on 25 February 2002
Two important books on modern biology were published in 2000 by authors outside of the field itself. One of them - Janet Radcliffe Richards' "Human Nature after Darwin" - was "a philosophical introduction". Ullica Segerstrale's "Defenders of the Truth - The Sociobiology Debate", written by a sociologist, has a different, complementary point of view. Both books come up with similar results: the criticism against evolutionary psychology has been seriously misplaced.
Ullica Segerstrale studied organic chemistry and biochemistry before turning to the sociology of science, where she concentrated on the sociobiology controversy. She completed her Ph.D. on the subject in 1983, and the present work seems to be an extended version of that work. It is based not only on published papers and books on the subject, but also on personal interviews and conferences / meetings she has been attending even before the controversy really started with E. O. Wilson's "Sociobiology" (1975). As a consequence, "Defenders of the Truth" is a remarkable history of the field with a lot of insider information. In addition to Wilson, we learn about the views of, e.g., William Hamilton (who started the whole field already in 1964), Richard Dawkins (of the "selfish gene" fame) and John Maynard Smith (who brought game theory to biology). The main characters of the other, critical side are Richard Lewontin, Stephen J. Gould and Steven Rose.
However, Segerstrale is not interested only in history, as she deals also with the motives and philosophies behind the debate. Wilson's ideas form a thread throughout the book, since he has never been shy to reveal his moral agenda (he wants to save the human race!). It is interesting to learn how consistent his philosophy has been even though it has also evolved during the last three decades (up to the recent "Consilience" in 1998). This is an important point to note: there are actually many sociobiologies - most of which are not even called by that name - and, e.g., the "sociobiology" of Dawkins is different from that (those) of Wilson's. Segerstrale tells us that "scientific truths do not spring out of Zeus' head like Pallas Athena; they are the end products of a long collective process...". Trivial perhaps, but still important to remember. Especially the way Wilson tries to draw moral out of biology has been criticized by his colleagues, and also Segarstråle finds problems with it (however, the reasoning behind Wilson's view is explained, and morality and ethics can have many sources; Wilson may not be totally wrong, either). This applies also to the relationship between biology and culture: Wilson's culturgens seem somewhat different from Dawkins' memes (note, however, that Wilson himself considers the modern evolutionary psychology nothing but human sociobiology).
Relating to postmodernism, Segerstrale is critical about the "social constructivists" and "relativists" of her own field: science is "reality-driven" enterprise, not a social construct (this especially when we talk about scientific products, not the process). She argues that the critics of the sociobiology form a transition point between the 1960's "new left" and the present "cultural left" (i.e., postmodernists). The key signature of this is the interest in textual analysis of scientific literature, which created very unpleasant results (read, lies) very early on in the sociobiological debate. Wilson and his colleagues were claimed to be right wing zealots and racists, allegations that Segerstrale shows to be totally misplaced. (Actually, it becomes obvious that many "sociobiologists" have leftist views.) Here she takes sides: although she considers moral / political debate and controversy a healthy phenomenon in science like sociobiology, wrongly placed attacks on individuals are not acceptable. In addition, although Segerstrale tries to understand the motives of the critics, I find it difficult to accept that anybody would be so offended by the use of hypothesis in research; Lewontin's quest for "certain" knowledge seems quite ridiculous.
Many evolutionary psychologists are women. Now we have also somebody from the social sciences defending research that has been (wrongly) portrayed, e.g., as anti-feminist. Segerstrale is making an important contribution to the above mentioned "long collective process" not only by her arguments, but also by being female and sociologist (yes, it is silly that this kind of things matter, but we are all human). I was - as a physicist - very pleased to read a sociological study that really made sense; I hope that people on the other side of the debate could find some value in evolutionary psychology by reading this book (as well as the Radcliffe Richards' one). However, note that one may be more able to appreciate all the details included in the book by reading first some more popular works on the subject (e.g., Dawkins' "Selfish Gene" or Wilson's "Consilience").
Segerstrale has done science and the reading public a tremendous service with this account of the "sociobiology wars." Two decades of interviews and a forty page bibliography are vivid testimony to her research abilities. However, this book isn't a just pedantic exercise. Her views of the participants impart a sincere personal account of how she views the collision of ideals among scientists. Segerstrale's approach is amazingly dispassionate. Her Introduction, a fine summary of the issues, states that "the participants are all defenders of the truth." Their views are adhered to passionately with Segerstrale presenting their assertions openly without comment. Later, when she analyzes their motivations, does background meaning become clear as to why this debate hasn't closed.
Sociobiology's path has been pretty bumpy during the generation since E.O. Wilson's book was published. Almost immediately a hue and cry arose from academics and the public alike. Segerstrale carefully presents the views of all the important participants, with special focus on Harvard's Richard Lewontin. It was Lewontin who characterized Wilson's book as "bad science" without suggesting what "good science" might be in addressing the issue. Even the "scientific traditions" of field naturalist versus laboratory experimentalists are examined in the debate's context. Adding to the complexity of personalities and methods is Segerstrale's ongoing discussion of the political status of the period. With race relations, women's issues and other social causes intruding on the scientific debate, the contenders avoid simple pigeonholing. Segerstrale goes to some length in presenting the debate in a broader social context and accomplishes it with finesse.
