Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

by Ullica Segerstrale


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When Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology, it generated a firestorm of criticism, mostly focused on the book's final chapter, in which Wilson applied lessons learned from animal behavior to human society. In Defenders of the Truth, Ullica Segerstrale takes a hard look at the sociobiology controversy, sorting through a hornet's nest of claims and counterclaims, moral concerns, metaphysical beliefs, political convictions, strawmen, red herrings, and much juicy gossip. The result is a fascinating look at the world of modern science.
Segerstrale has interviewed all the major participants, including such eminent scientists as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Nobel Laureates Peter Medawar and Salvador Luria, and of course Edward Wilson. She reveals that most of the criticism of Wilson was unfair, but argues that it was not politically motivated. Instead, she sees the conflict over sociobiology as a drawn-out battle about the nature of "good science" and the social responsibility of the scientist. Behind the often nasty attacks were the very different approaches to science taken by naturalists (such as Wilson) and experimentalists (such as Lewontin), between the "planters" and the "weeders." The protagonists were all defenders of the truth, Segerstrale concludes, it was just that everyone's truth was different.
Defenders of the Truth touches on grand themes such as the unity of knowledge, human nature, and free will and determinism, and it shows how the sociobiology controversy can shed light on the more recent debates over the Human Genome Project and The Bell Curve. It will appeal to all readers of Edward O. Wilson or Stephen Jay Gould and all those who enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at modern science.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780192862150
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date: 05/28/2001
Pages: 512
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 4.80(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Ullica Segerstrale is Professor of Sociology at Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago. She holds advanced degrees in organic chemistry and biochemistry, in communications, and in sociology. Born and raised in Finland, she now lives in Chicago.

Read an Excerpt

Defenders of the Truth

The Sociobiology Debate
By Ullica Segerstrale

Oxford University Press

Copyright ©2001 Ullica Segerstrale
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0192862154

Chapter One

The sociobiology debate as a battle for truth

Scientific and moral truth—together or apart?

Emotional cerebration appears to have the paradoxical capacity to find equal support for opposite sides of any question. It is particularly curious that in scientific discourse, as in politics, the emotions seem capable of standing on any platform. Different groups of reputable scientists, for example, often find themselves in altercation because of diametrically opposed views of what is true. Although seldom commented on, it is equally bewildering that the world order of science is able to live comfortably for years, and sometimes centuries, with beliefs that a new generation discovers to be false (Paul MacLean, 1970).

This book is about different visions of science and different conceptions of the responsibility of a scientist. The characters in my story are all defenders of the truth—it is just that they have different conceptions of where the truth lies. The truth of these scientists is multifaceted: epistemological, methodological, moral, political, metaphysical, even esthetic.Still, these aspects are not randomly combined—rather, they cluster into identifiable, organized world views, complete with different stocks of taken-for-granted knowledge.

My aim in this book is to take the reader along toward a deeper understanding of the sociobiology controversy, and through it, the world of science in general. I am interested in what Peter Medawar once called 'a view through the keyhole'. Controversies, where scientists attack one another's scientific world views and justify their own, may well be some of the best keyholes we have. But I am not doing this alone. My assistants in this detective task are many of the participants themselves, and their immediate and more distant academic colleagues, whom I had the opportunity to interview at the height of the controversy and sometimes later, too. Of course, I reserve the right to try to make sense of what my informants have told me. (In the same way, I am looking forward to feedback from them and others.)

It is now a quarter of a century since the sociobiology controversy started around Harvard zoologist E. O. Wilson and his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. It is high time to take stock of the situation. What was really going on? The received view is that it was a politically motivated nature-nurture controversy between hereditarians and 'environmentalists' (who should these days actually be called 'culturalists' or 'nurturists' so as not to be confused with the later ecologically oriented environmentalist movement). That is the way it appeared, and the way it was presented. But the reality was much more complex.

