Gene Expression

Das Kapital! So says Bora:

Forget Dennett’s strawmen destruction – read Gould carefully for what GOULD is trying to say. The Big Book is ‘Das Kapitaal’ of the 21st century biology – someone now needs to write a shorter, simpler Manifesto for the masses to read and understand….and we can go from there.

Go from there? Jerry Coyne better watch out! Genetic roaders are going to be swept away by the vanguard of the scientific revolution!1 Now, in all seriousness Das Kapital is an important book, a significant book. And there is truth in it as well; my understanding is that Karl Marx was one of the first to note what we would call the Industrial Revolution.2 But there’s truth in the Bible too; it records verifiable history and archeology. That doesn’t mean that it’s a blue-print for science (unless you’re a Young Earth Creationist). Das Kapital was a failure in terms of giving rise to a science of economics in a positivistic sense; its predictions were falsified, whether into the future, or as a model of what the past was like.3 Of course that doesn’t matter to a True Believer. Das Kapital echoed through the centuries not because of its scientific value; rather, it became the scripture of a secular religion, a political movement which appealed to mass psychological predispositions toward utopianism and the normative preferences of intellectuals who wished to give their sentiments, values and interests the imprimatur of science.4

As for The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, I don’t think it has the same psychological resonance. An anti-reductionist manifesto is by its very nature resistant to compaction; it’s non-mathematical verbosity will evade economization. It is, thank gods, a relatively innocuous scripture because not only do the believers not read it (as is the norm), but the preacher’s message can only be wholly negative, because to rebut the parsimonious formulations of the opposition is an easier task than to tame the overgrown doctrine and present it without distortion. Amen! Selection at work among religions, just as that apostle of functionalism David Sloan Wilson would wish it.

1 – Right, I know that wasn’t Marx. I just couldn’t resist.

2 – Most economic historians don’t think that it was really a revolution from what I gather.

3 – I know there are Marxist economists and historians who aren’t total fruitcakes. That being said, my understanding is that it is a relatively marginalized faction or sect, not an ascendant wave of scholarship.

4 – I’m sure you know that Marx was a keen follower of Darwin’s theory (Update: John Lynch says not really. Fair enough).

Comments

  1. #1 John Emerson
    January 30, 2008

    Marx has probably now has a larger and more favorable effect on the writing of history than on economics or philosophy. It’s quite a different thing than historians being theoretical or political Marxists or accepting Marxist orthodoxies — more of thing of following up certain sorts of questions raised by Marx. I think that that’s what Bora meant. (Even anti-Marxist historians have to deal with Marxist concepts, and not only as impediments to be disposed of).

    There are deep problems with Marxist economics (especially the labor theory of value) which mean that it will probably not last long or be revived. I think that mainstream econ is ripe for criticism, though, and a Marxist perspective can help with that.

    There’s seems to be less verifiable history and archaeology in the Bible than people think.

    On anti-reductionism, Stuart Kaufman and Herbert Gintis have both recently recommended Morowitz’s “The Emergence of Everything”, an anti-reductionist tract which describes about 24 qualitative leaps from the big bang to the first cities. (He then takes a much less satisfactory 4 steps from 5000 BC to the present). Morowitz even provides a quasi-theistic inerpretation (following Teilhard de Chardin) of his story. Don’t tell PZ. (Gould had a weak theistic tendency too, I think).

    I have a friend who argues that qualitative steps should be described as “changes of state” (e.g. freezing) rather than as “quantum leaps”. I think that he’s right. (That was Engels’ metaphor, and also the metaphor of the Chinese philosopher xxXunzi / Hsun Tzu.

  2. #2 Dan tdaxp
    January 30, 2008

    “2 – Most economic historians don’t think that it was really a revolution from what I gather.”

    Would you include Greg Clark in this bunch?

  3. #3 Caledonian
    January 30, 2008

    Oh, it’s like “Das Kapital” all right.

    If you want to understand the subject, reading it is counterproductive.

    If you want to understand the ways the subject was understood in the past, it’s necessary reading.

    And always remember: if it’s a secular religion, it’s not science.

  4. #4 Coturnix
    January 30, 2008

    Das Kapital changed the world. For the better. Except for reactionaries who are still living in the 18th century mindset (some, like Huckabee, running for President on exactly that mindset). Only those who have not read Marx dismiss him out of hand – I guess they drank the Red Scare propaganda.

    Origin Of Species was a 19th century equivalent of Das Kapital.

    Gould’s Structure will change the 21st century world of evolutionary biology, too, except for reactionaries like Coyne.

