"LYSENKO, VIEWS OF NATURE AND
REDUCTIONIST BIOLOGY AS A KHRUSCHEVITE
First published in pamphlet format in Toronto; September
For Web links see foot of this page.
PART III : ON METHOD
IN BIOLOGY :
"Why this dispute about reality is a sort of Battle
of Gods and Giants. One side drags everything down to earth, literally
laying hands on rocks and trees, arguing that only what can be felt and
touched is real, defining reality as body, and if anyone says that something
without body is real they treat him with contempt and will not listen to
another word.. So their opponents in the heights of the unseen defend their
position with great skill, maintaining forcibly that true existence consists
in certain intelligible, incorporeal forms, describing the co- called truth
of others as a mere flowing sort of becoming, not reality at all, and smashing
their so called bodies to pieces. On this issue there is a terrific battle
always going on."
Plato, defending Idealism from The Sophist, Cited
by G.Thompson, p.323.
"Man is the helper and interpreter of nature. He can
only act and understand in so far as by working upon her or observing her
he has come to perceive her order. Beyond this he has neither knowledge
Philosophy may seem remote from the world of science. However
many examples can show the immediate relevance.
Francis Bacon, Cited by George Thomson:
"The First Philosophers-Studies in Ancient Greek Philosophy",
Thales of Ancient Greece, in Ancient Greece, was
perhaps one of the first philosophers. But at a time when the philosophers
were really philosopher-scientists. Thales' tale, as recounted by Aristotle,
is a delightful instance of the real daily applicability of philosophy
to the " real" world :
"Thales was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed
to show that philosophy is of no use. According to the story, he knew by
his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great
harvest of olives in the coming year; so having little money, he gave deposits
for the use of all olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at
a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest time came,
and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any
rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the
world that philosophers can easily, be rich if they like but that their
ambition is of another sort."
Perhaps the most fundamental debate in philosophy
has been about the existence and the primacy of matter or mind. This battle
between Idealism (holding that first there is thought) and Materialism
(holding that first there is matter) has been an age long argument. An
essential link exists between the dominant philosophy, and the society
in which it flourishes (See appendix 2- at: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Atrium/1091/lysenko_app2.html
Aristotle. Cited by Bertrand Russell, "A History of Western
Philosophy", London,1984 p.46.
This link between teh dominant philosophy, and its rooting
in the concrete society it arises, can be traced right back in the Western
tradition to ancient Greek society. Similar echoes of this ancient debate
are found in the Indian and Chinese intellectual traditions, and they are
probably universal. Historical materialism - offered by Marx and Engels
as a guide to societal development, relates the laws of development to
changes in technology and the means of production. In each
instance, the favoured philosophy of the time reflected the real underlying
needs of the ruling class of the society.
Initially, the disintegrating primitive tribal society
was linked to an ever evolving view of the world; but with a nexus of man
and nature being inextricably linked. This favoured a view that saw man
as part of nature and not apart from it. Thus it perforce had a Materialist
thrust. As society moved towards the development of classes, society became
placed above, primary to, and separate from nature. This perspective naturally
favoured the primacy of mind, and thus had a favoured idealist philosophies.
The act of coming into being implied change. This
notion of change does not favour a ruling class. Therefore philosophies
embodying change, as contained in dialectical versions of materialism were
a challenge. They were thus discarded in favour of a static view. Change
was replaced instead by an Act of Creation which borrowed from ancient
mythology, an anthropometric view of life. Life now depended on an Immortalised,
Transformed view of man - as God. This view was shortly to be challenged,
as the myth of Prometheus shows. With the myth of Prometheus, the
human is placed squarely as winning and wresting favours from the world;
not being granted them by a beneficent God.
After the seeming victory of the "Gods" the two world
views: Dialectical and Ideal, continued to confront each
other in all fields of human endeavour.
Each view had their proponents in biology as well as the
physical sciences. When biologists adopted Idealist views they would generally
be considered Vitalists. The derivation of this term is from the
Vital Spirit. It meant that something beyond understanding, a Vital
Spirit, breathed life into the otherwise inert body.
As J.H.Woodger defined it in 1929, the term refers
"Theories which postulate some entity in the living organism
in addition to the chemical elements C, H, N, O, P, etc, plus organisation
The delicacy of balance in living organisms; both within
themselves and in their relationship to the environment, is complex. Because
of this, the philosophical struggle assumed a central place in biology.
Frederick Engels pointed out the problems arising from a retreat
away from this debate into "pure" science, and maintained that:
Cited By Joseph Needham, Ibid, p.7.
"It is possible to arrive at a dialectical (ie dynamic
true conception of nature -editor).. recognition because the accumulating
facts of natural science compel us to do so; but one arrives at it more
easily if one approaches the dialectical character of these facts equipped
with an understanding of the laws of dialectical thought."
