July 18, 2022
Biology at Another Crossroads
By Nafis Hasan
“[What] is amazing is the similarity in the thinking of naturalists and dialectical materialists. The so-called dialectical world view is by and large also the world view of the naturalists, as opposed to that of the physicalists.”
—Ernst Mayr, Roots of Dialectical Materialism (1997)
Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin’s publication of The Dialectical Biologist in 1985 provided a gestalt moment which remains just as valid and applicable decades after the book’s publication, if not even more so. Despite such relevance, it would appear that the ideas presented have remained sidelined in mainstream philosophy of biology, thanks to decades of genetic determinism and the continued neoliberalization of science. But a survey of nascent ideas across different fields in biology negates such an assumption, and reinforces the importance of a dialectical framework for biological research—the legacy of Richard Lewontin.
A Brief History of Dialectical Biology
The origins of dialectical biology as proposed by Levins and Lewontin can be traced back to Marx and Engels. Influenced by Darwin and his exchanges with Marx, Engels proposed the three laws of dialectics of nature:
- The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa: e.g., changes in chemical composition or energy can result in qualitative changes for a substance.
- The law of the interpenetration of the opposites: this law is meant to indicate that change comes from the interaction between opposing forces, whether physical or of other nature.
- The law of the negation of the negation: indicates that nature is undergoing constant change (e.g. evolution, erosion, etc.).
Using these three laws to describe natural phenomena, Engels concluded that, “in nature nothing takes place in isolation. Everything affects and is affected by every other thing.” Engels’s natural worldview was one of constant motion, where equilibrium arose from contradictions and not as a steady state.1
How does Engels’s laws of dialectics translate to a framework for biology? Ernst Mayr, in his essay Roots of Dialectical Materialism, attempted to provide an answer: “the first law is a principle of non-reductionism, the second is an explanation for the presence of energy in nature that removes any sort of divine, vitalist, or external requirement and the third describes continuous changes in nature, i.e., evolution.”2 Therefore, dialectical materialism provides a theoretical bulwark against reductionism in biology as well as a framework to understand the changes underlying natural phenomena.
Engels’s laws of dialectics were taken up by Soviet scientists in various forms; a detailed analysis of such work can be found in Loren Graham’s Science and Philosophy in the Soviet Union (1972). But Soviet scientists were not the only ones adopting a dialectical framework to make sense of their findings. As Helena Sheehan describes in Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, in the West, biologists such as J. D. Bernal, J. B. S. Haldane, Joseph Needham, and Marcel Prennant, to name a few, were deeply influenced by Soviet philosophy of science, and applied the dialectical framework to biological phenomena and the practice of science to varying degrees.
According to Haldane, Marxism could be applied to understanding the development of science and the history of science as a human activity. Needham, while unconvinced of the value of Marxism in ethics and politics, still believed dialectical materialism to be “the quintessence of scientific method,” as “the natural methodology of science itself.”3 Both Bernal and Needham insisted that dialectical materialism would be of great service to biologists by pointing the way towards the most promising hypotheses and by indicating which questions were meaningful and answerable.
In 1931, at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology conference, BM Zavadovsky, a Soviet biologist, noted that the path to resolving the vitalism vs mechanism and reductionism vs mysticism debates lay in dialectical materialism, which went beyond the “attempts to embrace all the complexity and multiformity of the world through either a single mathematical formula of the mechanical movement of molecules or through the vitalist idea of a single ‘principle of perfection.’”4 Similarly, on the question of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, as geneticists grouped themselves into Lamarckists vs Morganists, it was a dialectical understanding of genetics that Zavadovsky argued pointed towards Mendel and Morgan’s ideas.5
However, the adoption of the Soviet interpretation by Western biologists presented a unique problem: the Soviet interpretation placed mechanistic materialism at the core of the dialectical framework. Mechanistic materialism is inherently reductionist, while under the dialectical framework, “biological phenomena, although historically connected with physicochemical phenomena, were not reducible to physicochemical laws.”6 In an effort to resolve this internal contradiction, Levins and Lewontin presented a variant of dialectical materialism that they believed was a “simultaneous negation of both mechanistic materialism and dialectical idealism.”7
Dialectical Biology in Practice: Levins and Lewontin
Levins and Lewontin applied dialectical materialism to biology, especially ecology and evolutionary biology, in an attempt to break away from the grip of Cartesian reductionism, which they deemed inadequate to explain the complexities underlying large-scale biological phenomena such as population ecology or evolutionary genetics. They argued that the reductionism inherent in such philosophies undercut the importance of interactions between the parts that made up the whole, ignored emergent properties, and forced science to choose separate causes for the same phenomenon.
Particularly, instead of studying genes, environment, and the organism as separate entities, they argued that the proper object of scientific investigation should be the interaction between the three. This interaction results in the development of the organism, and can be quantified as the “norm of reaction.”
For Levins and Lewontin, the organism constitutes both the subject and the object of evolution, since the organism actively constructs its environment that in turn actively affects the development of the organism:
… an organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating… Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other.8
Further, if natural selection resulted in the differential reproduction of variants, eventually there would not be any more variation to continue to drive evolution as a population achieved uniform fitness. To resolve this contradiction, Levins and Lewontin proposed that Darwin’s ideas can only reach full maturity when the organism is integrated with the “inner” and “outer” forces of evolution, as in the genotype and the environment, and viewed as both the subject and the object of evolution, as it is under dialectical materialism.
Lewontin went on to further solidify the necessity of using a dialectical approach to studying evolution and development. In his book The Triple Helix (2002), he writes that, “the ontogeny [development] of an organism is the consequence of a unique interaction between the genes it carries, the temporal sequence of external environments through which it passes during its life, and random events of molecular interactions within individual cells. It is these interactions that must be incorporated into any proper account of how an organism is formed,” thus establishing the organism as a site of interaction between the environment and genes. Therefore, under dialectical materialism, the long-running Nature vs. Nurture debate is replaced by how Nature and Nurture interact during development of an organism.
Dialectical Biology Redux
A confluence of several sociopolitical factors contributed to the marginalization of dialectical biology—the rise of molecular biology, the Cold War politics, the failures of Lysenkoism, the increasing commodification of science. However, as the introductory quote by Ernst Mayr shows, any non-reductionist approach (e.g., systems biology) to studying biology will advertently end up using a dialectical approach; recent developments in the fields of immunology, cancer, theoretical and evolutionary biology lend credence to such a conclusion.
The Organism as the Holobiont
While Levins and Lewontin had largely applied the dialectical framework to biology at the collective level, developmental biologist Scott Gilbert and immunologist Alfred Tauber did the same at the organismal level to question what constituted biological individuality.9 Historically, an individual organism has been delineated by anatomical borders, functional integration through division of labor and communication between its parts, and a hierarchical system of control. However, using a host of scientific evidence that proves the ubiquity of symbiosis, Gilbert and Tauber argue that modern biology negates this notion of the individual organism; rather, organisms are “holobionts”—multi-genomic, composite beings “whose physiology is a co-metabolism between the host and its microbiome, whose development is predicated upon signals derived from these commensal microorganisms, whose phenotype is predicated on microbial as well as host genes, and whose immune system recognizes these particular microbes as part of its “self.””
Gilbert and Tauber went on to show how dialectics exist at all levels of development of the holobiont—from fertilization (two cells fuse to become one), to organogenesis (stromal-epithelial interactions), the development of the immune system, symbiotic interactions between microbial and host cells, the construction of the ecological niche for the holobiont, and even down to the molecular level where stereo-specificity is determined by a set of interactions (induced fit model) rather than the deterministic “lock and key” model. Taking all these together, Gilbert and Tauber questioned the current conception of immunity as a defense mechanism, arguing that immunology should be brought under the larger umbrella of ecology and proposing the field of “eco-immunology”.
Eco-immunology is then used to understand the role of the immune system in the physiological and functional integration of the organism with its environment and dispels the binary notion of immunity being a defense mechanism. This is exemplified in the need for specific microbes for proper development of the brain, gut, and reproductive tissues across a host of animals. This idea then posits that the organism “was not a given, but rather a ‘work-in-progress’ that underwent lifelong development in dialectical exchange with other potentially competing intra-organismal elements.” The holobiont theory is therefore the fruition of the application of a dialectical materialist framework to modern biology, and its success helps guide future dialectical materialist approaches to unraveling the complexities of natural phenomena.
