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I received the news of paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen
Jay Gould's death, at age 60, in the week I was reading Jonathan Marks's
new book on genetics, human evolution and the politics of science. My
friends and I discussed our shock--Gould had famously "beat" cancer some
years back--and shared charming and ridiculous Gould information, like his
funny-voice contributions to The Simpsons. Postings on leftist
listservs noted that Gould's fulsome New York Times obituary,
which rattled on about his "controversial" theory of punctuated
equilibrium, his SoHo loft and love of baseball, neglected to mention
his extensive antiracist writing and many other radical activities,
including working with the Science for the People group. Rhoda and Mark
Berenson wrote in to commend his strong support for the release of their
daughter Lori, the young American leftist sympathizer long imprisoned as
a "terrorist" in Peru.

With Gould gone, the landscape of progressive English-language popular
science writing is much impoverished. In particular, in an era in which
silly, and most frequently racist and sexist "it's all in our genes"
narratives have become--alas!--purely commonsensical in the mass media,
if not in the academy, we have lost a stalwart and articulate
evolutionary biologist who wrote prolifically against sociobiology's
reductionist framings of human experience. But molecular anthropologist
Jonathan Marks, with his broad history-of-science background, his
take-no-prisoners stance on scientific stupidity and overreaching, and
his hilarious Groucho Marx delivery, can help to fill that void.

What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee addresses precisely that
question--the issue of human/higher primate connections--and all its
existential and political entailments. Marks reframes the old C.P. Snow
"two cultures" debate, on the gulf between the sciences and the
humanities, in a new and interesting way. Rather than blaming the
general public for its scientific ignorance--which I must confess is my
own knee-jerk tendency--Marks turns the lens around. He indicts
scientists, and particularly his own confrères in genetics, for
their long history of toadying to elite interests: "Where human lives,
welfare, and rights are concerned, genetics has historically provided
excuses for those who wish to make other people's lives miserable, to
justify their subjugation, or to curry favor with the wealthy and
powerful by scapegoating the poor and voiceless." Marks's conclusion is
that genetics "is therefore now obliged to endure considerably higher
levels of scrutiny than other, more benign and less corruptible, kinds
of scientific pronouncements might."

And scrutinize he does. First, Marks provides us with an accessible
history of the linked Western efforts, since the seventeenth century, to
comprehend the natures of nonhuman higher primates, and to develop
biological taxonomy, both before and since the rise of evolutionary
theory. With word-pictures and actual illustrations of explorers' and
others' accounts of "Pongoes," "Baboones, Monkies, and Apes," he makes
vivid for us the ways in which "the apes, by virtue of straddling a
symbolic boundary, are highly subject to the projections of the
scientist from the very outset of modern science." Not the least of
Marks's virtues are his deft along-the-way explanations, as for instance
the key physiological differences between monkeys and apes (the latter
are "large-bodied, tailless, flexible-shouldered, slow-maturing"). Only
last week, I found myself hectoring a hapless video-store worker about
the absurd conjunction, in the store's display case, of an orangutan
(ape) stuffed animal with a Monkey Business movie poster. Now I
can just hand out 98% Chimpanzee.

The "projection" problem, according to Marks, is far more inherent to
biological taxonomy than heretofore realized. He offers amusing
lightning sketches of scientists past and present, from the
eighteenth-century catfight between Buffon and Linnaeus over whether
intrahuman variation could be categorized biologically--the latter
eventually acknowledging Buffon "by naming a foul-smelling plant after
him"--to paleobiologist George Gaylord Simpson's two-martini lunches in
his 1980s Arizona retirement as he declaimed against contemporary
genetic reductionists. These humanized history-of-science narratives
allow Marks to make clear the uncertainties and arbitrariness of "hard"
science categorizations. While "every biology student knows that humans
are mammals," because human females nurse their young, Marks notes that
"it is not obviously the case that breast-feeding is the key feature any
more than having a single bone in the lower jaw (which all
Mammalia, and only Mammalia, have)." He uses historian
Londa Schiebinger's work to show us how Linnaeus, who had been operating
with Aristotle's four-legged "Quadrupedia" label, switched to
Mammalia because he was active in the contemporary movement
against upper-class women sending their infants out to wet nurses: "He
was saying that women are designed to nurse their own children, that it
is right, and that it is what your family should do."

