Richard C. Lewontin – Conversations with History


(upbeat synth music) – Welcome to a Conversation with History. I’m Harry Kreisler of the Institute of International Studies. Our guest today is Richard C. Lewontin, who is the Alexander
Agassiz Research Professor at Harvard University. An evolutionary geneticist
and social critic, his publications include Human
Diversity and most recently, The Triple Helix: Gene,
Organism, and Environment. He is visiting the Berkeley campus to deliver the Charles M.
and Martha Hitchcock Lectures on the campus. Welcome to Berkeley. – Thank you very much, Harry. – What drew you into the sciences? – A charismatic high school teacher. – Uh-huh. – I was a student at a public
high school in New York, a new public high school that catered to a primarily middle
class suburban community, and we had there a science
teacher who people idolized. And he drew a number of people, and a lot of people in the science, a number of people who
teach here and so on. And in fact the group
of his former students is now putting together a
kind of collected remembrance and textbook on how to be a
charismatic science teacher. – And looking back, now
we’re moving from high school into your academic career,
who were your main intellects? Was there any particular
intellectual mentor that stands out? – Well, mentor doesn’t do the job so well – What is the better word?
– as opponent. – Okay. (laughs) Who is your best science… – My professor, who supervised my PhD, again, supervised not the right word, he was my professor for PhD, was the leading evolutionary
geneticist of the time, Theodosius Dobzhansky. Again, a very charismatic
person with a thick accent and a very lively way
of dealing with people. And he and I spent the
three years of my PhD fighting with each other about everything. And he liked that and I liked it. – So does that tell us
something about scientists and how great work gets done? It’s through the fights? – Well, I didn’t say great work was done. (Harry laughs)
I just said I… No, that doesn’t tell
us much because in fact, most professors who have a lot of students don’t like to fight with them. But some do, and I
think he liked it a lot, although he would make fun of it. But conflict and struggle is
very common in academic life, especially between professionals. Everybody is crazy except you, of course. – Now you were an evolutionary geneticist and most people in our audience probably wouldn’t know what that is. What is it? What do you do? – The process of evolution
requires three things. It requires that there be
differences among individuals within a species in
various characteristics, that those differences
be inherited in some way, because otherwise every generation would go back to where
things started from, and then requires some
differential rate of reproduction of the different kinds. The evolutionary geneticist is the person who devotes him or herself
to the actual mechanics of the changes and the
frequencies of different kinds of genetic properties. Why is it, for example,
that all human populations have blood groups A, B, and O? Why isn’t everybody A or
why isn’t everybody B? So the explanation of
the genetic variation of how that changes in time, of how natural selection changes. We are, if you want to put it crudely, the auto mechanics of
evolutionary biology. We try to work with the machinery and how it actually operates
at the genetic level. – Now in the introduction to
you at your Hitchcock lecture it was said that you introduced the study of molecular population
genetics over two decades ago. So what is involved in being
present at the creation? – God, it’s four decades ago, actually. – Four decades ago. – They said two, but it’s four. It was 1966. – Well, we try to cover up
how old we’re all getting. – I’m afraid I am old. – (laughs) Yeah. – Well, the problem when
I was a graduate student, and for many years before
that was that nobody knew, you wanted to be an
evolutionary geneticist, then you had to be able
to talk about genes. But nobody knew how to detect
whether a particular gene was variable or a
constant in a population, because nobody knew how to
identify individual genes. Nobody’s ever found the genes
for skin color, for example, or the genes for height or for weight in people or any other organism. So for years people worried about, how is it possible for us to count up the number of individuals who
have that form of the gene as opposed to that form if
we can’t work with the genes? This was before DNA. And I worried about that a lot when I was a graduate student, and for a few years after that. And I constructed in my head the kind of scheme you would
have to have to do that, but I didn’t know how to do it. And then one day I went and visited the University of Chicago, and there was a guy there, Jack Hubby, who was grinding up fruit flies and extracting their proteins, and every one of those proteins corresponded to the coding
product of one gene. And then if two species
had a different gene form, the proteins would move
slightly differently in an electric field, and I thought, this is
the answer to my problem. So I moved to the University of Chicago and here was Jack with a technique but no particular problem to apply it to. Here was me with a