With the increased study of developmental plasticity, it would appear that certain Lamarckian concepts of heritability are regaining some traction in modern science. While fetishism of the centrality of the gene has been the key ideology of the neo-Darwinians such as Richard Dawkins, and has propagated the “DNA as the blueprint of life” idea, neo-Lamarckian systems of transmission of inheritance, as proposed in 1995 by biologists Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, push back against this reductionist view of evolution.10
Jablonka and Lamb argue that short-term evolution does not depend on new mutations in the DNA, but rather on epigenetic modifications that uncover genetic variants already present in the population. Additionally, genes undergo “shuffling” through recombination during cell division, thus giving rise to further variation within the population. They also argue that the structure of the chromatin affects changes in the DNA sequence, which therefore, “highlights the complexity of the role of the environment in evolutionary change, the environment is not just the agent of selection. Through its effects on genes’ phenotype, it also biases the direction, rate and type of DNA changes at the locus,” echoing Levins and Lewontin. Jablonka and Lamb also propose group selection rather than individual selection, which counters the neo-Darwinian idea of the gene as the unit of selection by proposing groups of cells or individuals as units of selection instead (similar to Gilbert’s holobiont concept).
Cognizant of the fact that inheritance at the social and behavioral level are different compared to the genetic and epigenetic level, Jablonka and Lamb argue against the neo-Darwinian idea that genes can explain social behaviors and their evolution. They point out that behavioral traits are not inherited due to changes at the genetic level, but through a fusion of collective and individual activities. Put simply, complex social groupings such as families, professional groups, religion, etc. affect the way we behave and what behaviors are inherited and propagated.
In his analysis of evolutionary theory using dialectics, biologist and philosopher Julio Munõz-Rubio further argues that this mechanism of inheritance is essentially a dialectical one: Jablonka and Lamb’s work implies the evolutionary process to be a synthesis between genetic factors and environmental influences, which Levins and Lewontin had described as “two opposed, active, and mutually selective elements,” thus forming “a dialectical Aufhebung of the organism-environment.”11
Principles for a Theory of Organisms
Since the molecular biology revolution in the 1950s starting with Watson, Crick, and Franklin’s discovery of the structure of DNA, and the consequent establishment of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology, experimental biology has been steadily alienated from its counterpart: theory. This is not to say that biological theories didn’t exist, but were rather abandoned as a source from which to generate hypotheses. Increasingly, in the frenzy of data-driven science, aided by a genetic deterministic outlook and advanced sequencing techniques, a reductionist science has emerged, in which experiments are designed to validate presuppositions and hypotheses rather than test a theory. A simpler version of this can be found in large genetic screen studies for complex diseases, with follow-up experiments being carried out on only a handful of chosen genes, while at the same time the experiment is already biased by establishing hypotheses a priori without a proper theoretical framework.
The ORGANISM group recognized the lack of a proper biological theory of the organism, one which would be a complement to evolutionary theory but would describe the life cycle of the organism from conception to death.12 In an attempt to fulfill that absence, the group established three major principles that would serve as the basis for a theory of the organisms that would refute the dominant reductionist understanding. These principles were established on the basis of two important realizations—(1) there exist differences between inert and living that require separate theoretical development, and (2) in biology, “ontogenesis and evolution are about relentless changes of symmetries, and the phase-space is being created along rather than set a priori.” These realizations are also attempts to dispel the thoughtless borrowing of theories from other fields, mainly physics, to explain biological phenomena. This exchange has, for example, resulted in the adoption of vernacular from information theory to describe biological interactions, such as “program” and “signaling,” with the implicit, but often unrecognized, implication that organisms are machines.13
The principles established by the ORGANISM group for a theory of organisms are:14
- A principle of biological inertia—the “default state” of proliferation with variation and motility: cells are not meant to be quiescent, but actively moving and proliferating, with new traits evolving.
- A principle of variation that accounts for the emergence of novelty through development and evolution: compared to physical objects, biological objects are undergoing constant change – from one cell division to organ development to reproduction.
- A principle of organization that accounts for the stability of organisms: organization stems from constraints, environmental or internal, acting on the biological unit, whether cells or tissues.
These principles present a radical transformation for experimental biology. Allowing the organism the ability to create their own “norms” shifts the view away from the organism as a passive agent of change; as both theoretical and experimental studies show, organisms act on their environments to create constraints on their own mobility and proliferation15.
