Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Science as ideology

Some telling excerpts of a book review:


Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond
Ullica Segerstråle
Oxford University Press (2000)

Just as Arthur Jensen can take the most credit for resurrecting the study of racial differences after the World War II-era blackout, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson can claim the most credit for reestablishing the scientific connection between genes and human behavior. His motives for this important achievement may have been surprisingly personal. He is a Southerner who was reared as a Baptist, and was "born-again" at age 15. However, he soon fell away from the faith, and Prof. Segerstråle suggests that it was his desire to find a biological, non-theological basis for morality that drove his interest in sociobiology. She says that for him, the chief riddle for understanding behavior in genetic terms was altruism – self-sacrifice for others – which seems contrary to the Darwinian struggle for survival. It was the Englishman William Hamilton and his theory of inclusive fitness through kin selection that gave Prof. Wilson the solution to the riddle. 

(Put in the simplest terms, inclusive fitness suggests that genes for altruistic behavior can spread through a population if those who benefit from the altruist's sacrifice are closely-enough related to him to carry the same genes. A man who dies to save his kin or tribe can therefore act to ensure the continuation of his own genes because his relatives, who carry the same genes, will survive to reproduce. Obviously, this effect is lost when altruists act for the benefit of strangers and aliens.)

Leading the attack was biologist Richard Lewontin, who was also at Harvard and had an office in the same building as Prof. Wilson. Prof. Lewontin, an avowed Marxist, was active in forming lefty groups like Science for the People and the Committee against Racism. He was joined in the United States most notably by another avowed Marxist at Harvard, Steven Jay Gould, and in England by Steven Rose.

Although Prof. Segerstråle tries her best to make Prof. Lewontin sound reasonable, what she tells us makes him appear almost a caricature, an ideologue driven by his own politics who is convinced everyone else operates in the same way. He argued that students of IQ simply could not be motivated by genuine scientific interest, and "proved" that Arthur Jensen's research was only a reflection of racist bias. He agreed with fellow lefty and psychologist Leon Kamin that scientists "sometimes tell deliberate lies" in order to advance larger political purposes. With co-author Richard Levins he was even capable of writing, "As working scientists in the field of evolutionary genetics and ecology, we have been attempting with some success to guide our own research by a conscious application of Marxist philosophy."

In fact, Prof. Wilson and Richard Dawkins, a British sociobiologist whom the Marxists attacked with equal vigor, are committed liberals. In Sociobiology, Prof. Wilson downplayed IQ and even took an early lead in promoting the view that race is not a biologically valid concept.

It made such a stink over the name sociobiology, though, that people following in Prof. Wilson's footsteps tried to take cover under different names: evolutionary psychology, behavior genetics, behavioral ecology. 

As the field gained momentum, the critics were forced to attack it not just on political but scientific grounds. Prof. Segerstråle describes some of these battles but shows that many critics were never able to separate politics from science. People like Professor Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have insisted on impossibly high scientific standards exclusively for genetic explanations of behavior. Prof. Lewontin has even argued that such explanations cannot be considered valid or even plausible unless there is proof "at the molecular level." Such proof will eventually come, thanks to human genome research, but it is pure obscurantism to insist until then that behavior genetics must be false. As Prof. Segerstråle delicately puts it:  "[S]o perhaps might we interpret the critics' unusually strict criteria for 'good science' as an attempt to hold back potentially undesirable results."

Another defect in Prof. Segerstråle's analysis is that despite an otherwise exhaustive account of the controversy that attempts to examine it from every perspective, she ignores the ethnic one. Is it pure coincidence that the most vocal opponents of sociobiology – Richard Lewontin, Stephen Gould, Steven Rose, Leon Kamin – were Jews? She notes it was common to claim that any recognition that humans were not completely free actors but constrained by human nature could be used as an exoneration of the Nazis, who had to be held fully accountable for their acts. Who would have come up with this labored argument? Prof. Segerstråle mentions that Steven Rose was worried sociobiology could lead to a "repetition of the tragedies of the 1930s," but might Jews have a particular interest in wishing that they not be repeated? For a book that seeks to explore every ramification and implication, this one must have been deliberately omitted.



  1. I should add, in a final ironic twist, that the publication which reviewed this book also subscribes to identity politics, but from the raving right rather than the loony left. Two sides of the same coin.


  2. It seems that such a position would force them to presume that human beings operate on instinct rather than reason...which is probably a direction they don't want to go in.