9/02/2007

LET THE DEAD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD


Vox has made some interesting claims about Soviet style-Marxism’s debt to Darwin and been met with much scorn on both his site, and that of ‘fellow scientist’ PZ Myers (Pharyngula). One of them is to cite Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis, as a product of the young Soviet Union’s commitment to evolutionary biology and (presumably) Darwin. He's the fellow on the left, in a picture taken just eight years after he emigrated from Russia.

I don’t speak or read Russian, so I’m at a bit of a loss for primary sources on Vavilov and others, but as it happens Dobzhansky did leave a first-person account in English of his experiences as a budding scientist in the U.S.S.R. I’ll let the late geneticist speak for himself, in these excerpts from an article he wrote, “The Birth of the Genetic Theory of Evolution in the Soviet Union in the 1920's”, which appears in a collection of essays edited by Ernst Mayr, The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology.

Dobzhansky was asked to write this essay in part to explain the circumstances in which himself, Chetverikov and other Russians made important contributions to genetics. Dobzhansky begins by noting that at about the same time the Origin was published Russia was “entering a period of political reforms and a ground swell of radicalism amongst its intelligentsia.” He further observes that evolution was resisted by the conservative elements of pre-Revolutionary Russia, and that it came to be seen as part of a progressive, even radical agenda, but notes: “The polemics of the debate were published neither in scientific or religious journals, but mostly in general literary and sociopolitical journals intended for broad circles of educated readers.” In other words, from its infancy evolution in Russia was heavily politicized by the revolutionary climate of the times.

Dobzhansky continues, in an elegiacal tone:

“Among those who accepted evolution as part of the new gospel, some had reservations about certain parts of Darwin’s theory. The struggle for existence seemed to have particularly undesirable connotations: already Chernyshevsky held the Lamarckian ‘transformism’ superior to Darwin’s natural selection . . . The checkered career of neo-Lamarckism in Russia has been well-analyzed by Gaisonovich (1968) and Bliakher (1971). The polemics about Lamarckism versus Darwinism and genetics became a caricature of scientific discussion when the problem was taken over by Marxist philosophers in the 1920's and early 1930's. The Timiriazev Institute was working on “the study and propaganda of the scientific foundations of dialectical materialism.” The Communist Academy had a Section of Natural and Exact Sciences. The Faculty of Medicine of Moscow University had a Society of Materialist Physicians. The criterion of validity of theories of evolution was their congruity with dialectical materialism as construed by different authorities. I remember the frustration I felt discussing some problems of genetics or evolution with Serebrovsky, an excellent geneticist and a convinced Marxist, in late 1926 or 1927. His clinching argument was, “Your reasoning is undialectical.” The debates among the high priests of dialectics were often impassioned but inconclusive. Both Lamarckians and Darwinians claimed to be faithful dialecticians. These polemics had however a wholly unintended effect: they prepared the ground for Lysenko’s simplistic brand of dialectics, which for almost a generation swept away much of biology in Russia.”

Hardly a fertile field for science. Despite that, Russian scientists who were not ideologically oriented were eager to keep up with the developments outside the U.S.S.R. “Genetics,” writes Dobzhansky, “started tardily, but developed with great elan once it did start. The first course of genetics was given in the University of St. Petersburg by Philipchenko in 1913. 1 I never had a course of genetics at the University of Kiev, although my teacher....was an adherent of the chromosome theory of heredity. 2 At that time I was an entomologist specializing in the taxonomy of Coccinellidae (lady beetles). Mendel’s laws were occasionally mentioned, though not in an evolutionary context.”

Dobzhansky then reminds us that, due to the rise of Mendelian genetics and other factors, Darwin’s “theory of natural selection had reached its nadir of its repute amongst evolutionists in the early twentieth century.” The situation was not that Russians were especially skeptical at that time, but that the young field of biology worldwide was debating more than one theory of evolution at the time of the Revolution, and Darwin’s was far from the most popular.

