115 of 133 people found the following review helpful
on April 30, 2000
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a dense but well-written history of the sociobiology debates between E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith and others on one side, and Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Science for the People on the other. Most of the authors material was gather for her 1983 Ph.D. dissertation, but there is plenty of material from the mid to late 1990's as well.
Despite the length and degree of detail of the book, I found it difficult to skip even a page, so well is it written and so engaging is the author. It is hard to believe that she could still inject new insights in to the analysis 300 pages in to the book, but this she does, and repeatedly so.
The author has deep respect for the anti-sociobiologists, but she is clearly on the side of their critics. In this I believe she is correct. While my personal history is closer to that of the opponents (I was a Marxist and an anti-racist activist at the same time Gould, Lewontin, et al. were) I never had the slightest sympathy for their critique of E. O. Wilson (I read Sociobiology when it first came out and didn't even mind the infamous last chapter, though I though it was wrong---and it is), and their treatment of Maynard Smith, Dawkins, and more recently evolutionary psychology, is to mind simply silly and ignorant---the opponents may be great biologists, but they are third rate amateurs at understanding social theory and human sociality, in my opinion.
I'm sure there are lessons to be learned from this intellectual saga, but I must report that the greatest pleasure for me was to see great minds battle it out in public. Of course, behind the scenes scientists were slowly and patiently working out the real issues, and we are measurable better informed now that when this battle began in the mid-1970's. The sociobiologists and behavioral ecologists won the scientific war, though the enemy is still sniping away around the perimeter.
67 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2000
At the outset of her book, Segerstrale comes up with a marvelous (and hugely entertaining) overview of the sociobiology controversy as an opera. Everyone sings their part, the emotions and language is overwrought, alliances shift, and we (the audience) are eventually left drained from the experience. While her tongue is firmly in cheek, opera isn't a bad comparison. Because so much of the controversy over sociobiology today feels like a performance. One side setting up straw men to knock over in order to increase their own moral capital. The end result is the most human view of science I've ever encountered (human in the sense of "human frailty").
Because in the end, we see that the whole "sociobiology debate" wasn't really a scientific debate at all. The moral and political arguements were what created and drove the controversy all along. And Segerstrale reminds us all too strongly of something that's easily forgotten ... that science is (and will always be) a human pursuit. Driven by the same human emotions that drive all other pursuits. As Segerstrale herself says in the book's final words, two features often thought alien to science -- emotion and belief -- turn out to be omnipresent. They may not drive science, but they do drive scientists. And this book is a truly remarkable look at the controversy, the characters and the way science really works. It deserves to be read as widely as possible.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2005
Ullica Segerstråle is a sociologist who, as a student, decided to move from undergraduate training in biochemistry and organic chemistry to do her doctoral work in the sociology of science, choosing the arguments about "sociobiology" and "genetic determinism" as her theme. This proved to be a remarkably prescient choice of research topic, as it allowed her to observe at first hand the remarkably vicious battles between different groups of biologists from the middle 1970s onwards about the proper development of Darwinism and evolutionary theory. Defenders of the Truth is the fruit of her observations, and its title reflects the almost religious fervour with which each side maintains that it is the custodian of The Truth, the other being doctrinaire, unscientific, racist etc. As tends to happen in these disputes, both liked to compare their opponents with Nazis.
As Segerstråle started her study at the very beginning of the controversy, she was present at some of the more dramatic confrontations, such as the debate between Edward O. Wilson and Stephen J. Gould when Wilson gave his presentation only after being drenched with water by members of a group calling itself the International Committee against Racism. Not only that, but as she had been attending meetings of a somewhat less disreputable group, the Sociobiology Study Group, she was able to recognize one of Wilson's assailants as someone she had seen at such a meeting. This eye-witness character gives her book much of its vividness, but in addition she interviewed many of the participants subsequently, and studied the scientific bases of their positions. All of this adds up to a remarkably impressive achievement.
It is interesting to compare Defenders of the Truth with The Darwin Wars, another book written on the same subject at about the same time by Andrew Brown. The two books cover much the same ground, but Brown's is much shorter (about half the length, if one allows for the smaller amount of text on each page), and is written from the point of view of a journalist rather than that of an academic sociologist. He shares Segerstråle's concern with seeing both sides of the dispute, with getting his facts right, and with presenting the different points of view in a fair way. Both books are excellent, and both are essential reading if one is interested in the subject. Neither mentions the other, but they were being written at the same time, and published at much the same time, so neither author is likely to have had access to the other's work while writing.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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]
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2003
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is a lovely book - for a certain type of person. First of all, you must care about the long-running nature/nurture controversy that swirled around the publication, in 1975, of E.O. Wilson's book Sociobiology. Also, ideally, you have long sympathized with Wilson as against his main critics, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould. That is, you must have long felt that Wilson's assertions in that book and later ones about the heritability of cultural and mental traits in humans were reasonable-perhaps wrong in some details, but certainly interesting, and good starting points. Finally, you should find it intriguing that these three biologists were all at Harvard, and had offices in the same building.
