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The All Too Human Behavioral Geneticists

A review of Aaron Panofsky’s Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a social theorist of our generation, possessed of rich data and much sociological insight, must be in want of Bourdieu. In what follows, I will try to explicate why I think the ironic meaning of this statement is as true as its literal one. I will do so by reading Aaron Panofsky’s text Misbehaving Science in the context of three other books: (1) Pierre Bourdieu’s The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger; (2) Michel Foucault’sThe Order of Things; and (3) Edmund Husserl’s The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology.

I

Understood in its most direct or available register of writing, Panofsky’s argument is a refinement and improvement on Bourdieu’s classic argument about the politics of knowledge. Misbehaving Science is an argument about how to do a sociology of knowledge, which also answers key questions about its “case,” much as Bourdieu did in his own text from 1975 and then in the book published in 1988. In Political Ontology, Bourdieu endeavored to show that Heidegger’s thought constituted a “conservative revolution” in philosophy, in the strict sense of a set of inversions and interventions made on the terms of philosophy, that nonetheless, in its articulation, was homologous to the political revolution from the right that overtook Germany. Heidegger’s revolt, against Kant, was the philosophical equivalent of the cultural politics of the time; in particular, that of a certain generation of conservatives who reached for an understanding of authentic Germanic culture over and against both liberal politics and market economics.

Bourdieu proposed that it is just as wrong to explain Heidegger’s thought in strictly political terms as it would be to do so in strictly philosophical terms; to instead do both and/or neither, Bourdieu reconstructed the lifeworld and meanings of the proletarianized academicians who would follow Heidegger; and he also articulated how for Heidegger, as for others, “a philosophical strategy is at one and the same time a political strategy at the heart of philosophical field.” This was, as is well-known, an important starting point for field theory; but, as Panofsky himself points out, field analysis has been not been well-received by scholars in the sociology of science or in science and technology studies, especially those that focus on natural science. Hence, we have the most foregrounded ambition of Panofsky’s book.

Panofsky maintains the relevance of field theory for understanding the production of scientific knowledge precisely by refining and in a certain sense reinventing this Bourdieusian instinct. To be sure, they both begin with a similar gambit. Instead of transcending the opposition between “philosophy for philosophy’s sake” and politics in the sense of party affiliation and approval of, for example, the far right, Bourdieu develops his account of fields; likewise, Panofsky proposes to transcend the opposition between earnest belief in the truth of scientific results about genetics and behavior, on the one hand, and political calculation about the manipulability of scientific results for the achievement of political aims, on the other. Yet in an important way, Panofsky also focuses on the stakes of field formation, maintenance, and autonomy; tracing in granular detail a convoluted and eventful history. He is thus able to show — especially around the politics of the American state and the racial achievement gap in education — that the struggle, in the archipelago of behavioral genetics, was always for a certain kind of reproduction — not of the politics of race, nor even of the politics of natural science, but of the possibility of behavioral genetics itself as a field that is simultaneously not quite a field.

This, particularly in so far as he is able to grasp, in Bourdieusian terms, the fluctuations of a field that is only partially fielded, is a great empirical leap forward, because rather than assuming or positing a field, he actually traces “fieldness” itself as varying, with a series of fascinating consequences.

II

This Bourdieusian account is certainly an advance in knowledge, both empirically and theoretically. But one wonders if, in fact, there is a subtheme that could have been a major theme. As one reads Misbehaving Science, one is haunted by the way in which behavioral genetics would appear, despite its ambitions to the contrary, to embody the contradictions recognizable in any human science. That is to say, though Panofsky is at pains to describe the archipelago structure of behavioral genetics in terms of its stark differences from more “settled” and traditionally fielded natural scientific endeavors such as neuroscience, what appears in the text, over and over again, are the contradictions of a kind of knowledge that takes the human subject — in the many philosophical meanings of that term — as its point of investigation. The story of the text, then, appears to affirm not Bourdieu’s theory and system of analysis but rather Foucault’s histories of knowledge. In particular, in The Order of Things and The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault posited that human sciences within the modern episteme would suffer a set of repeated contradictions deriving from the way in which they had, at their center, the “empirico-transcendental doublet” of the subject.

