ehrenreich on biology

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Tue Nov 30 11:35:35 PST 1999

>>> Rakesh Bhandari <bhandari at> 11/30/99 01:09PM >>>
Given Ehrenreich's massive erudition, this is really a disappointing piece.

> ideological outlook eerily similar to that of religious creationism. Like
> their fundamentalist Christian counterparts, the most extreme
> antibiologists suggest that humans occupy a status utterly different from
> and clearly "above" that of all other living beings. And, like the
> religious fundamentalists, the new academic creationists defend their
> stance as if all of human dignity -- and all hope for the future -- were at
> stake.

Not really a strong argument for the results of a biologically friendly anthropology as much as name calling of its critics. If the results don't withstand the scrutiny of these critics, then it is less than academic to name call them 'creationists'.


Charles: I don't agree with all the recent hypotheses Ehrenreich has put forth, but there is a kernel of truth in the above. In the struggle between materialism and idealism, idealism is at bottom a form of religion ( See _Socialism: Utopian and Scientific_ by Fred). The philosophical error of post-modernism is that it is a form of idealism/religion. To theoretically obliterate the biological is to fall into idealism/religion. It is supernaturalism.


> As neo-Marxist and behaviorist theories of the tabula rasa human gained
> ground over the next decade, other disciplines followed anthropology's
> lead. So completely was sociology purged of biology that when Nicholas
> Petryszak analyzed twenty-four introductory sociology textbooks in 1979, he
> found that all assumed that "any consideration of biological factors
> believed to be innate to the human species is completely irrelevant in
> understanding the nature of human behavior and society."

Well even Maynard Smith emphasises that the greatest developments in human history have been too rapid to be explained by biological change. So the assumption of complete irrelevance in terms of epochal change in human history is pretty compelling.


Charles: Well not explained by a biological change, but explained by a biological constant . How about struggling against exploitation as innate ? After all, Marx and Engels claim that it is transhistorical, i.e. not historically specific, but has in fact been the motor for all historical change regardless of the specific historical epoch.

Surely it was not ideas that inspired these exploited class struggles, for the ruling ideas of every epoch are the ideas of its ruling classes.

Hypothesis: it is a biological instinct to control the fruits of one's labor.


antibiologism and simplified postmodernism has tended to obliterate the
> possibility that human beings have anything in common,

The working class has common interests as a result of the kind of class ridden society that humans have constructed, i.e. as a result of social construction, not due to the imprint of evolution. What we have Ehrenreich doing her is completion of her break from Marxism as if sitting on the DSA board was not enough.


Charles: But why have prior exploitative modes to capitalism spawned class struggles too ? How did these class exploitative societies socially construct both exploitation and the struggle against exploitation ? How was the struggle against exploitation only SOCIALLY constructed ?

Could it be instinct ?


> contingent, he adds, "Some facts and theories are truly universal (and
> true) -- and no variety of cultural traditions can change that...we can't
> let a supposedly friendly left-wing source be exempt from criticism from
> anti-intellectual positions."

Well those universal facets may not be interesting to anthropologists in terms of what they are trying to explain.


Charles: Not sure what you mean. Surely, anthropologists are concerned with human universals. They have to know the universals in order to know the historical specifics.


> both the secular and Christian varieties, makes clear: "It is perfectly
> possible to hold that genes exert a statistical influence on human
> behaviour while at the same time believing that this influence can be
> modified, overridden or reversed by other influences."

But these other influences are invoked deus ex machina. How does he explain their development such that they override prior influences? Really he seems the real creationist, not Lewontin and Levins or Alan Goodman and Thomas Leatherman.


Charles: The other influences are culture, passed on from generation to generation like genes , only extra somatically. They are not mysterious or supernatural, though sometimes they are in the form of religion.


> Finally, many secular creationists are a few decades out of date on the
> kind of "human nature" that evolutionary biology threatens to impose on us.
> Feminists and liberal academics were perhaps understandably alarmed by the
> aggressive "man the hunter" image that prevailed in the sixties and
> seventies; and a major reason for denying the relevance of evolution was a
> horror of the nasty, brutish cavemen we had supposedly evolved from. But
> today, evolutionary theory has moved to a more modest assessment of the
> economic contribution of big-game hunting (as opposed to gathering and
> scavenging) and a new emphasis on the cooperative -- even altruistic --
> traits that underlie human sociality and intelligence. We don't have to
> like what biology has to tell us about our ancestors, but the fact is that
> they have become a lot more likable than they used to be.

I would no more want to ground politics today in such biology than in the old biology.


Charles: Marxism ( _The German Ideology_) grounds its politics in physiological needs as the premise , though not total determination, of history. Politics grounded in absolute negation of biology is idealism, i.e. reaction, Platonism, etc.


I can see why *The Nation* received a lot of criticism for this rather thin manifesto for--what?


Charles: They may get a bit vulgar, but it's still the same old story , a fight for love and glory, idealism vs materialism, the fundamental things apply as time goes by.

(Janet is an anthropology/ethnologist grad student at U of Mich. )


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list