Richard Lewontin Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Politics: Conversation with Richard C. Lewontin, AlexanderAgassiz Research Professor, Harvard University, November 20, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Public Consciousness of Science

When you were describing what you do as a scientist, one could see that the difficulty that the public might have in understanding what it is you do. But in your writings, you say that it's the obfuscation of science that is part of the landscape in the United States. Help us understand some of the social forces at work here. You're suggesting that some of it requires a political or sociological analysis of the community of scientists, and how they fit into national society and so on. You've written a lot on the Human Genome Project, and question both its goals and the way it's presented. Help us understand that problem.

There are a lot of dimensions to it, Harry, some of them quite specific and some rather general. I don't know which to begin with. On the specific side, genetics, in particular, has for its entire history, since the beginning of the twentieth century, except for a very brief period during the Second World War, genetics has been extremely -- what shall I call it? -- deterministic in its view of the causes of human and social behavior. Geneticists have been, if you like, imperialistic in saying genes are responsible for everything.

The most violent eugenicists, and in some ways racists, were geneticists who said, "Genes dominate everything, and if there are differences between groups and how rich they are, how much power they have, it must be in the genes." Only for a short period, during the Second World War, when the consequences of that ideology in the national socialist state in Germany became clear, did people back off that. When I was in high school during the Second World War, we got a pamphlet saying there really aren't any important differences between races, and so on; but that disappeared when the war was over. Within ten years of the end of the war, [genetic determinism] had come back again. Biologists in general are biological determinists. That has a very powerful ideological effect, because they speak to reporters, they talk on the radio, they have TV interviews, and they push over and over again the determinism of the gene.

My wife and I went yesterday to the Berkeley Art Museum, and there we saw an exhibit called "Gene Genesis." The poster for that exhibit, which is all over, has a quote from Jim Watson. And what does the quote say? It says, "We used to think our fate was in the stars, but now we know it's in our genes." Now, I mean, that's rubbish, you know, but that's what's pushed; and if you're a Nobel prizewinner like Jim, you get all the more credit for it.

So scientists had that ideology that as organisms, we are governed, body and soul, by our genes.

Secondly, more broadly, scientists want to make claims for the importance of what they do in the general sense. So Jim Watson wants to say, "You should support work on the genome, because after all, everything that's important in life is determined by genes." And that's not ideological; that's purely political. That is a crass way of trying to increase and guarantee the support of research.

The same is true for medical research. We're told over and over and over again that if we do this research people's lives will be saved. People will be cured. Well, obviously, medical cures do arise out of some kinds of research; nobody can deny that. But promises are made of an extreme sort which do not correspond to actual truth. This guy [William] Hazeltine, who is the head of one of these private genome organizations, finally said what everybody wanted to say but didn't have the nerve to say. He said, "Death is nothing but a succession of preventable diseases." Well, if death is nothing but a succession of preventable diseases, then if you give us enough money, you'll live forever. Now, no sensible person believes that. But that's the kind of appeal that is made. "Give us more. Give us more power, give us more money, and we will not postpone your death; we will prevent it."

There are a lot of sick people in the world. Most of them are sick, ultimately, because they're underfed and overworked. That's not the case for Americans. Most Americans are sick because they've lived a long time, and their machines are breaking down. You know, the transmission goes, and then you need a brake job, and so on. There's a tremendous public demand -- people are in pain, and there's a demand to relieve that pain and relieve that anxiety. Science cashes in on that in a very cynical way by making promises that can't be kept.

Another way it does this, you were suggesting in your lectures, is by the metaphors it uses to make its case.

That's how you do it, of course. You do it by saying, "Genes make the organism." And if you really believe ... Genes are self-replicating, so they are powerful. The whole notion is that the genes inside of us are independent of us. They're in there doing their work. They make new copies of themselves, and they make you, and, therefore, they make society. And so if you support research on them, you will be able to change everything you want to change. The metaphors are that genes make proteins, that genes are self-replicating, and so on and so forth.

Which leads us, as you were suggesting in your lecture, to ignore the relationship of the organism to its environment.

Exactly so. Exactly so. Because the minute you allow the complication of interaction between the gene and the environment, then it doesn't look like genes are quite so important as before. book coverThen you have to say, "Well, look ... "

Let's take the case of the major killers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The major killers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up until the first decade or so of the twentieth century, were certain infectious diseases -- that's what killed people. Those infectious diseases were not waterborne diseases; they were airborne diseases. A major killer of children in the nineteenth century was measles. Now think of that. When I was a child, everybody had measles. Everybody in my class had measles. Nobody died of it. But in the nineteenth century, children died of measles.