In the final analysis, it is E.O. Wilson who emerges vaguely from the fray with enhanced stature. While his critics appear mildly panic-stricken from the tenets of sociobiology, Wilson continued his work. Publishing several works embellishing his original ideas, he summarized his efforts and much of the debate in his autobiography, Naturalist. Wilson's critics over the years attacked his "facts" in a "utilitarian" sense - i.e., what impact does a scientific find have on society. As a field researcher, Wilson found this interpretation of science disquieting. The issue then, wasn't "bad science" but "bad interpretation" of scientific results. Segerstrale's analysis of this issue makes compelling reading, bringing the book to a well-structured conclusion. Those wishing to understand what the sociobiology debate [not the science itself] is all about should obtain this book. It's a stunning resource. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 7 March 2002
Taking us behind the scenes of the sociobiology debate, Segerstråle presents a variety of interesting perspectives. If you wonder how the debate can appear so ferocious and the protagonists seem to disagree so fundamentally this book is for you. If you have never wondered about this - or indeed are looking for an introduction to the actual scientific issues - you should turn elsewhere. Segerstråle writes well but the book is much too long and suffers from serious problems of structure. Heavy editing would have helped greatly. Nevertheless, an intriguing back-stage account.
By dissecting painstakingly the sociobiology wars, Ullica Segerstråle exposes fundamental discussions about the nature of and the relationship between science, society, morality and politics.
The violent clash of egos revealed the deep chasm between the British and US scientific community. While in Great-Britain (R. Dawkins) science was considered as an autonomous activity (only the facts), the US scientists had a scientific-cum-moral agenda (no barrier between facts and values). This agenda set the ideologues (R. Lewontin, S. Gould) against the biologists-adaptionists (E.O. Wilson).
Sociobiology is the systematic study of the biological basis of social behavior and the organization of societies in all kind of organisms. It considers that human sex role divisions, aggressiveness, moral concerns or religious beliefs can be linked to man's evolutionary heritage and underlying genetic disposition.
Aim of the biologists-adaptionists
E.O. Wilson's main aim was to force the social sciences to take biology seriously. He wanted to provide a genetically accurate and fair code of natural ethics for man, thereby showing that Christian theologians should not impose arbitrary moral codes which could generate unnecessary human suffering.
Vision of the ideologues
For the ideologues, scientific and political questions were inextricably linked. For them, sociobiologists tried to demonstrate that nature optimizes and that they thereby defended a social statu-quo: what exists is adaptive, what is adaptive is good, therefore what exists is good. The social inequalities, like race, gender, ethnicity, class, status, wealth, power, domination, are then seen as reflections of a natural order.
Towering above the verbal wrestlers, Richard Dawkins stated rightly that values cannot be derived from nature. There is a fundamental distinction between science (how the world is) and politics (how the world ought to be).
The Lyssenko affair demonstrated clearly what happens when scientific objectivity is abandoned.
R. Dawkins rightly insulted the postmodernists as hypocrites for their vision of science (it represents only one way of knowing among others) and rightly attacked viruses of the mind, like religion, which had (and has) the ambition to explain the same things as science.
For a devastating verdict on postmodernism see G.G. Preparata.
(Science and politics)
Contrary to what S.A. Luria pretends, science is very important for politicians. It permitted them to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The more man knows how the world works, the more he can take action to improve life for everyone. As the great American scientist G.C. Williams stated: `natural selection, albeit stupid, is a story of unending arms races, slaughter and suffering. It is a law of nature and its immorality has to be accepted and, at least, to be thought about. `
While the extremely detailed scientific arms wrestling in this book will mostly appeal to scientists, I nevertheless recommend it highly to all those who want to understand the (scientific) world we live in.
Back in 1975 a Harvard University biologist called E O Wilson published Sociobiology: the New Synthesis. Its last chapter posited that much of human behaviour may be influenced by genetics - perhaps more so than culture. Many left-leaning academics took offence and a twenty-five year academic spat broke out.
What this book does is to give an even-handed account of the sociobiology wars as it played out in both Britain and the United States from 1975 to the end of the 20th Century. The book is the product of 25 years research, based on close observation of the dispute as it ebbed and flowed, and meeting the principal protagonists of what she rightly describes as an `opera'.
It is very difficult to discern where the author herself stands in all this, which is reassuring; it gives one the impression that one is reading a balanced, non-partisan account. It elucidates what the parties to the dispute thought were at stake. Some of this seemed quite obscure - like whether the gene is the unit of selection. Wilson's opponents thought of themselves as `firefighters' extinguishing the wildfires of bad science. Their opponents in turn saw them as political police, suppressors of intellectual freedom.
This is a book with many shades of grey. Some radical scientists like Noam Chomsky accept an innatist basis for human nature - and refused to be co-opted into joining the opposition to Wilson and sociobiology generally. What it does not discuss is whether any of this had any impact on the public generally. Did Leowontin's apprehensions about the supposed misuse of sociobiology have any empirical support? But this would have made for a longer book. The aim of the book is to explain what the actors in this drama were thinking, what they thought they were doing, and what they thought their opponents were doing. This the book does very well.
But does any of this still matter? The war seems to have petered out now. There is greater acceptance that perhaps much of human behaviour is influenced - if not necessarily rigidly determined - by genes. The debate on the relationship between nature and nurture seems less polarised than it once was (evolutionary biology seems to me to looking in the right place when it examines the physical properties of the human brain for the origins of our sense of morality and so on. After all, where else are we supposed to look?). So why is this of any interest?
The answer is that the author shows that both camps were animated by moral values and differing conceptions of how science should be done and what it should be for - to change the world or merely to describe it? Science certainly generates plenty of facts. But facts alone never speak for themselves. They are interpreted. One can practise the scientific method impeccably but still come into conflict with other practitioners of integrity who are guided by different moral and political values - and draw different conclusions. All the protagonists in the sociobiology debate accepted evolution as a fact, and rejected a supernatural explanation for natural phenomena. But agreeing on such fundamentals did not guarantee immunisation from controversy.
It is often said that one cannot derive values from facts. That is probably true - but scientists' researches are often shaped by their own values which they bring into the lab, as this book dramtically shows. This is still of relevance to scientific practice today.