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Biology, Learning, Sustainability

Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA – A Review

This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote for a class during my PhD so it is a little more academic sounding than most of my posts, but I am constantly being reminded of this book and how it broadened my perspective and awareness of how society shapes science but then how the science is used to justify actions in society like racism and dominance over nature. I also remember how much resistance this idea received when I brought it up among scientists. We like to think that science is objective and maybe it is, but the people doing science are not, nor can we be. The questions we ask and how we interpret results is framed by the many things that influence our perspectives. Lewontin conducted seminal research that demonstrated that race is a social construct: there is more genetic variation within a single population than there is between populations. And yet, racism still exists. Until we recognize the systemic racism that exists we won’t achieve change. Lewontin’s writing and research is valuable to confronting these systemic biases.

Richard Lewontin earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Harvard University in 1951 and a doctorate in zoology in 1954 from Columbia University where he studied with Theodosius Dobzhansky, a central figure in the field of evolutionary biology (Aronson, 2001). In the 1960s and 1970s he contributed to the development of molecular population genetics. He co-authored two papers in 1966 with J.L. Hubby which are classics in the field (Aronson, 2001). In 1972, Lewontin argued in “The Apportionment of Human Diversity” that there is greater genetic variation within races than between them; this article is still a landmark paper in human genetics, cited almost 1000 times. The book The genetic basis of evolutionary change published in 1974 is an important piece today for both population geneticists and philosophers of evolutionary biology; it has been cited more than 2300 times. He is an Alexander Agassiz Emeritus Professor of Zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Lewontin’s reputation however, is not restricted to his scientific achievements. Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA is part of Lewontin’s critical look at the process of biology and the place of science in society. What does not come across however in the 1991 book is how much of the evidence that Lewontin uses to argue against the reductionist approach to biology stems from his own, earlier research in genetics. Although removing his role as the researcher from Biology as Ideology does little to diminish his argument, it does provide an ironic counterpoint as he critiques the objectiveness of science itself and then engages in one of the techniques used in science writing to emphasize the objective nature of science.

The book Biology as Ideology with many sticky notes throughout the book
My well used copy of Biology as Ideology

Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA, published in 1991, features Lewontin’s CBC 1990 Massey Lectures by the same name. In a series of five lectures, now chapters, Lewontin argues that, contrary to the conception of science that is popular with scientists and the public, science “is a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions.” (p. 3) Lewontin is not arguing against science, but advocating for a critical look at the influence of society on science.

In particular, Lewontin is critical of the dominance of genetic determinism as a means of explaining causation in biology. Studies that examine human traits like sexuality through genetics are typically valued above studies of other potential influences. There is a particular significance associated with the attribution of genes to these traits compared to social factors. This has led, in Lewontin’s opinion, to a misunderstanding of causes and effects that impacts not just science, but society as well.

According to Lewontin, biological traits are the result of an irreducible relationship between genes, developmental noise, and environment. As such, it is not possible to claim that 70% of height is determined by genetics and 30% by environment because these two factors, in combination with developmental noise, are interdependent and we have no reliable means of separating them. His explanation of developmental noise is somewhat sparse within Biology as ideology, but he touches on it again in a 2008 CBC radio broadcast on How to think about science (Lewontin & Cayley, 2008). Developmental noise is what causes differences when the DNA is identical. For example, fingerprints on your right and left hand are unique from each other although they arise from the same DNA code. This is because of the noise that occurs within the cell during development. This lack of attention in the book itself likely arises from his focus on dispelling the myth of DNA as deterministic, rather than explaining the process of development. In a series of lectures, intended for the public, rather than evolutionary biologists, perhaps the exclusion is understandable.

Another point, which Lewontin does not address within the text of his 1990 lectures, but does bring up in a later broadcast is that biology is trying to be more like physics in that it is searching to discover something universal. If, as he states, a science is viewed as more important the more universal that science is, then biology, in a way needs genetic determinism. This issue has caused divisions within biology he says. Evolutionary biology has been labelled as natural history rather than doing science. In 1973 Harvard University recruited Lewontin as “a weapon” to legitimize evolutionary biology because he studied its evolution through molecules (Lewontin & Cayley, 2008). Molecules are considered to be more universal than topics traditionally studied in evolutionary biology through classification (Lewontin & Cayley). Although, he doesn’t address this legitimizing directly within Biology as Ideology it does help to provide some context for why genetic mapping has been on the receiving end of the extensive funding and prestige that he does discuss.

Lewontin is not arguing that genes are unimportant, rather that the prevalence of reductionism in science, and in society, has led to a mindset that obscures the combination of causes of any one human trait. This, he argues, is glaringly apparent in sociobiology, which argues for the genetic determination of human behaviour. Exemplifying science as an institution designed to reinforce the dominant hierarchical society, it tells us that “human life is pretty much what it has to be and perhaps even ought to be” (p. 63). To this end, DNA must consist of a doctrine, it must control all human traits, and, if DNA is THE cause then inequality and violence are not the fault of our social institutions and arrangements, thus protecting the ruling class from rebellion.

But Lewontin argues that this ideology reaches beyond the realm of biological studies. He argues that it has influenced the way we approach the external world. If we are made up of bits and pieces that we do not understand and cannot control, then the external world too must be made up of bits and pieces that we cannot influence. This creates a confrontational relationship with the external world. One that is obvious, he says, in the environmental movement.

One of the greatest challenges in environmental education is to reconnect humans with the environment. Environmental educators often seek to encourage learners to see themselves as part of an interconnected system in a similar way to how Lewontin argues DNA, environment, and developmental noise are. It is to this problem that Lewontin turns in his final chapter – the perception of there being an environment that we must save.

Many in the field of environment would balk when he states that we must “abandon the romantic and totally unfounded ideological commitment to a harmonious and balanced world in which the environment is preserved and turn its attention to the real question, which is, how do people want to live and how are they to arrange that they live that way?” (p. 93), but Lewontin argues that organisms play a vital role in constructing their environment, a role that cannot be stopped. Thus, the idea that humans can protect some external environment just the way it is, does not work because they are inextricably linked with environment, and the environment is constantly changing (as opposed to balanced).

Unfortunately, Lewontin does not provide any suggestions for how we might change the way we think about ourselves and our environment but he does make a strong case regarding the need for change within our thinking. What is most important about Lewontin’s book however, is not the conclusions that he draws, but the questions that he encourages the reader to ask. They are questions that those people and groups both within and outside of the institution of science need to be asking and have been asking since Lewontin gave the CBC Massey lectures and published this book (Lewontin & Cayley, 2008). They question the image of science as purely objective, as being able to access the truth – a truth that he believes is unattainable before human extinction he reveals well after this book. They question the powerful influence of society on science. And they question, one hopes, the social ideology that is accepted as being scientific fact.

Aronson, J. (2001). Profiles – Richard Lewontin. Retrieved from http://authors.library.caltech.edu/5456/1/hrst.mit.edu/hrs/evolution/public/profiles/lewontin.html.

Lewontin, R. (1991) Biology as ideology: The doctrine of DNA. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press Ltd.

Lewontin, R. & Cayley, D. (April 23, 2008). How to Think About Science [Radio broadcast episode]. In B. Lucht (Executive Producer) Ideas. Toronto, ON.: CBC Radio One. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/features/science/index.html#episode18.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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