The major killer of women of childbearing age in the nineteenth century was not childbearing; it was tuberculosis. Now, why is it that tuberculosis was the major killer of people in the nineteenth century -- the germs are still around -- and is now a very small fraction of the death rate? Very few people get tuberculosis now. People do, but very few, relative to the population. And children don't die of measles. Well, now, of course, they're inoculated against measles, but nobody in my generation died of measles, although measles are still a primary cause of child mortality in West Africa. The reason is because both tuberculosis and measles, in their severity and eventual effect -- and the probability of getting tuberculosis -- are closely related to nutrition.

Measles is a protein-consuming disease. If you already have a severe protein deficit, as children in West Africa do, and then you get the measles, you die. Measles actually destroys protein, it consumes protein. So if you're already underfed, you're in big trouble if you get measles. But if you're well-fed, as I was, and as my classmates in school were, then it's just an annoyance.

Tuberculosis was a chief killer during the nineteenth century because people were underfed. Women died more of tuberculosis than men because in nineteenth-century industrial England, for example, where the data come from, men were better fed than women. When there was meat to be had, and the man came home from the factory, the man got the meat and the women and children got what was left over. So as far as the causes of death are concerned in our society, environment -- social environment: pay scales, unemployment, social attitudes toward who deserves to get fed and who doesn't -- has had a profound effect on the causes of mortality.

So you're suggesting that the metaphors that we choose are, in part, the result of the political and social dynamics within science ...


The competition for resources and power, but also that they reflect the broader society and the decisions about, for example, the individual versus the community, or whatever dichotomies we might be talking about.

Yes, quite so. I mean, you don't want to think that the chief cause of death in your society is that people are underfed.


That's bad news. Because then people might demand that you do something about it. Instead of putting all that money into germs, you should put it into feeding people.

So what is, then, the answer for the problem that you posed in your writings, namely the inadequate way that the public understands what science is up to and the lack of tools to criticize science?

That's a very serious problem, Harry, that I don't have a good answer to. Science reporting in newspapers, for example, and on the radio, and on TV is a serious problem. It's a serious problem not because science reporters are dumb or ignorant. It's because of the nature of public media. I know a lot of science reporters. I have worked over the years with the Knight journalism fellowships at MIT, where science journalists come to MIT and spend a year on sabbatical or six months of sabbatical interacting with scientists, and I have met with them often. I've been greatly impressed with how much they know. But when it's time to write an article for The New York Times, or have five minutes on TV or on the radio, you are in competition with all kinds of other people who want column inches and five minutes on the radio, and if you don't make it dramatic, you don't get the five minutes. You cannot get a long column in the science section of The New York Times or the news section of The New York Times if you write an article saying, "It's all very complicated; it's some of this and some of that, and we really don't know what's happening and we're sort of trying to find out, and it's probably something environmental ...." No. No editor is going to give you column inches for that. That's point one.

The result is that much of what's written for the public is obfuscating, because it's over-dramatic. "Scientists today have found a gene which ... " and then you read what they say, "which may one day give us information that might lead to a cure for ...." It's always "may one day, might lead to." But that slips under the rug. The important thing is "Scientists announced today that ...." And, of course, a great deal of what appears in the press and on the radio and on the TV about the products of science are the outcome of press conferences called by the press office of the University of X, which is constantly after its professors to feed them stuff which they can then announce to the press. The press guy goes to the press conference and somebody gets up and says, "Today, we found a gene for ...." That's another way of getting money. If I have to deal with the state legislature in getting my budget, one of the things I'd like to do is to say, "People on my faculty have contributed this, that, and the other to public welfare. And if you don't believe it, look in last week's Los Angeles Times.

So there are strong social pressures on scientists to make excessive claims, and there are strong pressures on those who report science to the public to exaggerate and simplify, not just to explain. Look, I'm all in favor of simplifying; if a thing can be made simple, let's make is simple. But they simplify it to the extent of making it untrue, and that's the real problem.

Or simplified to the extent of furthering the interest of particular groups, companies, or whatever.

To some extent. Although I don't think that's the most serious issue. The most serious issue is just going along with the metaphors and extreme inaccurate simplifications of the field, just in order to be able to get it out there. I don't see most science journalists as either witting or unwitting tools of commercial interest. There may be such people, but that's not our big problem.

It's a broader landscape, the way it all hangs together, so to speak?

I have the experience of reading the science section in The New York Timesonce a week, the Science Times, and not understanding what the reporters are telling me. I read it. I'm a scientist. I'm a biologist; I'm also a statistician. I was trained in physics as an undergraduate. I mean, I have a pretty broad ... I'm not an expert in nuclear physics, that's for sure, but I try to understand what the reporter is telling me, and I can't ever understand it.

Why is that, do you think?

Because it doesn't have the kind of logical detailed development that I expect. You know, "A leads to B. B leads to C. C ...." No: "A was discovered, and that means D." And I can't figure out the relationship between them at all.

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