The very slowness of the Russians to adopt Western-style genetics, however, may have initially insulated them from those debates and made the eventual introduction of genetics into Russian science all the more exciting. Dobzhansky recalls that while the “concept of mutation was still rather unfamiliar to at least the older generation of biologists in the 1920's” that by 1919 Philipchenko had published “excellent reviews of the works of the Morgan school on the genetics of Drosophila. To me, these reviews were a revelation. To most senior biologists Drosophila mutants were a collection of monstrosities, of no significance for evolution." 3

So, by Dobzhansky’s account, Russian intellectuals embraced evolution rather enthusiastically for ideological reasons as much as for its scientific merit, and at the very same time that confidence in Darwin’s particular theory for how evolution happened (natural selection) was most unpopular, not just in Russia, but worldwide. In the 1920's, young Russian scientists such as himself were eager to ‘catch up’ to the genetics being taught in the West, but the more senior scientists were inattentive and unlikely to make the connection between the genetic evidence for variation and Darwin’s theory. The future seemed rife with possibility for these young geneticists, but that window of open investigation closed very quickly, again for ideological reasons. By 1927 a frustrated Dobzhansky emigrated to the West and took up a position in Morgan’s laboratory, never to return, and for much of the next four decades his name was “used in the Soviet Union only with derogatory epithets.” 4

For those interested in learning more about Theodosius, here's a wonderful resource.

1.
Context: Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900. Theorists quickly proposed that the fact of mutations inferred from (in part) DeVries’ work with primroses could prove an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thomas Hunt Morgan, to whose lab Dobzhansky would eventually gravitate, began experimenting with Drosophila in 1908. Morgan expected to provide evidence for the ‘mutationist’ theory, but ended up discovering sex-linkage and crossing-over instead in addition to providing much of the raw data for the field of population genetics, which was ushered in by R.A. Fisher’s landmark 1918 paper which showed that the discontinuous genes studied by Morgan’s group could be the basis of the almost entirely continuous variation observed in natural populations—thus providing mathematical support for the idea that the observed frequencies of various alleles within a population could be the result, as Darwin foresaw, of selection.

2. More context: Dobzhansky entered the University of Kiev in 1917. He moved to the newly-christened Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1924 after the Soviets finally established a fruit fly lab 16 years after Morgan’s work.

3. Much of Dobzhansky’s most interesting work concerns the study of variation and evolution of Drosophila populations in situ, including one of the first demonstrations of a speciation event, a classic which can be read here.

4. From Krementsov, I. Review of Kolchinskii, et al. (2002) “At the roots of academic genetics at St. Petersburg.” Isis 95: 4, pg. 726-728.


9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how this issue pertains to the validity of TENS.

Do you think that Soviet Marxism (in whatever variant) could not, in principle, be justified according to TENS, but could only be justified according to a less-scientific, ideologically adulterated understanding of evolution?

You seem to suggest that you believe so. That would have troubling implications for the philosophical grounding of TENS as well as for its acceptance by the general public of today.

Are you implying that Vox's claims are invalid because he has merely identified two different historical facts (the development of TENS and the development of Soviet Marxism) that have certain features in common and, without knowing the specific mechanisms involved, asserted that one must have evolved from the other?

That would also be very troubling.

--emerod

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

I'm not sure how this issue pertains to the validity of TENS.

It doesn't, anymore than Vox's running feud with Ed Darrell on this topic bears on that question. I didn't title this post 'Vox Dei-Bate' for that reason. I just thought that the full context supplied from Dobzhansky's own words was illuminating.


Do you think that Soviet Marxism (in whatever variant) could not, in principle, be justified according to TENS, but could only be justified according to a less-scientific, ideologically adulterated understanding of evolution?


I don't think there's any scientific account of anything that can be used to justify Marxism or any other system of thought where ideology trumps evidence. That includes, by the way, any religious convictions that I might hold privately. Faith is unjustified belief. I mention that because I'm pretty sure that many of my readers are committed to evidence-based reasoning and skeptical of religion, and I don't want to be accused of hypocrisy.

Also---and this is almost amusing---- I think, ironically, that Vox's approach is the very mirror image of the radical ideologues he so clearly despises. As I mentioned, Vox is something of a professional when it comes to pushing ideology. He is certainly a dilettante when it comes to real science, and (just like those early Marxists!) seems really willing to trump evidence in the interest of ideology.

David Marjanović said...

That would have troubling implications for the philosophical grounding of TENS

That's funny.

The theory of evolution has no philosophical grounding, except in science theory. It does not need any. It is grounded in repeatable and repeated observation (including experiment). It is reality-based, as "a senior Bush aide" would say. That trumps everything else. :-) If any philosophy happens to be incompatible with science or its results, that's bad for the philosophy and for it alone.

David Marjanović said...

Once upon a time, some famous physicist (IIRC Feynman) was asked what the difference between physics and philosophy actually was, what with all that counterintuitive quantum physics and stuff.

