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Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

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When Edward O. Wilson published Sociobiology, it generated a firestorm of criticism, mostly focused on the book's final chapter, in which Wilson applied lessons learned from animal behavior to human society. In Defenders of the Truth, Ullica Segerstrale takes a hard look at the sociobiology
controversy, sorting through a hornet's nest of claims and counterclaims, moral concerns, metaphysical beliefs, political convictions, strawmen, red herrings, and much juicy gossip. The result is a fascinating look at the world of modern science.
Segerstrale has interviewed all the major participants, including such eminent scientists as Stephen Jay Gould, Richard C. Lewontin, Richard Dawkins, John Maynard Smith, Nobel Laureates Peter Medawar and Salvador Luria, and of course Edward Wilson. She reveals that most of the criticism of
Wilson was unfair, but argues that it was not politically motivated. Instead, she sees the conflict over sociobiology as a drawn-out battle about the nature of "good science" and the social responsibility of the scientist. Behind the often nasty attacks were the very different approaches to science
taken by naturalists (such as Wilson) and experimentalists (such as Lewontin), between the "planters" and the "weeders." The protagonists were all defenders of the truth, Segerstrale concludes, it was just that everyone's truth was different.
Defenders of the Truth touches on grand themes such as the unity of knowledge, human nature, and free will and determinism, and it shows how the sociobiology controversy can shed light on the more recent debates over the Human Genome Project and The Bell Curve. It will appeal to all readers of
Edward O. Wilson or Stephen Jay Gould and all those who enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at modern science.

512 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2000

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Ullica Segerstrale

5 books6 followers

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5 stars
25 (36%)
4 stars
26 (38%)
3 stars
14 (20%)
2 stars
2 (2%)
1 star
1 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews
12 reviews3 followers
June 24, 2019
This book is still fairly useful for someone interested in the history of the "science wars" but its usefulness is severely hampered by the fact that it is strongly biased toward one "side" (that of E.O. Wilson, Dawkins et al) and routinely derides, misrepresents, and even personally insults the critics of sociobiology, biological determinism etc.

A tiresome amount of space in the book is devoted to gossip or just insults about Lewontin et al from both their colleagues and the author herself (who inserts herself into this "history" frequently). Even small things like the choice of adjectives for the two groups is blatantly biased. Constant excuses are made for when the sociobiologists display "bad" behavior, explaining how their hands were forced, while there is never an attempt at a charitable interpretation of their critics. Exchanges between the factions are frequently left with the "last word" going to the sociobiologist camp, who also get far more quotes both explaining their positions and criticizing that of their critics. A strong effort is made to put the sociobiologists into proper context and a similarly strong one is made to take their critics out of it.

Perhaps most annoyingly the author persists in declaring the critics of sociobiology to be "environmentalists" or "nurturists" when every major critic of sociobiology quite regularly attacked the nature/nurture dichotomy altogether as facile and misleading. This is actually something some of the sociobiologists did as well although here the author bothers to mention it as a means of defending them from accusations of genetic determinism.

If this had been presented as a autobiographical polemic arguing for the baselessness of Lewontin, Gould, Levins, et al's criticisms it might've received 3 stars from me. It is not convincing in that regard but as I said it *is* a useful historical resource and I would've appreciated the honesty.

Also the title, blurb, introduction and the fact the the author is a sociologist had led me to believe the book would attempt to take an overarching sociological view of the "wars" and maybe even use these episodes to analyze how science operates as an institution, what exactly "truth" means here, and what this can add to sociology/philosophy of science. Unfortunately there is almost none of this in the book. While the title ostensibly refers to both sides of the debate it's clear the author believes the critics of sociobiology were a bunch of confused pompous ideologues attempting to hinder "progress" and unfairly attacking the real Truth as revealed Wilson et al.

This hinders the obvious goal of the author because the shoddiness of the attacks undermines where it really *does* point out some issues with the critics such as their initial problems coming up with a positive antireductionist program, Gould's clamoring for the spotlight and his penchant for GREAT BIG THEORIES which at least matched Wilson's, their wishy-washiness about whether their politics informed their science (unlike the author I believe it did for BOTH sides and the belief in an apolitical science is both absurd and itself a political statement). I assume book this is meant to preach to the choir but if I were someone "on the fence" or without much knowledge about the subject I would probably question all the author's assertions based on their extreme and obvious bias.

Most unfortunately perhaps we are given a one-sided view on how echoes of this debate are felt today. We're left with the idea that once these wacky leftists piped down Wilson, Dawkins et al were finally left alone while they transformed science. Being only spiteful critics with no positive program to put forward the wacky leftists all faded away.