I fit the bill. In 1979 I read Michael Ruse's book "Sociobiology: Sense or Nonsense?" (Sense, he concluded.) I had no sympathy for using Marxism to critique work in science or anyplace else, which is where Lewontin and (less-blatantly) Gould were coming from. Moreover, there was something so right about the idea that humans have predilections that work themselves out in culture, and so exciting about the prospects for this kind of self-knowledge, that I felt the critics of the sort of research that Wilson was proposing were spoilsports, indeed.
But the time was not right. The critics got the best of things early on, and the name "sociobiology" acquired such a stigma that those who wished to do research (and get funded) in genetic influences on the human mind were advised to tread lightly and call their work something else. But things changed. What emerged in the 1990's was something called "evolutionary psychology", a new name for bad old "sociobiology", now respectable and in tune with current public attitudes, which have made a massive shift to a gene-centered view of - well, of just about everything.
Have I just given away the game? Perhaps, but you will have to take my word for it that this book is fun to read - if you enjoy the thrust and parry of ideas and the clash of egos. And, of course, scientists' pettiness and careerism is more entertaining than their usual posturing on pedestals engraved with "The Noble Search for Truth".
In 1980 and 1981 a young (I assume) Ullica got interviews with the main protagonists in the debates - Wilson, Lewontin, Levins, and others in America, plus various of the British contingent as well, such as Dawkins and Maynard Smith. Her area of study was the sociology of science, and she did some shaking and baking early on, using her material for contingent articles. But she kept a weather eye on how things were going in what was really a clash that exposed cultural fault lines in evolutionary biologists who were, fundamentally, on the same side. (Creationists they were not. Some of them might want to refine Darwin, but certainly none of them wanted to reject him!)
Now is a good time to sum up the course this debate has taken over the last quarter-century. The original political rationale seems quaint, and the focus has shifted to concern about how genetics and environment interact - it being more or less agreed that both are crucial. (Thus, an Hegelian synthesis of the dialectical process!) If you wish to know the history and drama of issues such as genes vs. environment, kin selection, group selection, the place of moral responsibility in a world of genetic "determinism", then this is the place to come. These and other issues are explored in a quietly comprehensive way. The personalities also come out, and the whole has the feel of a story, which of course it is, to its main players. And to you, too, if you take it up.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2001
This was interesting reading also for a nonbiologist. The author has done an enormous amount of work in collecting material about results and research practice of the various fields in evolutionary, human behaviour, and biological sciences, not to mention her numerous extensive interviews with the major players in the field. It is enlightening to see how many extrascientific aspects to the sociobiology debate can be discussed.
Some of those lines of argumentation in criticising colleagues are really incredible. It is difficult to believe that (as the author seems to show) for example Stephen J. Gould could argue against the _scientific_ correctness of a theory by its potentially dangerous social and political consequences. Apply that to harder sciences than biology; for example, if a physics law could be used to build a machine to make harm to people, the law must be wrong. The scientist who discovered (or rather invented) that result must have made a mistake!
Regarding this, on the last pages of the book, the author mentions that it may have been precisely the fact that "moral" concerns were used in the debate that was good because then the participants (like Dawkins) had to respond to criticism and refine their theories. But is this really so? I think that traditional scientists would certainly more willingly reply to critics and counterarguments on the level of substance if the critic was "scientific" in the first place. Or perhaps, after all, it is so that scientists (like everyone else) feel an even stronger need to respond when they are insulted.
Indeed, it would be interesting to know whether these weeders of 'bad' science (Lewontin and his lot) ever apologised Wilson.
56 of 69 people found the following review helpful
on May 7, 2000
Ullica Segerstrale has been extraordinarily resourceful in her research. She managed to interview many of the major players in the controversy that raged in the years's after Edward O. Wilson's book Sociobiology was published. Her reporting is honest and balanced, her interpretations insightful and highly original. For those interested in the subject, a real page-turner.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Oh so rarely do I get the oppertunity to read a book that, when over, I wish I could read again for the first time. This book was well worth the money (I paid hardcover price) and then some. It was thorough, interesting, informative and, dare I say, entertaining!
As a lover and believer in science, I've never been quite so confident in sociobiology as I'm from the Popperian school that figures "If there's no concievable falsification method, then it can hardly be a science." Just because it explains, does not mean it explains correctly. After reading this book, I've still not made up my mind but to say that the battle over sociobiology is even stranger than I thought it was. Honestly, I don't think the author (who IS on sociobiology's side) intended this book as an argument for or against, as her history is quite objective, or so it seemed.
