The Local Struggle: Actions at the International Genetics Congress

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The Local Struggle: Actions at the International Genetics Congress

By Berkeley SESPA

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 6, November 1973, p. 38—41

The following pages report on the political activities of scientific and technical people who are challenging the system that uses their skills to perpetuate imperialism and the subjugation of Third World peoples.

Every five years an International Congress of Genetics takes place, organized by the genetics society of the host country. The meeting attracts large numbers of geneticists from outside the country (even though no translating services are available), and most of the meeting is devoted to technical sessions. Traditionally, the focus of the congress has not been on social issues, with the exception of denunciations of the Soviet Union during the Lysenko period for refusing to allow anti-Lysenko geneticists to attend the meeting [Lysenko assumed that environment directly modified genetic makeup.]

The initial plans made by the Genetics Society of America (GSA) for this year’s congress were totally purged of any discussion of political and social issues. When SESPA members heard of these plans, we protested vigorously that at least the controversy about genetics and IQ could not be ignored at the 1973 congress. After continued pressure, partly by some halfway sympathetic liberals in the GSA, congress officials agreed to provide rooms for a forum on Genetics and IQ and one on the Green Revolution, and a place in the plenary session on Genetics and Society.

SESPA members in many cities including Chicago, Boston, Berkeley, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis began planning around three main issues: genetics and IQ, genetic engineering, and the green revolution. We decided to write short position papers on each of the three issues. In Berkeley, the Committee on Genetics and Society (COGS) formed to bring out these issues at the congress and to do additional research on the topics. They negotiated with congress authorities for meeting rooms and a place for SESPA to have a literature table. Since congress officials wanted to make clear to everyone that we were not an official part of the congress, which was geing held on the second floor of the student union, they put us right by the front door on the first floor. As a result, many of the congress participants talked to us and read our literature even before they registered. We also found ourselves directing people to registration, bathrooms, and restaurants.

In spite of the small concessions that congress officials made, it was clear that it was up to SESPA and COGS not only to present radical alternatives but to initiate discussion of social and political issues. For example, in the plenary session on genetics and society, such topics as “the failure of Cartesian dualism as a functional ethical base and the cohesiveness of genetics as a scientific discipline and university department” were discussed as though they were burning issues. Our first goal, therefore, was to initiate discussion on the political ramifications of genetics.

Our critique of the green revolution involved two main public activities: a SESPA member gave a talk at the plenary session, and a forum was held on the issue. SESPA speakers pointed out that politically and economically the green revolution represents a capitalist incursion into Third World markets as well as an attempt to secure the Third world politically for the West [see position paper on the green revolution, p. 41). We then attempted to show how the imperialist goal of the funding organizations (principally the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations) created great strictures on agricultural research itself. This resulted in agricultural research directed toward mechanized (capital-intensive) monoculture, in which problems connected with long-term ecological and environmental effects are ignored. Agricultural products are treated as trading commodities rather than as anything produced to serve people’s needs (i.e., food). The position papers and talk at the plenary session provoked a great deal of discussion. Many agricultural geneticists felt threatened by what we said. Others accepted our critique of imperialism but felt that technical aspects of the green revolution were politically neutral.

The forum on the green revolution drew about 700 people, many more than we had expected. Two of the speakers, who were entomologists from Berkeley, concentrated on a technical critique of the use of pesticides. The two SESPA speakers tried to combine a political and technical critique. The discussion got off to a bad start when two nuts, taking advantage of the open microphone, talked about something called 13-dimensional genetics and the potato as the ideal, nutritionally complete food. After that, questions and comments centered around technical aspects, and political issues often were ignored. This happened, in part, because many of the agricultural scientists in the audience felt threatened and under attack by the technical critique, and did not want to face the political critique at all. As a result they retreated to their area of expertise. Green revolution enthusiasts claimed we were against high yields and plant breeding in general. They contrasted their detailed knowledge as practical men in the fight against hunger to our theoretical “carping,” and pretended that the only alternative to their way of doing things was hunger. One of the problems we faced was trying to describe what could be instead of what is. We did not convince most of the audience of the correctness of our point of view, but we did open discussions and raise serious questions about the green revolution. During succeeding days, individual agricultural scientists from developing countries came to us to express support for our overall approach, offer new information, and correct errors of detail. For example, one Pakistani pointed out that the tough straw of the new varieties of wheat injures the mouths of cattle and causes infection.

