Nothing is more galling to scientists than outsiders questioning their
When Rio hosted the first Earth Summit in 1992, there was so much
goodwill surrounding the event that it was nicknamed, without irony, the
Summit to Save the World. This week in Johannesburg, at the follow-up
conference known as Rio + 10, nobody is claiming that the World Summit
on Sustainable Development can save the world--the question is whether
the summit can even save itself.
The sticking point is what UN bureaucrats call "implementation" and the
rest of us call "doing something." Much of the blame for the
"implementation gap" is being placed at the doorstep of the United
States. It was George W. Bush who abandoned the only significant
environmental regulations that came out of the Rio conference, the Kyoto
Protocol on climate change. It was Bush who decided not to come to
Johannesburg (even his father showed up in Rio), signaling that the
issues being discussed here--from basic sanitation to clean energy--are
low priorities for his Administration. And it is the US delegation that
is most belligerently blocking all proposals that involve either
directly regulating multinational corporations or dedicating significant
new funds to sustainable development.
But the Bush-bashing is too easy: The summit isn't failing because of
anything happening now in Johannesburg. It's failing because the entire
process was booby-trapped from the start.
When Canadian entrepreneur and diplomat Maurice Strong was appointed to
chair the Rio summit ten years ago, his vision was of a massive
gathering that brought all the "stakeholders" to the table--not just
governments but also nongovernmental organizations (environmentalists,
indigenous and lobby groups) as well as multinational corporations.
Strong's vision allowed for more participation from civil society than
any UN conference before, at the same time as it raised unprecedented
amounts of corporate funds for the summit (it helped that Coca-Cola
donated its marketing team and Swatch produced a limited-edition Earth
Summit watch). But the sponsorship had a price. Corporations came to Rio
with clear conditions: They'd embrace ecologically sustainable practices
but only voluntarily--through nonbinding codes and "best practices"
partnerships with NGOs and governments. In other words, when the
business sector came to the table in Rio, direct regulation of business
was pushed off.
In Johannesburg, these "partnerships" have passed into self-parody, with
the conference center chock-a-block with displays for BMW "clean cars"
and billboards for De Beers diamonds announcing Water Is Forever. The
summit's main sponsor is Eskom, South Africa's soon-to-be-privatized
national energy company. According to a recent study, under Eskom's
restructuring 40,000 households are losing access to electricity each
And this cuts to the heart of the real debate about the summit. The
World Business Council for Sustainable Development, a corporate lobby
group founded in Rio, is insisting that the route to sustainability is
the same trickle-down formula already being imposed by the World Trade
Organization and the International Monetary Fund: Poor countries must
make themselves hospitable to foreign investment, usually by privatizing
basic services, from water to electricity to healthcare. As in Rio,
these corporations are pushing for voluntary "partnerships" rather than
"command and control" regulations.
But these arguments sound different from a decade ago. Post-Enron, it's
difficult to believe that companies can be trusted even to keep their
own books, let alone save the world. And unlike a decade ago, the
economic model of laissez-faire development is being militantly rejected
by popular movements around the world, particularly in Latin America but
also here in South Africa.
This time around, many of the "stakeholders" aren't at the official
table but out in the streets or organizing countersummit conferences to
plot very different routes to development: debt cancellation, an end to
the privatization of water and electricity, reparations for apartheid
abuses, affordable housing, land reform. The most ambitious is the Week
of the Landless, a parallel event arguing that unfulfilled promises to
introduce substantive land reform--in South Africa and across the
postcolonial developing world--have been the single greatest barrier to
sustainable development globally.
Key to these movements is that they are no longer willing simply to talk
about their demands--they're acting on them. In the past two years,
South Africa has experienced a surge in direct action, with groups like
the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee, the Landless People's Movement,
Durban's Concerned Citizens' Forum and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction
Campaign organizing to resist evictions, to claim unproductive land and
to reconnect cut-off water and electricity in the townships.
A mass demonstration is planned for August 31, but the fate of the march
is by no means certain. The South African government appears to have
decided that if nothing else comes of it, the summit is at least an
opportunity "to change misconceptions about safety and security in South
Africa...[and] attract the attention of foreign tourists and investors,"
in the words of Provincial Police Commissioner Perumal Naidoo.
What this means in practice is that while street signs welcome delegates
to "feel the pulse" of "the Sensational City," Sandton, the ultrarich
suburb where the conference is being held, has been transformed into a
military zone, complete with "mega search park" and remote spy planes
patrolling the skies. All protests are confined to a 1.8-kilometer
"struggle pen," as many are calling it, and even there, only
police-permitted marches are allowed.
Vendors and beggars have been swept from the streets, residents of
squatter camps have been evicted (many have been relocated to less
visible sites, far from busy roads). Moss Moya, a township resident
facing eviction from his home of eighteen years, holds out little hope
that the summit will help South Africa's poor. "If they are going to
help us," he said, "they need to see us."
But when Moya and his neighbors held a rally to resist the attempts to
relocate them behind a grove of trees, the police cracked down, and
Moya, a former ANC supporter, was shot in the mouth with a rubber
bullet, knocking out six of his teeth. When he went to file a complaint
with the police, he was thrown in jail.
Moya and some 1,000 other township residents decided to take their
struggle to downtown Johannesburg, holding a peaceful rally outside the
offices of the Premier of Gauteng, the province in which Johannesburg is
located. Right underneath a sign that announces, The People of Gauteng
Welcome WSSD Delegates to the Smart Province, seventy-seven
demonstrators were arrested, including the entire leadership of the
Landless People's Movement. (All but one--a US citizen, still facing
deportation--have since been released.)
On August 24, police even attacked a candlelight "freedom of expression
march," held to protest these and other mass arrests. The spontaneously
organized march was headed to a downtown prison, but before the crowd of
1,000 local and international activists had walked a block, riot police
surrounded them and barricaded the road. Without warning, stun grenades
were fired at the marchers, injuring three.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development isn't going to save the
world; it merely offers an exaggerated mirror of it. In the gourmet
restaurants of Sandton, delegates are literally dining out on their
concern for the poor. Meanwhile, outside the gates, poor people are
being hidden away, assaulted and imprisoned for what has become the
iconic act of resistance in an unsustainable world: refusing to
In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement.
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
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
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.
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
"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."
Arriving in San Francisco after a ten-hour drive through a snowstorm, Lucas Benitez sounds earnest and exhausted.
Organic farming critic Dennis Avery is supported by generous contributions from several chemical companies, all of whom profit from the sale of products prohibited in organic production.
The country was founded on the idea of keeping religion and politics separate--but you'd hardly know this by the way the idea of the Almighty has intruded itself into political and social issues of the day.
An Italian answer to globalization.
Should the question of personhood at the embryo stage really be decided by politicians?