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Living the 11th Thesis

Richard Levins is the head of the human ecology program at the Harvard School of Public Health and most recently coauthor, with Richard Lewontin, of Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health (Monthly Review Press, 2007) from which this essay is excerpted. The author is grateful to Rosario Morales for her assistance in conceptualizing and editing this essay.

Philosophers have sought to understand the world. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx, 11th thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach

When I was a boy I always assumed that I would grow up to be both a scientist and a Red. Rather than face a problem of combining activism and scholarship, I would have had a very difficult time trying to separate them.

Before I could read, my grandfather read to me from Bad Bishop Brown’s Science and History for Girls and Boys.1 My grandfather believed that at a minimum every socialist worker should be familiar with cosmology, evolution, and history. I never separated history, in which we are active participants, from science, the finding out how things are. My family had broken with organized religion five generations back, but my father sat me down for Bible study every Friday evening because it was an important part of the surrounding culture and important to many people, a fascinating account of how ideas develop in changing conditions, and because every atheist should know it as well as believers do.

On my first day of primary school, my grandmother urged me to learn everything they could teach me—but not to believe it all. She was all too aware of the “racial science” of 1930s Germany and the justifications for eugenics and male supremacy that were popular in our own country. Her attitude came from her knowledge of the uses of science for power and profit and from a worker’s generic distrust of the rulers. Her advice formed my stance in academic life: consciously in, but not of, the university. I grew up in a left-wing neighborhood of Brooklyn where the schools were empty on May Day and where I met my first Republican at age twelve. Issues of science, politics, and culture were debated in permanent clusters on the Brighton Beach boardwalk and were the bread and butter of mealtime conversation. Political commitment was assumed, how to act on that commitment was a matter of fierce debate.

As a teenager I became interested in genetics through my fascination with the work of the Soviet scientist Lysenko. He turned out to be dreadfully wrong, especially in trying to reach biological conclusions from philosophical principles. However, his criticism of the genetics of his time turned me toward the work of Waddington and Schmalhausen and others who would not simply dismiss him out of hand in Cold War fashion but had to respond to his challenge by developing a deeper view of the organism–environment interaction.

My wife, Rosario Morales, introduced me to Puerto Rico in 1951, and my eleven years there gave a Latin American perspective to my politics. The various left-wing victories in South America were a source of optimism even in those grim times. FBI surveillance in Puerto Rico blocked me from the jobs I was looking for and I ended up doing vegetable farming for a living on the island’s western mountains.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University’s School of Agriculture, I had been taught that the prime agricultural problem of the United States was the disposal of the farm surplus. But as a farmer in a poor region of Puerto Rico, I saw the significance of agriculture for people’s lives. That experience introduced me to the realities of poverty as it undermines health, shortens lives, closes options, and stultifies personal growth, and to the specific forms that sexism takes among the rural poor. Direct labor organizing on the coffee plantations was combined with study. Rosario and I wrote the agrarian program of the Puerto Rican Communist Party in which we combined rather amateurish economic and social analysis with some firsthand insights into ecological production methods, diversification, conservation, and cooperatives.

I first went to Cuba in 1964 to help develop their population genetics and get a look at the Cuban Revolution. Over the years I became involved in the ongoing Cuban struggle for ecological agriculture and an ecological pathway of economic development that was just, egalitarian, and sustainable. Progressivist thinking, so powerful in the socialist tradition, expected that developing countries had to catch up with advanced countries along the single pathway of modernization. It dismissed critics of the high-tech pathway of industrial agriculture as “idealists,” urban sentimentalists nostalgic for a bucolic rural golden age that never really existed. But there was another view, that each society creates its own ways of relating to the rest of nature, its own pattern of land use, its own appropriate technology, and its own criteria of efficiency. This discussion raged in Cuba in the 1970s and by the 1980s the ecological model had basically won although implementation was still a long process. The Special Period, that time of economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union when the materials for high-tech became unavailable, allowed ecologists by conviction to recruit the ecologists by necessity. This was possible only because the ecologists by conviction had prepared the way.

