WeeklyWorker

19.09.2013
Noam Chomsky: science - but not for society

Why is the left so afraid of science?

Our struggle to overcome capitalism requires solid scientific foundations, argues Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group

Recently, the reviews editor of The Times Higher Educational Supplement asked me to review a book written by “somebody like Chris Knight” - a radical anthropologist. It was about the financial crisis of 2008- 09. The book turned out to be Janet Roitman’s Anti-crisis.

Here is the final paragraph:

In the words of Umberto Eco, reflecting upon the narrative paradox of political action-packed superman, ‘time as a structure of possibility is in fact a problem of our moving toward a future’. Eco is fascinated with narrativity in superman, in which through multiple, truncated and necessary trajectories, flashes, reversals, setbacks, duplications, parallels of occurrences and reprises, the concept of time breaks down, events lose a notion of temporal aggression, as in a dream. But a dream, surely, just like history, is a cosmically unnoticeable event: there is no spectator, no witness, no inauguration day.1

Roitman’s basic argument about the crisis is that - like everything else - it is a ‘narrative device’. If you think this is utter gobbledygook, wait until you read the rest! Apparently, this research falls into the category of ‘critical theory’. And apparently, critical theory comes from Karl Marx, because Karl Marx was quite a critic of various theories, as we all know. It makes you despair. I really do not know what to do about the review. Maybe I will write some kind of spoof, because that is probably all it deserves.

But I want to focus on the left, and why these days it seems so afraid of science. I thought I would begin with Anti-crisis because the book is emblematic of so many cutting edge people - especially students who have been to university and got into Foucault, Deleuze, and various other (all very radical) French philosophers. These people are, needless to say, a million light years away from science. They constantly invoke Marx, but I cannot myself see any connection.

One of my current interests is time and how it is measured. As Karl Marx put it, “In the final analysis, all forms of economics can be reduced to an economics of time”.2 So it seemed to me quite important to understand how time is being measured and manipulated for us today, which brings me to another book, called 24/7, by Jonathan Crary. Its theme is that the capitalists want to screw us all the time. We used to have our Sundays, our time for sleep and our holy days. These breaks have now been taken away from us. In Britain, Sundays are now for shopping. Many workers do not even get overtime for Sunday working. So the basic idea of 24/7 sounded interesting.

But when I began reading the book it turned out to be the same kind of gobbledygook. No information, no fieldwork, no geographical or historical survey, no enlightening analysis. Just a stream of ultra-radical consciousness. The book does nothing at all to document the loss of our rest days, holidays or leisure periods over recent decades in different parts of the world. Like Anti-crisis, 24/7 turns out to be yet more postmodernist ‘critical theory’. Again, let me quote the final lines of the last paragraph:

It is possible that, in many different places, in many disparate states - including reverie or daydream - the imaginings of a future without capitalism begin as dreams of sleep. These would be intimations of sleep as a radical interruption, as a refusal of the unsparing weight of our global present, of sleep which, at the most mundane level of everyday experience, can always rehearse the outlines of what more consequential renewals and beginnings might be.3

You might think this kind of stuff has nothing to do with leftwing activism or political theory. I am inclined to agree, but unfortunately hostility to science infects almost the whole of the left.

Definition

So what is science? I like the definition provided by Leon Trotsky: “Science is knowledge that endows us with power.”4 To me that is correct. Yet, as soon as you start thinking about this definition, you realise it contains some ambiguities. Which people are “us”? It seems to me that we need to clarify. “Us”, for Trotsky, means all human beings, cutting across class, gender, race and so forth. Knowledge that is empowering for humanity is science. Knowledge that empowers your own sectional interests against the rest of humanity is ideology. Of course, a huge amount of knowledge falls into that category, as Marx most brilliantly pointed out.

Yet if that is so, where does the working class fit in? Why did Marx and Engels place such stress on the international proletariat? They did so because the notion of ‘all humanity’ is just too abstract. You have to base yourself on some concrete, living embodiment of universal interests . What Marx and Engels meant by ‘the proletariat ’ was not this or that group of workers, but (as they expressed it) that class which is the antithesis of class, that class which cannot liberate itself without liberating all humanity.

