Friday, October 24, 2014

Lewontin and Free Will

Jonathan Lee
Prof. Adam Johns
Seminar in Composition
October 21, 2014

            Do we have free will?  Do our wishes and desires have any bearing on our destiny, or even our simplest actions?  This question is generally confined to the realms of religion and 18th century philosophy.  However, the question is of utmost importance within the context of geneticist Richard Lewontin’s book Biology of Ideology.  The main focus of the book is the doctrine of what Lewontin refers to as “biological determinism,” that is, the idea that our fate is encoded in our genes, ranging from our individual characteristics to society as a whole.  This doctrine is consistent with that of hard determinism, wherein all events are the result of preceding causes and preconditions, and thus inevitable.  Such a position disallows any notion of free will, and is thus the perfect ideology for societal legitimation.  Among the central themes of Biology as Ideology is that the tenets of biological determinism vie to invalidate free will and the human capacity to plan environmental change for collective betterment.  Naturally, Lewontin is staunchly opposed to such a worldview.
            USA Today, in an article entitled “Why you don’t really have free will,” defines free will as “When faced with two or more alternatives, it's your ability to freely and consciously choose one, either on the spot or after some deliberation.”  The article goes on to assert that “free will is an illusion,” describing humans as a collection of “meat computers” whose brain cells are products of their genes and environment.  Such an analogy is comparable Richard Dawkins’ description of humanity as “’lumbering robots’ whose genes ‘created us body and mind’” (13).  This attitude is quite effective at legitimizing the societal status quo.  If everything is predetermined from the outset, why bother?  Whatever happens is certain, imminent.  As Lewontin puts it, “if 3 billion years of evolution have made us what we are, do we really think that a hundred days of revolution will change us?” (90) Such an attitude promotes passivity, allowing the extant regime to remain in power over an apathetic population.  Although USA Today is describing merely the actions of individuals, the claim is quite far-reaching, as it is assumed that the nature of society is merely the sum of its individual components.  This determinism has been made airtight by science, and is thus unquestionable.  It is for this reason that Lewontin goes to such lengths to undermine this legitimating apparatus.
            Lewontin argues that humans differ from animals in that “they can plan the changes that will occur,” as well as that “human beings should want to make a world in which they can live happy, healthful, and reasonably long lives” (118-119).  It can be assumed that Lewontin is in agreeance with the supposition that all can be understood within a cause and effect relationship.  In this sense, Lewontin would, as would most scientists, be considered a determinist.  However, it is hard determinism which Lewontin disdains.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who is quoted in “A Story in Textbooks,” argued that determinism and free will are compatible.  Man has the capacity to desire something, and then actualize the vision.  According to Hobbes, this qualifies as free will, even though the desire is the effect of factors outside the man’s control. 

When USA Today writes that free will is an illusion, it’s missing the point. Negating free will is equivalent to depriving individuals, of whom society is composed, of their agency.  The notion that every event is predetermined disenfranchises the populace by equating the scientific understanding of the universe, i.e. determinism, with man’s inability to actualize his desires for a better world.  Lewontin says that we can “change the world extremely rapidly and, by willful activity, change the world in various ways that we may think beneficial” (115).  It is clear to see that Lewontin is a firm believer in free will, and the reason he is so concerned with biological determinism is that it imprisons humanity, deliberately curtailing its potential to better the world for the collective good.

1 comment:

  1. As always, this is clearly written from beginning to end, with lots of nimble passages and good use of background knowledge. Other than that, I'm torn. Part of me says that it's great that you zeroed in on a simple (I mean, it was in USA today), ideologically charged article and explained at a high level how Lewontin would respond. Part of me feels like you phoned it in on this one, because this essay lacks ambition. What's absent is the complexity of Lewontin. At one moment you embrace a hint of complexity, when you write very well about Lewontin and causality - but rather than articulating *his* version of freedom (which I would argue is more social and less individual - a peculiar reversal fo the normal), and how it emerges from an interesection of biological and philosophical traditions, you are satisfied with briefly categorizing him. You even miss a good opportunity to directly attack the ideology of USA today?

    Maybe I'm carping. This is clear, directy, well written, and has strong moments. But it lacks the ambition that shines through in your best work.


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