We are not informed about Lewontin et al's influence on so many modern areas of biology from broad theoretical perspectives like Developmental Systems Theory and Extended Evolutionary Sythesis (which, whether you agree with it or not is also influenced by Wilson's advocacy of group selection) or more minor things like how they influenced how people think about, talk about, and emphasize niche construction, exaptation,"complexity, contingency, epigenetics, Neutral Theory etc. It's inescapable that those people transformed the landscape of modern science just as much as the sociobiologists but the author either does not know this or does not want it known. Even a hateful dismissal of how they've influenced things would've been useful.

So with so many complaints why am I even bothering to give this book 2 stars? Because as of right now it's all we have. There is another book focusing on Dawkins and Gould but, to my knowledge anyway, this is the only book analyzing this notable clash in the history of science from such a broad perspective. Maybe someday down the line some future iteration of Gould --a working, creative scientist that is also a talented writer for the public that *also* is skilled at historical analysis-- can approach this and give a proper (I won't say "balanced" but perhaps less ireful) account of these episodes and put them into the broader context of the philosophy of science to boot.

P.S. I have plenty of further gripes but one I feel I should really add is that virtually no attention is paid to the feminist critiques (or critics) of sociobiology. Ruth Hubbard is mentioned twice. Once in a list of names, and once parenthetically. Elisabeth Lloyd is mentioned once parenthetically. Ruth Bleier is not mentioned at all. Evelyn Fox-Keller is not mentioned at all. The only mention of feminism is when the author attempts to paint Wilson as the victim of a feminist witch hunt due to his speculative statements regarding the supposed disposition of men toward politics, business, and science and of women toward... home life. They didn't understand he was merely speculating, we are told.
Profile Image for Eric Hines.
207 reviews20 followers
September 26, 2009
This book is rightly celebrated as THE place to go to to learn about the socio-biological (and related) disputes of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Segerstrale had an uncommon degree of access to the central figures in the debate, and also an uncommon degree of access to those less-famous working scientists who largely pass judgement on these sorts of debate.[return][return]The big weaknesses of the book are its small but decided bias in favor of EO Wilson, whom the author obviously likes personally; and Segerstrale's persistent refusal to properly entertain the possibility that the institutional interests of science might mitigate against a fair judgment of truth in some of these matters, which all essentially go to the question of how powerful that institution ought to be.
Profile Image for Divya.
121 reviews10 followers
December 28, 2015
A first-hand account of the age-old still-somehow-lingering debate and discussion on sociobiology. What I found most interesting was how influential politics and ego were in spurning the entire thing, or how at least we could be misguided into thinking that the debate was politically motivated (the author argues it was not). The author develops through the book the notions of 'good' and 'bad' science, and how everyone was actually fighting for their version of the truth. I skipped entire chunks of the book though for two reasons; I was more curious about some aspects of the story than others, and it had to be returned to the library :p All in all, a fairly unbiased telling of the topic, and definitely worth a read if in your field of interest.
Profile Image for Bruce Nappi.
Author 1 book7 followers
July 26, 2020
The classic book Sociobiology by E.O. Wilson provides deep explanations for human behavior in groups. But mainstream pressures against any "scientific" attempt to "understand" human behavior in a way that might suggest modifying it, turned against Wilson just as they have on the population limitation activists. They effectively made the term "social evolution" a taboo in the scientific community from the publication of Sociobiology through the end of the last century. A new academic society, the Cultural Evolution Society, was only recently created in late 2015 (I was an advisor in that effort) to test publishing articles related to that topic.

Defenders of the Truth chronicles the social elements of the process that blocked Wilson for over 30 years. My effort tries to address these subjects in relation to the human psychology behind them. My books Collapse 2020 vol. 1 and 2 take advantage of the collapse of the movements that formerly stifled Wilson to apply system analysis methods to understand the role of psychology in driving the resistance.
September 21, 2022
The first few chapters were on pace to make this one of my favorite books ever. It petered out at the end, but still strong overall. Good sociology.
Profile Image for DoctorM.
836 reviews2 followers
March 30, 2011
Segerstrale's "Defenders of the Truth" looks at the debates and polemics growing out of E.O. Wilson's "Sociobiology" in 1975 and fought out across the mid-1980s. The book itself derives from Segerstrale's PhD thesis, and she had amazingly free access to key players in the debates--- E.O. Wilson, Richard Lewontin, John Maynard Smith, et al. ----many of whom gave her substantial interviews.

The stakes in the debate were, at least in the popular press, about whether Wilson was guilty of promoting a genetic determinism and a view of the genetic origins of behaviour that could be used to justify race and class inequities--- Wilson was accused of being an enabler of racists and conservatives. If group differences were based on genes, then they were presumably "well-adapted", and there was no use in trying to change society. Yet as Segerstrale makes clear, the lines of argument were never simply about sociobiology and its implications. Whether Wilson and his supporters (e.g., Richard Dawkins) were correct about the influence of genes on human behaviour, there were other issues at hand: not just the political consequences (though both sides in the debate accused the other of 'Lysenkoism'), but also the meaning of what science is and how it should be conducted...and how advances in molecular biology would affect the view of what natural selection is...and the role of statistical models...and competing British and American views of the social role of scientists...