In fact, these principles are able to resolve long-standing confusions within the cancer research field. For example, the Tissue Organization Field Theory (TOFT), proposed by ORGANISM group members Ana Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein, posits the default state of a cell as proliferation with variation and motility, and views cancer as a tissue-based disease. Combined with the principle of organization, TOFT shows that carcinogenesis arises from the disruption of interactions between the stromal and epithelial compartments of the tissue.16 Simply put, cancer does not result from resting cells suddenly growing out of control, but rather because the constraints that kept the cells out of their default state (proliferation and motility) were removed. In doing so, TOFT provides an explanation for emergent properties observed within carcinogenesis, which the dominant reductionist Somatic Mutation Theory (SMT) is unable to.17
At first glance, it is obvious that these principles and dialectics both share an anti-reductionist nature, and stress the importance of interactions between the organism and its environment, and between the multiple levels of biological organization. Engels’s dialectics of nature, à la Levins and Lewontin and Gilbert and Tauber, is also observed within the applications of these principles to biological phenomena—the first law is exemplified by a developing organism that undergoes phase changes (akin to those of physical objects), the second law is manifested in TOFT (where the epithelial-stromal dynamic is central to carcinogenesis) and the third law in the default proliferative state of cells that produce variation.18
Beyond Theory and Towards Praxis
“It is important to emphasize that the way science is is not how it has to be, that its present structure is not imposed by nature but by capitalism, and that it is not necessary to emulate this system of doing science.”
—Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (1985)
Current science is predominantly considered to be apolitical and rational, free of value judgment. This illusion, created by decades of entrenchment of bourgeois philosophy, has quietly transformed scientists and trainees into the “biomedical workforce” — a proletarianization of scientists, so to speak.19 The consequences of such a phenomenon have been described elsewhere and much more eloquently, but it is necessary to ask, then, what does it mean to practice Marxist science today?
In writing for the revitalized Science for the People magazine, Helen Zhao discusses how science, both theory and praxis, can be radicalized and what the movement’s goals should be.20 Reviewing comments from a host of scientists-activists, she asks “where do the ‘experts’ and ‘expertise’ belong—if anywhere—in a science emancipated, a science for the people?” For the answer, we can look towards Caudwell’s formulation of proletarian science:
Caudwell said quite firmly that it was not a matter of imposing the dictatorship of the proletariat on science. It was not a matter of the honest worker telling the scientist what was what in his laboratory or in his theory. Nothing was to be imposed on science. Nothing was to be imposed on the scientist, not even by himself. It was a matter of assimilation of the scientist to the cause of the proletariat, to the construction of a new society in which he played his full part within the process and as a scientist. Science was to be developed by scientists, but a new type of scientist, with his feet more firmly on the ground, with his mind more opened to the whole, with his life and work more organically connected to the society of which he formed a part.21
The recent wave of graduate student organizing can be seen as a precursor to the development of such a consciousness, one of a scientist assimilated to the cause of the proletariat—one that Richard Lewontin certainly would have approved of. It is now up to us to carry on his legacy and construct a new society and a new science.
Nafis Hasan received his PhD in 2019 from Tufts University in Cell, Molecular & Developmental Biology. He currently works in the labor movement and is an Associate Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He is also a climate organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America and an editor at Science for the People and Jamhoor.
- Frederick Engels, Dialectics of Nature (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1940).
- Ernst Mayr, “Roots of Dialectical Materialism,” 2005, http://ihst.ru/projects/sohist/books/naperelome/1/12-18.pdf.
- Helena Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science: A Critical History (London: Verso, 2018), 207.
- Nikolai Bukharin et al., Science at the Crossroads (London: Bush House, 1931).
- Lamarckism refers to the idea that environmental changes lead to alterations in behavior and organ usage, thus affecting how traits evolve and are inherited (also known as inheritance of acquired characteristics). Morganism advocated for mutations as the only determining factor for evolution, by pointing out that only inherited characters could affect evolution. See Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 207.
- Mechanistic materialism is a rigid and deterministic materialism in which the world is governed by natural laws that can be described in mathematical terms, and in turn, all natural phenomena can be reduced to physics and chemistry. See Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 207.
