” idealism. It is the embodiment of the institutionalized Canadian settler-extractivist theoretical approach to reconciling private-property-reifying liberalism with hierarchy-reifying conservatism: effacing the inequality while censoring the inegalitarianism.

The basis for this authority’s institutionalized expertise is that while he was a grad student, he had to work with an indigenous community, as most Canadian social science and humanities academics did by the second decade of the 21st century, and that required him to write an article denouncing the association in medical studies of Canada’s First Nations with health problems due to the colonial relationship. I know this, because that is what I was being commanded to do then. You were told, by indigenous leaders in institutions, that you had to write stories about how there is no problem. Obviously, indigenous people outside of power were not clamoring for academics to amplify this particular voice. It became a theoretical specialty to argue that the material world is radically divorced from, inaccessible, and unknowable to humans–unspeakable.

Then McGill had a short burst in 2012 of trying to set himself up as an authority on how the biome is just imaginary and a bad discourse, because its metaphysics connects the material to the social–social design, institutions, and infrastructure overdetermine human health– and so its justice telos is about reducing social, economic and political inequality. He analyzes surveys, which is what he uses to back up the idealist social science theory.

In idealist thought, human health is not a thing. Health is just a holographic projection of bad Minds. Some physical scientists twiddle around with health because the tyrannical state. In idealist thought, design, institutions, and infrastructure are not recognized to create different kinds of social relations oriented to distinct justice teloi. Their discursive ontology only permits them to recognize difference, and they reject the idea that inequality is a thing, let alone a problem. The only problem, for which idealist humanities and social science academics are the official police, is reduction of difference–for example, state policy changes that reduce social hierarchy. Reducing inequality is the ultimate injustice from the idealist position. They believe the historical-materialist justice telos competes with the idealist justice telos–to proliferate difference, including inequality.

Inegalitarianism is difficult for postmodernists. Like good imperialists, and against all historical and concurrent evidence, they believe we can have moral, tasteful, polite inequality, reconceptualized as playful, fecund difference, without the discursive rudeness of inegalitarianism, which they typically project outward upon Americans, because of the brutish conservative culture of slavery-backed capitalism that feeds the US global imperial role, or another geopolitical Other–Nazis or Russians.

Canadian Foucault-Latour also sprinkled an article in his CV about how “contagion” is really financial crisis; wholly within discourse, that was a less-reactionary effort.

When critical idealists can keep within texts, they do not necessarily support capitalist and capitalist-state efforts to repress egalitarian, developmentalist design, institutions, infrastructure, and relationships. A postmodernist, like this McGill Man or Latour, may instrumentally play with a conservative, positivist physical scientist–they share the inclination to denounce inequality recognition and egalitarian redistribution; they both bury metaphysics; and they are both keen to reduce science to the commercial lab.

Yet the alliance between postmodernists and positivist commercial scientists of course contains an inner crack. Postmodernists as idealists are distinct from physical scientists in that they abject recognition that the world we live in transcends the textual. The Postmodernists reject an ontology material and historical and social. There are only words, which is the hermetically-sealed flat universe of the social, and when the textual ontology is imported into the social sciences, the lacunae–through which, in proper discursive philosophy, the historical-material world enters–is papered over. Thus postmodernists reject expanded, scientific methodologies, rather than just authoritarian bluster (“Meritcratic” decisionism, eg genealogy, and associated speculative idealism). When they use their idealist hermeneutics against the Earthly and human material world, it is all reactionary conservatism and it has been for a long time.

McGill ref: Huang, JY & NB King. 2018. “Epigenetics changes nothing.” Public Health Ethics 11  (1): 69-81.

Note that the Swedish Universities by contrast are immersed in studies linking epigenetic difference and health effects. Canadian idealism v. Scandinavian historical-materialism. University of Washington has an anti-cartesian epigenetics lab.

Capitalist Primacy

“Britain can be conceived of as the first fossil-fuel-led market civilization with a rising money supply (Central-bank-issued money representing global expectations of and co-optation into its network of private financiers’ future power accumulation,) backed by the surplus energy capacity provided by its (social reproduction-disruptive, inegalitarian social relations, consequent forest depletion and) reliance on coal.

Expanding the money supply–as in France, Spain and Portugal–without adding manufacturing capacity largely resulted in rising prices for a limited amount of goods” (Di Muzio, T. & M. Dow. 2017).

Britain’s 1694 Central Bank moment was replicated in the 1971 Nixon move removing gold backing from the US dollar. Both constituted empire brinkmanship that successfully secured the subordinate cooperation of global wealth owners who in turn controlled non-owners.

Nitzan & Bichler (theorists behind Di Muzio & Dow) are motivated by their aversion to the labour theory of value, and their analytical preference for elite perspective. So I think their critique of Marxists is as usual worthless, because a central point of Marxism is to understand capitalism from the perspective of its mass of expropriated, exploited/discounted, abjected, but still somehow necessary peoples.

