Jonathan Marks’ Why I am Not a Scientist

Why I am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge.
Jonathan Marks
University of California Press, 2009.
325 pgs, $22.95, paperback.

I began to know the work of Jonathan Marks a few years ago, when he came to the University of Minnesota for a colloquium visit. His presentation, as I recall, focused on the inability of theories of evolution to substitute for religious beliefs that provide individuals with a sense of meaning. When biological anthropologists do foray into the realm of providing meaning, they routinely use science to legitimate racist, sexist, and classist ideologies – sociobiology and evolutionary psychology being the latest iterations. For me, as an anthropologist of science and medicine, it seemed perfectly sensible and non-controversial. I was surprised, then, that some of the biologists in the room took great umbrage with Marks’ presentation. One scholar’s commonsense is another scholar’s radical critique.

I mention all of this because, as an anthropologist of science and medicine, much of what Marks presents in Why I am Not a Scientist: Anthropology and Modern Knowledge, comes across in the same vein. For me, it seems utterly reasonable, whereas for others – those who seek meaning in theories of evolution – it may be deeply irritating. But Why I am Not a Scientist is not for them; rather, like Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian, which Marks’ book is named for, Why I am Not a Scientist is intended for a more general audience. As such, it serves as a survey of major trends in biological anthropology and the anthropology of science, and is presented in an informal, often humorous fashion. The first four chapters in the book situate science socially and culturally, the last few chapters examine the role of science in legitmating colonial rule and nineteenth and twentieth century scientific racism, sexism and classism. The middle chapters of the book – which focus on the reoccurrence of creationist critiques of human evolution, the uses of scientific fraud, and the problems associated with “bogus science” – are probably those of most interest to anthropologists of science, and cultural anthropologists more generally.

Marks’ main focus in “The Problem of Creationism” is that the sciences’ aims are in explaining laws of nature, whereas religion takes as its aim the explication of where laws come from. In other words, scientists should be more interested in explaining how evolution has led to Homo sapiens standing upright and having the capability for speech rather than why Homo sapiens stand upright and communicate using symbolic forms. As Marks sees it, advocates of creationism are not so interested in disputing laws of nature as they are in positing that these laws of nature emanate from a the Intelligent Design of a divine being. Scientists can take the moral high road and simply not engage with the debate, because when they do engage with religious fundamentalists they implicitly accept that creationist logics are worth engaging with – that they have as much merit (or nearly so) as the theories of evolution and natural selection that scientists promote. The difference now, as Marks points out, is that rather famous scientists – like Richard Dawkins – have taken it upon themselves to debunk religion, misapprehending their knowledge of nature’s laws as proofs against nature’s meaning. The very question of nature meaning much of anything is not something scientists have the tools to address, and, as Marks suggests, your plumber’s opinion of the subject is interchangeable with any scientist’ – they have equal expertise in the field. The point, as Marks summarizes, is this: “What we need is not to condemn the masses for their ignorance or rejection of evolution….Rather, we need the scientific community to differentiate for the booboisie [H. L. Mencken’s term] unambiguously between the rational, naturalistic study of life…and the crap that invariably also gets attached to Darwin’s name [e.g. Dawkin’s critiques of religion]” (126). Marks continues, arguing that “This is not to say that science should try to render people’s lives meaningful…but rather [to acknowledge] that science cannot reliably provide this service” (128). In other words, we should stick to our disciplines, and narrow our opinions to that which our data can actually support. Reasonable enough, until you come to the realization that science is always an ideological project, and subject to the same human foibles and follies that all social endeavors are. Any discipline, in this view, necessarily must shrink back from becoming too general in its claims.

In the succeeding two chapters, Marks focuses on, first, amateur and unorthodox approaches to science, and then turns to the place of scientific frauds. The problem that Marks is struggling with is this: Who should be listened to and why? This leads to concerns with the mechanisms by which knowledge is produced, disseminated, and recognized as being reputable. The problems, as Marks presents the reader with, is that scholarly production – through the regular channels of peer-review and in university laboratories – does not necessarily lead to the best research, nor the most rigorously tested findings, and often favors those in already established positions of power. The replication of scientific findings, is, in other words, something most often left to high school science classes, graduate students in their mentor’s lab, and professional competitors; each of these groups are predisposed to find what they already expect to see, the last of them more likely to find contrary rather than supporting evidence. Scientists, like the rest of us, are likely to see what they already believe, and the modern institutions that support and disseminate scientific research – universities and journals – are more likely to support those in positions of power than they are to acknowledge the validity of claims from laboratory whistleblowers who claim malfeasance and scientists who contradict dominant paradigms. This is especially problematic when science and politics intermingle, as in the case of eugenics during the first half of the twentieth century: With most of the eminent biologists in the U.S. and Europe supporting eugenics, there was very little space for disagreement, either within universities or in print. Moreover, there are those who utilize their power or knowledge to make claims in fields where they have little to no expertise (like Dawkins, or Bruce Lahn), as well as those who fabricate evidence to make claims that utilize their expertise, but extend it to realms where they previously had none (as in the case of Piltdown Man supporting British ideologies of cultural superiority), but if science worked as it should – honest peer-review, claims limited by discipline – these outliers might be effectively curtailed. Thus, what Marks argues we need is not to punish the fraudulent scientists or ridicule those that hold opinions that vary from dominant ideologies, but rather to acknowledge that science is social and cultural, and to align scientific practice and our expectations of scientists with these limitations.

Marks leaves readers with a provocative parting shot: Human nature is not something that needs to be thought about, but rather “unthought” (274). Reasonable enough. But what I found myself wanting by the end of Why I am Not a Scientist is the radical critique – something that motivates science and anthropology, rather than hobbling it. Human nature, after all, has been the subject of critique by cultural anthropologists for decades – including scholars like Nancy Scheper-Hughes (on maternal instinct) and Margaret Lock (on menopause). Lock, in light of Marks’ book, is especially interesting: Her concept of “local biologies” has gained little traction within anthropology or science, and, as such, might be the kind of paradigm setting concept that Marks could move forward with – a concept that at once unsettles the universality of “human nature” and also incorporates assumptions about environment and heredity that acknowledge the importance of Darwinian thinking in anthropology. In his favor, Marks does make mention of “cyborg” anthropology, scholarship that found impetus in the work of Donna Haraway, and assumes that human natures and human cultures are irreducible and inseparable – that assume, in other words, that human nature is always cultural, and vice versa. But, following Haraway’s recent work on “companion species” (which, itself, takes inspiration from Lynn Margulis’ theories of symbiotic relationships between species), this position is already a conservative one. The more radical position Marks could have taken would be one which embraces – or at least puts to the test – these other trends in anthropological thinking, which both disrupt assumptions about human nature and accept evolution. They also push at the boundaries of science (and science’s boundaries as they have historically been established) and replace anthropocentrism with a less comfortable proposition that understanding human natures and cultures depends on a much broader lens than any of the sciences or humanities has provided in the past. In the end, then, Marks leaves readers with a sense of what cannot (or should not) be done, but not a sense of what could be done. For that, we need a scientist willing to turn his or her insight and acumen on these troubling and peripheral trends in the sciences and to aid in figuring out what sorts of insights and futures they might provide. Why I am Not a Scientist is a useful intervention and corrective; for anthropologists, and readers more generally, who are looking for new frameworks for scientific and humanistic thought, however, they will have to look elsewhere.

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