This week the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains how a dialectical methodology can help ask the right questions
AN EARLIER answer looked at what a Marxist approach can reveal about science’s relation to society.
The questions science asks (and the answers that it gets) are closely related to the way that science is organised, who pays and who profits, as well as to the more general needs of society.
That doesn’t mean that science is necessarily lacking in objectivity (although sometimes this is the case).
The scientific method and the knowledge it produces have a relative autonomy.
But a Marxist approach can take us still further in relation to “the facts” of science.
The underlying philosophical basis of Marxism, dialectical materialism, is not a magic key to provide the “right” solution to any problem. There have been periods in the history of science where it has been abused, notably during the “Lysenko period” of Soviet genetics.
It is, rather, a potentially helpful approach to asking the right questions (and to examining and challenging answers which are put forward by others) — about nature as well as about human society.
The dominant mode of science is reductionist — studying individual parts of a system, isolating one variable at a time and ignoring other aspects. Reductionism is a powerful procedure in science. But in and of itself it can only provide partial answers to relatively limited questions.
Reductionism alone can never provide the whole picture. And in some areas, notably in human biology and psychology, it lends itself to (unintentional or deliberate) abuse. An example is when supposedly “scientific” justifications are put forward for social inequality, discrimination and the status quo.
This was particularly the case with what came to be known as social Darwinism, pioneered by Herbert Spencer, one of the most influential European intellectuals of the late 19th century, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” — which was never used by Darwin himself — and applied it to human affairs. A free market was the reflection in human society of natural law. Regulation and welfare provision, he argued, should therefore be opposed.
He used the phrase “There Is No Alternative” more than a century before Thatcher. Ironically, Spencer’s ashes are interred in Highgate cemetery opposite Karl Marx’s grave.
Science has since been used repeatedly in a similar way.
Today sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are still used to justify inequality, racism and sexual discrimination on the basis of supposed inherited biological traits.
Competition, aggression, xenophobia are (it is argued) programmed into us from our ancestral past. They are “in our genes.”
The notion of the “selfish gene” is an example of a reductionist approach which “naturalises” what are essentially social phenomena and fails to look at the relations between different levels of analysis.
Sometimes the biases in science are unconscious. Sometimes they are deliberate. Sir Cyril Burt was a hugely influential educational psychologist who “proved” that intelligence was overwhelmingly inherited.
His work was used to justify selective schooling and the subordination of black and working-class people. His work was always challenged by progressives but it was only after his death in 1971 that it was found to have been fraudulent.
Good science (and major advance) needs to look critically at the evidence for any explanation of phenomena and also to understand the limits within which those explanations are appropriate.
It needs to examine the functions of each part of a complex system but also the interactions between these parts and the way they affect the behaviour of a system as a whole.
A dialectical approach in science is valuable both in what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” but also in the major transformative shifts which change the way that we perceive the world.
Many Marxist scientists have found such an approach helpful in their professional work.
An example in the physical sciences is the quantum physicist David Bohm, one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century.
Following his early work on nuclear fission, Bohm collaborated with Albert Einstein at Princeton University before being forced to leave the United States because of his links with the Young Communist League and activity in peace movements.
At London’s Birkbeck College he showed how entities — from sub-atomic particles to everyday “objects” — can be regarded as “semi-autonomous quasi-local features” of underlying processes, and later extending this to the nature of thought and consciousness.
Other notable Marxist physicists include the crystallographer and polymath JD Bernal, Dorothy Hodgkin (pioneer of three dimensional protein structures such as penicillin and insulin) and the biochemist Joseph Needham (the first head of the natural sciences section of Unesco).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most productive applications of a dialectical approach have been in biological science.
One of the most prominent was JBS Haldane (the originator, with the Russian biochemist Alexsandr Oparin, of the “primordial soup” theory of the origin of life) who combined his scientific work with popularisation of science and Marxist philosophy.
And other scientists (including some who would disclaim the descriptor “Marxist”) nevertheless see dialectical materialism as a key guide in their science.
An example is Ernst Mayr, one of the most eminent biologists of the 20th century, whose 1977 essay Roots of Dialectical Materialism is a good brief introduction to the subject and its controversies.
More recent conspicuous examples of Marxist scientists include Steven Rose in his work on the relationship between consciousness and the human brain, the evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (author with Niles Eldredge of the theory of punctuated equilibrium), the ecologist Richard Levins (a pioneer of metapopulation theory) and the geneticist Dick Lewontin.
As argued in an earlier answer, a Marxist approach can reveal a good deal about the relation of science to society, and it can also help to illuminate the process whereby scientific knowledge is produced.
As far as the knowledge content of science is concerned, Marxism in and of itself offers no especially privileged insights into the workings of nature — that is the job of science and scientists. But a dialectical methodology is an essential complement to reductionism. And in key areas it can help us question the popular presentation of “facts” which might otherwise be taken on trust.