- Dialectical idealism is the idea that all changes in the natural world can be described to a supernatural being and favors ideas over matter as ontological forces. See Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist (Harvard University Press, 1985), 132–160.
- Levins and Lewontin, The Dialectical Biologist, 85–106.
- Scott F. Gilbert and Alfred I. Tauber, “Rethinking Individuality: The Dialectics of the Holobiont.” Biology and Philosophy 31 (2016), 839–853, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10539-016-9541-3.
- Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, Epigenetic Inheritance and Evolution: The Lamarckian Dimension (Oxford University Press, 1995).
- Julio Munoz-Rubio, “Dialectics and Neo-Lamarckianism Against the Fetishism of Genes,” in The Truth is the Whole: Essays in Honor of Richard Levins, ed. Maynard S. Clark, Peter J. Taylor, and Tamara Awerbuch (Cambridge, MA: Pumping Station, 2018), 34–55.
- The ORGANISM group was formed by Ana Soto, as part of her Blaise Pascal Chair position at Ecole Normale Superieure (Paris), and includes theoretical and experimental biologists, mathematicians and philosophers (more details here). See also Ana M. Soto, Giuseppe Longo, and Denis Noble, “Preface to ‘From the Century of the Genome to the Century of the Organism: New Theoretical Approaches’,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 1–3, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.09.011.
- Daniel J. Nicholson, “Organisms ≠ Machines,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44, no. 4-B (December 2013): 669–678, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.05.014.
- Ana M. Soto et al., “Toward a Theory of Organisms: Three Founding Principles in Search of a Useful Integration,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 77–82, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.07.006.
- Clifford Barnes et al., “From Single Cells to Tissues: Interactions between the Matrix and Human Breast Cells in Real Time,” PLoS One 9, no. 4 (2014): e93325, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0093325; Maël Montévil et al., “Modeling Mammary Organogenesis from Biological First Principles: Cells and Their Physical Constraints,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 58–69, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.08.004; Leonardo Bich, Matteo Mossio, and Ana M. Soto, “Glycemia Regulation: From Feedback Loops to Organizational Closure,” Frontiers in Physiology 11 (February 18, 2020): 69, https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.00069.
- Carlos Sonnenschein and Ana M. Soto, “Carcinogenesis Explained within the Context of a Theory of Organisms,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 70–76, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.07.004.
- SMT posits that cancer is a cell-based disease, and mutations cause quiescent cells to proliferate. Several factors confound such premises, namely the presence of similar “oncogenic” mutations in normal tissue, the varying numbers of mutations observed across tumor types, cancers arising from non-mutational events (e.g., foreign-body carcinogenesis), etc. See Ana M. Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein, “Emergentism as a Default: Cancer as a Problem of Tissue Organization,” Journal of Biosciences 30, no. 1 (February 2005): 103–18, https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02705155; see also Ana M. Soto and Carlos Sonnenschein, “The Tissue Organization Field Theory of Cancer: A Testable Replacement for the Somatic Mutation Theory,” BioEssays: News and Reviews in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology 33, no. 5 (May 2011): 332–40, https://doi.org/10.1002/bies.201100025; Carlos Sonnenschein and Ana M. Soto, “The Death of the Cancer Cell,” Cancer Research 71, no. 13 (2011): 4334–4337, https://doi.org/10.1158/0008-5472.can-11-0639.
- Giuseppe Longo and Ana M. Soto, “Why Do We Need Theories?,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 4–10, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.06.005; Ana M. Soto et al., “The Biological Default State of Cell Proliferation with Variation and Motility, a Fundamental Principle for a Theory of Organisms,” Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 122, no. 1 (October 2016): 16–23, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2016.06.006.
- Yuri Lazebnik, “Are Scientists a Workforce? – Or, How Dr. Frankenstein Made Biomedical Research Sick: A Proposed Plan to Rescue US Biomedical Research from Its Current ‘Malaise’ Will Not Be Effective as It Misdiagnoses the Root Cause of the Disease,” EMBO Reports 16, no. 12 (December 2015): 1592–1600, https://doi.org/10.15252/embr.201541266.
- Helen Zhao, “What is a Radical Analysis of Science?,” Science for the People 22, no. 1 (2019), https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/vol22-1/what-is-a-radical-analysis-of-science/.
- Sheehan, Marxism and the Philosophy of Science, 382.