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November 10, 2004


On Lamarck and Marx


Today in AgBioView at www.agbioworld.org; November 10, 2004

* On Lamarck and Marx

On Lamarck and Marx

By C Kameswara Rao
November, 2004

This is with reference to Dr Roger Kalla's article on 'Holistic Science - Lamarckism, Marxism and Mae-Wan Ho' (AgBioView, November 6, 2004).

While appreciating the arguments of Dr Kalla in this article, I feel that Dr Kalla has done injustice to both Lamarck and Marx (more to the former) in bracketing them with Dr Mae-Wan Ho. The article could have been written without any reference to Lamarck and Marx.

1. Karl Popper suggested that the proponents of hypotheses should provide criteria for falsification of their expositions. Propositions on different aspects organic evolution can neither be proved nor disproved, as the conditions in which events of evolution were supposed to have occurred cannot be recreated, bridging the gap of hundreds of millions of years. So organic evolution remains a collection of connected concepts and hypotheses that cannot graduate to the status of a theory. At the best, we can only say that this is probably what might have happened, in this manner, and at that time, with no proof or chance of verification, either way.

2. Karl Popper also said that what couldn't be verified by empirical data are dogma. That was what Lysenko promoted. There are several other situations that are based on pseudo-science. As per Avagadro's hypothesis, which we all learnt in schools, after 12 dilutions there are no solvent molecules to speak of, in the solution. This was demonstrated using salt solution and the electrical conductivity of its dilutions. Inexplicably, in Homoeopathy, the higher the dilution, the stronger is the medicine. There is another equally perplexing issue in this system. Alkaloids are not soluble in alcohol that is used to prepare the mother tinctures. Yet, Homoeopathy speaks of alkaloids of opium, nux vomica and of other plant sources. When I questioned these issues, two British Homeopaths stated that 'in Homoeopathy, it is the proving that is more important and not chemistry'. We often hear similar pronouncements, such as that 'Science is not important', when we speak of biotechnology from the platform of science and offer scientific explanations to the questions raised.

3. Marxism did not seek to control science, beyond proposing that it should be used to the society's advantage. Since the time it was propounded, Marxism was hardly understood and for most people it has been a very convenient tool and slogan, to meet with their personal agenda. A Professor of History has once set a question to the candidates of a post-M.A., eligibility examination in India, to write on the socio-economic philosophy of 'Karl MARKS'.

Marxism has nothing to do with Lysenkoism, and Lysenko was a mere opportunist who had utilized an authoritative and confusing political climate to his advantage.

Today there are not many who think that Karl Marx was right on every issue he discussed. Marx opined that in the pre-colonial India there was no individual and family right to property and that agriculture was a collective operation. Many students of the political, economic and social history of India hotly contested this suggestion. Even the die hard Indian Marxists would not accept this idea, which has serious implications for the much talked about farmers' age old rights to recycle or sell one year's seed for raising the following year's crop, since if the farmer did not own the land, he had no personal rights on the seed. Community rights are more difficult to define and defend. Personal and family right to property is also a key factor for planning socio-economic development in India, which takes the village (or a group of villages) as a unit for developmental strategy and self-governance. The basic problem with Marxism was that it was deeply rooted in the politico-economic conditions and capitalistic trends in Western Europe at the time of Marx. Marxism only contributed for the formation of leftist ginger groups in different part of the world and has now come unstuck from almost everywhere. When transplanted on other countries outside Western Europe, without modifications needed to suit each country, the transplant was rejected in course time. Stalin deviated very significantly from the original Marxist ideas, but that helped only for a time.

4. While not intending to devalue the enormous contribution of Charles Darwin, we should not forget that he a) did not propose the theory of evolution, which was widely perceived for nearly a century before him, except by those under the influence of the Church, b) did not invent the idea of natural selection, and c) did not prove decisively that natural selection was in fact the vehicle of evolution. What he did was to synthesize the mass of evidence that was consistent with the concept of evolution and natural selection. In fact, Haeckel (1874) traced the intellectual origins of Darwinism to several others, more importantly to Lamarck's publication (1803) of 'Researches on the organization of living bodies'. Darwin, for himself, did not acknowledge his debt to his predecessors, path breakers and trendsetters, which includes his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

