Pathogens, Pandemics, Protests – and The Dialectical Biologist

Remembering the science and activism of Richard Levins in the time of corona

Richard Levins

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 is both a generic crisis of the human species and a specific crisis of world capitalism. 

Living the Eleventh Thesis, Richard Levins.

In a time of many ill-informed decisions – such as India’s lockdown and the unlocking, one is reminded of the words and beliefs of Richard Levins.

Levins, who passed away in 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts (US), wore many hats. His wikipedia profile describes him as an ex-farmer first and then goes on to list his various academic specializations, such as in ecology, evolutionary biology and biomathematics. He retired as a Professor of Population Sciences from the Harvard School of Public Health.

He did indeed live and farm in Puerto Rico for several years, while also actively involved in the Puerto Rican  independence movement. He later acquired advanced degrees and pursued an academic career. Yet, he remained an agro-ecologist and an activist at heart, also being an official adviser to the Cuban government on issues of agro-ecology.

It was his lifelong passion and mission to deal with real-world complex systems in the richness of their complexity and wholeness. “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,” he stated in his essay, “Living the 11th Thesis.” He objected to any form of reductionism.

As he wrote in the seminal book he co-authored with Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, “Indeed, it is an explicit objective of Cartesian reductionism to find a very small set of independent causal pathways or ‘factors’ that can be used to reconstruct a large domain of phenomena…”

The Indian covid-19 lockdown, easily one of the most severe lockdowns in the world, was a complex policy decision. It was going to affect an entire country of a billion-plus people, especially their livelihoods.

Yet, as is becoming amply clear from the various humanitarian crises that have unfolded in front of us, especially the distress of the migrant workers, it seems to have been undertaken without due understanding of its complex and contingent nature.

The primary focus on “one part,” which dealt with social distancing, has proved disastrous. None of the objectives of the lockdown seems to have been achieved by the narrow focus as India races upward in worldwide cases.

Someone like Levins saw interconnections everywhere and he kept stressing on the importance to understand these connections and social relations.

This came out of his deep belief in the method of dialectics with its emphasis on grappling with totalities. “I have delighted in the dialectical emphasis on wholeness, connection and context, change, historicity, contradiction, irregularity, asymmetry, and the multiplicity of levels of phenomena…” he confessed in “Living the 11th Thesis.”

While he drew inspiration on the use of dialectics in analysing scientific processes as employed by Engels in his tract, Dialectics of Nature, Levins proceeded with his own understanding of the method.

It was the deep recognition of wholeness and ‘multiplicity of levels of phenomena’ which Levins pursued but which the Indian policy-makers completely missed and as a result ended up causing such great suffering to so many people.

As in the case of public policy, so also in other cases of public health and epidemiology. Levins noted that the consensus in the scientific community by the 1960s was that infectious disease had been mostly eliminated. But, such was not the case and infectious diseases re-emerged.

Levins asked the crucial question about the assumptions which led to such misplaced confidence, conclusions, and the consequent blindsiding.

He attributed the reasons for the faulty assumption to short-term thinking and narrow views of what were essentially longer-term, complex issues.

As he elaborated in a piece titled Is Capitalism a Disease: “So what was wrong with our epidemiological assumptions? We need to recognize that the historical mindset in medicine and related sciences was dangerously—and ideologically—limited. Nearly all who engaged in public health prediction took too narrow a view, both geographically and temporally. Typically, they looked only at a century or two instead of the whole sweep of human history. Had they looked at a wider time-frame, they would have recognized that diseases come and go when there are major changes in social relations, population, the kinds of food we eat, and land use. When we change our relations with nature, we also change epidemiology and the opportunities for infection.”

Such short-term focus is also a characteristic of a capitalist system, as pointed out in the book, Biology Under the Influence, that Levins also co-authored with Richard Lewontin: “Narrowness and pragmatism are characteristic of the dominant ways of thought under capitalism, where the individualism of economic man is a model for the autonomy and isolation of all phenomena…”

Given the almost ugly manner in which the narrative of the origin of the coronavirus unfolded and the notoriety attached to ‘wet markets’ and ‘zoonotic jumps,’ an effort to bring some perspective to the matter seemed to be in order. A corrective of sorts and a more comprehensive effort to locate the disease in a global capitalistic enterprise of capitalist resource extraction was attempted by this piece recently in the Monthly Review. It tries to take the obsessive focus away from individual players like bats, pangolins and Wuhan shoppers and understand “relational geographies,” and the role of the global market in exotic animals, with multinational corporations involved.