The work Anti-Duhring, written to attack an idealist
philosopher of the name of Duhring; codified the philosophical dangers
in then current views of the world. It is remarkable how many of these
philosophical traps are still with us now. Over the years particular brands
of biological thought veered sharply into the very morasses pointed out
as dangers by Engels. Anti-Duhring reaffirmed a view of the world as constantly
changing and evolving; reaffirming in fact dialectics.
Engels, p.20. "Anti- Duhring". Preface to Second Edition
"Nature is the proof of dialectics.. and it has furnished
this proof with very rich materials increasing daily."
Engels, Ibid, Introduction to Anti- Duhring p.32.
The perils of Idealism in biology took two principal
forms -- firstly a denial of change; and secondly an insistence that unless
a descriptive reduction of life to a chemical or mathematical level could
be found, vitalism was the only corollary. Some of the resolutions of these
problems are offered by a dialectical view of the world and nature. Therefore
the Laws of Dialectics are examined below, albeit briefly, in relation
1.IGNORING THE ROLE OF CHANGE.
" When we consider and reflect upon nature.. at first
we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions
(permutations and combinations) in which nothing remains what, where as
it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away..
we observe the movements, transitions, connections, rather than the things
that move, combine and are connected. This primitive and naive, but intrinsically
correct conception of the world is that of the Ancient Greek Philosophy,
and was clearly formulated by Heraclitus : everything is and is not, for
everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being
and passing away ;"
The social stultification that occurred under Feudalism is
epitomised by the biblical Ecclesiastes :
This view is exemplified in biology by Preformationism;
where each individual is already preformed well before birth. Each human
foetus itself contains within itself another. This preordained box obviously
ignores the role of procreation. This view of the world cannot explain
any change in the biology of the foetus. All is pre-ordained. This theory
was a previous formulation of the Central Dogma. Ernst Mayr himself
a New Synthetist admits this :
" Anti-Duhring " p.30 Engels.
"The preformationists attempted to stress something which
was later resurrected by the genetic program." ;
Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin added the critical
component of time to biology. They accepted the dialectical view
that all things change. This view of course favoured the bourgeoisie in
their struggle against feudalism. But after change had been demanded and
obtained by an impatient bourgeoisie chafing under feudal remnants, a renewed
attempt was made to halt change. The attempt to freeze social relations
of the current order is the very view that informs current sociobiology:
Ernst Mayr Ibid , p.12.
"In hypostatizing entrepreneurial bourgeois society sociobiology
is a direct intellectual descendant of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan of
The bourgeois revolution won recognition in the field of
history and politics by acknowledging a central Institution- the State,
apotheosized by Hegel. In science a similar position was won by
Natural Science, using Natural Selection. Both the State and Natural Science
became legitimating static Deities, far from their original conceptions,
which was to promote notions of change. In the case of Natural Science,
change towards evolution and "Fit to the environment". And for the State
towards a fairer and just society. That Charles Darwin was biased in his
reading of biology on this point has been argued above in Part 1.
Steven Rose, Leon J.Kamin, and R.C.Lewontin . "Not in
Our Genes" Suffolk, 1984. p.240.
2. INTERPENETRATION OF OPPOSITES.
"To the metaphysician, things.. and ideas are to be
considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of
investigation fixed, rigid, given once and for all.. Positive and negative
absolutely exclude each other; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis
one to the other ;"
The special properties of living systems made the biological
sciences the first and the last refuge of the Idealists. However as the
pressure of new facts demanded explanations from Idealists, a less indefensible
view of the world was possible. This was Mechanical Materialism.
This argued against the view that the body was any "special" thing,
that could not be understood by the simple mechanical or chemical laws
that apply to inert and un-living systems, such as pullies and wheels.
In taking the position that man is no more than a series of chemical reactions,
the mechanical materialists - such as Descartes) wished to penetrate the
veto of theology on the study of man as a part of nature. But, as argued
by Shakespeare's Bolingbroke :
p.31 Engels, F. "Anti-Duhring".
"The plain man would persist in believing that there
was a difference between the town bull and the parish clock ! "
The solution of mechanical materialism to Biological dilemmas
was Biological Reductionism. This explained biological processes
in terms appropriate to inanimate objects. ie. purely chemical, or mechanical
means. This attempt was made by Buchner, Moleschott and Vogt in
the 18th century. These natural philosophers believed that thought was
a matter of the brain's secretions in the same manner in which the kidney
secretes urine, or the liver secretes bile. This simple minded
Cited by Keith Thomas. " Man and the Natural World "
"materialism" was labelled "vulgar materialism" or "mechanical
materialism" by Engels and Lenin :
" Engels enumerates three fundamental " limitations "
(Beswchranktheit) of the French materialists of the 18th century, from
which Marx and Engels had emancipated themselves, but from which Buchner
and Co. were unable to emancipate themselves. The first was that the views
of the old materialists were "mechanical " in the sense that they believed
in the "exclusive application of the standards of mechanics to processes
of a chemical and organic nature.".. the second limitation was the metaphysical
character of the views of the old materialists, meaning the "anti- dialectical
character of their philosophy".. the third limitation was the preservation
of idealism "up above", in the realm of the social sciences.. Engels' adds
that Buchner and Co. did not emerge from these limits."