problem with no technique. And so we merged together and applied his technique to the problem of measuring genetic variation,
diversity in populations. And the beauty of that technique was you could do it with
any kind of organism: plants, animals, people. If they were little animals like insects, you’d grind them up. If they were bigger animals
you’d take some blood. If they were people you’d take some blood. You could then characterize
at the genetic level the genetic variation in
any species in the world. And that’s what we did. That’s really what
started molecular studies of genetic variation and evolution. And then later on, Martin Kreitman, who
was a graduate student in our lab in Harvard, moved
that from the protein level to the DNA level, and he did
the same thing at the DNA level that we had done at the protein level. – So does that experience tell us anything about creativity in the sciences? I mean, is it taking–
– Yeah, it tells us that… Not enough credit is given to the effect of talking to other people
and dealing with other people. There’s too much emphasis
on the great creative act of the great mind, and it’s not like that. I mean, I repeat: here
I was with a problem looking for a solution. Here a guy was with a solution
looking for a problem. And we got together. Many times, many of the things
we did in our lab in Chicago arose in the course of a conversation with somebody who came in. We would have weekly talks at lunch. People would come from all over the world that would happen to be in town, would come and give a
talk about what they did. And we’d have a big conversation
among the graduate students and the post-doctoral fellows
and me and other people. And in the course of that, someone would say something
that would trigger an idea and someone would go off and do it. And the graduate students
and post-doctoral fellows and visitors and I all
contributed to that in a way that is impossible for me in
retrospect to disentangle. I can’t tell you who got the idea for that and who got the idea for that. The ideas are out there,
and social interaction is really important in science, I think. – And you’re suggesting the
importance of the community of scientists as opposed to–
– Oh yeah. But I really mean community. I don’t mean the collection of scientists, because scientists as a
whole don’t form a community. I mean, when we moved
to Chicago from Harvard, I came with four graduate students, I think that was it,
four graduate students, and we had the opportunity
to design our own space because it was in a new building. We were given a whole
floor in that building. And so we designed the space in such a way that everybody’s office
opened out into a central room where there was a big
table and blackboards and computers and the
labs were down the hall. You couldn’t go to your office without actually walking
through the laboratory, not just past it, but through it. There were no doors. Everybody at your office had a door, but everybody had a key to it, and people spent a lot of
time sitting in that space shooting the bull. Or in the lab they were facing each other. Nobody had this private
space, and that included me. And the consequence is that we had a very active community of people, and eventually the thing
grew within a few years to 25 people, which went on for 30 years. And everybody participated. It was a real community. And now I wanna say something
scientific political. – Okay, please! – And that is that an important part of that sense of
community was the, I hope, I believe it’s true, the
feeling that the professor did not have property rights over the work of the professor’s students. I never in my life put my name on a paper which I didn’t actually work on. I mean in the lab or computer analysis or something like that. I just thought that was wrong. Some people think it’s a great thing, because it helps the
student because it brings the student’s paper to the
attention of other people because a well-known
person’s name is on it. I think it’s nonsense. What it really is property rights. You can say, well I published 573 papers, but you’re of course the
last author on the paper and you didn’t do anything. It’s taking credit for
other people’s work, and I think the community worked because people knew that whatever they did they would get credit for. – Which opens up another line of inquiry that I wanna get into before we talk about the whole question of
the public’s consciousness of science and the politics of science. And that is you’re known as, and have been for quite
a while, a social critic, a commentator on science, somebody who’s also been an activist. When you were at Chicago you were involved in a lot of the protests and so on. What is it about that, how
did you come to that role, let me ask you first of all, and then how does it relate
to your role as a scientist? – How did I come to it? Harry, I’m not sure I know
the answer to that question. I mean, I was politically
active as a student as an undergraduate at Harvard. My father warned me not to
