Marek Kohn

Marek Kohn

Marek Kohn is a writer who lives in Brighton. His most recent book, A Reason For Everything: Natural Selection and the English Imagination, looks at the key thinkers behind the development of evolutionary theory in Britain, and why these ideas have thrived better in Britain than in other countries. His previous books have looked at drug culture, race, and the evolution of the human mind. Marek Kohn was talking to Stuart Watkins and Dave Flynn.

RSB: In your most recent book, A Reason For Everything, you talk about the different impact Darwinian thinking has had in Britain compared with the rest of Europe and the US. How do you account for this difference?

Marek Kohn: The distinguishing feature of English evolutionary thought has been its attitude to adaptation. An adaptationist tends to see the work of natural selection in every aspect of an organism - a reason for everything. You see bands on a snail's shell: you wonder what good the bands do for the snail. And you go out into the field, and you look for possible reasons for them. In the case of the snails there's a camouflage effect - different coloured or banded shells are better suited to different habitats, such as leaf litter or grass. Not the whole story but a robust example of English adaptationism in practice.

The palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould called this the British "hang-up", and his colleague the geneticist Richard Lewontin said that it arose in large part from the fascination for butterflies, snails, birds and gardens typical of the pre-war upper middle class from whose ranks these scientists mostly came. True enough, though it doesn't acknowledge the fascination with natural history that used to run right across the social spectrum. Also one can see its roots in Victorian natural history, which of course is where all this began. As Alfred Russel Wallace observed, it was a fascination with species and the subtle distinctions between them - beetle-collecting - that allowed him and Darwin to realise, independently, how natural selection works.

If by contrast your vision is shaped, as that of their counterparts on the continent was, by idealist philosophy, you are unlikely to see what is going on in nature. Idealism is concerned with ideal types and therefore discounts variation as 'noise'. You need to be fascinated by variation to see natural selection, because variations are what nature selects.

The British enthusiasm for natural history may also underlie differences in scientific practice. In France, by contrast, field biology never flourished because science was seen as a formal discipline that required the proper setting of the laboratory. So, we have a tradition of natural history and a tendency towards empiricism rather than idealism. Britain also had a more accommodating mainstream religious environment, which adjusted to evolution with relatively little difficulty. And in the 20th century the natural history was combined with mathematical analysis, demonstrating the power of natural selection.

RSB: Are we in Britain therefore right to have been more receptive?

MK: The record of English evolutionary thought demonstrates conclusively that we are, in terms of biological knowledge and theory. But the social and ethical ideas of one or two of the thinkers I discussed also illustrate the disturbing results of an all-pervasive belief in natural selection.

RSB: So you don't think this has had a negative impact on, say, more philosophical and/or postmodernist approaches to questions of human society and culture?

MK: Facing up to natural selection is an ongoing challenge. I think it's regrettable that it has developed into a kind of cold war between scholarly blocs.

RSB: In your superb earlier book, As We Know It: Coming To Terms With An Evolved Mind, you said that we should "learn to stop worrying and love sociobiology", and that the discipline has "too much potential to be left to the sociobiologists". What did you mean? Can it really be safe to go back into the dangerous waters where Darwinism and the social sciences mix?

MK: We're evolved organisms and our nature is evolved too. We need to accept that in order to understand how individuals and groups behave. It's how I think about behaviour at the everyday level and on the broadest scale.

But sociobiologists for their part need to accept that the social sciences may have insights into how human societies and institutions work. Sociobiologists are endlessly and often justifiably indignant about the obfuscation with which their proposals are greeted from the other camp, but never seem to see any great problem in their own indifference to, or contempt for, any discipline outside the sciences. And most importantly, I think they should accept that their work is practiced in and influenced by its social context.

If Darwinism and the social sciences actually did mix, the waters would become a lot less dangerous. Though that's not to say that our evolved minds are how we'd like them to be.

RSB: Why do you think that progressive thinkers have, in general, failed to take this more positive approach to sociobiology?

MK: People want to believe that humans are different. They want to believe that there is a separate domain, outside biology, for understanding humans. And they have also grown up, since World War 2, with a deep-rooted sense that applying biology to people is evil. We have thus arrived at a post-war settlement that established separate spheres of influence for science and other fields of scholarship. Much of what's going on is turf wars.

RSB: But aren't there limits to Darwinism? Do you agree with your friend Kenan Malik that there are some things science just cannot tell us about human nature?

MK: I don't think there's a line beyond which Darwinism has nothing to say. In any given question I would always, I think, see Darwinian processes at work, but these are best at explaining general effects. They may not be much use for understanding individual cases or subjective experience, although they may well be a necessary perspective on these.

I suspect that in practice the limits of Darwinism may be set by the willingness of its practitioners to synthesise their insights with those of other forms of understanding. I mean, you could go through novels showing how characters illustrate evolved psychological patterns of behaviour, but that would be a pretty banal exercise on its own.

RSB: Do we really have "stone age minds", as evolutionary psychology suggests?

MK: I'd like to think so, in one respect. Among other things, the idea of a 'stone age mind' is a device that addresses perhaps the biggest historical obstacle to human sociobiology: the discrediting of the assumption that different population groups - races - vary in evolved mental capacities. If you imply that the mind stopped evolving in the stone age, you head off suggestions that different mental capacities evolved in the different groups that differentiated in the last 10,000 years or so.

Evolutionary psychology (which is a particular form of sociobiology) has been distinguished by its emphasis on human universals, but it is next door to the hereditarians who are concerned with differences in mental capacities. It seems to me that the distinction between the two approaches is being removed.

