Genetics and Evolution

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Defenders of the TruthReview - Defenders of the Truth
The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond
by Ullica Segerstrale
Oxford University Press, 2000
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Jan 1st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 1)

Defenders of the Truth is truly an epic tale of intrigue, passion, adventure, and the pursuit of knowledge. The author has meticulously presented an intricate plot, and has included a huge cast of incredibly vivid characters, all of them struggling heroically against relentless adversaries.

While this introduction could indeed describe a very good novel of fiction, this particular story is actual history -- a very detailed history of the birth, death, transformation and rebirth of sociobiology into the new and perhaps even broader field of evolutionary psychology. In its telling, this tale encompasses territory, and shows a great deal about how the frontiers of science are actually won.

Sociobiology was a term coined in the 1970s by biologist E.O. Wilson to define a branch of study that would look at the biological underpinnings of animal behavior - - including human behavior. Rather unexpectedly in some quarters, it seems, Wilson's work sparked an avalanche of outrage not only from academics but from politically minded groups as well. The idea that humans might come with genetically imprinted behavioral tendencies, however tenuous and modifiable, was anathema to intellectuals on the sociopolitical left, whose beliefs required that humans be born tabula rasa, without any troubling biological vestiges that might impede their advance toward the creation of truly egalitarian societies.

To discredit sociobiology, these critics dragged out pejorative terms like "social Darwinism" in an attempt to link this theory to racism, sexism, and even the evil social and political aims of the Nazis. In addition, they attacked Wilson on theoretical and methodological grounds. The group of critics was large (as would be expected considering the spirit of the times) and included such well-known public figures as Stephen J. Gould and Richard C. Lewontin.

But the battle referred to in the subtitle of this book is not, strictly speaking, a struggle just about science, but rather a battle over which topics are even appropriate for scientists to study. When E.O. Wilson published his book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in 1975, he brought to light an academic world in which the line between political belief and scientific pursuit had become blurred. Some academics believed that there are directions in science that are simply too dangerous to pursue, and that it is better not to ask questions for which the answers might be unpalatable. Thus, this book is not just about an obscure disagreement among academicians and scientists over technical details, but is, more broadly, about a debate over how science should be pursued. Further, this book is about scientists and academicians as people.

Segestrale, a professor of sociology, knows whereof she writes - - she was both a witness to and a participant in the early days of the debate. Segestrale argues in her book that for the most part, scientists and academicians on both sides of the debate have honorable intentions and are true to what they see as the requirements of good science. However, the reader is repeatedly disheartened by the actions and tactics of some of the characters . . . specifically those of the anti-sociobiology forces. The search for truth often seems to have been obscured by the desire to dissuade by any method, and the allegiance to political principles (specifically Marxism) seems to have often overwhelmed serious scientific debate.

One example of a particularly unsavory tactic used by the opponents of sociobiology was an on-stage attack at a conference in 1978, in which a pitcher of ice water was literally poured over Wilson, who was presenting at the time. Another example was the creation of a fictitious persona, purportedly an academic, under whose name letters of criticism were submitted for publication in a well-known journal. These are not strategies that would be approved by most scientists, and their use speaks to the energies unleashed by this particular subject.

The debate over what science should study brings up the fundamental issue of political correctness. Scientists who work in areas that are politically unpopular can pay a significant price for their boldness. At the least, these researchers will spend a large part of their energies and resources defending themselves and answering their critics. Even their careers and personal lives may be affected. For a quarter century now, sociobiologists have been underdogs. Although rapid advances in genetics and in empirical psychology have stimulated fresh debate, the question of whether their work will in the end be justified remains to be settled.

Although, as pointed out above, this book is as much about the scientific method as it is about the specifics of sociobiology, it will likely appeal most to those readers interested in, and already somewhat familiar with, the areas of biology, sociology, and evolutionary psychology.

Keith Harris, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and supervisor of Victor Valley Behavioral Health Center in San Bernardino county, California. Hisinterests include clinical supervision, the empirical basis forpsychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes,and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


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