Political apprehensions, as we know, were woven just as deeply into
scientists' evolving modes of categorizing
intrahuman--"racial"--variation. Here Marks tells some familiar stories
in new ways. Many know, for example, about racist University of
Pennsylvania anthropologist Carleton Coon's last-ditch claims, in the
early 1960s, that "the length of time a subspecies has been in the
sapiens state" determines "the levels of civilization attained by some
of its populations." But Marks offers us as well a fascinating sense of
the times. We see, for example, Sherwood Washburn, the Harvard Yankee of
later Man the Hunter fame, and Ashley Montagu, the debonair English
anthropologist redbaited out of the academy and onto What's My
Line
appearances, ending up "on the same side, working to purge
anthropology once and for all of the classificatory fallacy that had
blinded it since the time of Linnaeus.... Coon died...an embittered and
largely forgotten figure, done in, he supposed, by the forces of
political correctness, and more darkly (he allowed in personal
correspondence) by a conspiracy of communists and Jews as well."

The importance of cultural constructions, and their irreducibility to
biological functions, have been hoary apothegms in anthropology
classrooms for a half-century. Awareness of the susceptibility of
scientific practice to the politics of reputation has been with us since
the Kuhnian 1960s. Ethnographic, historical and journalistic work on
bench science from the 1980s forward has focused on the political
framing of, and politicized language use in, hard science research and
on the power of corporate and state funding to determine research
directions and even findings. But Marks takes the "cultural construction
of science" line much further than even most progressive critics of the
contemporary idiocies of sociobiologists--although he does get off some
lovely lines, like "sociobiology, which studies the biological roots of
human behavior, whether or not they exist." He takes the critique home
to his specialty, evolutionary molecular genetics, and demonstrates the
multifarious ways that recent claims about human nature and evolution,
based on DNA evidence, have been misframed, are irrelevant or often
simply stupid.

That we "are" 98 percent chimpanzee, says Marks, is a profound
misframing. First, our biological closeness to the great apes "was known
to Linnaeus without the aid of molecular genetics." "So what's new? Just
the number." Then he points out that the meaning of phylogenetic
closeness depends upon the standpoint from which it is viewed: "From the
standpoint of a daffodil, humans and chimpanzees aren't even 99.4%
identical, they're 100% identical. The only difference between them is
that the chimpanzee would probably be the one eating the daffodil."
Then, the diagnostic genetic dissimilarities between chimpanzees and
humans do not cause the observed differences between them, and are
therefore irrelevant to discussions of the "meaning" of our genetic
ties:

When we compare their DNA, we are not comparing their genes for
bipedalism, or hairlessness, or braininess, or rapid body growth during
adolescence.... We're comparing other genes, other DNA regions, which
have either cryptic biochemical functions, or, often, no known function
at all. It's the old "bait and switch." The genes we study are not
really the genes we are interested in.

Thus all of the wild claims about our "chimp" nature, which have ranged
over the past forty years from male-dominant hunter (early 1960s) to
hippie artist and lover (late 1960s through 1970s) to consummate
competitor (Gordon Gekko 1980s) are entirely politically constructed.
And, Marks adds, in considering the "demonic male" interpretation of
chimp competition as like that of Athens and Sparta, they are simply
argument by analogy: "Maybe a chimpanzee is sort of like a Greek
city-state. Maybe an aphid is like Microsoft. Maybe a kangaroo is like
Gone With the Wind. Maybe a gopher is like a microwave oven."
Just plain dumb.

Using this set of insights, Marks eviscerates a wide array of
contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom about heredity" claims, from the
"successes" of both the Human Genome and Human Genome Diversity Projects
to the "Caucasian" Kennewick Man, the "genetic" athletic superiority of
black Americans, the genetics of Jewish priesthood and the existence of
a "gay gene." He is particularly trenchant against the Great Ape
Project's use of human/ape genetic similarities to argue for "human
rights" for apes, frequently to the detriment of the impoverished
African and Southeast Asian residents of ape homelands: "Apes should be
conserved and treated with compassion, but to blur the line between them
and us is an unscientific rhetorical device.... our concern for them
can't come at the expense of our concern for human misery and make us
numb to it."