So Feynman told, at somewhat greater length than below, the following parable on the difference between physics (i.e. science as a whole) and philosophy:

A physicist has a great idea. The longer he thinks about it, the more promising it looks to him. He goes to the library, and the more he reads, the more convincing does his idea look to him. So he goes into his lab, sets up an experiment, runs it, and sees that his idea is wrong. So he drops it.

The difference between a physicist [ = scientist] and a philosopher is that the philosopher doesn't have a lab.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any scientific account of anything that can be used to justify Marxism or any other system of thought where ideology trumps evidence.

I am quite relieved to read that. However, that implies that a purely scientific account of anything cannot lead to any particular conclusion about ideological questions.

That is a nicely naturalistic viewpoint, but it is problematic for anyone such as Myers, Dawkins, Darrell, ICR, and Vox Day, who all seem to believe that certain scientific accounts lead to certain ideological perspectives.

The theory of evolution has no philosophical grounding, except in science theory. It does not need any.

Oh yes, I know. A True Scientist takes no account of the interpretations or implications of the facts. The world is what it is, and people who think about meaning are said to be corrupting the purity of objective, empirical datapoints.

The point is that if you were one of those people who believed that the dissemination of the Pure, Objective, True Facts cannot lead to anything bad in a society, or must always lead to good things in a society, then you would not be thinking like a scientist. You would be assuming a conclusion. Yet, many who speak for Science claim that such conclusions are valid.

--emerod

Richard said...

emerod said--

I am quite relieved to read that. However, that implies that a purely scientific account of anything cannot lead to any particular conclusion about ideological questions.


You are editing responses to support your conclusions. If there is scientific evidence, a scientist can draw conclusions, even about ideology and belief.

Oh yes, I know. A True Scientist takes no account of the interpretations or implications of the facts. The world is what it is, and people who think about meaning are said to be corrupting the purity of objective, empirical datapoints.


This sounds like something from a book by A.E. Van Vogt. There is nothing in the scientific method that prevents interpretation, implication, or meaning. But to be a successful scientist, you better leave a track record of correct interpretation, implication, and meaning that resonates with with the inquiring mind.

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

David Marjanovic: Welcome! I've enjoyed some of your comments at PZ's place. It's nice to see you here.

I agree with your brief that TENS has no philosophical grounding. It does, however, have philosophical implications and, as Richard says, a good scientist is going to pursue implications or interpretations which are resonant with the spirit of inquiry.

Anonymous said...

OK, philosophers cannot be scientists unless they have a lab, but scientists can be philosophers. (I was afraid that you were next going to deny that scientists have human brains, but at least we aren't going there.)

And, scientists can draw conclusions from their work that have implications for society at large. Presumably such conclusions have some element of truthfulness that is superior to conclusions drawn by nonscientists; otherwise it would be pretty pointless to say them or defend them.

However, Scott has stated clearly that he is not in the "truth business."

Moreover, he was quite offended by the implication that a scientist might insist that their viewpoint is intrinsically superior to anyone else's. I don't know whether he was more offended by the idea that it might be more truthful, the idea that it might have greater value just because it was more true, or the idea that the scientist might enforce a standard of truthfulness in society.

You are editing responses to support your conclusions.

Somehow, you think I'm proof-texting, although everyone can read what was written. Scott clearly feels that science, being evidence-based, will always contradict any system of thought that is not. However, that only removes from discussion a system of thought that is first made up idealistically, with evidence brought in after the fact to support it.

That leaves open the possiblity that someone could believe that the scientific evidence necessarily must lead to a specific conclusion for an individual, a society, or a species. That mode of thinking describes lots of people, including many Marxists.

--emerod

Scott Hatfield . . . said...

emerod:

Scott clearly feels that science, being evidence-based, will always contradict any system of thought that is not.

(shrugs shoulders) I'm not sure that I agree, I'm not sure that I don't. Depends on what you mean. Evidence-based reasoning and faith-based reasoning could in principle come to the same conclusion, but that wouldn't make religion any more rational. I think I can imagine a system of thought whose falsifiable evidentiary claims is zero, or at least approaches zero, but I'm not sure any such system exists.. In practice, it's not so much the belief system that's falsifiable, but the consequences of the supernatural claims.

Here, I can state with authority that some stated consequences have been falsified. But the curious fact is that all we can say in the sciences about that situation is that our confidence is the source of that claim is reduced...even if confidence approaches zero! We can never rule out the source of the claim, because believers can always 'resurrect' said claim in a manner which has not yet, and which may never, be falsified.

But none of that matters to those of us who don't regard compartmentalization as a sin...:)