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Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

4.4 out of 5 stars 23 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0192862150
ISBN-10: 0192862154
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Amazon.com Review

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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Product Details

  • 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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #429,564 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified 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.
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Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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