get into political issues because it wouldn’t be good for me, but I didn’t pay attention to him and I got involved to a certain extent. When I was a professor at… At Rochester, my wife and I and Bob Fogel the economist and his wife sat in at a police station because of the first incidence of police brutality against black people. Man, that was the way our lives went. When wife and I were in school together, we were in high school together, we were part of a… Of an organized political group
that the students organized called The World We Want. Man, that was just part of life. I can’t put it any more clearly than that. – So then how has that consciousness informed your role as a scientist? Has it? – Well, sure it has. In fact, my wife was just
saying to me yesterday, I was talking with a
colleague about some work I was doing on ants and ant behavior, and a woman came up from
Stanford to talk to me about it. And when my colleague
left, Mary Jane said to me, why do you really wanna do that? Why does anybody want to
study the behavior of ants? What’s it got to do with
anything that we care about? And we started to talk about that issue, which is, what is the motivation for academic life in general? And a great deal of what I do is pretty academic, if
I may put it that way. The fact of the matter
is that as academics, we are supported by society
in a pretty nice way. We have security and so on. The claim is that intellectual
life has a value of its own. But my development has
been such as to believe that what you do, I mean, sure,
you have to make a living, but to make a claim on the public purse, to make a claim on the
resources of society, you have to do more than say, I just want to satisfy my
intellectual curiosity. I mean, that’s a kind
of mental masturbation that is not self-justifying
as far as I’m concerned. You have to do political things, at least I have to do political things. And then there’s the
question of the relationship, so you could turn it upside down, say, well, why bother to do science then? And that’s A, because I
like it, I agree to that, but also because it
provides me with legitimacy. Legitimacy is very important, and even the most prominent
and world-famous scientists, when they lose their
legitimacy as scientists, they also lose their legitimacy
as social commentators. That certainly happened to Linus Pauling. When he stopped being
a productive scientist and went off and talked
about other things, people turned off their hearing aid, because why should I listen to him? And look, I write a lot of public stuff. I write for The New York Review of Books. I write books about
things related to science, but social things. And I’ve made a promise to
myself and I hope I can keep it, and that is that the day I stop doing any technical
science of any kind, I’m gonna quit writing anything, because nothing is easier than to say, oh, well that guy, he can’t
be a scientist anymore. He’s over the hill and
he just writes this stuff because he doesn’t know what else to do. And therefore it’s useless. You must have legitimacy. And so my scientific work
gives me that legitimacy. – And as I, in preparation
for this interview, read some of your papers about politics and science
and so on, I was struck that, it seems to me, I’m not an expert on this, but that your science informs the way you do your analysis. It’s not the theory
behind it, so to speak, but rather it helps you bring
clarity to some of the issues because in a number of the
papers that I looked at, you seemed to be faulting
both sides of the debate. – You raise a very important point, Harry. A book which people
don’t know much anymore, which was very well known around the time of the Second World War, by a French sociologist and
historian, Julien Benda, was called La Trahison des Clercs, The Treason of the Intellectuals. And what Benda was saying
is that intellectuals, who are supposed to be
committed to a careful, logical, rational analysis, would commit treason against that in the interest of
pushing a social agenda, even when that meant saying
things that weren’t true or claiming things were true that they didn’t know to be true, or even things to be true
which they knew not to be true. An important difference, by the way. And that is uppermost
in my mind all the time. For example, there’s a struggle about so-called genetically
manipulated organisms, or GM foods and so on. Now one might have a number of reasons for opposing that particular technology. To the extent that I oppose it, it has nothing to do
with dangers to health, of which there’s no evidence. And yet I see people writing, making claims which might support the public position I wanna
take on a political issue, but using pseudoscientific claims and their own legitimacy as scientists to tell what come to lies. I mean, I have to tell you, when I was thinking
about the GM food thing, I read the works of a
woman, Vandana Shiva, who is an extremely important
writer in this field, who has a PhD in physics,
so she’s a scientist, and one thing, I’ll give
you a specific example, one thing I read, Shiva said, do you realize that when
infants eat baby food, they are getting eight
times the dose of estrogen that a woman gets when she
takes her contraceptive pill? I thought, my god, how terrible! That a little baby will get
eight times the dose of estrogen that an adult woman gets when she takes a contraceptive pill? So I went to look at the paper she cited. Well, yes, it’s true. They are getting eight