Is Lamarckism so bad as to be totally unacceptable? I know that Lamarck did several dumb experiments to propose ridiculous theories. Molecular biology, mutation science and genetics of the second half of the last century have actually vindicated some of Lamarck's ideas. During 1984-85 there was a spate of articles, even TV shows, that sought to explain Lamarckian concept of inheritance of acquired characters for the greater part, on the basis of evidence from molecular biology and genetics, that came to light about that time. It is a serious contradiction if we take acquired resistance (to factors that never existed in nature before) and its inheritance by pests and pathogens for granted on one hand and laugh at the concept of inheritance of acquired characters, on the other. Don't we insist on a refugium for Bt transgenic crops to dilute/delay acquired resistance? Mutations related to such acquired resistance would be transmitted to subsequent generations. In spite of his ungenerous attitude towards Lamarck, Charles Darwin has used Lamarckian assumptions throughout his book 'Expression of the Emotions' (1872). In the second edition of the 'Origin', Darwin had reluctantly admitted that 'On the whole we can hardly avoid admitting that injuries and mutilation….are occasionally inherited'. Why cannot we appreciate what is good in Lamarckism, or for that matter any scientific or socio-economic theory? We cannot expect Lamarck to foresee natural selection, mutations and gene pools, the concepts that came over half a century later. The concept of the inheritance of acquired characters is in fact the only alternative to natural selection. I am not really sure if the giraffe story has actually originated from Lamarck, rather than from others, more to ridicule Lamarckism, than to support it.

A great contribution of Lamarck to biology, but hardly recognized, lies in the principles of constructing dichotomous keys (1778) to identify plant and animal groups. No matter what we do today, including the use of computers, to modernize our methods of identifying taxa from varieties to Kingdoms, there is no escape from these basic principles. An inestimable number of scientists, teachers and students of biology have been using the dichotomous keys for over two centuries, without even realizing who was the originator of the concept. Only chaos rules in the absence of keys to taxon identification. Lamarack compiled the Flora of France, recognizing several species, genera and even families, new to science. This is an undeniably important contribution to the botany of Europe. For a person with no scientific training, but became a Professor of Botany at the age of 50, Lamarck did quite well, that too in the face of unending severe criticism and ridicule that did not die with him.

Lamarck's only daughter, Corelie looked after him in the last years of his life, when he became blind and his fourth wife died. There is a statue of Lamarck in the botanical garden associated with the Natural History Museum in Paris. After her father's death in poverty, Corelie got it inscribed on the pedestal of this statue to mean, 'Father, the posterity will avenge and admire you'; not exactly prophetic but largely true.

5. Every theory, movement and development has its own shortcomings, which are corrected by the subsequent generations. At every moment in the history of science, the society was reluctant or even fearful of the discoveries and inventions. But in course of time what all we have to day making our lives a bit easier has taken ground. It was estimated that most inventions or technologies took some 20 years to come to common use. It is not yet ten years since the first transgenic got under cultivation. Given the time, not withstanding the vitriolic anti-tech lobby, biotechnology would be acceptable to the public the world over.

6. What was propounded centuries ago, under a set of socio-economic and academic conditions, should not be denigrated today. Too often, the foresight of scholars of yester years was far weaker than the hindsight of the present day intelligentia. What was proposed then was great for that time with benefits for the subsequent periods. The proponents of these now 'laughable theories' have really sowed the seeds for more rational explanations later on. Do we accept Darwinism today in its totality? Science faced stiff opposition at every moment of its history. Till the middle of the last century, more time was spent by scientists in correcting dogmas and facing opposition, than filling gaps in science, which was more needed for its progress.

It is certainly to the benefit both the scientific community and the society if the questions raised by the critics of science and technology are answered to the best of our ability. What is irrational is that the critics only have a Nelson's eye for scientific evidence and rational explanations. For them science is not important, only their perceptions, which are not reality. It is irrational to mix up issues of science with issues of management, politics, economics, society and ethics. These issues are not the burden of technology or technologists. Such issues were not raised either before or now, in the context of other technologies. Unfortunately, biotechnology is singled out and is expected to be a zero-risk technology-a laudable but an unreasonable demand.

7. I fully agree with Dr Kalla that scientists have an inescapable responsibility to speak up if arguments based in junk science are being used to oppose technology, misleading the public. When the products, the questions raised about them, are all based in science, the answers would also be essentially based in science, and only the scientists can provide authentic and convincing answers.

8. Blind support or blind opposition to biotechnology does not do any good to the technology or the society. We need to strike a rational balance. We should be open- minded, accept just criticism and make the required amendments to processes and products. Otherwise, we would only strengthen Mae-Wan Ho and her friends, or worse, we would be the Mae-Wan Ho of the other side.

Finally, I cannot contain my disappointment that Dr Kalla has ignored the Indian counter parts of Mae-Wan Ho, who are equally undaunted opponents of technology. The poor and poverty are very much needed for the survival of a number of people and organizations, the world over. Their arguments and tactics would be aimed at preventing technology from reaching those who would benefit, deriving some relief from drudgery and poverty.

Professor C Kameswara Rao, Foundation for biotechnology Awareness and Education,
Bangalore, India.
http:// www.fbae.org