Marx maintained that knowledge must be based on some social constituency. The more narrow your constituency, the more sectional the interests being served, the more inevitably your knowledge is going to take the form of ideology. Conversely, the broader your constituency, the more universal the interests served, the closer you will be to the ideal of science. If you are working for a corporation, if you are working for a state with its own separate interests, your work will be biased and, try as you might, it is going to be very difficult to maintain your scientific integrity.

I have always thought it important not to say, as some kind of mantra, that ‘Marxism is a science’. What people actually mean when they say this is: ‘I am a Marxist, so therefore what I am doing is science’. I much prefer Engels’ formulation: “… the more ruthlessly and disinterestedly science proceeds, the more it finds itself in harmony with the interests of the workers”.5 Engels is saying we have to do science quite independently of politics. Yes, Lenin did stress partiinost’ (putting the party first). In politics, there may be a case for that. But the party itself will not be revolutionary unless it is based on the most revolutionary kind of knowledge there is, which is genuine science. If that has not been happening, then instead of subordinating politics to science you are doing the opposite: putting politics first. Certainly that is what Stalin did, giving state endorsement to Lysenko and his ridiculous nonsense about the inheritance of acquired characteristics.

Marx and Engels d i d not advocate subordinating science to politics. They insisted science comes first. If it is genuine science - pursued ruthlessly for its own sake - then that is the best service that can be rendered to the proletariat. If you are not putting science first, then in my view you are not even a Marxist. Marx, after all, was a scientist. His special contribution was to extend the principles of science into areas where no-one else dared go - beyond mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology, all the way up to society. Obviously that is difficult, because, as soon as you enter the human social sphere, you come up against politics in a particularly virulent form. Take, for example, today’s climate science with its so-called ‘inconvenient truths’. Faced with immense political pressure, you need courage to stick to the science. But, whatever the difficulties, it is the science which has to come first.

Tipping point

I have often spoken and written in the Weekly Worker about developments in science over the last century and have concentrated on what happened immediately after World War II. Before then, there was a widespread feeling that science was in a sense intrinsically linked to progressive political forces. What happened after World War II was that imperialism managed to turn things round in a rather big way. Unfortunately, few Marxists even noticed it was happening at the time. From about 1950 on, under the banner of something trumpeted as the ‘cognitive revolution’, there occurred a subtle redefinition of science. The effect was to insulate - to quarantine - science in a separate compartment, so that activists could no longer derive political inspiration from it.

A key figure here was Noam Chomsky, well known for his writings exposing the criminality of US foreign policy. In his other role as a theoretical linguist - funded ironically by the Pentagon - Chomsky was a key figure in this ‘cognitive revolution’, which in a sense trumped Marxism. I would like to provide a few quotes here, because I think they help explain how and why the left became so alienated from science.

“ Science, ” according to Chomsky, “talks about simple things ... As soon as things become too complex, science cannot deal with them ... Human affairs are way too complicated.”6 When an activist asked him about the connection between his politics and his science, he stated bluntly:

There is no connection. Rather, the search for theoretical understanding pursues its own paths, leading to a completely different picture of the world, which neither vindicates nor eliminates our ordinary ways of talking and thinking…. Meanwhile we live our lives, facing, as best we can, problems of radically different kinds, far too rich in character for us to be able to discern explanatory principles of any depth, if these even exist.7

Of course, this is a direct attack on Marxism. Chomsky is saying you will never find a scientific explanation for anything of direct interest to human beings. Chomsky argues that when Newton discovered gravity his great contribution was to refute those predecessors - such as Galileo and Descartes - who believed that the world could be scientifically understood:

Newton disproved them. He showed that the world is not intelligible to us …. And by the time that sank in, which was quite some time, it just changed the conception of science. Instead of trying to show that the world is intelligible to us, we recognized that it’s not intelligible to us.8

Reality must forever remain unintelligible. Only our own theories are intelligible. What Chomsky means here is that Newton discovered gravity - action at a distance - which, from a mechanical standpoint, is occult and mystical. Fortunately, however, few people let this bother them. The topics of most interest to us are our own feelings, relationships and social problems. But such matters are far too complex for science, which can only cope with simple puzzles. On this basis, Chomsky managed to completely rubbish the whole idea of making sense of our lives.