times the dose of a thing. But it turns out not to be
physiologically active estrogen. It turns out to have only 1/1000 of the physiological
activity that estrogen has. It’s a thing called a plant estrogen. And she played on the word estrogen. Now, she must have known
the truth of the matter, because she cited the paper
from which she got the data. But she would presumably
regard that as a justifiable, I would call it a lie, she
would say something else, in the interests of the greater good. And I think we cannot put up with that. Because in the end, it will be detected, it will make people cynical, and it will be counterproductive. – And in some ways in the papers that I read, you bring out that it happens
on all sides, basically. – Oh yeah. – You did a review, I think,
of the Shapiro commission on bioethics, I think. And they, to deal with
the political problem, not the science problem, seemed to legitimate some
of the religious concerns, I think it was. In other words, there was
an appendix to the report that was making part of the discussion something that really
had no basis in science. – Well, not only that, that was a political issue, but what was so interesting is they interviewed Catholic
priests, Jewish rabbis, and some liberal Protestants,
and when I questioned why they brought in
those religious people, they said, well, after all, religion’s a very important
part of our society, and they made a perfectly
reasonable explanation. So then I said, okay, then why didn’t you
bring in Pat Robertson? His constituency is a great deal larger than the constituents
of the people you did. They had no answer to that. The fact of the matter is they didn’t wanna bring
in fundamentalist Christians because they would rock the boat too much. But if your real excuse is
that you want to understand where people are coming
from and you want an input from the public based on religion in order to make this political decision, then why are you avoiding the very people who are the most vocal, the
most politically active, and represent a large fraction
of American religious people? And the answer was clear, that to bring in Pat
Robertson was too dangerous, and that he would just
upset the applecart. – Now, let’s pursue this, because I believe in
the introduction to you they pointed out that you joined the National Academy of Science
in such-and-such a year, and then I believe they said
you resigned from the Academy a few years later. – Yeah, about three years later. – Was that for scientific reasons or was that in your role as social critic? – It was in the latter, but also, to put it even more stuffily, it had to do with personal integrity. All scientists in the United States wanna be members of the National Academy. That’s big stuff. So here I was, elected
to the National Academy. I felt wonderful. And then I discovered
that, among other things, the National Academy,
through its operating arm the National Research Council, had committees doing secret war research. It was so secret that as a
member of the National Academy, which is the responsible body,
as a member of that body, I was not only not allowed
to know what they were doing, I wasn’t even allowed to know
the title of the research. So at the second meeting
I went to, I guess, I got up and said, look. I can’t be responsible for
work other people are doing and not even know what it is. And I think you must stop this. And if you don’t stop it, I
have to resign from the Academy. I refuse to take responsibility. Well, of course being a
political organization which is almost quasi-governmental, the National Academy board
was not about to refuse the Department of Defense and
the military establishment. So they refused, so I left. But that was the proximal reason. The greater reason was that… I realized around that time that the existence of a thing called the National Academy of Science as an honorary organization to which every scientist wants to aspire is really destructive
of intellectual life. That whole notion of the
chief motivating element being prizes, honorary
degrees, personal prestige, memberships in academies,
that really turned me off. That happened at a time when I was particularly politically active in the movements of the ’60s and so on, and it was just a contradiction
I couldn’t deal with. So I had no choice but to resign. – Now this leads to an
interesting question, which is the role of government in science after World War Two. You’ve written about this. It in a way was central to fulfilling the requirements of society and to get around the problem that you were talking about earlier, namely, the kind of people
you need to do science, the kind of capital investment you need, that really, society has to be doing it. Those investments have to be socialized. The private sector either
couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, and one always had the problem that the result would then be privatized. So this is a kind of recurring issue, and I just want you to help us understand how that process evolved
after World War Two. – Well, it evolved largely through the efforts of Vannevar
Bush, as a matter of fact. – Who had been at Harvard, right? Had he been there? – No, I don’t think Vannevar Bush was ever at Harvard.
