“As a diplomatic specialist in Communism, in China and the Soviet Union I had witnessed at first hand the biggest live experiment in history, as more than a billion human beings, caged in their own countries like laboratory mice, were subjected to the parascientific creed of dialectical materialism and Marxism-Leninism. (The term parascience, nicely evocative of paranormal and la pataphysique, I borrow from Absence of Mind, essays on science and religion by Marilynne Robinson, Yale 2010.) Of the outcome — some hundred million dead, three million in China during 1966-69 the years I was there — there is little more to be said, except to recall how many Western scientists, some eminent, went along with the experiment in the face of the scepticism of Johnson’s common reader.
One example. Professor J.D. Bernal, a first-rank scientist, helped lay the foundations of molecular biology. Inspired by Nikolai Bukharin’s lecture on the Marxist roots of Newton, he had earlier endorsed the “proletarian science” of Trofim Lysenko, whose theory of plant genetics Stalin backed because it suggested that the acquired characteristics of the communist New Man could be transmitted in perpetuity. Bukharin was later shot in the show trials of 1938 after torture extracted a confession; Bernal survived till 1971, when he died peacefully, proud of his Stalin Prize, and with no confession.
As we contemplate the utopian claims of some branches of scientific inquiry today, the damage he and a generation of sympathisers and fellow travellers (including Joseph Needham, and to a lesser extent C.P. Snow) did to the reputation of science itself should not be forgotten.
All this comes to mind as I try to keep abreast of neuroscience. I am not saying this is the new Marxism, merely that experiments and theories that claim to revolutionise our understanding of ourselves deserve the common reader’s vigilance. Remarkable research is under way, but some in the neuroscience fraternity are not content with reinterpreting the world: they want to change it. “The return of political scientism, particularly of a biological variety,” Raymond Tallis has written, “should strike a chill to the heart.” It does to mine. Today Orwell’s Animal Farm would feature a cold-eyed, white-coated meerkat loading troublesome creatures into a brain scanner, before prescribing the necessary treatment.”