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Triumphalism in Science

Jon Beckwith

The Triumph of Sociobiology. John Alcock. x + 257 pp. Oxford University Press, 2001. $27.50.

I was looking forward to reading John Alcock's account of the issues in the sociobiology controversy. I had been charmed by his earlier books on wildlife of the Sonoran Desert. And Alcock has not been one of those sociobiologists who have garnered publicity for their speculations about human behavior, so I was hoping for a dispassionate analysis of this 25-year public debate. After all, the emotions raised by the appearance of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975 have long since ebbed.

But the title of this new book, The Triumph of Sociobiology, should have been sufficient warning that I might be disappointed. Science and triumphalism simply do not make for a good fit. Consider, for instance, an article in the May 24 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine reporting the results of a meta-analysis of studies that had "established" the placebo effect as scientific fact. The researchers' new findings suggest that the placebo effect may have been no more than a combination of wishful thinking and bandwagonism. Surprising reversals of supposed scientific wisdom such as this are not so atypical and should give scientists more humility than to associate the word "triumph" with a scientific venture.

Underground colonies . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Alcock presents his view of how the sociobiological approach works, why it can be applied to human behavior, and why the arguments of the critics are wrong. On the first count, he is relatively successful. Here, the passion of the naturalist shines through, particularly as he describes the social behavior of the multiqueen colonies of the red fire ants or female mimicry in the rove beetle. Nevertheless, I suggest that the reader take some time with each example to consider alternative explanations and how they might be tested. Sociobiologists themselves have not infrequently had to do just this as new evidence has emerged. For example, in studying the behavior of primates other than humans, early reports by mostly male primatologists led to a male-dominated view of social behavior and sexuality. But then, as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy documents, the changing observations resulting from the entry of more women into primatology forced a dramatic overhaul of conclusions. A theory that can change with the appearance of new facts such as these hardly represents a triumphant scientific paradigm.

On the issue of human behavior, Alcock is much less convincing. His so-called predictions often appear to be little more than common knowledge; for example, in discussing the sociobiological explanations for human extramarital relations, he says that "the hypotheses just outlined yield the prediction that some offspring of married women will indeed have been fathered by someone other than their husbands." Scientific theories are built by testing their predictions of new findings, not simply by explaining existing knowledge.

Further, he uncritically accepts the conclusions from highly contested studies of the genetics of human behavior, such as the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart of Thomas J. Bouchard and his colleagues. In fact, the field of human behavior genetics is in a crisis stage, as the great hope of finding behavioral genes with the new DNA technologies has disappointed. Many of the concerns about this field of research parallel those offered by the critics of sociobiology?that researchers have paid too little attention to nongenetic factors in collecting and analyzing their data.

Alcock is at his worst when describing the controversy itself. He does no service to the sociobiology debate by using the timeworn tactic of characterizing critics with the most extreme terms. He offers no support for the labels "cultural determinist," "blank slate theorists" and "cultural relativists" with any statements from the critics he attacks. These were not the terms of the debate. The controversy began when sociobiologists entered into the arena of social policy. E. O. Wilson's claim that "even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science" was not a neutral statement in a society confronted with struggles over affirmative action and "glass ceilings." Wilson's use of speculative evolutionary theorizing about behavior to inform social policy seemed an inappropriate use of science to many critics such as myself.

Although sociobiologists admitted that human traits based in evolution are still subject to change by the influence of environment, culture and history, some pretended to know just how much change is possible. They replaced the old genetic determinism with a genetics of limits, without explaining how they could specify what those limits were.

Finally, in his chapter "Science and Reality," Alcock defends sociobiology with a disappointingly shallow analysis of the interaction of society and science. He ignores or is unaware of the transformation in the conception of the nature of science that has taken place over the last century with the works of philosophers, historians and scientists such as Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, Imre Lakatos, Hilary Putnam and many others.

A better understanding of science should lead not to triumphalism but to the kind of humility recently expressed by Nobel Prize?winning geneticist Fran?ois Jacob in Of Flies, Mice and Men: "Science cannot answer all questions. . . . It can, however, give some indications, exclude certain hypotheses. Engaging in the pursuit of science may help us make fewer mistakes. It's a sort of gamble."?Jon Beckwith, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School

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