The deceptively simple point is that the dead are
distinct from the living, and have their own laws. However there are some
properties of the living and dead that are shared. These include the organisation
of form, and structure. But the interpretation of these similarities has
to be done with care.
Lenin, Materialism and empirio-criticism, Moscow; 1967,
Thus there is a distinction between "organic" and "inorganic".
But a dialectical biology would recognise some organising principle in
the body transcending simple chemical laws; not invoking supernatural explanations.
This point was made by Joseph
Needham, and flowed
from his embryological studies. It is no accident that the opposition to
the simple minded mechanical (simple reductionist) Mendelians, was led
by Embryologists. In 1931 Needham cited Wilhelm Roux :
"There is a good deal more to be said about the "irreducibility"
of biological categories, or the "autonomy " of biology as it is sometimes
called.. .. Although the biological philosophy of the founder of Entwicklungmechanik..
Wilhelm Roux, was thoroughly mechanistic, he nevertheless realised
the difficulty of expounding the processes of development immediately in
terms of physico-chemical concepts.. The too simple mechanistic conception
on the one hand and the metaphysical conception the other, represent the
Scylla and Charybdis, between which to sail is indeed difficult, and so
far by few satisfactorily accomplished."
Needham felt that so long as the difficulties are recognised
it would be possible to find comparable laws to those of chemical and physical
Joseph Needham : " Order And Life", p.19-20.London, Edition
1931, Reprinted Harvard 1968.
"So long as the complex components are found to be constant
in their action, and always under the same conditions, to produce the same
effect, causal biology would be on the right line of analysis. These biological
generalisations would be thus as valid as those of physics and chemistry,
though possessing a more complex content ...";
3. TRANSFORMATION OF QUANTITY
INTO QUALITATIVE CHANGE
p.21. J.Needham . Ibid.
Also known as the Law of RE-EMERGENCE
OF OLD AT HIGHER LEVELS, or THE LAW OF THE NEGATION OF THE NEGATION.
This law recognised the difference between simple addition
of entities, and the transformation of simple entities into different entities.
The law was illustrated by Engels in the example of the Periodic Table,
and the boiling of water. Ignoring this law allows errors of the type typified
by single gene theories of complex events.
This law recognises that one state does not automatically
exclude another, and is therefore closely related to the Second Law discussed
above. But it has a clear difference. In this view, change may proceed
undetectably for a period of time, until such a point is reached that a
nodal transition point is reached. This then erupts visibly into a radically
new and perceptible change.
We have also discussed how this law, as connected with
the Second Law, overcomes the problems inherent with the exclusive viewpoints
of an "Either : Or", mentality.
Clearly the tenets of dialectical materialism are not
irrelevant to biology. To deny this is short sighted at best, and at worst
a deliberate bias aimed at a political abuse of science.
It may be pointed out that Lysenko
was correct in his assertions regarding changeability, and in this he demonstrated
dialectical thought. However he may be considered as mechanically materialist
in refusing to recognise any role for "physical bearers" of heredity. Since
the advent of the chemical basis for genes (DNA etc), it is clear that
this has provided both practical and explanatory power.
Equally, it must be said that conventional genetic theory
has been unable to prevent notions of Changeability creeping in through
the back door; even against the will of the guardians of the door. As Lenin
said :"Science is forced to be unconsciously dialectical and materialist."
Thus for example, non-Communist embryologists have recognised the power
of the dialectic. Thus C.H.Waddington :
"The developmental side of biology - embryology, genetics
and evolution - seems to be reaching a point where radically new types
of thinking are called for. In such circumstances it would be very unwise
to despise the newer philosophies such as dialectical materialism, which
are framed particularly in relation to progressive changes, even if they
have sometimes led people astray."
We have not hesitated to quote the Grand Old Man of the
New Synthesis unsparingly through the text, as some weary readers have
seen. Yet also we have not hesitated to attack his most cherished child,
the New Synthesis itself. It is then perhaps startling that no better advocate
of what is effectively the dialectical method is Ernst Mayr himself:
p.167, Sapp; Ibid;
"A well known Soviet theoretician of Marxism has once
referred to my writings as "pure dialectical materialism." I am not a Marxist,
and I do not know the latest definition of dialectical materialism, but
I do admit that I share some of Engels' anti-reductionist views, as stated
in his Anti-Duhring, and that I am greatly attracted by Hegel's scheme
of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Furthermore I believe that an antithesis
is most easily provoked by a categorical statement of a thesis, and the
issue is most readily resolved by .. confrontation.. and ultimate synthesis.."
Mayr, Ibid, p. 9.