"Defenders of the Truth" does tend to side with Wilson in the debates, but Segerstrale nonetheless presents the arguments on all sides with precision and deftness and wit. Her concern is not with which side had the best of the science, but on how the debates were conducted, with the sociology of scientific controversy, and on how scientists respond both professionally and personally to challenges to theory.

A well-done book, and one that makes a distinction always worth pondering. Segerstrale divides the scientific world up into 'planters', who spin out ideas, and 'weeders', who hunt for error. Umberto Eco made the same division once upon a time--- between those who looked for truth and those who try to eliminate error. Segerstrale's sympathies are with the planters, as are Eco's. Relentless criticism is a key part of the scientific method, but there's always something chilling about those whose commitment is to finding and eliminating perceived error whether that's political or scientific...

181 reviews30 followers
February 11, 2013
This is an overall wonderful book. Not only are the (sometimes very intense) debates between all the major players (Wilson, Dawkins, Gould, Lewontin, etc.) fleshed out impeccably, but the work manages to touch upon deeper issues such as the role of values in science, the differentiation between "good" and "bad" science, the search for a "correct" scientific ontology, and the scientist's placement in a broader social context, among other things. There's general history of science here, but it's all mixed together with normative considerations evaluating the proper role a scientist should adopt in these sorts of public controversies. It's slightly more favorable to Wilson's side, but through the course of the work it's detailed why this is probably so, as some of the less scrupulous tactics of his opponents are repeatedly exposed as mistaken. Yet, it's not exactly lenient in regards to the sociobiologists themselves, either. The errors they have a tendency to make are exposed equally well.

Anyway, this is a great book to pick up that goes into enormous depth in describing a fascinating period in the history of science and evolutionary biology. It's also a great place to begin scratching the surface of deeper issues regarding science's relation to society.
Profile Image for Sylvester.
1,317 reviews26 followers
December 5, 2016
The sociobiological debate centres on the conflict of the traditional (objective) scientist seeking to find out the truth about the genetic influence on animal behaviours and the Marxists who refuses to accept the reality. Two camps are created: the Wilson camp and Lewinton camp who debate about whether studying evolutionary genetics is, well, moral.

Wilson and his proponents (Dawkins, Jensen, Hamilton etc) were accused of being "racist", "reductionist", "immoral", "nazi", etc for their work, the Marxists even formed special clubs to try to censor the Wilson camp but with no real result. Defenders of the Truth is a must read to understand why good science is constantly being attacked whenever it doesn't fit the narrative of the utopian society of the left (such as IQ, fitness, adaptation, etc) and the methods the left would employ to discredit the research (rumours, lies, deceit, misrepresentation, etc). Segerstrale did a wonderfully unbiased report of both camps and provided direct interviews of the scientists involved.
Profile Image for Kevin Arthur.
4 reviews4 followers
August 14, 2017
Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate by Ullica Segerstrale is a comprehensive (exhaustive might be the better word) analysis from a sociologist of the actions and motivations behind the parties in the "Sociobiology Debate," which began with the publications of E.O. Wilson's book, Sociobiology, in the 1970s. Wilson basically proposed that "the genes hold culture on a leash." Other parties include Richard Dawkins (also of the genetic determinism bent, though he later denied it), and, in the opposite corner, scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. While Segerstrale presents a fairly objective analysis, and nobody comes out of it looking much better, I think she betrays a small bias towards Wilson.[return][return](Reviewed at Question Technology: http://www.questiontechnology.org/blo...)
Profile Image for Conor.
33 reviews2 followers
July 13, 2010
A great comprehensive survey of the opinions of key voices in the debate over the application of evolutionary biology to human behaviour. Comprehensive set of references and interviews with key players mean it's an excellent survey. It is possibly a little one-sided, on the side of sociobiologists/evo-psych, but there's enough coverage that you can make up your own mind.
Profile Image for John Roberson.
49 reviews12 followers
December 9, 2011
(4.5 stars) Wonderful exposition of the sociobiology debate (basically, how to explain human sociality within the matrix of evolutionary theory). Of particular interest to me was the central significance of non-experimental factors in the debate; human sociality was playing out right before them! Politics, intrigue, argument, corruption, ethics, and more: it's all there!
6 reviews3 followers
January 31, 2009
An outstanding, in-depth review of the misunderstanding of Hume's struggle between "is" and "ought".
Displaying 1 - 13 of 13 reviews

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