  5. #5 Coturnix
    January 30, 2008

    Yes, Marx got much wrong. So did Darwin. So, likely, did Gould. But those three books are eye-openers: they changed the WAY we look at the world, the way we study it, the way we go about changing it for the better. They are not textbooks, they are catalysts.

  6. #6 Matt McIntosh
    January 30, 2008

    Talk about an own goal!! Gould:Biology::Marx:Economics … why didn’t I think of that?

  7. #7 John Lynch
    January 30, 2008

    I’m sure you know that Marx was a keen follower of Darwin’s theory.

    Not so fast!

  8. #8 Matt McIntosh
    January 30, 2008

    Bora is funny. Dude, you do realize Brad DeLong’s opinion of Marx is pretty representative among economists, right? Are you *sure* you want to accept the consequences of this analogy?

  9. #9 John Lynch
    January 30, 2008

    Yes, Marx got much wrong. So did Darwin. So, likely, did Gould. But those three books are eye-openers: they changed the WAY we look at the world, the way we study it, the way we go about changing it for the better. They are not textbooks, they are catalysts.

    Woah! Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. As yet, there is no evidence that Gould’s book has catalyzed anything.

  10. #10 Coturnix
    January 30, 2008

    No, but it should!

  11. #11 John Emerson
    January 30, 2008

    Brad DeLong has enormous blind spots, and economists are often ignorant of the history of their science, but Schumpeter (for example — a quasi-Austrian economics) has a lot of respect for Marx, though no friendship.

  12. #12 razib
    January 30, 2008

    Would you include Greg Clark in this bunch?

    yes.

    john, what you’re saying is fine. i’ve not read much gould at this point, but have you read any of structure? i don’t know if it is what you think it is. bora thinks it is a research program for the century. bora blogs at scienceblogs, which gives him some authority among non-scientists. i happen to think that praising gould the way he does is pretty cranky.

    Gould’s Structure will change the 21st century world of evolutionary biology, too, except for reactionaries like Coyne.

    your constant use of political analogies is unbecoming. anyone who disagrees with your is a reactionary? i talked to a ex-grad student of coyne this summer and i would be willing to bet from what she told me that he’s as left as you politically. can you stop conflating for once? you’re a lot like christian fundamentalists you know, there is the light and the dark, and nothing in between the depths of their hell and the glory of your heaven (i’m sure you’ll switch tacks when it comes to religion because coyne is with dawkins and not gould here).

    Brad DeLong has enormous blind spots, and economists are often ignorant of the history of their science, but Schumpeter (for example — a quasi-Austrian economics) has a lot of respect for Marx, though no friendship.

    that’s fine john. but the main point is that marx doesn’t have a strong current influence on economics research programs. people like bora fan the impression that the study of evolution is what stephen jay gould says it is. right or wrong his viewpoints are somewhat marginal (very or only moderately depending on what view). right or wrong, that’s the world. jerry coyne might be an asshole, but he’s closer to the center of the power & the glory than gould every was.

    the whole marx tack was kind of tangential anyway. i’ll finish structure, so we’ll see….

  13. #13 Colugo
    January 30, 2008

    “the Red Scare propaganda.”

    Anticommunist propaganda was so overblown. Besides some gulags, artificial famines, genocides, wars, and ecological devastation, communism was no biggie.

    (Trivia question: Who are Little Lenin and the Red Witch?)

    Sure, Social Democracy is reasonable and viable. But just how much Marx survives in Social Democracy? Not a lot.

    True, I’ve learned a lot from Marx-influenced scholars like Leslie White, Eric Wolf, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, and Marvin Harris. But again, hardly orthodox Marxism.

  14. #14 Colugo
    January 30, 2008

    Or is Leninism actually a form of psychosocial conservatism? I can’t keep track of these things.

  15. #15 razib
    January 30, 2008

    …details of history….

  16. #16 agnostic
    January 30, 2008

    someone now needs to write a shorter, simpler Manifesto for the masses to read and understand

    I didn’t know it was still possible to use the phrase “the masses” in a non-tongue-in-cheek way. Do Marxists still say things like “workers in the factories”?

    Not much of Marxism survived, while much of Darwin’s ideas has. Marxism was a virulent epidemic that killed off its hosts, digging its own grave, exactly like Freudian psychology. Darwinian thought has become endemic, not like the common cold, but more like the gut flora.

  17. #17 John Emerson
    January 30, 2008

    Not much of Marxism survived

    A lot of history writing is directly Marxist, and a tremendous amount of it is indirectly Marxist. People are confusing a body of ideas with the ideologies of various political movements and with political systems put in place in various countries. Darwin had an effect, but there really aren’t orthodox Darwinians any more, and Marx had a similiar effect, though unfortunately there are people who try to be orthodox Marxists.

    But this should be about Gould, as Razib says.

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