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THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF SCIENCE

by Robert M. Young

In the second of our series on science and ideology Robert Young discusses the relations between science and personal, social and political values. There are two aspects to this problem; philosophical and ideological. Dr Young suggests a framework of thinking which may overcome the prevailing fragmentation of debate.

It is worth recalling at the outset that this debate is occurring in a new atmosphere. In the course of the nineteenth century, the development of science and technology became synonymous with belief in unlimited material and social progress. It is only in the course of the last generation that we have become critical about the meaning of progress and fully ambivalent about the role of science and technology. For example, in the space of my lifetime (thirty-six years) the whole range of antibiotics and of effective insecticides have been discovered, leading to control of bacterial infections and of malaria. But in the same period we have seen the development of virulent bacteria which are resistant to antibiotics and their spread has led to the closing of hospitals. Similarly, the worldwide use of DDT has virtually wiped out malaria, dramatically cutting the death toll from that disease, but leading to increased population, malnutrition and starvation in the Third World. We have come a long way since the 1930s, when people of all political persuasions were united in the belief that science was a progressive force, that what was needed was more and more of it, and that the problems of man and society would also yield to the application of the magical methods of science.

The question is not merely that of the specific uses and abuses of science and technology. The debate is much wider. On one side it is being argued that we have entered a new age — the cybernetic one — in which advanced industrial countries can, for the first time, implement the dreams of abundance and egalitarian democracy which science has always promised, and the same hope is held out for the distant future of the Third World. On the other side, many of the members of the New Left and the counter-culture of young people argue that science and technology have robbed people of their dignity and have created a society devoted to the acquisition of goods and gadgets in place of human relationships. People have become objects in the scientific-industrial complex; their role is to produce goods which they then devote their earnings to purchasing. Many of the anti-rational aspects of youth culture — dropping out, the appeal of mysticism and drugs, the return to simple communal life on the land — can be seen as forms of protest against the alienation of the person from his or own labour, from its products and from fellow humans. This protest is against science and technology as governing the relations of production at work and our social relations. Our lives are dominated by technological rationality. 'Things' and the organization of industry to produce them have made human relations thing-like: they have become reified.

So, in addition to our concern over the uses and abuses of science, there is a much wider issue about the role of science in society and culture. The particular problems make direct contact with general debates on politics and the philosophy of civilization and the hopes and fears raised in analysis of advanced technocratic societies, both East and West. Radicals argue that science and technology are the key to the elitist forms of social organization in which the division of labour produces hierarchies in which the experts are in alliance with the owners of the means of production. And government — with its advisers and experts — mirrors the anti-democratic structures based on science. In this situation, it is not surprising that on one side the radicals try to opt out or become wreckers or Luddites, while on the other politicians and scientists defend their methods and their integrity.

These are some of the issues raised by science and technology in the social and political arenas. Now I want to go to another extreme to some very basic philosophical problems about science. It may sound at first as though I am changing the subject, but the key point in my argument is that I am not. The lesson which I draw from what I have said so far is that the growing number of scientists who are concerned about the social and political context of their work will have to act as political persons if they are really serious about having any impact on these issues. But as they do so, we find them behaving in one of two ways. They either take off their scientists' lab coats and enter the political arena purely as laypersons, or they attempt to bring their scientific roles and prestige with them and to address themselves to social and political problems as scientists. The public has two main reactions to scientists who enter their arena. In some cases, when scientists speak on social and political issues, the press and public — and especially the politicians — remark on their naiveté and their utopianism in believing that the neat categories of the laboratory and the ivory tower can be transferred to the murky world of politics. They are gently led back to their havens and warned not to meddle.

The other reaction of the public is to defer to the scientist, rather as they used to do to the clergy, and latterly to pop stars, but the fantasies we attach to the scientists have an extra strength: they are 'experts' in 'rationality'. The media regularly consult these experts who pronounce in scientific terms on the political and social problems of the day. The tele-psychiatrist has been joined by tele-biologist, physicist, sociologist, ethologist, psychologist, and even the tele-psephologist. An extreme version of this sort of deference toward scientists was the recent call by Lord Ritchie Calder for the United Nations to bring together a panel of 'wise men' from all over the world, to sort out the moral and ethical problems raised by science, technology and medicine. In the same vein, a host of books has appeared in recent years in which ethologists, geneticists, anthropologists, and psychologists make extrapolations on the basis of science, which purport to tell us what is possible in social and political life, in education, race relations, city life, foreign relations, war, and so on. I am advocating a healthy scepticism about such claims.

