Activism, Scientists and Sociobiology
by David L. Hull
more than 20 years Ullica Segerstråle has been charting the course of
sociobiology, beginning with E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology
(1975) and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene (1976) through to the present-day
'science wars' and evolutionary psychology. Although she is interested in broad
sociological and philosophical trends, her exposition here consists mainly in
discussions of individual people, their views and their interrelations.
The chief advocates of sociobiology in the United States whom
Segerstråle considers are E. O. Wilson, Robert Trivers and Bernard Davis; the chief
opponents are Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Levins, Jon Beckwith and
Stephen Chorover. In the United Kingdom she emphasizes the work of Richard Dawkins,
W. D. Hamilton and John Maynard Smith;
Steven Rose and Patrick Bateson are the chief critics. In the United States Wilson
emerged as the father of sociobiology whereas in Britain this role devolved on
Richard Dawkins, although quite understandably he preferred to call this movement
by a name other than the one co-opted by Wilson.
Segerstråle interviewed all the major figures in these disputes
and many of the minor figures too. She also attended meetings, both formal and
informal, and read the vast literature that sociobiology generated. Her goal was to
understand the factors that influenced the course of this scientific movement.
The controversial thread that runs through her narratives is
the nature of science. Science functions within a culture. So, do the various
sociocultural contexts influence science? Do capitalist societies necessarily
produce capitalist science? According to the traditional 'internalist' view of
science, scientists make up their minds on scientific issues primarily through
reason, argument and evidence. Other factors may be involved, but they should be
Just as sociobiology was emerging, a quite different view of
science was becoming influential. According to this view, scientists make their
decisions in large measure influenced by broader social contexts, such as those
of economics and class structure.
More specifically, Segerstråle attempts to discover exactly
what the views of the biologists she studied were and why they held them. On
what basis do the sociobiologists as well as their opponents evaluate
sociobiology? For example, the versions of evolutionary theory that
sociobiologists extended to behaviour and social structure tended to be very
individualistic and competitive. Sociobiologists tend to think that selection
occurs only at the lowest levels of organization, a position their critics
attribute to their economic leanings: the individual is paramount in
free-enterprise economic systems. The Marxist opponents of sociobiology tend
to think that selection can occur at higher levels of organization, including
groups. In Marxism, groups are more important than individuals. Capitalists
view nature as competitive, whereas these Marxist critics tend to view it as
being much more cooperative.
As Segerstråle notes, one problem with posing the issue in
the way she does is that sociobiology's opponents lived in exactly the same
array of societies and subsocieties as their opponents. During their formative
years, nearly all of the protagonists in this controversy were raised in
competitive, sexist and racist societies. Why did some of them internalize
these features of their societies whereas others did not? Was Wilson really
a racist, or did his work just exhibit tacit racism? Segerstråle makes no
mention of anyone calling Lewontin a racist. How did he avoid picking up this
feature of his society?
According to externalists, political leanings influence
the scientific views that scientists hold. Lewontin, Levins and Gould are
Marxists; hence, their views on evolution should be influenced by their
Marxism. But John Maynard Smith was a more active Marxist than any of these
people. Yet he held and still holds views on evolution that are at variance
with those of other Marxists and in support of such capitalist running dogs
as Wilson and Dawkins. If both internal and external factors affect the
course of science, these influences are extremely complicated and at times
Segerstråle does not just relate what she has read or what
her respondents have told her; she evaluates it and passes judgement on it.
Looking back over the past quarter-century, she considers one of the
gratifying developments to have been that we have a "relative vindication of
the sociobiologists unfairly accused at the beginning of the controversy".
To complicate matters further, Segerstråle was engaged in
the same sort of activity as her subjects. She was a scientist studying
scientists, a meta-scientist if you will. She had to make decisions about what
she thought she was doing. The fact that she spends a lot of time explaining
the relevant science implies that she thinks it matters. If it can influence
her, it can influence other scientists as well. This problem confronts all
students of science. How we study science implies something about what we take
science to be.
As Segerstråle sees it, the significant difference between
Wilson and Lewontin was in their attitude towards science. Wilson was willing
to take chances, to come up with new ideas and to pursue them even if they
seemed implausible or overly ambitious. He admits that his early efforts to
biologize all of the social sciences, not to mention the humanities, might
seem too simplistic. But he says the beginnings of general theories come out
of such oversimplifications. Lewontin, in contrast, possibly because he thinks
that such things as social class can influence science, holds a hard-nosed
attitude to sciencenew theories must be clearly formulated and backed
up with significant amounts of data.
Accurate though her explanation of the differences between
Wilson and Lewontin might be, Segerstråle pays insufficient attention to one
crucial aspect of the sociopolitical context of the time the Vietnam
War. Many Americans felt helpless during this time. They were faced with a
lot of problems, not the least of which was a cruel, stupid war about which
there was so little they could do. They could sign petitions, march in protest
and burn draft cards, but that was about it. Early in her discussion,
Segerstråle remarks that the sociobiology controversy was not between the
left and right. "The actual dividing line went, rather, between a particular
type of New Left activist on the one hand and traditional liberals and
democrats on the other." The key term is "activist". The battle waged against
sociobiology was part of this activism.
I must also mention the most famous incident of all. In
1978, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
both Segerstråle and I attended a session on sociobiology at which Wilson was
to present a paper. As he began his presentation, a dozen or so members of the
International Committee Against Racism marched up onto the stage, chanting:
"Racist Wilson you can't hide, we charge you with genocide!" A woman then
poured water over Wilson's head. How much water is a matter of conjecture.
Usually we are told it was a pitcher of water. Segerstråle remembers a jug.
I am sure that it was a small paper cup. One bit of evidence that supports my
memory of the incident is that Wilson was able to mop up the water with a
single handkerchief. Such are the problems of eye-witness reports.
[ David L. Hull, "Activism, Scientists and Sociobiology," 2000;
Nature, 407 (October 2000) 673-674. ]
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