Watchers of this unfolding drama have noted the relentlessness with which the critics kept attacking their targets, who were accused not only of 'incorrect' political and moral stances, but also of 'bad science'. What were the actual motivations of Wilson and some other leading sociobiologists? And what were the motivations driving the critics of sociobiology, particularly the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People? I will devote part of this book to examining the scientific and moral/political commitments of the participants, starting with the sociobiology debate as it evolved around Wilson in the Harvard setting. We will then meet the British 'sociobiologists' (how they disliked that name!), and follow the international traffic and interchange of ideas as the protagonists partly shift and the 'camps' become increasingly transatlantic.

Clearly, however, the debate was not merely 'about' individual scientists and their different commitments. This was a debate about the nature of science, the relationship of science to society, and the nature of acceptable knowledge at a particular time—it was just expressed as a conflict between individuals. The controversy about sociobiology can in many respects be seen as the scientific community's discussion with itself. Some of the concerns about science underlying the sociobiology debate would later come to the surface in the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s (see Chapter 17, and Segerstråle, 2000).

Since the beginning of the sociobiology controversy the general climate has changed toward greater acceptance of genetical arguments, and with the expectation of the Human Genome Project soon mapping our DNA. The protagonists in the original controversy have gone on to partly new issues, but from the point of view of their original, overall agendas, much remains the same. For some scientists, the sociobiology controversy was an opportune vehicle to promote larger moral-cum-scientific agendas existing before the beginning of this particular conflict. Part of this book is dedicated to identifying these, and showing how for the participants in the debate, their moral/political values were coupled to their scientific positions.

The critics of sociobiology employed a particular style of textual exegesis which I call 'moral reading', aimed at revealing the true meaning of sociobiology. For them, the political truth of sociobiology was obvious. For the sociobiologists, it was not. For scientific practitioners in this field, the new theories and approaches of sociobiology represented an exciting and legitimate new way of understanding evolution. For a long time, however, the climate was such that the critics' interpretation of the true meaning of sociobiology came to overrule their targets' protests. The critics profited from the prevailing post-war taboo on biological explanation of behavior. (In a parallel way, in the 1960s a shy graduate student in England called Bill Hamilton had encountered enormous difficulties in getting anybody to even listen to his idea of studying the genetics of altruism. 'Genetics' was a tainted word after the war, and to combine it explicitly with a human term like 'altruism' was considered absolute anathema.)

Politically, the dichotomies in the sociobiology controversy were not necessarily clearly between the left and the right, although it was often presented this way. The actual dividing line went, rather, between a particular type of New Left activist on the one hand and traditional liberals and democrats on the other. These positions, in turn, were connected to different conceptions of 'good science'. The result was various types of oppositions between the two larger camps in the sociobiology controversy: here we had positive 'planters' vs critical 'weeders', naturalists vs experimentalists, and modelers vs molecular-level reductionists. What was initially confusing was that these conflicts erupted within the very same field of evolutionary biology and that the quarreling parties all called themselves evolutionary biologists. Even more confusing was the fact that hardline molecular-level reductionists accused the modelers of 'reductionism'. Mix in Marxist claims of a rather special nature, and you have a web so tangled that political accusations may appear as a sheer heuristic device to get a handle on things!

The most important dividing line in the sociobiology debate, however, did not go between these larger camps, but between two completely different attitudes to the relationship between scientific and moral truth. And this division tended to coincide with the Atlantic Ocean. On the one hand, we had Wilson and his American critics who believed in the ultimate coupling of science and moral values—what I call a 'hyper'-Enlightenment quest. On the other, we had the British 'sociobiologists', notably Dawkins and Maynard Smith, who in their 'regular' Enlightenment quest were striving hard to keep science separate from moral concerns.

Usually, different conceptions of science do not come into direct confrontation, and so different fields can sustain their own standards, suited to their particular field of inquiry. But this arrangement was totally disrupted in the sociobiology controversy. It became obvious that what seemed plausible and reasonable to scientists in some fields was not so to scientists in other fields. And this may not have been based only on scientific convictions. In fields heavily relying on argumentation, such as evolutionary biology, values easily enter scientific discussion through plausibility arguments.