I first met dialectical materialism in my early teens through the writings of the British Marxist scientists J. B. S. Haldane, J. D. Bernal, Joseph Needham, and others, and then on to Marx and Engels. It immediately grabbed me both intellectually and aesthetically. A dialectical view of nature and society has been a major theme of my research since. I have delighted in the dialectical emphasis on wholeness, connection and context, change, historicity, contradiction, irregularity, asymmetry, and the multiplicity of levels of phenomena, a refreshing counterweight to the prevalent reductionism then and now.

An example: after Rosario suggested I look at Drosophila in nature—not just in bottles in the laboratory—I started to work with the Drosophila in the neighborhood of our home in Puerto Rico. My question was: How do Drosophila species cope with the temporal and spatial gradients of their environments? I began examining the multiple ways that different Drosophila species responded to similar environmental challenges. I could collect Drosophila in a single day in the deserts of Gúanica and in the rain forest around our farm at the crest of the cordillera. It turned out that some species adapt physiologically to high temperature in two to three days, and show relatively little genetic differences in heat tolerance along a 3,000-foot altitude gradient (about twenty miles). Others had distinct genetic sub-populations in the different habitats. Still others adapted to and inhabited only a part of the available environmental range.

One of the desert species was not any better at tolerating heat than some Drosophila from the rain forest, but were much better at finding the cool moist microsites and hiding in them after about 8 a.m. These findings led me to describe the concepts of co-gradient selection, where the direct impact of the environment enhances genetic differences among populations, and counter-gradient selection where genetic differences offset the direct impact of the environment. Since on my transect the high temperature was associated with dry conditions, natural selection acted to increase the size of the flies at Guánica while the effect of temperature on development made them smaller. The outcome turned out to be that the flies from the sea-level desert and the rain forest were of about the same size in their own habitats, but that Guánica flies were bigger when raised at the same temperature as rain forest flies.

In this work I questioned the prevailing reductionist bias in biology by insisting that phenomena take place on different levels, each with their own laws, but also connected. My bias was dialectical: the interaction among adaptations on the physiological, behavioral, and genetic levels. My preference for process, variability, and change set the agenda for my thesis.

The problem was how species can adapt to an environment when the environment wasn’t always the same. When I began thesis work I was puzzled by the facile assumption that, faced with opposing demands, for example when the environment favors small size some of the time and large size the rest of the time, an organism would have to adopt some intermediate state as a compromise. But this is an unthinking application of the liberal bromide that when there are opposing views the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In my dissertation, the study of fitness sets was an attempt to examine when an intermediate position is truly an optimum and when is it the worst possible choice. The short answer turned out to be that when the alternatives are not too different, an intermediate position is indeed optimal, but when they are very different compared to the range of tolerance of the species, then one extreme alone or in some cases a mixture of extremes is preferable.

Work in natural selection within population genetics almost always assumed a constant environment, but I was interested in its inconstancy. I proposed that “environmental variation” must be an answer to many questions of evolutionary ecology and that organisms adapt not only to specific environmental features such as high temperature or alkaline soils but also to the pattern of the environment—its variability, its uncertainty, the grain of its patchiness, the correlations among different aspects of the environment. Moreover, these patterns of environment are not simply given, external to the organism: organisms select, transform, and define their own environments.

Regardless of the particular matter of an investigation (evolutionary ecology, agriculture, or more recently, public health), my core interest has always been the understanding of the dynamics of complex systems. Also, my political commitment requires that I question the relevance of my work. In one of Brecht’s poems he says, “Truly we live in a terrible time…when to talk about trees is almost a crime because it is a kind of silence about injustice.” Brecht was of course wrong about trees: nowadays when we talk of trees we are not ignoring injustice. But he was also right that scholarship that is indifferent to human suffering is immoral.

Poverty and oppression cost years of life and health, shrinks the horizons, and cuts off potential talents before they can flourish. My commitment to support the struggles of the poor and oppressed and my interest in variability combined to focus my attention on the physiological and social vulnerabilities of people.