– Okay. – He was at that time the head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He had been very important
in the war effort in science and the war. And a report was written for the president of the United States called Science: The Endless Frontier, which put in a strong bid for
government support of science, of which there had been virtually none before the Second World War. The importance of science
for national interests was underlined by the atomic
bomb project and so on, radar. But private companies were not
gonna put money into science because they have very
short investment horizons and it has to be privatized and so on. So what Van Bush pushed
on the administration was the idea that there should be government support of science. On the other hand, the word socialism is a dirty word in the United States. So you couldn’t socialize it. You had somehow to find a mechanism by which public money
could be put into science, yet not appear to be some
kind of a socialistic scheme. And what was developed was at first the National Science Foundation, which the first time around
didn’t get through Congress because Congress said, what do you mean, the National Science Foundation? Am I as a Congressman gonna
be able to have an input in what goes on here? Are you give away public
money to these guys to do what they like? And it failed. But then, under Truman
they finally succeeded and they got the National
Science Foundation created. And then the National Institutes of Health began to have a huge input into science, the Atomic Energy Commission,
then called the… Office of Energy Development or something, and now it’s the Department of Energy, they put a lot of money into science. Some of my earliest work was supported by what was then the AEC. Had nothing to do with atomic bombs except very, very vaguely. And the way it worked was that Congress appropriated
money for these institutions, but the decision about
how the money was spent was left entirely in the
hands of academics themselves. The NIH gets a budget. The NSF gets a budget. And then individual
professors, scientists, are recruited into Washington onto committees which meet
three or four times a year to review research proposals. And they say yes, you shall have some, no, you shall not have some. So what has happened is that
the scientific community as a whole has gained control over a piece of the public purse. Complete control, because it’s we, I mean, I served on these
committees for years, who decide who gets the
money and for what reason. The claim is, of course, that this is good for society in general. No one’s ever proved that. I’m not sure you could demonstrate that it benefited anybody in particular, but it really worked to
the benefit, for example, of universities. A very large fraction
of university budgets depend on this federal
input into research, and especially after Sputnik, the budgets expanded exponentially, and the current state of universities, including the University
of California, Harvard, state universities of all kinds, private universities, the immense expansion in
the higher education sphere, the immense expansion
in the number of people who are in education, is all a consequence of the money put in by
the federal government and given over, I have to say given over to the academics to spend as they wish. It’s a very extraordinary phenomenon. – And you suggest in one of your pieces that a vehicle for getting around the ideological hangups about doing this is the
need to fight a war, and during the Cold
War it was really the– – Absolutely, war is the way you do it. Scientists were given money to work during the Second World
War because it was a war. Then there was the Cold War. Then there was a war on cancer. Then there was the war on drugs. The rhetoric of war, over
and over and over again, justifies the expenditure of public monies which in our ideology is not to be done because that’s socialism. So war replaces socialism. – It looked like there
wasn’t a war to fight after the end of the Cold War. But now we have the war
on television, television. The war on terrorism, sorry. The war on terrorism. So the question is … – Yeah, but Harry–
– Yes? – War became a word that was
separated from political wars. As I say, we had the war on cancer, the war on drugs. Those did the trick. You don’t have to have
the war on terrorism. – Okay, but we do have it.
– We do have it. – And what I’m curious about is, do you think that the
particular threat posed, the use of biological weapons, possibly, by an adversary, do you think
that that will in any way skew the kinds of research
that will be done, or is there so much research going on that that won’t happen? – I don’t see that it
will have any real effect on the research community. Look, Camp Detrick and other institutions had been doing biological
warfare research for years. They then shut it down because of various treaties and so on. They can always start it up again. The amount of money spent
on that kind of stuff is pretty small, as
compared to the total budget of scientific research. So at the moment, I don’t see that it will
have any effect, no. No, the kind of effect such wars have, political wars, like the war on terrorism, is to create a kind of security hysteria in which people may have
to sign a loyalty oath and that sort of thing. But as far as money is
concerned, no, I don’t see it. – And you actually believe
that it often has not been, in your particular, well it has not been in your case that you
were denied research funds because of your activities. In fact, it never happened. – Never happened, no.