The sociobiology controversy also had a strong metaphysical component—in fact, this may have been a reason for its appeal. Many scientists seemingly could not resist the chance to discuss the nature of human nature. Others were inescapably attracted to the issue of free will and determinism. Sociobiology with its gene talk seemed to fit very nicely under a generalized label of 'genetic determinism'. And this was something that sociobiologists had difficulties extricating themselves from, not the least because of the undereducation of the general public in matters biological (and the way in which the critics of sociobiology reinforced false dichotomies).

The strong moral component of the subject matter attracted especially those scientists who in their scientific work strived to combine the pursuit of scientific and moral truth. Other scientists, who believed in a strict separation between their scientific and moral/political lives, typically stayed away from the controversy. (This included leading left-wing scientists.) What, then, drove the members of the Sociobiology Study Group to spend so much time on criticizing sociobiology? There is no doubt that the critics of sociobiology believed in what they were doing. But this did not mean that they had abandoned scientific competition and the academic quest for recognition—quite the contrary. The critics simply took the quest for credit to its logical next level—the moral realm—and continued their academic prospecting there.

In fact, for both parties, the sociobiology debate presented a good opportunity to gather moral brownie points from concerned academic colleagues and the general public. While the critics chanced on unmasking racists and sexists (the worse the villain, the bigger the symbolic reward), the defenders of sociobiology could reap recognition from those who believed in the virtue of positive, traditionalist science. I am not necessarily attributing conscious motives here; I see the behavior of the participants as an expression and extension of more universal scientific optimization strategies.

The sociobiology debate as academic engineering

What happens to scientific ideas that go against established orthodoxy at a particular time? Max Planck took a dark view, in his famous formulation, '[a] new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it' (Planck, 1949). Thomas Kuhn put his own spin on the Planck problem by suggesting that what we have are 'paradigms', scientific orthodoxies, supplanting each other over time. Is it then more or less a matter of luck if a scientist can break through with an unorthodox contribution at an inopportune time? No. Sometimes it just requires clever engineering.

Wilson has taken center stage in the sociobiology controversy because of the upheaval around his book and perhaps a certain Harvard mystique. Meanwhile 'everybody' knows that the mathematical theory underlying sociobiology was formulated by Bill Hamilton in a two-part paper in 1964. (What they don't know is the background story to Hamilton's famous paper, discussed in Chapter 4.) This has led some biologists to argue that Wilson 'did not say anything new'—implying that the credit for the sociobiological revolution should go mostly to those who did say 'something new'. But this misses the point, well expressed by John Krebs (1985), that Wilson's important contribution consisted in the fact that he created a field by showing its scattered practitioners that it existed. And Wilson not only gave the field a name, he also advocated its feasibility and importance in a social climate suspicious of evolution and the genetics of behavior.

But did he need a scandal to do it? Those who have bought into the 'sandwich model' of Sociobiology—political conspiracy version—believe so. According to it, Wilson had put 25 chapters of filling between his all-important first and last chapters. On this view, Wilson's aim was really political: he wanted to legitimize the social status quo. There is another version of the sandwich model, however, the animal behaviorist one. And here we have just the opposite vision of 25 chapters of wonderful information and pictures of animals surrounded by two thin, rather uninteresting slices about humans. The critics focused on the bread, the animal behaviorists on the filling. Chacun à son gout!

Then there are those who suspect a publicity stunt: that Wilson's last chapter on humans was included to generate scandal and create a general interest in his big coffee-table tome. The praise Wilson got from his biological colleagues indicates that Sociobiology would probably have sold well enough even without the controversy—just like Wilson's The Insect Societies, another coffee-table book, published with the same press. On this view, then, Wilson did not really need a scandal—although nobody doubts that the controversy helped sell his book and spread the idea of sociobiology.