I have been studying the body’s capacity to restore itself after it is stressed by malnutrition, pollution, insecurity, and inadequate health care. Continual stress undermines the stabilizing mechanisms in the bodies of oppressed populations making them more vulnerable to anything that happens, to small differences in their environments. This shows up in increased variability in measures of blood pressure, body mass index, and life expectancy as compared to more uniform results in comfortable populations. In examining the effects of poverty, it is not enough to examine the prevalence of separate diseases in different populations. Whereas specific pathogens or pollutants may precipitate specific named diseases, social conditions create more diffuse vulnerability that links medically unrelated diseases. For instance, malnutrition, infection, or pollution can breach the protective barriers of the intestine. But once breached for any of these reasons it becomes a locus of invasion by pollutants, microbes, or allergens. Therefore nutritional problems, infectious diseases, stress, and toxicities cause a great variety of seemingly unrelated diseases.

The prevailing notion since the 1960s had been that infectious disease would disappear with economic development. In the 1990s I helped form the Harvard Group on New and Resurgent Disease to reject that idea. Our argument was partly ecological: the rapid adaptation of vectors to changing habitats—to deforestation, irrigation projects, and population displacement by war and famine. We also focused on the equally rapid adaptation of pathogens to pesticides and antibiotics. But we also criticized the physical, institutional, and intellectual isolation of medical research from plant pathology and veterinary studies which could have shown sooner the broad pattern of upsurge of not only malaria, cholera, and AIDS, but also African swine fever, feline leukemia, tristeza disease of citrus, and bean golden mosaic virus. We have to expect epidemiological changes with growing economic disparities and with changes in land use, economic development, human settlement, and demography. The faith in the efficacy of antibiotics, vaccines, and pesticides against plant, animal, and human pathogens is naïve in the light of adaptive evolution. And the developmentalist expectation that economic growth will lead the rest of the world to affluence and to the elimination of infectious disease is being proved wrong.

The resurgence of infectious disease is but one manifestation of a more general crisis: the eco-social distress syndrome—the pervasive multilevel crisis of dysfunctional relations within our species and between it and the rest of nature. It includes in one network of actions and reactions patterns of disease, relations of production and reproduction, demography, our depletion and wanton destruction of natural resources, changing land use and settlement, and planetary climate change. It is more profound than previous crises, reaching higher into the atmosphere, deeper into the earth, more widespread in space, and more long lasting, penetrating more corners of our lives. It is both a generic crisis of the human species and a specific crisis of world capitalism. Therefore it is a primary concern of both my science and my politics.

The complexity of this whole world syndrome can be overwhelming, and yet to evade the complexity by taking the system apart to treat the problems one at a time can produce disasters. The great failings of scientific technology have come from posing problems in too small a way. Agricultural scientists who proposed the Green Revolution without taking pest evolution and insect ecology into account, and therefore expecting pesticides would control pests, have been surprised that pest problems increased with spraying. Similarly, antibiotics create new pathogens, economic development creates hunger, and flood control promotes floods. Problems have to be solved in their rich complexity; the study of complexity itself becomes an urgent practical as well as theoretical problem.

These interests inform my political work: within the left, my task has been to argue that our relations with the rest of nature cannot be separated from a global struggle for human liberation, and within the ecology movement my task has been to challenge the “harmony of nature” idealism of early environmentalism and to insist on identifying the social relations that lead to the present dysfunction. At the same time my politics have determined my scientific ethics. I believe that all theories are wrong that promote, justify, or tolerate injustice.

A leftist critique of the structure of intellectual life is a counterweight to the culture of the universities and foundations. The antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s took up the issues of the nature of the university as an organ of class rule and made the intellectual community itself an object of theoretical as well as practical interest. I joined Science for the People, an organization that started with a research strike at MIT in 1967 as a protest against military research on campus. As a member I helped in the challenge to the Green Revolution and genetic determinism. Antiwar activism also took me to Vietnam to investigate war crimes (especially the use of defoliants) and from there to organizing Science for Vietnam. We denounced the use of Agent Orange (used as defoliant in the Vietnamese jungle) that was causing birth defects among Vietnamese peasants. Agent Orange was one of the worst uses of chemical herbicides.

The Puerto Rican independence movement gave me an anti-imperialist consciousness that serves me well in a university that promotes “structural reform” and other euphemisms for empire. My wife’s sharp working-class feminism is a running source of criticism of the pervasive elitism and sexism. Regular work with Cuba shows me vividly that there is an alternative to a competitive, individualistic, exploitative society.