– That in fact, that the kind of the
McCarthyite atmosphere that did exist in this Cold War period was really the work of politicians, people on boards of regents and so on, who used it as an occasion for advantage or to go after people
to succeed politically. – Yes, individuals certainly suffered. I mean, there’s no question about that. People lost their jobs. After the professors at the
University of California swore loudly they would never
sign a loyalty oath, they did. They had no choice. But we don’t live in a
totalitarian society, and the system is very
inefficient in that sense. I, and other people who were deeply involved
in what were then regarded as, I suppose, subversive activities, continued to get funded without cessation from the Atomic Energy Commission, from the National Science
Foundation, the NIH, from the Office of Naval Research. The activities of McCarthy
severely hurt some people and put a lot of psychological
stress on others. But it was very inefficient
as a way of denying support to opponents of the
state, very inefficient. Now, if we ever get
efficient enough to do that, we really will be living
in a totalitarian state. So far that hasn’t happened. – Do you think that the
profiling of students because of their national origins, which seems to be part
of the agenda these days, how will that impact
research, if it’s implemented? – It’s very hard to know. Will they be denied entry
into the university? Would you be prohibited from hiring them? I don’t know the answer. During the Second World War, Japanese were very severely
hurt by that profiling. And curiously enough, German
refugees who had left Germany, either because of political
or religious persecution, nevertheless were German nationals and were restricted in their movement. My piano teacher, who taught
at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, had to
get special permission to come up to New York
to teach his students because he happened to be a German. He was a German Jew who had left Germany. So yes, it does make people’s lives difficult. And in some cases, it makes real hardship. People lose their jobs. It’s evil stuff. But to ask me whether
it has a mass effect, I haven’t seen the mass effect yet and I don’t know what to tell you. – When you were describing
what you do as a scientist, one could see the difficulty that the public might
have in understanding what it is you do as a scientist. But in your writings, you’re really saying that more is going on in
the obfuscation of science that is a part of the
landscape in the United States. I want you to help us understand some of the social forces at work here. I think you’re suggesting
that some of it requires a kind of a political
or sociological analysis of the community of scientists and how they fit into
national society and so on. I know that 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 a little. – (laughs) Well, 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 20th century, except for a very brief period
during the Second World War, genetics has been extremely… What shall I call,
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 10 years of the end of the war, it had come back again. So biologists in general
are biological determinists, and 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, look, 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. I mean, nobody can deny that. But promises are made of an extreme sort which do not correspond to actual truth. This guy Hazeltine, who’s 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,
I think, 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– – Well, 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, as you were
suggesting in your lecture, an ignoring of the relationship of the organism to its environment. – Exactly so. Exactly so, because the minute
you allow the complication of the interaction between
the gene and the environment, then it doesn’t look like genes are quite so important as before. Then you have to say, well, look, let’s take the case of
the major killers… Of the 19th and 20th centuries. The major killers of the
19th and 20th centuries, up until the first decade
or so of the 20th 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 19th 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 19th century,
children died of measles. The major killer of women in
the 19th century was not child, women of childbearing
age, was not childbearing. It was tuberculosis. Now, why is it that tuberculosis was the major killer of
people in the 19th 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 at large. 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 19th century because people were underfed. Women died more of tuberculosis than men because in 19th-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, have 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. – Absolutely. – 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. – Right. – 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 problem of 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 are a serious problem. They’re 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 worked together, have 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 on 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-ish part
of The New York Times or the news part of The New York Times if you write an article saying, well, 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. And then 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 the Los Angeles
Times for last week. 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. Look, I’m all in favor of simplifying. If a thing can be made
simple, let’s make it 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 interests of particular groups or
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 Times once
a week, the Science Times, and not understanding what