There is much more in 98% Chimpanzee, a real treasure trove of
thoughtful, progressive scientific thought. But I do have a quibble.
While Marks takes an uncompromising equal rights stance when it comes to
female versus male biology, he doesn't delve anywhere near as deeply
into the insanities of contemporary "hi-tech folk wisdom" about
sex--like the "rape is genetic" claims of a few years back--as he does
about race. And they are legion, and just as politically consequential.
Nevertheless, this is an important and refreshing book, the first
claimant to replace the magisterial and out-of-print Not in Our
Genes
, and a fitting monument to Stephen Jay Gould's passing. Now
tell me the one again about the duck with lips.

The journalist I.F. Stone used to joke that the government issues so
much information every day, it can't help but let the truth slip out
every once in a while. The Bush Administration's recent report on global
warming is a classic example. Though far from perfect, it contains some
crucial but awkward truths that neither George W. Bush nor his
environmentalist critics want to confront. Which may explain why the
Administration has sought to bury the report, while critics have
misrepresented its most ominous conclusion.

U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 made headlines because it
contradicted so much of what the Administration has said about global
warming. Not only is global warming real, according to the report, but
its consequences--heat waves, water shortages, rising sea levels, loss
of beaches and marshes, more frequent and violent weather--will be
punishing for Americans. The report's biggest surprise was its admission
that human activities, especially the burning of oil and other fossil
fuels, are the primary cause of climate change. Of course, the rest of
the world has known since 1995 that human actions have "a discernible
impact" on the global climate, to quote a landmark report by the United
Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But the White House
has resisted this conclusion. After all, if burning fossil fuels is to
blame for global warming, it makes sense to burn less of them. To a
lifelong oilman like Bush, who continues to rely on his former industry
colleagues for campaign contributions as well as senior staff, such a
view is nothing less than heresy.

No wonder, then, that Bush and his high command have virtually
repudiated the report. Although their staffs helped write it, both EPA
Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Energy Secretary Spencer
Abraham claimed they were unaware of the report until the New York
Times
disclosed its existence on June 3. Bush himself dismissed it
as a mere product of "the bureaucracy," that oft-vilified bogyman of
right-wing ideology. But he could equally have blamed his own father.
The only reason U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 was compiled in
the first place is that George Bush the First signed a global warming
treaty at the 1992 Earth Summit that obligates the United States to
periodically furnish such reports to the UN (one more reason, it seems,
to despise treaties). But somebody in the Administration must have seen
trouble coming, because the report could not have been released with
less fanfare: It was simply posted on the EPA's website, three unguided
links in from the homepage. If you weren't looking for it, you'd never
find it.

The Administration has been hammered for issuing a report that on one
hand admits that global warming threatens catastrophe but on the other
maintains there is no need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. The
report squares this circle by arguing that global warming has now become
inevitable, so we should focus less on preventing it than on adapting to
it. To deal with water scarcity, for example, the report advocates
building more dams and raising the price of water to encourage
conservation. Critics see such recommendations as proof that the
Administration is doing nothing about global warming. Unfortunately,
it's not that simple.

The worst thing about the new global warming report is that it is
absolutely correct about a fundamental but often unmentioned aspect of
the problem: the lag effect. Most greenhouse gases remain in the
atmosphere for approximately 100 years. The upshot of this undeniable
chemical fact is that no matter what remedial steps are taken today,
humanity is doomed to experience however much global warming the past
100 years of human activities will generate. That does not mean we
should make matters worse by continuing to burn fossil fuels, as Bush
foolishly urges; our children and grandchildren deserve better than
that. It does mean, however, that we as a civilization must not only
shift to green energy sources immediately but also begin planning how we
will adapt to a world that is bound to be a hotter, drier, more
disaster-punctuated place in the twenty-first century.

