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Who is the custodian of biological truth?,
This review is from: Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate (Paperback)
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.