the reporters are telling me. I read it. I’m a scientist. And I’m not just 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. – And 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. No. A was discovered, and that means D. And I can’t figure out the
relationship between them at all. – If students were to watch this tape and they aspire to wear both hats that you have worn very well, that of a critic of both science and a commentator on society in general, but also that of a scientist, are there some rules that we can lay down for how one does that well
without compromising either? – Well, rule one, Harry, is don’t start out by
being a social critic. Start out by being a scientist. Because I think I’ve said
in this interview before, but I’ll say it again if I haven’t, that the critical issue for a
social critic is legitimacy. You don’t want to be written off as some sort of loud mouth
who can’t do anything better than just yak. So the first thing to do is
to establish real credentials as a producer of science, recognized by the science community and accepted by them
as being of some value. When you stand on that
base, you can then go out. The second point is that you must make it clear at all times, and it must be clear in your own mind, that the science that you do, and especially, not the
science that you do, but the results you get in your science and what you say about
science cannot be shown to be simply the consequence
of your social attitudes. If I say that genes and
environment are important, I have to have a firm
underpinning for that within the scientific apparatus. I cannot say, well, I wish that were true because I would like a world in which I could change the world, and therefore I’m prejudiced
in the way I report the world, because that’s the first thing
that your opponents will say. Oh, you just say that because that’s your political ideology. You’re justifying that political ideology by pretending that science has done that. The observations have to be there independent of any justification. You have to distinguish
between why you do a thing and what the result is. It may be that you are propelled forward to study the relationship
between gene and environment because you have some political agenda, but what you say better
not be tainted by that. That’s very tricky and very important. – And what is your advice
to the general public? Because I can hear
people watching this say, well, if he can’t understand what’s being said in The New
York Times science section, how can I understand it? What can people, the average person, do to be informed citizens in the debates that involve science policies
that are rationalized about science through the uses of science? – Harry, you’ve raised there one of the most difficult
social problems that exists. I want to put it in a
broader context for a moment before I come back to the
specific question you’re asking, because I don’t know the answer
to the specific question. The founding fathers of our
republic said, essentially, that you can’t have a democratic society if you don’t have an educated electorate. How can people make democratic decisions about what has to be done
unless they have some education? So we have a public education system. What the founding fathers
never could have imagined is the kind of knowledge
that you would have to have in order to make informed decisions. Let’s talk about the Star Wars project. I don’t know enough about
physics and engineering to decide whether it would work or not. I have to trust somebody else to tell me. I don’t know enough about
physics to make those decisions. I have to trust what
Steve Weinberg tells me. Now, that is a very serious problem. I’m a scientist, and I still have to trust what other people tell me. So the problem for the public, in general, is that in order to make
democratic decisions, you have to believe something
about elite knowledge which is possessed only by a few people. And it’s very hard to know
what to do about that. I don’t have a glib answer to that. It is one of the contradictions
of a democratic society in a highly advanced technological world that to make rational political decisions, you have to have a knowledge which is accessible only
to a very few people. The first rule, I suppose, is if there are public disagreements among people who are
supposedly equally expert, then you’d better be careful. If they all agree,
well, you have no choice but to take what they say. I don’t know what else you can do. But if there is any disagreement, then listen carefully to
what those debates are about, and see if you can figure out who is coming from where and why. That’s true for the Genome
Project and things like that. That’s what killed Star Wars. Well, I don’t know if that’s
what killed Star Wars, but that’s what made the
public doubtful about it. Whether that had any effect politically, I don’t know the answer. But I have no answer to the question, because there are no institutions promoting the public
understanding of science that are widely available to the public that do not obfuscate the issues, either by funneling them
through media people who have to try to get the space before your eyes and
your ears, and therefore they’re under control of
editorial exigencies and so on, or because they are the
captives of scientists who have their own agendas, so that the head of
the Whitehead Institute will tell them how wonderful
everything they do is, because that’s part of the agenda. I don’t know the answer,
I don’t have an answer. I think the answer is listen to me. (both laugh) – Or at least we have to find out a way how to institutionalize you. You said something, which this
will be the last question, and maybe a brief answer. Philosophic, you really believe that, I think you said two things,
if you want to comment. You said, “Men make their own history, “but not as they choose.” – I didn’t invent that. – No, I know, but it
tells us where you are philosophically in your
view of human nature. And then you also said,
it was a responsibility to decide what kind of world you want and make the decisions to
move in that direction. – If you can.