Many environmentalists know it is too late to prevent global warming;
the best we can do is minimize its scope. They don't like to admit this
truth, because they fear it will discourage people from making, and
demanding, the personal and institutional changes needed to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions. There is that risk. But a truth does not
disappear simply because it is inconvenient. Besides, a green energy
future would mean more, not less, economic well-being for most
Americans, while also increasing our chances of avoiding the most
extreme global warming scenarios. Sometimes the truth hurts. But
avoiding it will hurt even more.

The EPA cites chapter, and some verse,
To show this warming's making matters worse.
It's getting worse no matter how you score it.
So here's the plan: They think we should ignore it.

Scum and foam were piled so high on the surface of streams and ponds in
the rural Illinois area neighboring the Inwood Dairy that it looked like
snow.

When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching
of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most thinking
Americans groaned about the growing influence of the antirational
religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent
evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas--or reason. He
hopped a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in
which he declared, "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching
English without grammar."

With its decision, Gould argued, "the board transported its jurisdiction
to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might
exclaim, 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real
world anymore.'" The reference to The Wizard of Oz took Gould
from behind the lectern and into the thick of the public debate. That
was where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A
paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda, and a historian
of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwinism and
the evolution of evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor was secure
in his academic place. But he believed that scientists also had a place
in the popular discourse of the day.

Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and
their allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a
post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking scientific
insights and social activism. With his unique talent for explaining
complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references to baseball,
choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey's chocolate bars, Gould
took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race,
class and gender discrimination. His 1982 book, The Mismeasure of
Man
, gave antiracist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in
the bitter debates over inherited intelligence and IQ testing.

In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles
Murray's book The Bell Curve, which claimed that race and class
differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged into
the battle anew. His review of The Bell Curve for The New
Yorker
savaged the book for advancing racially charged theories with
"no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." As
for right-wing politicos who promoted The Bell Curve, Gould
wrote, "I can only conclude that [the book's] success in gaining
attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time--a historical
moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social
programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries
cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed by low IQ
scores."

"What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of
science. He didn't talk down to people," recalled Lewontin, his Harvard
colleague and comrade. "He communicated about science in a way that did
not try to hide the complexities of the issues and that did not shy away
from the political side of these issues. Steve's great talent was his
ability to make sense of an issue at precisely the point when people
needed that insight."

Now that the Enron culprits have been caught red-handed, might not the media inquire of the President whether he takes any responsibility for nearly bankrupting California by refusing to come to

(Sung to the tune of "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma!)

The Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
Oh, the Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
They can bomb us when they please, we need gas for SUVs.
We're infidels, but we can make amends.
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.
They teach their kids the Protocols of Zion.
It's jail for women if their hair is showing.
They say that we're corrupt and that we're wicked.
We say, "Whatever. Keep that petrol flowing."
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.

The Bush Administration, urged by the oil industry, has embraced a corrupt regime.

Renewables are coming on strong, despite fat subsidies for oil and coal.

Blogs

The Mormon Church is a corporation, says author and essayist Terry Tempest Williams, and there is reason to fear a Romney presidency....

May 27, 2012

A sobering new report details how extreme heat will take a serious toll on humans this century if climate change isn’t slowed. 

May 24, 2012

The project would create more diesel for international consumers and less gasoline for American ones. 

May 22, 2012

We’ll never get to renewable energy if we keep offering gobs of cash to oil, coal and gas companies to continue business as usual.

May 18, 2012

Progressive legislators are mounting the first push to completely eliminate subsidies to the oil, gas and coal industries. 

May 10, 2012

An EPA administrator has swiftly resigned after getting flak for doing his job. 

April 30, 2012

Environmentalists fear a Romney presidency. 

April 26, 2012

Twenty-six years after the Chernobyl disaster, the US media have yet to print the pictures of Chernobyl now.

April 26, 2012

Could this be the last time Big Oil has to pay for its mistakes? 

April 23, 2012

 This week, a special investigation into BP's toxic legacy. Plus, I'm at the first ever New York City Green Festival, followed by the LA Times Book Festival. And, environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard on how to save Earth Day.

 

April 21, 2012