Now I would like to return to what I said was the key point in my argument. I believe that the conflicting reactions of both scientists and the public on the problems of relating science and values rest, in the first instance, on a set of distinctions which are at the heart of the methods and assumptions of modern science. They are also at the heart of modern social and political theory. Since Descartes’ Discourse on Method and Locke's Essay on The Human Understanding, philosophical and social theory has defined rationality on the basis of models drawn from science. There are certain fundamental assumptions which are so basic to our whole way of thinking about humanity and nature that they set limits to the available ways of conceiving of the relationship between science, on the one hand, and social and political issues on the other. I want to argue that until we scrutinize these assumptions, the problems have no hope of solution. Indeed, they cannot even be coherently formulated.

The distinctions which I want to scrutinize have permeated everything I have said so far. That is, we automatically separate science both from values and from social and political issues. Every schoolchild knows that facts are one thing and theories another, that facts and theories are separate from values, that the psychological and social origins of a theory must be distinguished from its validity, that science is one thing and its use or abuse in technology quite another. These distinctions provide the basis for our belief that the methods and assumptions of science can produce objective truth which is value-neutral. So we are led into making demarcations between the origins, the substance and the role of scientific findings.

These distinctions were the main achievement of the fundamental philosophical and methodological shift which occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in what is known as the Scientific Revolution. This period produced a new definition of what would qualify as an explanation in science. Explanations in terms of uses and values were banished and replaced by explanations in terms of the fundamental categories of matter, motion and number. No one was to be prevented from asking questions of nature in terms which included subjective, or value laden concepts, but he could not call the answer scientific unless it was expressed solely in terms of physical processes.

Advancing Objectivity

Beginning in astronomy and moving on to physics and chemistry, the widely accepted account of the history of science is one of the advancing edge of objectivity into ever-widening domains. In the nineteenth century, it embraced the history of the earth and then the history of life in evolutionary theory and went on to embrace psychology and the social sciences. The fusion of biology and psychology in research in genetics and molecular biology is now being applied to the problems of memory and learning in the nervous system, while biochemists are seeking to provide chemical explanations of normal and pathological behaviour.

The trouble with this picture of the advancing age of objectivity is that it is becoming increasingly undermined by research in the history of philosophy of science and in some branches of the human sciences. The closer historians of science look at the great achievements of science, the more difficulty they find in distinguishing science from pseudoscience and from the political, economic and ideological contexts. Scientists' philosophical views about nature, humanity and society appear to play a very important part in formulations of the substance of major scientific ideas. The official distinctions between context, substance and applications simply cannot be maintained. Historians of science are, therefore, beginning to employ the interpretive approaches of historians of art and literature and are also finding that their investigations have much in common with those of anthropologists. Similarly, as philosophers of science scrutinize the concept of ' fact ' more closely, they conclude that facts are irreducibly theory-laden. And their studies are conducted in the supposedly safest domains of physics and chemistry. Finally, psychologists are adding their voices to this breakdown of the official story and they are concluding that perception is itself a process which cannot be separated from expectations and evaluations. The common theme in these studies is that science is much more like the messy world of social and political intercourse than working scientists care to believe, or are willing to concede.

These investigations have not, on the whole, been carried out according to conscious political approaches, but they fit in very neatly with arguments coming from the New Left in critiques of politics, and from the human sciences. The concepts which link these disciplines with the natural sciences are being turned around. Instead of arguing that biology is a complex version of physics and chemistry, people are approaching the problem from the opposite perspective. It is being pointed out that evaluative concepts from political and social philosophy penetrate deeply into the human and biological sciences.

Attempts to make the study of humanity scientific have started out with biological terms — 'structure' and 'function’, 'adaptive' and 'maladaptive'. They have linked these with medical ones — 'normal' and 'pathological' — and they have gone on to the social, such as 'adjusted' and 'deviant'.

You can tell the story in one of two ways, and people will disagree about whether the choice of how you tell it is itself a scientific or a political one. Let's look at some of the pairs of concepts used in the human sciences and consider their relations with the natural sciences.

Social scientists study and write about conformist vs. non-conformist behaviour — about people who are obedient or rebellious, adjusted or deviant. Are these just conventional categories involving praise or blame? Or can we link them to science by making them analogous to normal vs. pathological behaviour, as treated by a psychiatrist? These psychiatric terms are extensions of the medical concepts of normal = healthy, and pathological = diseased. And medical concepts in turn are based on the supposed objective biological ideas of adaptive vs. maladaptive structures and functions. Thus, psychological, social and political categories can be seen as extensions of scientific ones. The rebellions of youth are, for example, not adapted to the social organism, and are said to need treatment. The part of San Quentin prison from which the black activist George Jackson was trying escape when shot was called the adjustment centre. Or — as radicals and even some conservatives are doing — you can tell that story the other way round and argue that biological categories are inescapably value-laden and that the analogies which are made to psychological, social and political phenomena show that evaluative concepts penetrate deeply into the categories of science. Concepts like adaptive, maladaptive, survival and fittest are — it's obvious as soon as you say it — evaluative concepts, not purely objective ones.