– If you can, yeah. – And that’s the problem,
because the latter one… But the contexts I said
them in are important. You can’t make the world stay still. It’s going to evolve. Species are going to become extinct. The world is going to change. Technology is going to change. Nature is going to change,
nature is changing all the time. So if we’re going to concentrate
on influencing things, we should not try to concentrate on holding them the way they
are, because that’s hopeless. What we should do, in fact,
is to try to concentrate on changing them in a
direction that we find better. The only trouble is that we
is a heterogeneous collection which includes people with
very different interests. I’m a citizen of the state of Vermont, and my fellow townspeople have
bumper stickers on their cars that say another Vermonter
for global warming, because if you lived in Vermont,
you’d like it to be warmer. People who own stock in companies that make air-conditioning machines might be in favor of global warming. That’s, in a sense,
trivializing the point, which is that different people
have different interests, and therefore the struggle
is not a moral one. It’s a political one. It’s always a political one. That’s the most important
thing you have to recognize, that you may be struggling to make the world go in one direction. Somebody else is struggling to make it go in another direction. The question is, who has power? And if there’s a differential in power, and if you haven’t got it and they have, then you have to do
something to gain power, which is to organize. I guess my final word is
organize, organize, organize. – On that note, Professor
Lewontin, thank you very much for taking the time from your
schedule to be here today. – Thank you, Harry, for talking to me. – Thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History. (upbeat synth music)

17 thoughts on “Richard C. Lewontin – Conversations with History

  1. It`s always interesting to hear Lewontin. Many people are tired of oversimplification of most geneticist, physiologists and so. Life is more complex…and interesting.

  2. Lewontin is very much a hero and a criminally underrated and under-read thinker. I hope this interview spreads his ideas to a wider audience.

  3. He thinks he will lose "legitimacy" if he stops doing science. Abslolute RUBBISH. Look at all the idiotic crappy politicians, rock stars, movie stars, gurus, basically charismatics with no brains who are considered legitimate because of money, limelight, loud voice, or charisma.

  4. Richard Lewontin is the single scariest figure in all of science. And I love him for it. We need his hard-edged pragmatism as an antidote to the nonsense of Dawkins and his confreres.

  5. He has also-rather unwittingly-made a housecleaning of the rampant biologistic-reductive nature of the mental "health" professions. If you haven't read "Not in our genes" (1980), I highly recommend it!

  6. @RuinSonic Scientists do a lot of thinking, but not a lot of scientists do a lot of thinking *about what they think about* and how they think about it.

  7. I think it is better to say that the interpretation of scientific research (especially biology) has been heavily (but not completely) shaped by political ideas instead of objectivity, and that Lewontin joined these debates for this reason. He has his politically-charged views, and others have theirs.

  8. After studying this evolution/creation debate a long time and listening to Richard Dawkins and the like over and OVER I have come to this conclusion. the whole argument of evolution /creation is NOT what this is about Because science has proven that God has created the world and universe,{that's why they need the multiverse theory} but the whole argument can be summed up like this:Do the scientist believe that Jesus the Christ died on the cross to save us from our sins? Yes or NO? and if the answer is no then they believe in evolution! If the answer is yes then they believe in Creation! The dividing line is the Cross of Christ and science has nothing to do with it! And the reason I know this is this man stated in his book that "we must NOT let a divine foot in the door even if the evidence points that a divine means had happened!" {THE CROSS}

  9. "the rhetoric of war justifies the expanditure of public money with, in our ideology, is not to be done because it's socialism: so war replaces socialism" R. Lewontin, 29min50

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