From New International, Vol.3 No.3, June 1936, pp.95-96.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Genetics and the Social Order
by Mark Graubard
127 pp. Tomorrow Publishers. New York. $0.75.
Genetics is a science of immense potential importance to society. The study of the part that heredity plays in determining the characteristics of plants and animals has already yielded a great quantity of practical and theoretical knowledge. The sterile controversies of the last generation over the relative importance of “heredity” and “environment” have today been replaced by the geneticist’s painstaking experiments. Starting in 1900 with the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws, the science of genetics has advanced from triumph to triumph until today it is one of the major branches of biology.
We can think of three ways in which genetics can affect “the social order”. First, it provides one of the main tools for the control of plant and animal husbandry. The range and power of this tool is indicated by the fact that, even in a highly industrialized country like the USA, 65% of the raw materials are agricultural products, and therefore subject to improvement through genetics. Second, the actual findings of the science provide abundant material for the refutation of reactionary race and false eugenic theories. Finally, the science of human genetics will tell us all we can know about human equality and inequality at the biological level.
The ability to reap the full benefits from the progress of the science of genetics depends as much upon the state of social development as upon the state of the science itself. The question of the relations between genetics and the social order therefore becomes one of paramount importance. To take but a single example. Varieties of corn have been developed by genetic experiment in this country that can produce twice the weight of kernel formerly possible. Other varieties give double the weight of leaf and stalk per acre. Corn production could be increased still another 25-50% by the use of small amounts of fertilizer. Nevertheless, this information cannot be applied on any considerable scale under capitalism without creating tremendous economic dislocations and social suffering. Instead of utilizing available scientific knowledge to step up production and improve its quality, the corn crop must be reduced and pigs slaughtered to maintain farm prices and profits. If all that is already known about the genetics of corn, chickens and milch cows could be utilized by our agricultural experts in a planned fashion, enough land and labor could be released to produce plenty of milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables to take care of the miserable deficiency of these vital foods in the diet of the people. This is scientifically possible, but economically impossible under the present system. A 43% increase in egg production would ruin the egg market. The fact that it would provide everyone with enough eggs is beside the point, so far as capitalism is concerned.
Both the pure and applied branches of genetics would make tremendous strides forward under socialism. There are only a few professors of genetics in England; there are only a few hundred in this country; but there are several thousand in the USSR. J.B.S. Haldane predicted in 1932, that while the USA led the world at that time in genetics, Russia would surpass us within ten years. The only direct research on the actual effects of natural selection (Darwin’s chief mechanism in accounting for evolution) is now being done in Russia. The largest collection of wheats, including some 23,000 varieties, is at Dyetskoye Selo. The only systematic research into the origins of grains, fruits, nuts and fibers is the work of the school of N.I. Vavilov. In short, the study of genetics and evolution is being pushed in the USSR as nowhere else in the world.
The backwardness of Soviet economy, combined with the advanced political regime compared to that of the capitalist countries, spurs the science forward. The need to develop the best wheat for each region, of getting the most milk from each kind of pasture, of replacing inedible with edible gorse, are of such pressing social and economic importance that no effort is spared and no expense stinted to advance the science. Agrobiology, which is partially based on genetics, is progressing by leaps and bounds. “Pure science” is also being encouraged, not as a separate but as an allied enterprise. What is pure today may well be applied tomorrow.
Another field in which confusion has long reigned but which is now being clarified by the science of genetics, is the theory of race. Reactionary thinkers are elaborating doctrines of racial superiority and differences as ideological supports for reactionary classes and governments. Age-old hates and fears are being played on by quotations starting with the assurance that “science tells us”. Half-baked scientists such as E.M. East, popular journalists such as A.E. Wiggam, Madison Grant, and Lothrop Stoddard occupy themselves, like the Nazi racists, with reenforcing and arousing race prejudices.
Modern genetic analysis in anthropology has reached one definite conclusion concerning the race question: that there is no such thing as a pure race because no so-called race breeds true to type. There is no group in the world today to which the term race has been applied that has not received significant infusions and mixtures from outside itself in historical times. Nor is there any group of humans that does not continually produce individuals differing among themselves so widely that the idea of a specific racial type has its meaning reduced to zero.
The third field in which genetics can be expected to have important things to say is that of human heredity. This science is extremely young. There are special difficulties in the way of its advance. Humans breed so slowly that an experiment with humans takes five hundred times as long as one with fruit flies. Controlled matings between humans are not practicable. Human families are so very small that hidden factors may not show. Most important of all, human beings are so sensitive to changes in their surroundings that it is generally impossible to weigh the effect of a genetic factor, if the individuals who carry it are living in widely different surroundings. Complicated statistical procedures are being developed to circumvent the first three of these difficulties. Already about a hundred hereditary factors and the manner of their inheritance in humans are known.
A good book or series of books dealing with these three aspects of genetics from the Marxian standpoint would be a real contribution. How does Graubard treat them in Genetics and the Social Order?
In the first place, the whole field of applied genetics is completely ignored. There is not a single reference in the whole 127 pages to plant and animal husbandry. And yet this is the avenue through which the science of genetics most directly and immediately affects the social order. It is surprising that this friend of the Soviet Union takes no notice of the fact that the USSR has more workers in this field than any other country.
Graubard gives an acceptable and fairly accurate popular account of the development of genetics following closely along the lines of such popular works as Dunn’s Variation and Heredity. There is however a howling error in the description of the two kinds of cell-division on pp.24-27 and a wrong diagram on p.25. Since these are not in any of the texts Graubard relies on, it must be his own contribution.
Even more unforgiveable is his evasive discussion of the race question. Although Graubard recognizes that the loose usage of the word in popular speech allows the racists to exploit it for reactionary ends, he does not directly counter their arguments. Instead he dodges the whole problem by the simple device of stating that the restricted meaning of the term in biology has no relevance in sociology.
Indeed he cannot attack the grounds on which the racists stand without thereby exposing himself. For he then proposes to substitute for the false and reactionary race theory the equally false and reactionary theory of nationality!
“Fortunately,” he tells us, “another unit has recently been suggested for genetics, a social unit, namely, nationality ... Nationality (sic) has been defined as a group of people occupying a contiguous geographic area, having a common economic life, common history, culture, language, tradition, hence a common psychological heritage (of a special kind).”
How opposed this notion is to the class theory of Marxism is apparent.
This theory of nationality serves to motivate his treatment of human genetics and to make a bow in the direction of Stalinism. Having overlooked the progress of plant and animal husbandry in the USSR, he chooses to chatter about the liberated nationalities as follows:
“As new scientific and cultural occupations were introduced to these liberated nationalities, it was found that the shepherds, peasants and workers, oppressed for centuries, contained among them the same number of biologically endowed poets, physicists, tennis champions, aviators, inventors, teachers, etc., as any other group with a hundred or two hundred years of industrial development behind it.”
This is interesting, if true, but Graubard bring forward no statistics to prove it.
There still remains a need for a good book on this subject written by a geneticist with some training in Marxism.
Last updated on 2.8.2006