As a pivotal figure in the ‘cognitive revolution’, which received massive US state, corporate and other institutional support, Chomsky successfully discredited Rousseau, Marx, Durkheim and the entire project of social science. For Chomsky, Marxist-inspired historical or social science is “mostly a joke”. As this notion took hold, ‘scientific socialism’ became widely perceived as no more than a sad misunderstanding - a contradiction in terms.

Language

For imperialism, it was extremely important to prevent us from using our access to education to put the big picture together and expose the schemes o f those who rule and exploit us. Emerging from World War II as the dominant superpower, the US military-industrial complex loved the ‘cognitive revolution’ because it turned materialism on its head.

Let me sum up the message of this so-called ‘scientific revolution’? In five words, here is the basic idea: It’s all in the mind. Chomsky was the first to seriously propose a revamped version of phrenology - bumps in the head - as the best way to explain what it means to be human.

Language, according to Chomsky’s new theory, is a ‘computational module’ located somewhere in the brain. Having ‘explained’ language in this way, he went on to explain various other things - science, for example - by invoking additional modules. According to Chomsky, if you are a scientist, it is because your brain incorporates a special device known as the ‘science-forming capacity’. And so on. The whole of human history and culture can be explained by the fact that humans have the necessary ‘cognitive modules’ installed genetically in the head.

An advantage of this idea was that it could be presented as purely natural science, hence correspondingly non-political. Chomsky was well aware that the people who fund research in universities do not want to be accused of financing subversion of any kind. So if what they are funding can be construed as pure natural science, without any social ramifications whatsoever, then they feel much safer. Chomsky was able to win extraordinary institutional resources for himself and his colleagues by convincing sufficient US corporations and funding agencies that what he was doing was this thing called ‘pure natural science’, more or less like mathematics or physics.

There was a good reason why Chomsky needed to separate his science from his politics. Any contamination of one by the other would have prevented him from pulling off this incredible double act - retaining his Pentagon-funded scientific employment, while, in his spare time, acting as an anti-militarist commentator, journalist and activist.

Left science

My view is that this huge change in the 1950s did have a very subtle effect on the left. It may not have been discernible to Marxists at the time. Yet it was decisive in the left’s abandonment of Marx’s and Engels’ project to establish a revolutionary movement based on science.

Instead of this, the left tends to seize on one aspect of Marx’s work - the idea that social being determines consciousness and that, as a result, the theories that prevail in society reflect the dominance of the class that prevails. If you give this an extra twist, you end up with the view that is so prevalent on the left: namely that everything is just a power game: there is no such thing as truth, so don’t worry about graphs or figures or data. You can ignore all this because, as everybody knows, knowledge is socially constructed.

So what about climate science? Is this just socially constructed ideology? If you were to follow Chomsky, you would have to say it cannot possibly be science because the problems it addresses are not simple enough. It is complex, so probably it is all a joke. No, Chomsky will not quite say that, but the implication is there. I am always surprised that people simply do not get climate science. As soon as you look at a graph of CO2 emissions over the course of time, you can see it shooting up exponentially, much like the consumption of energy, population and so forth.

My friend, Oliver Tickle, who writes on climate science for Labour Briefing, warns that the politicians and government advisors are giving up. To an alarming extent, they are telling us to adapt to the prospect of a 4°C rise in global temperatures. If this happened, the collapse of the polar ice caps would become inevitable, bringing long-term sea level rises of 70-80 metres. All the world’s coastal plains would be lost, complete with ports, cities, transport and industrial infrastructure, and much of the world’s most productive farmland. Global geography would be transformed, much as it was at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose by about 120 metres to create the Channel, the North Sea and Cardigan Bay out of dry land. Weather would become extreme and unpredictable, with more frequent and severe droughts, floods and hurricanes. The Earth’s carrying capacity would be hugely reduced. Billions would undoubtedly die. But there is worse. Why would rising temperatures stop there? If they shoot up by 4°C, what happens at 6°C warmer, or perhaps even 12°C?

