Saturday, October 9, 2010

Politics of Neurobiology revisited

Biologism is the attempt to locate the cause of the existing structure of human society, and of the relationships of individuals within it, in the biological character of the human animal. For biologism, all the richness of human experience and the varying historical forms of human relationships merely represent the product of underlying biological structures; human societies are governed by the same laws as ape societies, the way that an individual responds to his or her environment is determined by the innate properties of the DNA molecules to be found in brain or germ cells. In a word, the human condition is reduced to mere biology, which in its turn is no more than a special case of the laws of chemistry and hence of physics.
SOURCE: Rose, Steven; Rose, Hilary. “The Politics of Neurobiology: Biologism in the Service of the State,” in Ideology of/in the Natural Sciences, edited by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, with an introductory essay by Ruth Hubbard (Cambridge, MA: Shenkman Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 71-86.

So begins this essay from the 1970s, when the radical science movement was in full swing. There were various perspectives and agendas in this movement. Part of it was irrationalist in character, another part was overpoliticized, but there was a vigorous questioning of the social and political roles and ideological dimension of the scientific enterprise and various apologists in various fields of scientific endeavor. While the roots of contemporary obscurantism can be found in this period, there was also a vigorous Marxist inquest into the sociology, economics, politics, practices, and ideology of scientific disciplines, again, sometimes subject to bad politicizing and philosophizing, but nonetheless worthy of continued interest. Just as McCarthyism wiped out the history immediately preceding the 1950s in the public mind, so neoliberalism (in its liberal as well as conservative incarnations) has effectively erased the 1970s as an object of popular comprehension.

This historical amnesia is characteristic also of the secular humanist/atheist/skeptical movement in the USA, which now is highlighted as progressive in an age dominated by right-wing politics and manic irrationalism, whereas in the 1960s and '70s this movement was way behind the curve of social and political consciousness. The entire movement, in its desperate effort to bolster reason in a burgeoning new Dark Age, hunkers down behind a shallow scientism that erases society and history from its world view, remains unaware of its own history and of the ideological struggles within the sciences it reveres, and uncritically gobbles up the ideological droppings of its celebrated apologists.

A particularly noxious example of this is the uncritical slobbering over a politically and historically very ignorant man, Sam Harris, whose latest book is all the rage: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. That someone could advertise such banality and peddle it as novelty is a truly remarkable manifestation of a society at the end of its rope.

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