Community organizations, especially in marginalized communities, and the women’s health movement raise issues that academia prefers to ignore: the mothers of Woburn noticing that too many of their children from the same small neighborhood had leukemia, the hundreds of environmental justice groups that noted that toxic waste dumps were concentrated in black and Latino neighborhoods, and the Women’s Community Cancer project and others who insist on the environmental causes of cancer and other diseases while the university laboratories are looking for guilty genes. Their initiatives help me maintain an alternative agenda for both theory and action.

Within the university I have a contradictory relationship with the institution and with colleagues, a combination of cooperation and conflict. We may share a concern about health disparities and persistent poverty, but we are in conflict about corporations funding research for patentable molecules and about government agencies such as AID (Agency for International Development) promoting the goals of empire.2

I never aspired to what is conventionally considered a “successful career” in academia. I do not find most of my personal validation through the formal reward and recognition system of the scientific community, and I try not to share the common assumptions of my professional community. This gives me wide freedom of choice. Thus when I declined to join the National Academy of Sciences and received many supportive letters praising my courage or calling it a difficult decision, I could honestly say that it was not a hard decision, merely a political choice taken collectively by the Science for the People group in Chicago. We judged that it was more useful to take a public stand against the Academy’s collaboration with the Vietnam-American War than to join the Academy and attempt to influence its actions from inside. Dick Lewontin had already tried that unsuccessfully and resigned, along with Bruce Wallace.

I have always enjoyed mathematics and see one of its tasks as making the obscure obvious. I regularly employ a sort of mid-level math in unconventional ways to promote understanding more than prediction. Much modeling now aims at precise equations giving precise prediction. This makes sense in engineering. In the field of policy, it makes sense to those who are the advisors to the rulers who imagine they have complete enough control of the world to be able to optimize their efforts and investments of resources. But those of us who are in the opposition have no such illusion. The best we can do is decide where to push the system. For this, a qualitative mathematics is more useful. My work with signed digraphs (loop analysis) is one such approach. Rejecting the opposition between qualitative and quantitative analysis and the notion that quantitative is superior to qualitative, I have mostly worked with those mathematical tools that assist conceptualization of complex phenomena.

Political activism, of course, attracts the attention of the agencies of repression. I have been fortunate in that regard, having experienced only relatively light repression. Others did not fare as well, with lost careers, years of imprisonment, violent attacks, intense harassment even of their families, and deportations. Some, mostly from the Puerto Rican, African-American, and Native American liberation movements, as well as the five Cuban anti-terrorists arrested in Florida, are still political prisoners.

Exploitation kills and hurts people. Racism and sexism destroy health and thwart lives. Studying the greed and brutality and smugness of late capitalism is painful and infuriating. Sometimes I have to recite from Jonathan Swift:

Like the boatman on the Thames

I row by and call them names.

Like the ever-laughing sage

In a jest I spend my rage

But it must be understood

I would hang them if I could.

For the most part scholarship and activism have given me an enjoyable and rewarding life, doing work I find intellectually exciting, socially useful, and with people I love.

Notes

  1. John Montgomery Brown had been a Lutheran Episcopal bishop of the Missouri Synod, excommunicated when he became a Marxist. In the 1930s he published the quarterly journal Heresy.
  2. AID carries out programs on health and development in strategically chosen third world countries. Its separate programs are sometimes helpful and participants are motivated by humanitarian concerns. But the agency is also a terrorist organization, supporting counter-revolutionary groups in Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba. It once supported LEAP (Law Enforcement Assistance Program) that taught torture to Uruguayan and Brazilian police.

As working scientists, we see the commoditization of science as the prime cause of the alienation of most scientists from the products of their labor. It stands between the powerful insights of science and corresponding advances in human welfare, often producing results that contradict the stated purposes. The continuation of hunger in the modern world is not the result of an intractable problem thwarting our best efforts to feed people. Rather, agriculture in the capitalist world is directly concerned with profit and only indirectly with feeding people. Similarly, the organization of health care is directly an economic enterprise and is only secondarily influenced by people’s health needs. The irrationalities of a scientifically sophisticated world come not from failures of intelligence but from the persistence of capitalism, which as a by-product also aborts human intelligence.

Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 208.

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