What can a Marxist approach tell us about science?
Sunday, 21 January 2018 16:36

What can a Marxist approach tell us about science?

Published in Science & Technology

Richard Clarke considers how a dialectical methodology can help scientists ask the right questions.

‘Science’ and ‘scientific’ can mean at least three different things, including: 1) the ‘knowledge content’ of different disciplines (as in physics, chemistry, biology) about the universe; 2) the processes by which this understanding is acquired (the ‘scientific method’ and wider issues in the philosophy of science); and 3) the relationship of science to society, in particular the organisation, funding and control of research (in the laboratories of universities, by pharma companies or within the ‘military-industrial complex’) and how access to and use of that knowledge is controlled. 

All three of these are connected, and it’s easiest to take them in reverse order.

Science is often conceived as ‘pure’ knowledge or ‘facts’, independent of the way these are produced, controlled or used. Marxists would challenge this, pointing out that throughout history, the changing content of scientific knowledge - what are understood at any point in time as facts - are closely related to the social conditions of their production, though in a dialectical rather than a deterministic way. Marx, writing to Engels about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection commented: ‘It is remarkable how among beasts and plants Darwin recognises his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’’ (Letter from Marx to Engels, June 18, 1862)

In 1931 a Soviet delegation arrived unannounced at the second International Congress of the History of Science in London, where its leader, Boris Hessen delivered a paper entitled The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton's Principia. Hessen argued that Isaac Newton’s  Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica  (first published in 1687) - perhaps the single most important scientific treatise of western civilization - was intimately connected to the social conditions of its production. Newton’s Laws of Motion and his ‘discovery’ of gravity were not a gift of divine providence, not (just) the product of individual genius (or the consequence of being hit by a falling apple). They were a response to specific technical problems of early capitalism, in particular the need for improved maritime navigation, the development of new machinery and ballistic weaponry in warfare.

Sir Isaac Newtons Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

That scientific theories are related to the social context of their production does not of course mean that they are ‘wrong’ or lacking in objectivity. But it challenges the conventional view of science and scientists as autonomous, having an impact ‘on’ society but not being influenced by society. In reality the relationship is two-way; it is dialectical. This approach - emphasising the reciprocal links between science and its social context was later popularised by the communist scientist J D Bernal in his four-volume Science in History, and it is now broadly accepted by the majority of historians of science.

Under capitalism, ‘natural science acts as a direct productive force, continuously invading and transforming all areas of human existence.’ It is one of the principal agents of technological and social change. It can be immensely liberating, but also hugely destructive. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, ‘the twin roles of science as a force of production and of social control have become both dominant and manifest, and […] this transition is linked with a change in the mode of production of scientific knowledge, from essentially craft, to industrialised production.’ (Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, The Incorporation of Science, in The Political Economy of Science.)

coalbrookdale by night

Coalbrookdale by Night, by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1801

Science can be exciting. It is one of the things that separates humans from all other animals. But the mode of production of scientific knowledge has changed since Marx’s day, from essentially craft, to industrialised assembly. Today the daily work of most scientists is routine. Most scientific research is conducted by or funded by commercial organisations. The overwhelming majority of scientists are employees, working (often under short-term contracts) under the direction of their managers on specific problems which are part of a greater whole of which they are often unaware - a situation analogous to the Taylorism of factory work (maximising efficiency by breaking jobs down into simple routine elements) and funded either by external grants or directly by the companies for which they work. 

Scientific labour (the work of practising scientists) itself produces ‘use value’ as knowledge, much of which, through patenting or commercial secrecy, is appropriated for profit. The activities of pharmaceutical companies, agricultural research and the nuclear industry all demonstrate the subordination of science to capital, often in particularly oppressive and (socially and environmentally) destructive ways.

And capital makes profit from science not only through its technological applications (from foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to energy technologies and software systems) but also in other, essentially unproductive ways, from restrictive patents to publishing. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in turnover – a 36% margin, higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year. The careers of scientists depend on publishing in ‘reputable’ journals which charge extortionate prices for access.

Marxism also has something to say about the philosophy and methodology of science. Marx and Engels both emphasised the way that science itself moves in a dialectical way from induction to deduction, from analysis to synthesis and from the concrete to the abstract, and back again. For example, induction involves making a generalisation from a set of specific observations. This results in the formulation of an hypothesis (an explanation or prediction) which, if not contradicted by further observation, becomes incorporated in a body of theory. Deduction works the other way around - start with a generalisation (a theory), produce an hypothesis about what will happen in a particular situation, then test this through further observations, sometimes involving experiments. The two processes of induction and deduction are inseparable and lead to a progressive refinement of theory as the best explanation, generally supported by the scientific community, of observations to date.

One of the most influential philosophers of science was (Sir) Karl Popper. Popper emphasised that a ‘scientific’ statement (or theory) is not one that is necessarily ‘true’, but rather one that is framed in such a way that it can be tested (or falsified). For Popper, an anti-communist liberal, Marxism is not ‘scientific’ because it is not falsifiable. However the same criticism also applies to most of the social sciences and indeed to much natural science. Darwinism (the theory of evolution through natural selection) is itself primarily inductive.

A rather different view of scientific progress was popularised by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. In his extraordinarily influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn argued against the Popperian notion of science as a gradual orderly progression towards ‘truth’. Most scientists, most of the time, he argued, operate within an unchallenged conceptual framework, or paradigm, filling in bits of a jigsaw or ‘puzzle-solving’ but rarely challenging the overall picture. Periodically, however, anomalies accumulate, ‘normal science’ breaks down and a new paradigm emerges. Examples of such ‘paradigm shifts’ include the Copernican revolution (a heliocentric rather than an earth-centred universe), Darwinian evolution, and Einsteinian relativity theory. Kuhn emphasised that paradigm shifts are not confined to the internal logic of science but involve social and political factors as well.