But there were others who did need a scandal—and those were Wilson's two Harvard colleagues, Gould and Lewontin. They had become increasingly disenchanted with neo-Darwinism and wanted to explore alternative approaches. The problem was that, although they 'knew' that an adaptationist, gene-oriented approach was both scientifically and morally/politically wrong, at this point they did not have a good scientific alternative to offer. What to do? They wanted to be heard, and as scientists, they wanted to make a mark scientifically. Solution: create a stirrup around sociobiology, present it as both morally dubious and scientifically wrong—and in this way create a climate where people will want to hear what you have to say. On this view, as much as it represented truly held beliefs for many, the moral and political outrage around sociobiology was at the same time a Trojan horse devised to smuggle doubts about adaptationism into the scientific discussion and have them taken seriously. Later, as more supporting arguments had been amassed, the Trojan horse would be slowly dismantled.

But the horse kicked back, as it were. An unintended consequence of all this criticism was that it provoked a response and thereby helped strengthen the sociobiological approach. The morally motivated criticism in the sociobiology controversy in fact helped speed up the process of articulation and clarification of many of the scientific issues underlying sociobiology and evolutionary biology, such as the status of adaptation, the unit of selection, and the relationship between culture and biological evolution.

Over 25 years, the sociobiology controversy has finally graduated to a genuine scientific controversy; the moral/political aspect has now been largely abandoned. Or has it? What we currently see is a heated battle about the nature of evolutionary theory, in which each statement at least in principle, and often in practice, has seeming moral/political implications as well. Still at stake are questions about the status of adaptation and the true unit of selection, and about the relationship between development and evolution. The battle, however, has broadened into questions regarding the Modern Synthesis itself and the kind of truth it is capable of generating. The ontological quest of the critics of sociobiology has expanded into an all-out critique of those scientists who are restricting themselves to gene-selectionist modeling, including the assertion that gene-selectionism is not currently the dominant neo-Darwinist paradigm. In turn, their escalating efforts to divide the world into (sensible) 'Us' and (unreasonable) 'Them' reflects a deeper divide between those who would wish for evolutionary biology to answer Why? questions and those who think a science ought to restrict itself to How? questions. In this sense, the sociobiology controversy can be seen as part of a larger battle for the soul of science in one of the few fields where it might still be fought.

In one respect we have seemingly come full circle. Gene selectionists, who may just have thought that they had finally convinced their colleagues of the usefulness of their own approach, now have to contend with a new challenge from 'neo-group selection', typically applauded by critics of sociobiology. The sociobiology debate continues ... in yet another dialectical movement in the search for truth, and with unmistakable moral and metaphysical overtones.

Wilson, too, has come full circle. His latest book Consilience—the synthesis of syntheses—argues for an unified effort of all realms of human knowledge to solve the problems of mankind and the Earth. Wilson's great humanist ambition in Sociobiology—to save mankind through increased knowledge of human nature—is now re-emerging. This idea was almost totally suppressed by the (now rather speciesist-seeming!) political debate around his book. Perhaps after a quarter of a century, Wilson will be given another chance, and the serious discussion he intended can begin.

The sociobiology debate as opera

In a recent conversation with an artist I wondered aloud what the right art form would be for a presentation of the sociobiology controversy. In the early days of the debate, when the atmosphere at Harvard was thick with anti-sociobiological feeling, I had entertained myself by thinking of it as a murder mystery. 'Opera!' was her immediate answer.

Opera. She was right. Here we had individuals passionately believing in their causes, telling us in beautiful arias about their longings. The object of desire this time was not a woman, but Truth. There were changing scenarios, but predictable overall themes and tendencies of the main characters, resulting in quite enjoyable duets—and occasionally trios and even quartets. There were rousing choruses appearing at suitable moments. The story itself had all the ingredients of good drama: there were triumphs and disappointments, intrigues and coups, and even a whiff of gang warfare à la the Capulets and Montagues. But above all, it involved deeply felt emotions. For those involved, the sociobiology controversy touched the very core of what it meant to be a scientist. For the audience, it was slightly embarrassing, although intuitively understandable and often quite enjoyable.

This book, then, deals with the libretto, as it were. I invite the reader to imagine the actual staging, complete with musical scores. Here I only give a few preliminary hints and highlights. The opera has three acts: I, 'What happened in the sociobiology debate?'; II, 'Making sense of the sociobiology debate'; and III, 'The cultural meaning of the battle for science'.