To give just one example of this, Panofsky shows how, with the advent of molecular genetics, behavioral geneticists went from insisting that they were the hard-core scientific-mechanistic reductionists, over and against what they claimed to be the nonsense emergentism of social sciences like psychology and sociology, to being holists who insisted that only they could understand the “whole person and the person’s behaviors” — that only they understood the behavior of the person over and against the reductionism of the molecular geneticists. Panofsky has an explanation for this rather astounding contradiction — and many like it. He sees it as a specific kind of strategy to generate capital and maintain expert scientific authority in precarious circumstances. Behavior geneticists, he says, engage in a strategy of “giving the field away,” thus pursuing scientific power by generosity, and also in “hitting them over the head” — that is, adopting swaggering personality of simply refuting social scientists as beholden to liberal politics rather than to science, and doing so in a provocative way in mass media publications.

But I worry that what is happening here is actually a much more “congenital,” — and I use the term metaphorically, if also advisedly — and recognizable, doubling of the empirical and the normative that is, in fact, constitutive of human science in the modern era. It would thus be not field struggles per se that explain why the fights of behavior genetics, and its continual veering towards anomie, look so much like those of sociology, or even of a supposedly more settled field like economics. That is, it is not the lack of high barriers for entry to the field that is the explanation of why behavioral genetics misbehaves; it is, rather, the epistemic instability of a human science constructed on the premise of explaining “the behavior of persons” by the “facts of life.”Behavioral genetics is, like everyone else according to the Foucault of The Order of Things, trapped in the paradox of Kantian modernity, wherein the responsibility for action meets the determination of action. From this perspective, then, what is surprising is not the difficult reputation of behavioral genetics, but rather the non-difficult reputation of psychology. And here we get into some of the most interesting aspects of Panofsky’s argument.

III

In a stunning last chapter of his book, Panofsky traces how the misbehaviors of behavioral genetics, as a field, as an endeavor, as a vocation, are an iconic and ominous indicator of the crisis of the university system, and perhaps more generally, of the project of knowledge itself as constituted in and through the modern Western academy. On display is a trajectory whose past shows us, perhaps, our future. He lays out the implications, for knowledge, of libertarian ideologies that justify irresponsible behavior, the increasing need for individual academics to act as free agents and build their brand, and donor-driven, rather than donor-supported, research.

He is particularly critical on the point of “ethical outsourcing” — wherein, for example, through generous funding scientists offload to other scholars the job of thinking about the “implications” of the knowledge generated by, say, twin studies about heritability. Panofsky shows, quite clearly, how deeply paradoxical this process is, as it effectively silences behavioral geneticists themselves, removes from them the demand to think clearly about the structure of their own work, and reinforces a hierarchy between “hard scientific knowledge,” based in techne and taken seriously, and humanistic knowledge based in phronesis, conducted by underpaid latter-day Aristoteleans who will not, in the end, be listened to anyway.

And here we must confront what this book is, in my view, really about. It is about the severing of critique from science. Needless to say, Bourdieu is a useful ally here; what could be clearer than that Panofsky stands with Bourdieu and against the anti-Bourdieusian French pragmatists? Only by demanding the possibility of critical theory, Panofsky says, can we avoid the reification of knowledge into an apparatus of American state racism. Yet here too, the story is not quite the Bourdieusian one, which was so well designed to comprehend the remaking of the French educational system post-1968, but is perhaps less well-equipped to grasp the present moment.

For that, we might indeed turn to Husserl, who said in his Vienna lecture of May 10, 1935:

“I, too, am quite sure that the European crisis has its roots in a mistaken rationalism. That, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that rationality as such is an evil or that in the totality of human existence it is of minor importance.”

And his diagnosis was, then, that the modern age which has “for centuries been so proud of its successes in theory and practice — has itself finally fallen into a growing dissatisfaction and must even look upon its own situation as distressful.” I actually think this is the implication of Panofsky’s book about our own era, though Husserl was talking about Europe, Panofsky is talking about the USA, and we are, today anyway, talking about the globe. He explains in his concluding pages that “this disorderly scientific space [of behavioral genetics] continues to be one where it is easy to lob bombs at orthodoxies. But it seems much will have to change socially before it is a place where doxa — unthought taken-for-granted assumptions — can be systematically dismantled and constructive alternatives reassembled.”

I agree. Panofsky has shown how a field defined as provocative and with an archipelago structure has led to what he calls “knowledge in shackles.” But I would ask him to consider whether a revisiting of the idea of the human sciences, rather than a refinement of the concept of field, might in fact be a route to the reconstruction he demands.

Isaac Ariail Reed is Associate Professor of Sociology at Virginia University.

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