With elite-centric theory, the mystery remains unaddressed: The masses are still economically necessary and vital. Elite theorists don’t understand why. Why do elite theorists believe in plutonomy while also believing in the necessity of population growth?

But I think Di Muzio & Dow can be shorn of their anti-labour theory of value tic, to better effect.

They remain academic anarchists, though, and that means that another main objective for them is demonstrating that the state = capitalism, and recommending that all political strategy fall out from there. To do that, they methodically eschew comparative method and most of political sociology findings, and instead reify a British case study. Britain, as Meiksins Wood showed, is capitalism’s premier state, and in an expanding, coercive *accumulation* system (as Di Muzio & Dow show it to be), the premier position is an exceptional position. What Di Muzio & Dow have shown is that Britain’s state = capitalism. That implies a whole ‘nother ball of strategy.

It would be intellectually and strategically irresponsible to ignore all the Marxist-inspired comparative work on state variability and development/stunting in relationship to Anglo-centric global capitalism, to produce a one-size-fits-all story that certainly misrepresents state-society relations in other parts of the world, and may well distort even empirical, actual, and real state-society relationships in Anglo resource-extraction management zones like Canada.

See also: Desan’s “Making Money” is a fantastic book. History of British currency from Anglo Saxon times until ~1700.

The 20th Century French Empire’s Philosophy Project: Derrida Thinks of Justice in Slavery

Kierkegaard said that, philosophically, it is impossible to escape regret. Alain Botton told this to a Google executive crowd. The point of philosophy, Botton added, is to let people down gently. In the 20th century French Empire, as its elites, consolidated through its elite universities, were mobilizing under the Marshall Plan to direct France through industrialization, winnowing out rivalristic global capitalist champions, its imperial philosophers were tasked with gently letting down democratic aspirations. Democracy, as a logic optimizing the average condition, was profoundly regrettable. It would not be missed. The global restoration of patrimonial capitalism would also be a little regrettable, but there was to be consolation in its privileging justice at the margins.

In Typewriter Ribbon (1998) and Without Alibi, Derrida worked over the possible relation between the singularity and “inorganic, dead universality,” mechanical repetition, the machine. He concluded Without Alibi arguing that the project of his cohort, the mid-20th century French Empire philosophers, was to imagine how singularity and the machine could coexist in a relationship Derrida called differance.

You could also say it like this: In the 20th century, elite-trained empire intellectuals from Philosophy to Economics pursued the long-standing dream of substituting out incorrigible, far-from-incorruptible humanity for an ownable, self-reproducing, perpetual-motion work machine realizing the delegated agency of the sovereign, a True because absolutely-free humanity.

The idea has been that this True Humanity will be liberated from responsibility for engaging the complex, artful/intuitive pleasure ‘calculus’ prescribed by materialist philosophy, by being able to reliably delegate their agency on such a self-reproducing, perpetual-motion work machine. Then it will be free of duress, and able, under the counsel of idealist philosophers, to produce reason deduced from singular interest, and just because attuned to the exception.

Yet it is also clear that repeatedly the global capitalist aristocracy (per Burke) has achieved this state of True Humanity, reducing humans to self-reproducing automatons–economically, a substitution. Most recently, while philosophers (via a “Modest Witness” service ethic) and capitalists’ states (via scientistic positivist service) have effectively reconstructed citizens and other humans into “service workers” within the machine,  realizing automaton self-reproduction, True Humanity has proliferated as an oligarchy of millionaires, billionaires, trillionaires. A wholly-owned world is a world made for the relief of suffering oligarchal. We may never reach the asymptotic transition into perfect utopia, but the world remainder is, percentage-wise, insignificant, not enough to dissipate sovereignty in democracy. As in other slavers’ societies, the idealist utopia is achieved again. A True Humanity is liberated to dispense justice at the margins, at its decisionist discretion, in perfect harmony with its interest.

The empirical problem for idealist philosophy is that their real utopia does not result in liberty or justice, or even in much liberty and justice. It results in empirical ecological devastation and human stunting (though we now conceive of that humanity as a sub-human or non-human machine of delegated agency). Positing positivism as the True extent of science, valorizing the structure of thought, its priesthood, and its justice centering the exception, we can try to retreat from the empirical world into the text or the shadowy thought cave, but, contra Kierkegaard, some forms of decisionism are more regrettable than others. Justice centering the exception and reviling the bulk of humanity can only produce reason in the imagination. It cannot realize it in the world.

 

….

Note that this analysis relies on a critical realist-type perspective that does not reduce scientific knowledge to positivism, as for example Canguilhem was not able to dismiss democratic knowledge by using genealogy to relativize physics, but French philosophy had to wait for Foucault to reduce science to professionalized (state-serving) Criminology and Psychology as social science.