Looking at the criticisms below, I find they are all valid. If you are not used to academic writing, this book may not be for you. In fact, this book came out of the authors PhD. thesis (?). It is quite a long, involved 400 page, closely spaced book but it is NOT long-winded. The mark of a long-winded book is if the reader can identify passages, chapters or sections that could be easily cut and there simply are none. Another criticism is that the author is bisased towards sociobiology (and possibly towards Richard Dawkins). As mentioned above, she is, but restrains herself well in the name of objectivity. I reccomend this book highly with two modifiers. First, I would suggest having read two books before starting this one- Wilson's "Sociobiology" and Dawkins "Selfish Gene" These two books are brought up repeatedly throughout, though not explained well. Second, if the reader is not used to heavily referenced, academic style books, this book will not be as rewarding as it may appear. Other than that, five stars!!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 29, 2002
On the surface there's nothing attractive about this book. A simple title with no great promise of scientific quests or eccentric personalities. No catchy popular science theme and no photographs or diagrams; just 400 plus pages of closely spaced text. But within these plain gray jacket covers you've got the most comprehensive, balanced, and exceedingly well researched book on the cultural, philosophical, and political debates that surrounds the subject of sociobiology.
The two obvious issues the book looks at are mentioned at the very outset. The Sociobiology Debate began when E.O Wilson applied some observations on animal behavior to the study of human society. This was largely confined to the final chapter in his book SOCIOBIOLOGY and this was decades ago; the book was published in 1975. From such innocuous beginnings we have an issue that has come forward through time, spread throughout most of the scientific community, and is recognized as the opening battle, and longest running dispute in the "Science Wars". This leads to the second issue that Segerstrale focuses on and the one which provides her with her title, and us as readers with some new and valuable insight into this debate. The scientists in question notably Richard Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, John Maynard Smith, Steven Rose, Niles Eldredge, and of course Wilson himself, are all DEFENDERS OF THE TRUTH its just that they have "different conceptions of where the truth lies."
Not only does this book give us details on the different methodologies of the scientists and what constitutes "good science", we also see some of the personalities involved. Political and moral ideologies emerge from the background and are shown to be strong influences. Straw men, red herrings, floating false balloons, threats of lawsuits, and a single jug of ice water, have all been used at one time or another to start or end debates. None of the principals emerges unscathed, although both Wilson and Dawkins come out with enhanced debating reputations.
By tackling the sociobiology debate the book must naturally deal with the contentious issues in science: altruism, adaptionism vs allometry, essentialism vs existentialism, measuring human intelligence, punctuated equilibria, Marxism, determinism, reductionism, and attempts for a synthesis or unity of scientific knowledge. Although these are the topics covered the book is not an attempt to engage in epistemology. Instead Segerstrale is quite sensible in focusing on the methodology and motivation of the scientists themselves, rather than explaining the meanings of the scientific theories. The book then is very approachable and would go a long way to providing the general reading public with clarity on the "Science Wars". Many times in the past when reading books by the scientists mentioned here I've wanted some matrix that would allow me to peg them in terms of their political, moral, human, and philosophical world views. More than merely allowing us to do this Segerstrale rises above that. She highlights the subtle and shifting nature of scientific positions but is very clear in showing that for each scientist this is a case of defending the truth.
I purchased this book on the recommendation of one of the reviewers here (thanks Stephen) and consider it one of the most useful science books i've read. I can't recommend it any more than by trying to pass on the favor with my own review.
"In some respects the better a book is, the less it demands from the binding." (Charles Lamb)
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on May 11, 2006
This book succeeds on three levels.
First, as others have noted, it is indeed a real page-turner. (I actually read several chapters ALOUD to a friend on a long drive.)
Second, this is an excellent history of one of the most important controversies of 20th Century American culture. History will not record this controversy as a turning point in science. Wilson made no great discovery. His distinguishing characteristic was the simple willingness to think and speak freely.
However, in a hundred years, what has been called the "Triumph of Sociobiology" will be seen as a crucial event in the intellectual history of the United States. This book is the first draft of that history.
Those reviewers who believe that the author is biased should remember that the author is, above all, a sociologist of science -not a biologist. She has far more in common with T.S. Kuhn than with any of the biologists she profiles. I am not convinced that she takes the work of ANY of these scientists at face value. If, at the end of the book, sociobiology appears ascendant, that may be because Wilson's camp has won the battle of public opinion.
Finally, this book succeeds as a case study in scientific epistemology. The author -ever the social scientist- metaphorically divides scientists into two categories: "planters" and "weeders."
"Planters" are risk-tolerant. They interpret evidence to support highly-speculative hypotheses -hypotheses that often turn out to be wrong. They provide the building blocks of science. The believe they are doing "good science."
"Weeders" are fundamentally skeptical. They interpret evidence in the strictest possible manner, in search of certainty. By eliminating the rotten wood, they keep the ediface of "science" standing. They also believe they are doing "good science."
In my view, both of these viewpoints are helpful to the ecology of human knowledge. Planters generate needed diversity; weeders enforce conformity. Each should appreciate the systemic value of the others' function; the tragedy here -in my view- was that neither side did.
The author, however, would disagree with me. She seems to suggest that such partisan zeal makes for good scientists, if not for good science. Maybe, she suggests, objectivity in the process of science is an OBSTACLE to the production of knowledge. Maybe we are doomed to (and blessed with) a perpetual sociobiology controversy, since fairminded people like myself can only muster the will to write book reviews.
This is perhaps the most interesting insight in this book, and alone worth the price of admission.