- Paperback: 512 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press (May 31, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0192862154
- ISBN-13: 978-0192862150
- Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1.3 x 4.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 22 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #523,920 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate
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How do scientists separate their politics from their work--or is such a distinction even possible? These questions frame the two levels of sociologist Ullica Segerstrale's analysis of the sociobiology controversy, Defenders of the Truth. From E.O. Wilson's 1975 publication of Sociobiology to his 1998 release of Consilience, he has consistently been the often-unwilling center of the vitriolic debate over human nature and its scientific study. Heavy hitters like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Maynard Smith have lined up to attack and defend the scientific, political, and moral interpretations and implications of Wilson's synthesis, and Dr. Segerstrale tells a compelling story of their battles on multiple fronts. The author knows her science, having trained extensively in biochemistry before turning to sociology. While she distances herself from assessing the validity of the various claims, Segerstrale is clearly sympathetic to Wilson, who seems almost naïve at times when his ideas are interpreted ideologically rather than scientifically.
That, of course, is the heart of the contention surrounding sociobiology. The political left, well-represented among evolutionary biologists, has long considered any genetic influence on human behavior anathema--such theories are believed to support racist policies, even in the unlikely event that they were not merely reflections of racist attitudes. To their credit, many scientists held more complex beliefs, but some used the ideological argument as a back door to introduce their own neo-Darwinian scientific theories. The struggle for understanding has been eclipsed for some time by the struggle for political and academic survival and dominance, and Segerstrale reports and scrutinizes both with humor, intelligence, and aplomb. The end of the controversy--if there can be one--is far off, but a careful reading of Defenders of the Truth will give insight into the forces influencing our scientific self-examination. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In 1975, E.O. Wilson published Sociobiology, a study of evolution and animal societies; its last chapter called for attention to the Darwinian and genetic foundations of human behavior. The book produced prolonged contention among scientists and laypeople over morals, politics, genes, evolution, statistics, sex, race, "intelligence," evidence, truth, "human nature" and other hot-button topics. Why were they all so upset, and what can their arguments tell us? In a broad and detailed view of that intellectual firestorm along with its prequels and sequels, Segerstr?le--a professor of sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology--shows how "a debate about the nature of science, the relationship of science to society, and the nature of acceptable knowledge was expressed as a conflict between individuals." Debaters revealed not just their political underpinnings but their beliefs and assumptions about what constitutes valid science, what counts as verification, as fact and as falsehood. Segerstr?le begins at the start of the clash, with Harvard titans Wilson and Richard Lewontin; backtracks to Britain in the mid-1960s, with a population biologist's investigations of altruism; and zooms forward to the "Science Wars" of the mid-1990s and the international slugfest over The Bell Curve. Partisans in these controversies will likely find something here to make them angry; they will also learn much they didn't know. Even those who might dispute Segerstr?le's conclusions will appreciate her assiduous chronology of these tangled issues and her accounts of what many of the participants thought they were doing in their "battle for the soul of science in one of the few fields where it might still be fought." (Apr.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
Most recent customer reviews
First, as others have noted, it is indeed a real page-turner.Read more