RSB: In A Reason For Everything, you make the intriguing point, outlined above, that the best evolutionary thinkers have been those who 'got their hands dirty' in the field. These scientists were less likely to get carried away with abstract theory and more likely to stumble upon the truth because they had their feet on the ground in the practical work of the real world. This sounds like a very Marxist argument! Would you call yourself a 'Marxist' or 'socialist'?

MK: The point I was making there was that field biology - going out and studying organisms in the field, rather than in the laboratory - was a fundamental and distinguishing element in the British approach to the study of evolution. As it happens, the one prominent Marxist in the series I wrote about, J.B.S. Haldane, made his contributions through mathematical calculations and wasn't a natural historian. On the other hand he was spectacularly practical, exposing himself to poison gas and potentially lethal extremes of cold and pressure in studies related to trench and submarine warfare. I'm certainly not a Marxist. I have the 'All that is solid melts into air ...' quote from the Communist Manifesto on the wall above my desk, but that's about it.

I do, however, call myself a socialist. For a long time I wondered whether that meant anything more than a nostalgic wave in the direction of what I believed in when I was a student, but since I became aware of the work of Richard Wilkinson and others on the effects of social relations on health, I have recovered my confidence in the term.

For me it involves the understanding that broadly equal social relations are good for health and that unequal ones are harmful. This can be measured right across the scale of severity, in deaths from heart disease to rates of cold infections; it relates to broader measures of individual and social well-being, such as a sense of trust in others.

The implication is that we need to reassert the importance of equality and rediscover the fundamental value of social solidarity. It implies examining how these human needs can be reconciled with the need to produce wealth efficiently. It means recognising how the need for social solidarity is expressed in contemporary political forms. And it means prising these values from the dead hand of Bolshevism.

RSB: Who is Richard Wilkinson?

MK: He’s a professor of social epidemiology at Nottingham University. His work looks at the body of evidence that inequality is harmful to health in itself, not just because it implies different levels of wealth or resources. The classic findings are in the 'Whitehall studies', conducted by Michael Marmot and his colleagues in London. They found that the lowest ranking civil servants were several times more likely to die of heart disease than those in the highest grades. The usual suspect lifestyle factors such as smoking accounted for only about a third of the risk, so the lowest grades appeared to be about three times likelier to die of heart disease because of their position in the hierarchy.

The mechanism researchers like these favour is that the damage results from being in a chronic (that is, long-term) fight-or-flight mode. When an animal, human or otherwise, comes under threat, it will go into an emergency mode in which resources are diverted from activities such as bodily maintenance and immune defence, into escape or combat mechanisms. Staying in emergency mode incurs the costs of neglecting the activities that have been inhibited. Being subordinate - always under a kind of threat, and limited in options - is thought to induce this chronic state of emergency.

Control over one's job seems to be a key factor here, so the most obvious things to do involves restructuring work to increase job control. But that's just the start. This really is a transformative way of looking at what's wrong with affluent societies. It also suggests that what is good for the poor is good for those who are materially comfortable too: that globally the interests of the genuinely impoverished can be aligned with those of the majority of people in developed market democracies, and that within the latter, it should be possible to build coalitions that unite populations in the pursuit of truly healthy societies.

RSB: You say you’re not a Marxist. Does that mean that, in your view, the “dialectical biology” of people like Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin is wrong? Can there be such a thing as dialectical biology? Could it properly be called science?

MK: John Maynard Smith, the other one of my subjects who went through a Marxist phase, studied genetics and came to realise there was "something deeply undialectical' about genes. He was taught that 'genes control development', which irked him: as a dialectical thinker, he thought that development should influence genes in turn. But John Maynard Smith had to accept that nature doesn't care whether it is dialectical or not. Where it is, then biology might be dialectical; everywhere else the approach would be metaphysics, not science.

RSB: What philosophers of science inform your work, if any?

MK: I generally just ask myself "What would John Maynard Smith have said?"

RSB: And what about books generally: what are your favourite books? Do you read widely outside of science?

MK: Of course: I'm a writer, not a scientist. But not as widely as I should. If it's obscure, fictional and central European, it's for me! Mostly this places me somewhere between the wars, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire (the collected works of Joseph Roth) but I was delighted to find that this lost world of Central Europe between the wars can be represented by a writer (Pawel Huelle's Mercedes Benz) facing the future and contemplating what actually-existing, market-democratic freedom actually means. The story is set in Poland not long after the transition to market democracy and revolves around the narrator’s efforts to learn to drive. There’s a wonderful opening scene where he gets into an uncomfortable position between a tram and a lorry, and with the drivers bearing down on him turns to his instructor and tells her about a dramatic motoring incident that happened to his grandmother in 1925. So he’s trying to make progress, to modernize, but he still needs to call upon the past. Although driving is the archetypal capitalist freedom, in practice it entails submission to endless constraints, and history is not the same as progress. Besides its metaphorical strength, the theme of driving provides a highly effective means to reflect on the past without sinking into nostalgia. (See Marek's review of Mercedes Benz.)

Favourite quote: the first sentence of Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, which might well be the desert island book choice too. The quote is: “Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-- the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-- the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy December, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults."

RSB: Anything else you'd like to say?

MK: I have to pause for breath here but there's plenty more on my website including a number of articles that explore and perhaps clarify themes I've alluded to here.

RSB: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!

MK: And thanks for your interest.

-- Stuart Watkins (22/03/2006)

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