In this response to Luria's letter of 26 September 1972, Krebs defended his recent article in "Perspectives in Biology
and Medicine" against Luria's characterization that it was "spurious biologizing."
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1972-11-03 (November 3, 1972)
Krebs, Hans A.
[University of Oxford]
Luria, Salvador E.
Original Repository: American Philosophical Society. Library. Salvador Luria Papers
Reproduced with permission of John Krebs.
Politics, Science, and Social Responsibility
Letter from Salvador E. Luria to Hans A. Krebs (September 26, 1972)
As I told you over the telephone I very much welcome your letter as a starting point of a dialogue. I am most anxious that
the problems I have raised in my article should be looked at from a variety of angles and that my views should be criticized,
amplified and corrected. You will appreciate the article was a lecture, and the scope of going into details was therefore
I feel we should first try to clarify where exactly we disagree. I hope in fact that there are no fundamental disagreements
but rather differences in emphasis.
You quite rightly say (at the bottom of your page one) that I am somewhat critical of the social sciences and that I believe
that the biological approach will help. This means that I disagree with your statement that "biology today has nothing
to offer that is relevant to the serious problems [which I discussed]". You refer to "spurious biologising" leading
to the assumption of the existence of congenital criminals. My view that there are congenital criminals or rather wrong-doers
(who in a sense are innocent but nevertheless must be kept away from society) is based on twin studies summarized for example
Curt Stern's Principles of Human Genetics, Second Edition, page 603. I consider the evidence derived from the study
of identical twins as a conclusive demonstration for a genetical element in criminality. This does neither imply that there
is a genetic element in every case nor that it is easy in any specific case to be sure of a genetic element in criminality.
Criminal behaviour associated with XYY chromosome trisomy (summarized recently in J. L. Hamerton's Human Cytogenetics
Vol. II, 51-53, 1971) is by no means limited to black skins, as you suggest.
Apart from the systematic studies there are literally hundreds and hundreds of case histories (a few I quoted in my lecture)
which confirm the genetic element in criminality. I agree that individual case histories, though they powerfully illustrate
the argument, are not necessarily convincing. But as in clinical medicine case histories are invaluable in every kind of
study of man.
Apropos of "spurious biologizing": as Homo sapiens is an object of biological studies it cannot be wrong to study
all his aspects with the methods of biology. Of course there is spurious i.e. wrong, science and right science (where spurious
means neglect of the principles of the scientific method). But it would be spurious to contend that biologizing is necessarily
wrong in respect to human behaviour. The impression you convey is that you disagree with this biological approach in principle.
I hope, however, that I am interpreting your words wrongly.
My skepticism of the social subjects has a variety of roots:
The tremendous increase in crime since the end of World War II indicates that the efforts to contain crime have essentially
been unsuccessful. It was generally believed that these efforts are the business of the social subjects. Evidentially these
subjects have not discovered the origins of criminality and I interpret this failure to bring to light the major aspects of
the causes of crime as an inadequacy of their methods of approach. As a natural scientist I find that the writings on social
subjects are often emotional and biased, instead of being scholarly i.e. objective and detached; that they are full of semantic
ambiguities. Even first-rate scientists may become unscholarly when they are faced with social problems. You make the statement
(often made by representatives of the social subjects) that "society by its working creates a mass of socially and economically
deprived". You imply that this deprivation is one of the roots of criminality. One might point out that there always
have been societies with large numbers of deprived populations, for example, Jews in their ghettos and the peasants in many
countries, but they did not resort to crime as a result of their deprivation. Thus social and economic deprivation alone
cannot be blamed for criminality.
You dismiss Trotter, Lorenz and Desmond Morris as not being scientifically grounded. It is my view that there is much more
science i.e. objective, reproducible, straightforward, factual material in the writings of these authors than in a large number
of the writers based on sociology. Having myself been a victim of Nazi racialism I am of course very sensitive to Lorenz's
aberrations. But these do not condemn his behavioural sciences - every piece of knowledge can be misused.
You refer to 'yellow' journalists. Wherever I have quoted the press I have quoted factual reports from very reputable
papers, for instance the Guardian (in America known as the Manchester Guardian). You consider Plato, Ovid and Schiller as
irrelevant. I must confess that I subscribe to the view, recently forcibly expressed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel
lecture (himself trained as a physicist) that literature can tell the truth. This is what he said, "Writers and artists
have a greater opportunity to conquer the lie. In battle with the lie, art has always been victorious, always wins out, visibly,
incontrovertibly for all. The lie can stand against much in the world - but not against art". Albert Camus in his speech
at the Nobel Banquet in 1957 said very much the same. You may regard this as irrelevant but I hold that if the classics have
survived it is exactly because they reflect lasting fundamental truths. You will appreciate that I have not quoted the authors
as evidence but as supporters of my views.
It is very difficult within a letter to debate these complex questions. It so happens that I shall be in Boston at the end
of May 1973 to take part in the Symposium on the History of Bioenergetics organized by John Edsall. I hope that we might
then continue our dialogue face to face, and that we can then formulate precisely the area where we agree and where we disagree
on this problem of the relative importance of nature and nurture.
To sum up: Do you really hold the view that the biological approach - especially genetics and the behavioural sciences applying
to man - has nothing useful to contribute to the social problems of our time? Details of my treatment may well be debatable
but I would defend the view that my approach has much to offer. This does not mean that social subjects are not equally
important, but alone, without a broad infiltration by biology they cannot succeed.