Almost as if taking a cue from Levins, there seems to be a recognition among some current researchers of the wider ecosystem surrounding coronavirus-carrying bats in southern China that needs to be reckoned with. The co-author of a recent study on the evolution of the coronavirus is reported to have observed that, “the region was characterized not only by bat and coronavirus diversity, but by urbanization, population growth and intense poultry and livestock farming, all of which could lead to viruses jumping from one species to another, and to the spread of human disease.”

As the recent Monthly Review piece referenced above observes regarding the thought that informs their analysis: “The underlying operative premise is that the cause of COVID-19 and other such pathogens is not found just in the object of any one infectious agent or its clinical course, but also in the field of ecosystemic relations that capital and other structural causes have pinned back to their own advantage.”

Another of Levins’ signal contribution, emerging from his belief in understanding things in their totality, was the insight about the “reciprocal codetermination, the role of the organism in the production of the environment.”

As he elaborated in the essay, Organism and Environment, “[E]nvironments are as much the product of organisms as organisms are of environments.” Or as he added in a succinct and powerful manner in the same essay, “Organisms do not experience or fit into an environment, they construct it.”

It was this insight of his that there is no such thing as a single, unchanging Environment but that there existed countless micro-environments constructed by organisms, that led him to look critically at the environmental movement: “One cannot make a sensible environmental politics with the slogan ‘Save the Environment,’ first, because ‘the’ environment does not exist and second because every species, not only the human species, is at every moment constructing and destroying the world it inhabits.”

This holds significance as there is a much-needed call for paying attention to the environment brought into sharper focus by the corona crisis. And yet, as Levins observed, for a successful movement it was necessary to ground it in ‘sensible environmental politics.’ This required understanding the totality of the environment and all the interactions it comprehended.

His belief and understanding in the study of the whole – of complex systems – and the importance of the dialectical method for analysis (for example, the interconnections and interdependence between constituent parts of whole systems) allowed him to move with consummate eases between seemingly disparate areas such as human physiology, disease, plant breeding and social protests and rebellion.

In an essay titled “False Dichotomies,” Levins begins by considering the confusion with a dichotomy such as the “general” and the “particular,” and its manifestation in sciences as the ‘average condition’ of things and the ‘variabilities’ observed (from the average). He then goes from considering the variabilities from observed normals in physiological traits such as blood sugar levels or metabolism, to making a seemingly natural but remarkably insightful foray into the issue of street protests in the US in the 1960s.

The 1960s saw a large number of rebellions and protests in African-American communities across the US as expressions of their socio-economic marginalization and also frequent clashes with the police.The summer of  1967, referred to as the ‘long hot summer’ witnessed more than 150 instances of protests.

Levins, who was active in various movements in support of black struggles, including that by the Black Panthers in Chicago, noticed the spin given to protests and rebellions. Then, just as now in the case of the protests following the killing of George Floyd, there was self-righteous condemnation of the protests for the attendant violence and looting. Fingers were pointed towards the black community for indulging in rioting and arson.

The way Levins saw it, the accusers were conveniently ignoring the general or average condition of dispossession and oppression. Instead, they were deflecting the cause of the rebellions onto the variation from the average: the so-called inherent tendency in the black community to be unlawful and unruly.

“When urban rebellions broke out in American cities in the 1960s, one response was to say that when people are sufficiently deprived by others of social power and economic security while the consciousness of their deprivation becomes heightened, they will rebel. The reaction by the right to this explanation was to point out that everyone in the inner cities did not burn and loot, but that these activities were the work of a small group. This group, it was claimed, had a biological predisposition to violence,” Levins wrote in “False Dichotomies.”

By a deft use of his methods of dialectics, Levins subsequently demonstrated the many interlocking and interdependent causes that prompted the rebelling population to behave in the manner it did – in response to (high) general levels of oppression and not because of any inherent tendency for violence.

“[W]hether a significant number will find inaction intolerable surely depends on the level of that insult and injury. So the level of oppression that leads to rebellion depends upon the pattern of variation in response among individuals, but that variation in response depends upon the level of the challenge.”

