Socialist versus capitalist logic


Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture & Health

Richard Lewontin & Richard Levins

Monthly Review Press, 2007

390 pages, US$22.95

Available from

The Logic of Life: Uncovering the New Economics of Everything

By Tim Harford

Little Brown, 2008

264 pages, $35

In Biology Under the Influence Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, both stalwarts of the US Marxist left and regular contributors to Capitalism, Nature, Socialism magazine have collected together columns and other essays dissecting the dual nature of science both as the general development of human knowledge and as a commodified product of capitalist industry.

Tim Harford, on the other hand, is a hired hand of capitalism. His book The Logic of Life is the logic of life under neoliberalism and no alternatives may be entered into.

There is an epic sweep to Lewontin and Levins' worldview. They stand against obscurantist anti-science and also against what they call "scientism", which they define as "the claim that other people's ideas are superstition while ours are uniquely objective knowledge verified by numbers".

They also slice into postmodernism, which emphasises the fallibility of science in order to deny the validity of knowledge and reifies the unique, refusing to see patterns.

Their scope ranges from chaos theory to analysing complexity itself. They say that the great errors of both theory and practice have been made where complexity was unavoidable.

"Thus pesticides increased pests. Antibiotics created new diseases. Infectious diseases did not disappear but have reemerged among humans, animals and crops. Economic prosperity has increased poverty."

While the essays certainly climb the peaks of theory they are always grounded in solving the problems of human survival. Lewontin and Levins have participated in scientific discussions in Cuba since the mid-'60s and have witnessed the growth of organic farming techniques there.

The last five essays pull all the theory together by examining how Cuba has survived and progressed. In an essay titled "How Cuba is Going Ecological" they pose the question, "While the world environmental problems continue to worsen despite intensive research and rhetoric, how come a poor third world country besieged by a hostile neighbour has been able to embark on an ecological pathway that combines sustainability, equity, and quality of life goals?"

The short answer, they say, is popular power; "feedback mechanisms in the society favour ecology". This because the starting point for decision-making is human need.

Under capitalism, corporations actively resist protecting the biosphere "with an urgency to defend not only their profits but their property rights". This amounts to "anti-ecological negative feedback" using claims that environmentalists are "going too far".

In Cuba, there are no "lobbyists, public relations firms, lawyers and hired witnesses" to prop up "greedy institutions".

In The Logic of Life, Harford refers to many of the same theories as Lewontin and Levins, but his brief is to make the unacceptable appear reasonable.

Thus "tournament theory" explains why CEOs are so vastly over-paid, "game theory" explains addictions and he waxes lyrical about why Mexican prostitutes bargain with customers wanting unprotected sex.

His world view and approach to facts is displayed when he charmingly writes: "While Australia leapt from being perhaps the poorest place in the world to perhaps one of the richest in just a couple of centuries, that record is a little tarnished by the fact that most of the original inhabitants died of smallpox."

Through hundreds of pages he remains cheerfully ignorant of a critique of capitalism. "Capitalism rules, OK!" should be the sub-title of this book, and it is not OK.