Writing Plan:

  1. First refute the reduction of science to positivist scientism.
    1. Recover Toulmin & Goodfield’s historical-comparative account of science.
    2. Go back to Canguilhem?
    3. Then go forward to show how Bourdieuian and critical realist approaches work to transcend positivist reductionism, as an alternative to the reduction of social science to cheap Modest Witness service in a surveillance political economy context.
  2. Redefine positivist science as partial or incomplete scientific method that is historically undertaken when scientists either wish to contribute to a political  Risorgimento or are coerced into it.
    1. Give Perry Anderson’s example of early 20th century Italian communist positivist science, as well as contemporary privatized commercial science.
  3. Prometheus Unbound: Discuss how science escapes its bounds, though the sovereign market tries to tie it down. Use the development of epigenetics from the Human Genome Project as an example.
  4. ipsum lorem

France’s “Socialist Party,” that (like the MB NDP) only had ties between party heads and teachers’ union managers, dissolved into “liberalizers around Fabius for whom Silicon Valley was the model for a modernized tech-driven market society’ old-style social democrats and social Catholics like Delors who drew the lesson that national Keynesianism was dead and the PS should put itself at the head of a renewed project of European integration; and the remnants of the deuxieme gauche for whom the turn to the market could be interpreted as a radical, liberatory break from a statist past” (Howell, 2019, Catalyst).

In which it is clarified that France was run by conservatives, for the advancement of France’s patrimonial oligarchy, for the whole 20th century. They were not liberal. They were not socialist. They were capitalist, but capitalist aristocrats, per Burke. They were conservatives managing continental capitalist catch-up. People, they sponsor and circulate philosophy and theory to support that interest. I think it is time we get really critical about the ways that we ingest that interest.

In England (compare to Bourdieu’s Social Structures of the Economy analysis):

“Hamilton-Paterson sees the destructive impact of the ‘money men’ on industries more clearly. The catastrophic and unnecessary fate of ICI (which broke the hearts of some of my own chemical-engineering relatives) came about as men and women with long shop-floor experience and technical qualifications were pushed out of management by newcomers who claimed to be financial wizards. They weren’t. They played the great corporation for short-term stock-market gains, and they lost.

Hamilton-Paterson adds the example of Network Rail’s bungled electrification of Great Western (its cost rose in two years from £874 million to £2.8 billion). ‘That’s privatisation for you: layers upon layers of managers and accountants who know nothing about railways. The old British Rail alternative was layers upon layers of experienced railwaymen who knew nothing about accountancy but who did know exactly what electrifying a line entailed and simply got on and did it.’ Later in his book, he attacks the notion (‘holy writ’ today) that a college degree in management enrols one in a portable profession in which it hardly matters what a company does.” –Neal Ascherson, “As the toffs began to retreat” LRB 40(22).

 

 

Sociology of science

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.

2.

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).

3.

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

  1. “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
  2. From elsewhere in the interwebs, a reliable, informed, but anonymous exchange:
  3. “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.”
  4. “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.”
  5. The arable land is in the southwest.soviet_ag land_82
  6. “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.
  7. Total factor productivity, Russia/USSR and North Dakota compared:USSR-GrainYield
  8. “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.”
  9. “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.
  10. Altieri & Fuenes-Monzote. 2012. The paradox of Cuban agriculture. Monthly Review.
  11. 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.
  12. Magnan, Andre. 2015. “The financialization of agri-food in Canada and Australia.” Journal of Rural Studies 41: 1-12.

Communist Science

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.

 

Bibliography

Council for Responsible Genetics: Books.

Simoncelli, Tania. 2003.

Jabr, F. 2013. “Gattaca a Reality.” Scientific American.

 

 

Who really supports the arc of Western civilization?

“All that is real in the universe is an infinity of void space, and an infinity of primary particles in random and everlasting motion. Such is the physics of Epicurus…The Epicurean idea of an infinite universe of matter and space, indifferent to human hopes and concerns but whose workings can be understood, is the predominant scientific idea with which we now live. We have fellow feeling with the importance Epicurus attaches to happiness in this life, with his desire to diminish pain and overcome irrational fears, and with his attempt to understand and come to terms with death, the frontier we shall all reach but not cross as the individuals we now are…

The one world realism of Epicurus is made sharper by the principles 1. No thing is ever created out of nothing by divine will; everything happens according to natural laws without the aid of gods. and 2. No thing is ever put out of existence: natural laws resolve each thing again into its primary parts.

…This would commonly be taken as a contradiction of the Genesis story which forms the foundation of Jewish, Christian and Islamic credos about God creating ex nihilo.

But there is an ambiguity. The first two verses of the Book of Genesis may mean either (a) ‘In the beginning God created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth and (when he had done this) the earth was without form and void…’ or (b) ‘In the beginning the earth was without form and void and (from the pre-existing condition) God created the heavens and the earth…’

The first time that meaning (a) appears unequivocally in the Hebrew canon is in Maccabees 7:28. Generally Christians have preferred (a) and Muslims (b)” (Gaskin, John. 1995. The Epicurean Philosophers: ix, xxiv, xxvii.).