The opera opens with the early upheaval around Wilson's Sociobiology. For Chapter 2 we need lots of smoke on the scene, shouting and the clanking of swords. A pitcher of ice-water is indispensable for the reconstruction of the 1978 AAAS meeting in Washington, DC. Chapter 3 brings in a would-be tragic twist: the necessity, with which the early protagonists in this story, E. O. Wilson and Richard Lewontin, were on a collision course before the beginning of the controversy. A duet might do it, with both protagonists blindfolded. The next two chapters take us away from the political storm to the creators of sociobiological theory. This brings us over the Atlantic, to Bill Hamilton, George Price, and John Maynard Smith, and back again to a different part of Harvard—this time the Anthropology Department. The scene opens with Bob Trivers and Irven DeVote playing poker. Before that, we have had a brief encounter with a lumbering robot and his friend, the Chicago gangster. The most dramatic moment, however, is a sad scene with Hamilton as a lonely graduate student struggling with the mathematics of altruism, which nobody seems to be interested in. He is sitting on a bench at Waterloo Station, surrounded by dubious-looking types. Papers are crumpled and tossed, hair is pulled. He sings a long lament divided in two parts, Part I and Part II.

By Chapters 6 and 7 the political dust has cleared enough for a would-be serious scientific discussion to take place. A lot of finger-pointing now goes on as everybody accuses everybody else of error. The high point is Stephen J. Gould's delivery of his and Lewontin's 'Spandrels of San Marco' paper to the Royal Society. Here an architecturally inspired aria will do fine, preferably with a chorus repeating the rousing Latin chant: 'Nullius in Verba, Nullius in Verba'. In the distance we can now see two figures walking on the top of the chapel of King's College, Cambridge. They are Pat Bateson and Gould empirically investigating Gould's spandrels claim. Bateson almost falls off the roof when he pulls at a ceiling rose and finds it only loosely attached. In Chapter 8, Wilson emerges again, looking conspiratorial, this time carrying complicated-looking but fragile metal constructions in both hands. He has now, with Charles Lumsden's help, created genes-mind-culture models to demonstrate that his sociobiological project is in principle workable and worthwhile. But what do others think of the result? Lewontin sneers, Medawar hums, Edmund Leach giggles, and Maynard Smith counts. All flee when Nap Chagnon and his Yanomamö Indians arrive. They have come to protect the models.

Chapter 9 shows that the political connotations of sociobiology will simply not go away. The cast now includes more prominently Steven Rose, 'Britain's Lewontin', dressed all in leather, sustaining a two-front battle against both Wilson and Dawkins. The point where the high opera comes closest to collapsing into a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, however, is the Nabi episode—a subintrigue in Nature involving a pseudonym which may or may not be Lewontin's. Act I ends with Rose threatening Dawkins with a law suit.

Act II switches mode completely. We are no longer dealing with an unfolding story, we stop temporarily to let in a sociologist. She claims, incredibly, that this highly emotional spectacle, full of gossip, intrigue, and innuendo, can in fact be analyzed and made sense of as scientific behavior. She even insists that what we have witnessed is actually rather typical, and that we might learn something about the way science works from looking more closely at these actors and trying to understand how they think and reason.

This sociologist starts out where she believes the real action is: in a workshop of the critical industry. In Chapter 10, hectic activity is going on. The goal is to show that sociobiology is both morally and scientifically corrupt, which is taken-for-granted truth, but needs to be revealed to others. Noam Chomsky briefly visits, but decides not to buy the product. In Chapter 11 we find ourselves in a beautiful garden, with primroses and the Pale Brindled Beauty Moth. Avid gardeners abound. Some are planting pretty flowers but others are following immediately in their footsteps, weeding out what the former have planted. The two types of gardeners are sent by two different firms, both named Defenders of the Truth, but their truths are different, and so are their strategies.