At first glance these analogies are merely extensions of that advancing edge of objectivity. Beginning in the nineteenth century, important findings and theories linked biology with the physico-chemical sciences in the study of organs, tissues and cells. This led to a greater understanding of physiological processes, and to the development of genetics and molecular biology. At a more general level, the theory of evolution implied that ’man and all his works’ were, at least in principle, the products of natural processes and could, therefore, be analyzed objectively. Students of humanity and society turned away from theology to biological — especially evolutionary — ideas in order to place their own disciplines on a firm scientific foundation and thereby reduce the understanding of personal, social and political phenomena to natural categories. As a result, a whole family of concepts was developed which has collectively been called 'functionalism'. They have the common characteristic that explanations were made in terms of biological analogies, like those I've just mentioned.

There have always been protests against this movement, and especially against those who argued that ethical judgments could be based on scientific findings. For example, T. H. Huxley opposed this reduction in his lecture on 'Evolution and Ethics' in 1893, and philosophers such as G. E. Moore continued to do so in their arguments against what came to be known as the 'naturalistic fallacy'. They pointed out that science and evolutionary theory could provide no guidance for how people should live. These liberal protests against reducing ethics and politics to science have some things in common with radical and revolutionary views. Karl Marx was vehement in his protest against the reduction of the human to non-human. This is what Marxists mean by reification. In fact, the whole Marxist tradition can be described as one long battle against the economists and others who have tried to claim that existing social relations are based on the laws of positivist science.

Functionalist tradition

In spite of this, the functionalist tradition continued to develop in the works of psychologists and social scientists, especially in Britain and America. It has recently come under fire in the wake of severe criticisms of the status quo in the fight for civil rights, the student movement, protests against the Vietnam war, and the political critique of advanced technocratic societies. The writings of the German-American philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, and the activities of, for example, the German student leader, Rudi Dutschke, have been based on this analysis. Functional theory equated the concept of normal with the prevailing norms of behaviour, and people's deeply-held social and political views were described as abnormal or deviant. Their convictions were dismissed as symptoms of psychopathology.

As the differences between young and old, left and right, critics and apologists, became more and more acute, the role of the accepted concepts was thrown into sharp relief. The conventional categories were criticized for playing an important part in justifications of oppression, exploitation, capitalism and imperialism. Having become suspicious about these rationalizations of the status quo, radicals began to ask how far they penetrated into the domain of science itself. The sharp distinctions between the socio-political role of science and its supposedly objective substance was thus brought into question from an explicitly political point of view, and it was argued that the distinction served to mystify people and lead them to accept the prevailing social order as natural and therefore inescapable, if not desirable.

Before moving on to another level of analysis, I want to summarize this part of the argument. I began by saying that the problem of relating science and values rests, in the first instance, on a set of distinctions which are at the heart of the assumptions of modern science. In tracing a continuum of disciplines extending from general biology and physiology, through psychology, sociology and anthropology and embracing such areas as economics and town planning, which use the same or analogous concepts, I have tried to show how these concepts are now being argued to be evaluative and, in many cases, political. The distinctions between fact and value, between the substance and the role of scientific statements, are very debatable. Notice that I have not said that there are no facts. Rather, I have said that philosophers, historians, psychologists, and radicals have found it difficult to separate facts from theories, theories from values, and values from covert or overt social and political beliefs.

I believe that we ought to take these developments seriously, both as scientists and as people. Instead of seeing biology and the human sciences as falling short of the purity of physics and chemistry, we should see them as the norm and the so-called pure sciences as relatively unattainable extremes.

Physics and biology

But I can just hear — as you may, in the course of this series — a physicist saying, 'But physics isn't biased, and I'm not biased.' He would be joined by chemists and molecular biologists in claiming vehemently that although the applications of their theories may be part of the domain of values and politics, the substance of their sciences is objective, that is, value-neutral. I think that their case is a strong one at this level of analysis, but not if we look deeper. However, in order to raise the relevant issues I have to introduce an approach to the problem which I have carefully avoided making explicit so far. I have done this because its basis is strange and unpalatable to many, and I wanted to show how far we could get before appealing to a more profound wrench to our scientific assumptions.