Later in the week, a group of scientists from the Third World organized a session on teaching and research in genetics in developing countries and several SESPA members attended this meeting. There was a clear split among Third World scientists. One group felt that the most effective thing scientists in the U.S. could do was keep Third World scientists abreast of the latest advances in genetics and help provide them with equipment to do research on “pure” genetics. The other group was concerned with solving local problems and training local people to work on these problems. They considered many aspects of modern genetics irrelevant to the important genetic questions in their countries, and were concerned with finding local organisms to illustrate genetic principles rather than to continue to use fruit flies which are both economically irrelevant and often difficult to obtain and rear.

We tried to learn from our experiences at the green revolution forum so that we could avoid some of the pitfalls at the forums on genetic engineering and genetics and IQ. First, we knew that we would have a large group of people coming to hear us, and that it was important to coordinate what the various people speaking would say. Second, we wanted to avoid nuts and crackpots. On the other hand, we felt that the audience would be less hostile, in part because the direct victims of racism would be represented in the audience while the direct victims of the green revolution weren’t in the audience.

The forum on genetic engineering was not publicized by the congress or by the local papers, but we still filled the meeting room with 70 to 80 people. The openness of the discussion was a welcome change from the more formal forum on the green revolution. SESPA speakers emphasized the shoddy science and the racism inherent in much of this area of genetics, especially in the current genetic testing programs. The discussion tended at times to go off on questions involved with long-term prospects of genetics research, such as cloning. We believe that these prospects and their implications should be discussed, but it seemed that bringing them up sometimes diverts thinking from current problems.

The forum on genetics and IQ drew about 2000 people and the. forum was shown on closed circuit television in several buildings on the Berkeley campus. Speakers at the forum had discussed their talks with each other prior to the forum, and the presentations had a continuity that was missing in the green revolution forum. What resulted was a multi-faceted attack on the Jensen-Shockley-Herrnstein-Eysenck school of genetics and IQ*. We refuted the idea that all compensatory education is bound to fail, and documented the cultural bias of IQ tests. We pointed out the technical errors in Jensen’s concept of heritability. Further, we showed that he and Shockley define race culturally, but use it in a context where only a genetic definition of race is appropriate. The final speaker drew parallels with the anti-foreigner eugenics movement of the thirties and discussed what kind of actions geneticists should take to oppose the new eugenics. In the discussion afterwards most speakers were in agreement, including a white from Johannesburg, South Africa.

In conjunction with the forum on genetics and IQ, we attempted to get congress delegates to sign a petition, which (1) condemned the work of Jensen, Shockley, Herrnstein, and Eysenck as being scientifically invalid and based upon the social prejudices of the investigators, (2) opposed the acceptance and use of the racist conclusions of their work in educational, welfare, penal, and other aspects of public policy, and (3) recognized the responsibility of geneticists to speak out in classes, in their professional societies, and in public arenas against this misuse of genetics. Approximately one-tenth of the delegates approached signed the petition, giving us about 300 signatures. Some who did not sign objected to what they saw as personal attacks on Jensen, Herrnstein, Shockley, and Eysenck, or to the statement about social biases of the investigators. Many did not sign because they felt insufficiently acquainted with the technical issues of the controversy, even though SESPA and COGS had distributed an immense amount of literature. Many geneticists felt it was outside their responsibility because it was physicists (Shockley) and educational psychologists (Jensen and Herrnstein), rather than geneticists who were talking about genetics. There was a great deal of controversy about whether to officially present anything to the GSA. Arguments centered around whather it was a useful thing to do, whether the GSA would do anything with it if presented, and what the consequences would be if an anti-racist resolution were defeated. The statement was introduced as a petition to the GSA business meeting. With characteristic courage and integrity the GSA amended it to death and tabled the corpse.

In discussions at the end of the conference several criticisms emerged. We had underestimated the receptivity of people at the congress to our challenge of current scientific ideology. The table was the center of a great many discussions, and there were frequent inquiries about new literature and new meetings. However, we didn’t respond by new talks or by preparing new. literature. We were inadequatly prepared with detailed information to confront technical experts of the green revolution. Since we were part of the official program, some of use fell into the trap of letting our “official” program define, in part, our activities. We also limited ourselves to issues that were directly relevant to genetics. The general SESPA message was limited to selling the magazine, and holding informal discussions. We stirred up the geneticists and prevented them from doing their narrow professional thing in isolation from the rest of the world. Ideological struggle is an important political struggle, and it is possible and essential to wage it at technical and professional meetings as well as elsewhere. We still have a lot to learn about waging this struggle, but we are getting there.

*A forthcoming issue of SftP will focus on an analysis of Genetics, IQ, and Social Class. We hope to present in that issue a major counterattack to the racist position. Much of the material developed for the activities at the International Genetics Conference will be used, and we ask others who have relevant material (articles, phtographs, cartoons, etc.) to please send them in.

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