It is important (as Gabriel Levy points out) not to cause panic or alarm, but the idea that we have infinite time is also dangerously irresponsible. We need to find some way of translating the science into action. Suppose the international conferences of all those climate scientists became politically legitimised and empowered - accorded the right to insist on action. If they stuck to the science, they would come up with all kinds of politically inconvenient solutions - inconvenient to capitalism, that is. One would be the slogan, ‘No borders!’ You cannot deal with this crisis within the confines of a country like Belgium, Brazil or Britain - it is a global thing. Another would be ‘Private property is not sacrosanct!’ Just because you own half the Antarctic or vast stretches of rainforest, that does not give you the right to whatever you can extract from it.

The world’s scientists have the knowledge about what needs to be done. Chomsky says science should be tucked away, insulated from political activism. He himself combines both roles, but insists this is OK because he keeps his activism separate from his science. Surely the opposite is needed? Anarchists sometimes say, ‘Never mind the theory - let’s have some action’. But ‘mindless activism’ is not something to be proud of. If you detach scientific understanding from your activism, mindless activism is what you will get. The same separation will mean tongue-tied science - scientists told to keep quiet, to report back only to their funding agencies, to keep activism at arm’s length for fear of being political.

The scientists should be encouraged to speak. They should be invited to address meetings of the labour movement and make their case for what needs to be done. Obviously, there would be heated debates about the way forward, but the science must come first. We cannot allow politicians - so often lobbied and corrupted by oil companies and so on - to distort the message. Science needs to come first. If international science did come first, and was given a political voice, then I do not doubt what that message would be: we cannot afford free-market capitalism to run wild. It is ruining the planet.

Often, we talk about looking to the next generation. Maybe they will come up with new ideas to sort things out. Wouldn’t it be rather sad for that generation if they were told by the scientists that any efforts of theirs would be too late, because the tipping point was passed in, say, 2017? We have no idea what the effects of this runaway process might be.

Fear of genes

Let me come to another example of the left’s hostility to science. As an anthropologist, I know more about evolutionary science than about climate science. In my view, the reaction of pretty much all of the left to the revolution that occurred in the life sciences in the 1960s, with selfish-gene Darwinism, was tragic. If you talk to anyone in the Socialist Workers Party or the Socialist Party, or any of the other groups for that matter, they will tell you that ‘selfish gene’ Darwinism is Thatcherism, capitalism, sexism and all the rest of it.

Richard Dawkins - a brilliant scientist, but a complete idiot when it comes to anything political - explains that genes are ‘selfish’ in just one technical sense: they replicate themselves. A gene which does not do this - a gene which replicates the competition - will not be around for long. The point of selfish-gene theory was to solve a genuine puzzle. Suppose you accept Darwinism as ‘the survival of the fittest’. Suppose you also accept that some components of animal behaviour are natural and instinctive, passed on genetically. Then, on that basis, you cannot explain altruism or cooperation. Suppose, for example, you are a soldier in World War I and throw yourself on a grenade to save the comrades in your platoon. You would not pass on your genes because you would be dead. So, if there exist instincts for altruism or solidarity that are part of human nature, you just cannot explain how they could possibly have been transmitted down through the generations.9

Robert Trivers was one of the founders of selfish-gene theory. Far from being a rightwinger, in his early days he was a Black Panther sympathiser, whose politics to this day have remained probably more anarchist than anything else. He points out that, before we had selfish-gene theory, ‘race’ was a respectable concept in biology. One reason was that people tried to solve the altruism problem by invoking ‘group selection’ and, in particular, race. The notion of ‘survival of the fittest’, they said, applied not to competing individuals, but competing groups - which in biology meant races. The idea was that racial conflict and competition would result in the victory of those racial groups whose members were most altruistic, self-sacrificing and all the rest of it. During the 1940s and 1950s, under the influence of ‘ethologists’ like the Nazi-sympathizer Konrad Lorenz, this kind of idea was taken for granted by most evolutionary biologists.