I think that there is a fairly large group of people who would accept that there is a continuum of disciplines which are more or less impregnated with value-laden and political concepts. Ten years ago, people were arguing about the natural sciences as the model for the behavioural sciences. Now they are talking about a critical approach to the human sciences. They would grant that not only the role and the substance are so influenced, but would also add that the origins of the ideas are importantly related both to their substance and to the beliefs of certain interest groups in society. The study of the relations among the social origins, the substance and the role of ideas, is known as the ' sociology of knowledge'. The legitimate domain of the sociology of knowledge is normally sharply demarcated from mathematics and from parts of the natural sciences. I have already suggested that it is no longer as easy as was once thought to decide where to draw that line of demarcation. There may be a distinction between value-laden and value-free science, but it is not a lot of use to people who want to ferret out bias and be purely 'objective', if we don't know where to make the separation between them.

If I am right in suggesting that we are in the realm of values and politics wherever functional concepts are used, I cannot see where we can draw the line in biology. The role of such concepts may come somewhere near the will-o-the-wisp of value-neutrality, but since one cannot draw the line with any certainty, it seems best to approach the findings and theories of biologists with a very critical and politically self-conscious eye. If we do this, we are left only with the sceptical physicist. It seems to me that the only way to shake his complacency is to suggest a research programme which extends beyond the sociology of knowledge into one of its parent traditions, that is, to Marxist views of nature. But, in addition, he ought to couple these with some of the recent anthropological speculations of Professor Mary Douglas. The Marxist and anthropological approaches come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they are united in suggesting that all thought including all scientific thought, is in large measure a function of the concepts of human nature and society. This is equally true of the definition of a scientific explanation as developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and of the views of nature of so-called 'primitive' tribes and, indeed, it is true of the debates about pollution and the environment going on in so-called advanced societies. People's philosophies of science are a function of their philosophies of nature, and their philosophies of nature are, in turn, a function of their fundamental beliefs about man and society.

If the sceptical physicist is to transcend his complacency, he will have to dig very deeply into the nature of modern society to find the ideological roots of his assumptions about nature and science. Obviously, if he's relatively content with the way things are in society, he probably would not feel that this is a dig worth making. In order to decline the invitation, he need not be dishonest or biased in any self-conscious sense. On the contrary, he need only be normal. The phrase 'the way things are' is a useful pun in this context, suggesting acceptance of deeply-held views about science and about society.

Some of us want to change the way things are, and I am suggesting that in order to get much further toward this goal, science must be demystified. One partial way of doing this is for scientists to become overtly political. We must at the same time become philosophical and consider the metaphysical assumptions of modern science, especially the fact/value distinction. The next step — the hardest one — is to relate these metaphysical beliefs to their ideological context. Instead of particularizing the concept of ideology, calling it distortion and attempting to absorb ideology into science, we might attempt to view science in the context of people’s ideological beliefs. Instead of the physicist saying 'I'm not biased', he might be helped to see the ways in which modern science reflects the social and economic order of modern society in very complex and subtle ways. The difficulties involved in doing this are immense, but the consequences of making the attempt are essential to any hope of creating a democratic society.  

If we can manage to learn to think in these new ways, we will begin to see that the problem is fundamentally anthropological, not in the sense of structural and functional anthropological theory, but in the sense of knowledge of human nature and society as the most basic knowledge that we require. My contention is that this knowledge is the foundation on which our approach to nature depends. More than this, the stones from which we build these foundations are ultimately chosen from deep convictions about how we should treat each other and about what social order is compatible with different beliefs about these values. Facts and values are inextricably intermingled throughout thought and life, but in the beginning was the value. If this approach is convincing to morally concerned persons, political discourse can't be reduced to science any more than ethical discourse can. Indeed, moral and political discourse may well be more fundamental than scientific discourse. And our views about science may well be expressions of our social and political beliefs. Science is, therefore, no escape from the conflicting ideologies in the world, but is a mediation of them. The Marxist critic and philosopher, Georg Lukács, put the fundamental point very clearly when he said, ' Nature is a societal category. That is to say, whatever is held to be natural at any given stage of social development, however this nature is related to man and whatever form his involvement with it takes — i.e., nature's form, its content — its range and its objectivity are all socially conditioned.'  

What are we to call this approach? There are several possible ways of labelling it. Many would call it 'the new sophism' (and we could all look again at the wisdom of the Sophists), but we could just as well call it 'the anthropology of nature', 'social metaphysics', or 'the ideology of nature'. Whatever we call this framework for enquiry, our understanding of these issues will be fragmented and mystified until we begin to see nature and society in a coherent, totalized framework. If we attempt to do this, without at the same time striving to transform the basic structure of society, we will only lead ourselves into further mystification.

This is the text of a talk in a BBC Radio Third Programme series on ‘Science and Ideology’. It was reprinted in New Humanist 88 (no. 3), July 1972, pp. 102-105.

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Rd., London N7 9RQ
robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk

4337 words


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