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Planters vs. Weeders

John Dupre

Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Ullica Segerstråle. ix + 493 pp. Oxford University Press, 2000. $30.

In 1975, Harvard University Press published a large and glossy book by the distinguished entomologist E. O. Wilson, titled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Although the great bulk of this book concerned the relevance of evolutionary ideas to nonhuman animal behavior, the final chapter outlined the application of these ideas to humans. This chapter, and some remarks at the beginning of the book about the anticipated cannibalization of the human sciences by sociobiology, provoked a storm of controversy and debate that continues to the present day. Ullica Segerstråle's book provides as much of the inside story of the sociobiology debates as anyone could want. She has interviewed all the most visible protagonists, attended many of the subsequently notorious lectures and seminars, and read the important books and papers. This is a work that has developed over many years and is commensurately full of information. Segerstråle not only tells us who did what when, she also offers a good deal of convincing insight into why they did it.

The interest driving the book is the relation between science and values. Segerstråle tries to identify the broad normative projects that motivated various protagonists in the debate as well as the views of science and of the relationship between science and values that they were explicitly or implicitly promoting. After following these issues through the intricacies of scientific and often overtly political debate for 400 pages, she concludes that the normative commitments of scientists are a good thing: The heated controversy science generates provides a good part of what drives it forward.

The themes of the book raise an obvious question of reflexivity: What moral is Segerstråle inviting us to draw from her account of these controversies? Although the tone (unsurprisingly) is one of objective detachment, she does not present a symmetrical evaluation of the roles of proponents and critics of sociobiology. The sociobiologists are "planters," developers of scientific knowledge, and their critics are "weeders," uprooters of objectionable science. Although one might think of these as two equally important and necessary aspects of science, Segerstråle pretty clearly sees planting as the more reputable activity, the normal activity of science, and regards the weeders as a somewhat eccentric minority. Moreover, the role of values in the activities of these groups seems quite different. Whereas planters may be driven to pursue particular scientific projects because of the broader values these projects may further, these values are not generally presented as distorting the science they do. Weeders, on the other hand, are seen as constantly misrepresenting the science they attempt to discredit. In fact they typically engage in an activity Segerstråle describes as "moral reading." This is defined in the glossary as "a special type of exegesis of sociobiological texts to extract the worst possible social implications from sociobiological statements."

The hero of the story is undoubtedly E. O. Wilson. Wilson's odyssey through two distinct versions of sociobiology, the defense of biodiversity, his concept of biophilia and a reductionist vision of the unity of knowledge is presented as an epic journey to save the human race from the dangers of our genetic heritage. Although the carping of the moral readers and weeders sometimes helps him to recognize errors and pitfalls in his journey, their role is a much less heroic one. A scientific quest such as Wilson's, driven but not distorted by moral passion, exemplifies the relation between values and science that Segerstråle seems most strongly to favor.

An alternative strategy, here represented by Richard Dawkins, is the pure Enlightenment pursuit of truth unsullied by any normative concerns. But this presents too cold and spiritually empty an intellectual environment for most consumers of science (and indeed in his crusade against religion and other "viruses of the mind," Dawkins shows dangerous tendencies toward weeding).

The villain of the piece is Richard Lewontin, whose moral outrage against the sociobiologists is seen as preventing him from developing any significant constructive scientific project. (In fairness, I should say that Segerstråle does treat Lewontin with respect for his piecemeal contributions to biology and acknowledged intellectual stature.) A somewhat more equivocal figure is Stephen Jay Gould, conspicuous for his role as a critic of sociobiology, but also a serious planter of his own vision of evolutionary biology.

The book is generally concerned with the exploits of the great men who are engaged in these debates and philosophical speculation about its underlying significance. It does not contain much detailed discussion of the claims of sociobiologists on specific topics. Curiously, perhaps, the topics that are discussed in greatest detail are racism and I.Q. I say "curiously" because apart from occasional remarks about innate xenophobia, sociobiology has had little to say on these topics, although certainly they were in various ways of concern to the main protagonists. There are, of course, connections through the assumptions about the legitimate scope of human genetics, but the connection is indirect.

By contrast, Segerstråle has nothing to say about sex and gender—issues that are absolutely central to sociobiology and its successors—beyond quoting a notorious passage from Wilson's On Human Nature and complaining that it has been misinterpreted by critics. Preserving the monopoly of the great men, Segerstråle does not include prominent feminist critics of sociobiology (for instance, Anne Fausto-Sterling) even in the extensive (if rather error-prone) bibliography. It might have been interesting to confront the general thesis that critics of sociobiology have misinterpreted their target with some serious discussion of this topic.

Segerstråle traces the connections between the sociobiology debate and the Science Wars (defined in her glossary as "A mid-1990s conflict between on the one hand a vocal minority of activist scientists, on the other postmodern humanists, and constructivist and relativist social scientists, engaged in various types of critical analyses of science"). Unsurprisingly, her sympathies lie mainly with Paul Gross, Norman Levitt and others (and their strong supporter Wilson) in their assault on constructivism. Even Lewontin, although he "wanted to be with the new 'in crowd' in the academic left," believed in scientific truth (unlike the members of that crowd).

There is plenty of interesting material in this book, and there are some suggestive ideas about the underlying philosophical issues. Given the book's thesis about the intertwining of scientific and normative ideas, one should not be surprised to find that it is not merely an objective account of the sociobiology debates and the Science Wars, but a campaign.—John Dupre, University of Exeter, England

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