To demolish this whole notion, Trivers took the puzzle of primate infanticide. From time to time, male primates (baboons, and even chimpanzees) will take to killing small infants. From a ‘group selection’ perspective, this seems terrible. If you are killing little infants, you are threatening the future of the race! Now, the supporters of ‘group selection’ came up with a solution. Far from acting selfishly, they argued, those infanticidal males were doing a service. They were regulating population growth, keeping numbers down to avoid food shortages and starvation in the future. Killing infants was altruistic, done by males for the long-term benefit of the race.

I will not go into all the details here, but Trivers points out that this whole theory was complete nonsense. The females - mothers of the little infants - fought valiantly to protect their offspring. So why is it just males who act for the good of the species, while females keep doing the wrong thing? Furthermore, why do the males only kill those particular infants who must have been fathered by somebody else? If you are trying to keep the population down, why not kill your own babies? As scientists investigated, it became more and more clear that those infanticidal males were not being altruistic at all. They were helping to ensure the immortality of their own genes. As a new dominant males takes over a harem of females, he kills the young infants - fathered by his deposed rival - to stop the female breast-feeding and to begin her menstrual cycle again, so that he can mate with her and produce offspring.

This is what Trivers has to say: “Species advantage reasoning … tends to elevate one individual’s self-interest over that of the species, thereby tending to justify their individual behaviour.”10 Lorenz and many other biologists in the days before selfish-gene theory claimed that war in the human case is ‘hygiene’, because we human beings also face overpopulation. I cannot express how reactionary all that stuff was. In Britain, Winston Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of similar ideas, telling Asquith in 1910: “The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.” Churchill urged the British government to start compulsorily sterilising “the feeble-minded and insane classes”, deeming this necessary to preserve the vigour of the race.11

It was not until the arrival of selfish-gene theory that all this came to be exploded as rubbish biology. If a poor person is producing more babies than a rich person, then by definition that person is fitter, because fitness is defined that way. Instead of trying to justify infanticide - or indeed war - selfish-gene theory allows us to see such behaviour for what it is.

To conclude, I make a plea. If we wish to understand human origins, then we do need to know how genes work. The left is infected by a ridiculous fear of science, in particular when it comes to genetics. Why fear genetics? In a recent article I wrote for the Weekly Worker,12 I showed how modern genetics has vindicated Engels, proving that hunter-gatherer women across Africa chose to live close to their mothers for tens of thousands of years. Modern genetics has proved that early human kinship was matrilocal, with a bias towards matriliny - quite contrary to everything that was thrown at Engels for saying that in the 19th century.

There is no more revolutionary form of knowledge than science. It is intrinsically revolutionary and, incidentally, intrinsically internationalist. We have to remember that. If we believe in science we should not only recognise that in our programme, but we should do science. Everybody can be a scientist. Nobody is in a better position to understand capitalism than a trade unionist, for example, who is suffering from its effects. There is no reason why we cannot all be scientists.

This is why I am totally against Chomsky’s argument that science is somehow beyond our ken, and irrelevant even if we could understand it. That is completely reactionary nonsense. Not only should we go back to science: we should base the party we want to build on science.

Notes

1. J Roitman Anti-crisis Durham NC 2013.

2. K Marx Grundrisse: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch03.htm.

3 . J Crary 24/7: Late capitalism and the ends of sleep London 2013, p128.

4. L Trotsky ‘Problems of everyday life’ and other writings on culture and science New York 1973, p210.

5. ‘Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German philosophy’, in K Marx and F Engels Selected works London 1968, pp603-05.

6. ‘Science in the dock’ - discussion with Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M Carroll Science and Technology News March 1 2006. See www.chomsky.info/debates/20060301.htm.

7. N Chomsky, ‘Language and nature’ Mind No104 (413), p10.

8. ‘Science in the dock’ - discussion with Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Krauss and Sean M Carroll Science and Technology News March 1 2006. See www.chomsky.info/debates/20060301.htm.

9 . For more on this, see C Knight, ‘The science of solidarityWeekly Worker August 3 2006.

10. R Trivers Social evolution Harlow 1985, pp77-78.

11. M Lind, ‘Churchill for dummies’ The Specta­tor April 2004.

12. See C Knight, ‘Anthropology and women: genetic evidence is richer than stale party line’, Weekly Worker July 11 2013.