While Levins swore by the principle of dialectics, his ideal was the communitarian way of thinking and political life, something he witnessed during his experiences in Cuba (ideals that many are now imagining for a world after covid): “My thesis is that each kind of society develops its own relations with the rest of nature, and that an ecological pathway of development is at least latent in socialist development, co-equal with equity and participation,” he noted in his essay, How Cuba is going ecological.

Levins, of course, assiduously pursued Marx’s popular 11th Thesis, part of Marx’s essay “Theses on Feuerbach,” as his intellectual ideal: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

But one can also observe how he also practiced another of Marx’s convictions: “A Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing.”

There were no sacred cows, as far as he was concerned. He was brutally honest about the left movement. As he stressed in his essay “Rearming the revolution,” there was a need to reckon with the past: “[T]he broad masses are not going to trust the communist and revolutionary movements until we have satisfactorily confronted the disasters, errors and crimes of the past…”

He also repeatedly directed his critical gaze at western science, the academic discipline he trained and worked in. As stated in The Dialectical Biologist, “The science of the industrial capitalist countries is a privileged science…But this science is crippled because it is subordinated to the general (and often also very particular) interests of the bourgeoisie and deprived of the opportunity of working toward truly human goals by commercialization, militarism, internal organization, and ideology.”

Fully understanding the nature of Euro-American science, he was always on guard for recourse to Western science’s supposed superiority, as against say, the threats posed by Hindu right-wing liberties with science, outlined by Meera Nanda in her writings. He did not think that setting store by modern, western science, as argued by Nanda, against the fabrications of Hindutva pseudo-science was wise.

In an essay titled “The Science of Dharma and the Dharma of Science,” published in Talking about Trees: Science, Ecology, and Agriculture in Cuba, he wrote: “I am sure that Nanda is aware of the oppressive aspects of present day high-tech corporate science…Is the threat of a fascistic regime that combines pre-capitalist mysticism and anti-rationalism with modernist technology so overwhelming, oppressive and imminent as to justify allying with the scientistic rationalists to stop that danger? And is the defence of modern science with all its scientism the best way to resist reaction?

It is not. The golden age of ‘free’ science (for some) is gone, strangled by monopoly capital’s increasing ownership of the knowledge industry, the reduction of science to commodities and scientists to scientific Labour power.”

As someone who lived by Marxist principles, he was also frank about his own positionality and how he viewed his own labor, as a scientist. In an interview recorded by Abha Sur in Tactical biopolitics: Art, Activism, and Technoscience, he stated: “[S]cientists are for the most part also workers…Our labor is not completely alienated from us. We enter our field of work in part for the intellectual excitement and the sense of doing some good in the world, while workers in an ammunition factory do not seek these jobs because they love killing people. The nonalienated part of our existence can be a rich addition to the consciousness of the labor movement, while the history of labor struggles can help us cope with the conditions of our employment. So . . . the most fruitful way of existence for the academics is as scholar activists and workers.”

And, a scholar activist and worker he was, till the very end. He was candid regarding what had been achieved regarding the engagement with western science, at the conclusion of The Dialectical Biologist: “Dialectical philosophers have thus far only explained science. The problem, however, is to change it.” There was still work ahead.

Yet, his deep belief in the need for an alternative way of organizing society and looking at science as socially determined found expression in everything he did. As he repeated in different places, his belief was that “The Truth is Whole” and that was the way it had to be engaged with.

As was expressed with great feeling in The Dialectical Biologist: “An insistence on seeing things as integrated wholes reflects a belief that much of the suffering, waste, and destruction in the world today comes from the operation of patriarchal capitalism as a world system penetrating all corners of our lives rather than from a list of separable and isolatable defects. And the emphasis on the social interpretation of science comes from a political commitment to struggle for an alternative way of relating to nature and knowledge that is congruent with an alternative way of organizing society.”

Another disease has caught us by surprise and caused incalculable harm to so many of the world’s marginalized. Suddenly there are all manner of alternatives to capitalism being tossed around in its wake. One cannot help think of Levins’ foresight, the remarkable comprehensiveness of his methods and the profound empathy with which he brought to bear his training in science on visions of a more equitable world.

Umang Kumar is a writer based in Delhi NCR



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