In Chapter 12 we meet a group of scientists who have taken unusual roles in the debate. They have retained a critical stance while refusing to buy into the rhetoric of the anti-sociobiologists: Peter Medawar, John Maynard Smith, Pat Bateson, and Salvador Luria. We hear them out. Chapter 13 opens with communicative naturalists clashing with critical experimentalists. But it gets worse: soon the whole academy divides into two camps, who live in two separate worlds of truth and 'known facts'. This time we see lots of people running around with blindfolds.

In Chapter 14 more smoke has to be brought on stage. We are here dealing with fairly hairy epistemological and ontological issues relating to sociobiology and IQ research as science: what exactly is it that the opponents of these fields object to? The high point here is the Reductionist Lament against Reductionism. Chapter 15 brings out the protagonists of the two camps onto different balconies to receive tribute from their respective crowds cheering below. The protagonists are pointing at each other and shouting things across the scene. At particularly apposite jeers the crowds toss gold coins up on their favorite's balcony. The protagonists go on, in seeming ceaseless interchange, both sides accumulating piles of moral capital from the continuing conflict. Act II ends with Stephen J. Gould getting the Optimization Award for most effective simultaneous pursuit of scientific and moral aims, with E. O. Wilson as a close second.

In Act III, we are transported to the present. The sociologist has partly gone back to reporting, but she refuses to stop analyzing. Chapter 16 takes stock of the progress of sociobiology and the fate of the protagonists in the controversy. We note a scene with Wilson journeying to different topics, getting his suitcase relabeled from 'bad sociobiologist' to 'good environmentalist', all the time carrying the gene-culture co-evolution models around in a secret compartment. This is registered by the choir, who hesitantly tries to make 'co-evolution' rhyme with 'revolution' as Wilson is crowned the moral victor in the sociobiology controversy. Meanwhile, we see Gould and Dawkins involved in a dramatic-seeming duel duet with impeccably co-ordinated singing, while both keep systematically shooting beside the target.

In Chapter 17 we hear the clanking of swords again. There is a lot of movement on the scene as the chapter establishes the continuity of the sociobiology controversy with the Science Wars. The chapter ends with everybody on the same side, raising the banner of Truth against the barbarians—constructivists and relativists—now at the gate, although there is some traffic in and out a backdoor.

Chapter 18 is dominated by a scene with a bridge which has been destroyed in the middle. People on one side are trying to use all kinds of ingenuity to bridge the gap, but are easily rebuffed by the people on the other side, who seem to consider this a hostile takeover. Many seem to believe that the gap is best left as it is, but we see lots of people swimming over in both directions. Wilson, a veteran strategist at bridging the Two Cultures, appears on the scene with a hat with inbuilt ear plugs and blinders. He has decided not to be distracted any longer by people saying he cannot do it. Finally, we see him landing from the ceiling in a hot-air balloon labeled Consilience. He sings a persuasive solo about his plan, which is to invite members of both sides to see the big picture. Sound of bassoons in the background.

Chapters 19 and 20, the finale, address the connection between fact and values, science and belief, and even the status of evolutionary biology as a science. Different points of view are delivered in dramatic alto voices. The scene is almost unbearably smoky by now. Enlightenment and hyper-Enlightenment advocates run around with candles. Demons abound. Even the Pope pops up. Suddenly, through a hidden opening in the scene floor, Truth and Clarity emerge. The scene is flooded by light. The smoke clears. Everybody claims victory and gets out. Truth and Clarity smile. They have seen it so many times before.

Well, admittedly the scene with Truth and Clarity is still beyond this book. Maybe it can be added in a future edition.


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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

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Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
ehines on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is rightly celebrated as THE place to go to to learn about the socio-biological (and related) disputes of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Segerstrale had an uncommon degree of access to the central figures in the debate, and also an uncommon degree of access to those less-famous working scientists who largely pass judgement on these sorts of debate.The big weaknesses of the book are its small but decided bias in favor of EO Wilson, whom the author obviously likes personally; and Segerstrale's persistent refusal to properly entertain the possibility that the institutional interests of science might mitigate against a fair judgment of truth in some of these matters, which all essentially go to the question of how powerful that institution ought to be.