Kuhn’s work resulted in a surge of interest on the social relations of science — including the rediscovery of Hessen’s paper on Newton a third of a century earlier and of which Kuhn appears to have been unaware. It also chimed with the ‘anti-science swing’ of the 1970s, leading some to argue that science was ‘nothing but’ social relations. Both extremes - the view of science as ‘pure’ knowledge independent of society, but also the argument that science is merely another form of ideology or culture - have always been challenged by Marxists. The questions science asks (and the answers that it gets) are closely related to the way that science is organised, who pays and who profits, as well as to the more general needs of society. But that doesn’t mean that science is necessarily lacking in objectivity (although sometimes this is the case). Scientific knowledge is a special form of knowledge. The scientific method and the knowledge it produces have a relative autonomy.

But a Marxist approach can take us still further in relation to ‘the facts’ of science. The underlying philosophical basis of Marxism, dialectical materialism , is not a magic key to provide the ‘right’ solution to any problem. There have been periods in the not-too-distant history of science where it has been abused, notably during the ‘Lysenko period’ of Soviet genetics. It is, rather, a potentially helpful approach to asking the right questions (and to examining and challenging answers which are put forward by others) – about nature as well as about human society.

The dominant mode of science is reductionist – studying individual parts of a system, isolating one variable at a time and ignoring other aspects. Reductionism is potentially a powerful procedure in science. But of itself it can only provide partial answers to relatively limited questions. Reductionism alone can never provide the whole picture. And in some areas, notably in human biology and psychology, it lends itself to (unintentional or deliberate) abuse. An example is when supposedly ‘scientific’ justifications are put forward for social inequality, discrimination and the status-quo.

This was particularly the case with what came to be known as social Darwinism, pioneered by Herbert Spencer, one of the most influential European intellectuals of the late 19th century, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (never used by Darwin himself) and applied it to human affairs. A free market was the reflection in human society of natural law. Regulation and welfare provision, he argued, should therefore be opposed (he used the phrase ‘There Is No Alternative’ more than a century before Thatcher). Ironically, Spencer’s ashes are interred in Highgate cemetery opposite Karl Marx’s grave.

Science has been used repeatedly since in a similar way. Today sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are still used to justify inequality, racism and sexual discrimination on the basis of supposed inherited biological traits. Competition, aggression, xenophobia are (it is argued) programmed into us from our ancestral past. They are ‘in our genes’. The notion of the ‘selfish gene’ is an example of a reductionist approach which ‘naturalises’ what are essentially social phenomena and fails to look at the relations between different levels of analysis. Sometimes the biases in science are unconscious. Sometimes they are deliberate. Sir Cyril Burt was a hugely influential educational psychologist who ‘proved’ that intelligence was overwhelmingly inherited. His work was used to justify selective schooling and the subordination of black and working class people. His work was always challenged by progressives but it was only after his death in 1971 that it was found to have been fraudulent.

Good science (and major advance) needs to look critically at the evidence for any explanation of phenomena, and also to understand the limits within which those explanations are appropriate. It needs to examine the functions of each part of a complex system but also the interactions between these parts and the way they affect the behaviour of a system as a whole. A dialectical approach in science is valuable both in what Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science’ but also in the major transformative shifts which change the way that we perceive the world. Many Marxist scientists have found such an approach helpful in their professional work.

An example in the physical sciences is the quantum physicist David Bohm, one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Following his early work on nuclear fission Bohm collaborated with Albert Einstein at Princeton University before being forced to leave the United States because of his links with the Young Communist League and activity in peace movements. At London’s Birkbeck College he showed how entities - from sub-atomic particles to everyday ‘objects’ - can be regarded as ‘semi-autonomous quasi-local features’ of underlying processes, later extending this to the nature of thought and consciousness.

John Desmond Bernal

J D Bernal

Other notable Marxist physicists include the crystallographer and polymath J D Bernal (also based at Birkbeck), Dorothy Hodgkin (pioneer of three dimensional protein structures such as penicillin and insulin) and the biochemist Joseph Needham (the first Head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO). Perhaps unsurprisingly the most productive applications of a dialectical approach have been in biological science. One of the most prominent was J B S Haldane (originator with the Russian biochemist Alexsandr Oparin of the ‘primordial soup’ theory of the origin of life) who combined his scientific work with popularisation of science and Marxist philosophy. And other scientists (including some who would disclaim the descriptor ‘Marxist’) nevertheless see dialectical materialism as a key guide in their science. An example is Ernst Mayr, one of the most eminent biologists of the 20th century, whose 1977 essay Roots of Dialectical Materialism is a good brief introduction to the subject and its controversies. 

More recent conspicuous examples of Marxist scientists include Steven Rose in his work on the relationship between consciousness and the human brain, the evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (author with Niles Eldredge of the theory of punctated equilibrium), the ecologist Richard Levins (a pioneer of metapopulation theory) and the geneticist Dick Lewontin.

So: a Marxist approach can reveal a good deal about the relation of science to society, and it can also help to illuminate the process whereby scientific knowledge is produced. As far as the knowledge content of science is concerned, Marxism of itself offers no especially privileged insights into the workings of nature - that is the job of science and scientists. But a dialectical methodology is an essential complement to reductionism. And in key areas it can help us question the popular presentation of ‘facts’ which might otherwise be taken on trust. A socialist science has the potential to be a better kind of science.

An abbreviated version of this answer was published in the Morning Star in two parts on 18 September and 6 November 2017.