Veritable origins or specious?

Defenders of the Truth
April 28, 2000

Jon Turney reports on a scientific debate that looks set to run and run merlin holberton

Nearly 150 years after The Origin of Species , we are still trying to come to terms with Darwinism. For the past 25 of them, the main focus for our hopes and anxieties about the meaning of evolution has been the debate crystallised by Edward O. Wilson's monumental Sociobiology (1975).

But this is probably too simplistic, even for starters. We should perhaps backtrack and ask in what sense there has been a debate about the possibility of a new discipline of sociobiology, originally defined by Wilson as "the systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour". True, the book evoked a startling range of responses: many plaudits; some bitter political denunciations and a few demonstrations; a welter of pop-sociobiology in the media; technical critiques; replies to the critics; and in time many more books. But what were the arguments about? What Wilson said, or what he was taken to imply? The whole book, or just the famous closing chapter on humans? Substance or style? Ideas or their potential uses? And who, in the endless textual round since, has truly been open to persuasion?

Ullica Segerstrale answers all these questions and more in her book Defenders of the Truth . She has followed every twist and turn since the beginning, and now tries to sum up a quarter-century of discussion on the limits of human nature. She begins, as she must, with Wilson's book, the central volume of a trilogy that opened with The Insect Societies (1971) and finished with On Human Nature and a Pulitzer prize in 1978. Sociobiology was seen at the time as either a heroic synthesis of practically everything there was to know about evolution, population biology, genetics and behaviour (the central 550 pages or so), or a provocation to right-thinking people everywhere (the opening and closing chapters).

In those, it seems fair to view Wilson as intentionally provocative. And, like most interesting writers, he hedged his bets on how provocative he wanted to be. The book opens with the mild observation that "I hope not too many scholars in ethology and psychology will be offended by this vision of the future of behavioural ecology" (I quote from the abridged edition published a few years later). But by the end he is prefiguring the Olympian vision he returned to in Consilience at the end of the 1990s, in which "the humanities and social sciences shrink to specialised branches of biology; history, biography, and fiction are the protocols of human ethology; and anthropology and sociology together constitute the sociobiology of a single primate species".

That ought to have been enough to annoy as wide a range of academics as anyone could wish for. But, as Segerstrale relates, the most dedicated contributors to the ensuing debate were fellow evolutionists. The first part of her book is dominated by four key figures: Wilson, his arch-critics Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, and his equally provocative British colleague Richard Dawkins. There are smaller parts for a host of other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Salvador Luria, Steven Rose, Patrick Bateson and the late Bill Hamilton, originator of the genetic analysis of altruism that inspired both Wilson and Dawkins. But it is these first four to whom she returns again and again. Darwinians all, they disagree profoundly about the finer points of Darwinian theory and its implications for understanding human conduct.

The critics' first attacks were political, denouncing Wilson's argument about evolved constraints on how humans behave and what we can become as mere ideology. This was often counter-productive. Ernst Mayr told Segerstrale of several scientific critiques of Wilson that were shelved because their authors did not want to support this kind of attack. Even when sociobiology's fiercest opponents turned to scientific criticism, the tone of the exchanges was often shrill. With hindsight, it is hard not to sympathise with another Darwinian theorist, John Maynard Smith, who suggested that "I find that if I talk to Dick Lewontin or Steve Gould for an hour or two, I become a real sociobiologist, and if I talk to someone like Wilson or [Robert] Trivers for an hour or two, I become wildly hostile to it."

But it was hard to keep one's balance. There were sides to take, moral high ground to occupy, entrenched positions to defend. And the debate, as debates will, became entangled with other arguments. Some, like the conflict over race and IQ, were closely related. Others take more teasing out. This is Segerstrale's mission in the second part of her book, in which she shows how a whole series of oppositions figured at various times. Yes, this was part of the old nature-nurture argument, but the protagonists were divided not just as hereditarians versus environmentalists or proponents of free will versus determinism, but also as existentialists versus essentialists, modellers versus scientific realists, metaphysicians versus logicians, naturalists versus experimentalists, even urban versus rural intellectuals. Their differences, just as in the wider science wars that she turns to briefly in the last part of the book, were a rich blend of moral, methodological, epistemological and, on occasion, ontological commitments. They could never have a strictly scientific dispute because they had little common ground on what good science was. All, in their own ways, were seekers after truth, but they disagreed on where it was to be found.

None of these oppositions cuts cleanly between the two academic camps Segerstrale surveys, but her often subtle analysis persuades that all were in play. She goes further, and depicts the leading figures in the debate as much in symbiosis as in opposition. Wilson and Lewontin, she argues, each needed the other to spur them on and provide a foil for their favourite arguments. Continuing controversy served both well.

The final result: no one involved in the controversy has altered their views significantly, according to Segerstrale, although some science has been usefully refined. She notes wryly that the heritability of IQ has come down from 0.8 to 0.5 in 30 years.

Do we, at any rate, now have a definitive account of the controversy? No, because history is not like that. It is certainly comprehensive. At times, it even feels as if the author is working too hard to establish a kind of ownership of the debate - there is no lecture she did not hear, no one she has not interviewed, no draft letter unread, no study group, it seems, that did not have Segerstrale sitting in the corner taking notes.

Admirable scholarly dedication, of course, but consigning some of this to the footnotes and eliminating repetition would easily shorten the main text by 100 pages or so. But she has certainly written an account no one seriously interested in the argument over sociobiology can ignore, if only by canvassing every possible interpretation. Sometimes, the explanation seems too inclusive, and one could use a little more emphasis on which factors counted for most. But perhaps it is better to leave it to readers to choose. My choice is still more political than scientific. Wilson is a fascinating figure, a fine writer and an admirable man who has achieved more than most of us would in a dozen academic careers. But there persists the feeling that Wilson, whether wittingly or not, leaves himself too open to a kind of guilt by association. That does not mean he is retrospectively complicit in Nazism, a plainly ludicrous idea. It does mean that, even though any claim about human nature can in principle be allied to any political position, we undeniably live in a society in which definition of the ways biology constrains behaviour lends comfort to what I would term the forces of conservatism, if Tony Blair had not appropriated the phrase for his own curious kind of anti-politics. Let's just call them assorted reactionaries.

That was true 25 years ago, in the midst of the XYY controversy and the recombinant DNA debate. It is true now, when we await completion of the human genome map, and a new generation of evolutionary psychologists pursue Wilson's project. Within arm's reach I find an article by Mary Kenny explaining why men do not do housework, a Prospect essay by Charles Murray predicting that the genome will soon reveal that the right were right about human nature all along, Kingsley Browne's explanation of the glass ceiling in corporations in terms of the gendered rewards for risk-taking in the environment of evolutionary adaptation, and the latest of Robin Baker's down-market popularisations of sexual biology, with its one-dimensional people in thrall to as impoverished a view of human motives and desires as you could hope to find.

Responsibility for these, needless to say, rests with the authors. Neither the Wilson of Sociobiology , nor the older, wiser Wilson of Consilience is to blame for the inadequacy, or even downright silliness of these writers' arguments. But they do all publish in a climate that he helped to create.

For a rich picture of how that climate emerged, read Segerstrale's book. But note that, although the authors just mentioned would disagree, the sociobiology debate is far from over.

Jon Turney is senior lecturer in science and technology studies, University College London.

Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond

Author - Ullica Segerstrale
ISBN - 0 19 850505 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 461

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments