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Defenders of the Truth
The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond
by Ullica Segerstråle

Reviewed by
Anne Fausto-Sterling

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In 1975, the biologist E.O. Wilson lit a firestorm with the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. He continued as agent provocateur with On Human Nature (1978) and another book he co-authored with Charles Lumsden entitled Genes, Mind and Culture (1981). In each of these books, the author(s) extend a relatively uncontroversial idea—because humans are living organisms, natural selection must have been a force in the evolution of at least some aspects of their behavior—into an arena of burning debate. Two claims in particular aroused the ire of critics: that biology somehow 'holds culture on a leash' and that in time the study of human behavior and society now carried out by psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists will be taken over by the allegedly more inclusive science of sociobiology.

In Defenders of the Truth, sociologist Ullica Segerstråle examines the conflagration—with its decades of attacks and counter-attacks—ignited by Wilson and his followers. The book looks especially at the scientific conflicts—the disagreements between Wilson and critics such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould—and asks how it can be that such seemingly like-minded and well-considered scientists could disagree so vehemently about the evolution and biology of human behavior. The strength of this book lies in the detailed analysis of the scientific claims and counter-claims and its conclusion that the moral commitments of individual scientists affect the nature of their scientific thinking.

Despite these important contributions, however, the book is fatally flawed. It is a long, often gossipy tale of 'he said, she said'—except there is no 'she said' to be found. And one cannot accurately discuss the sociobiology debates and their outcomes without examining the contributions of feminist critics. Feminist scientists from outside the field often found the middle ground that Segerstråle accurately identified as missing in the debate between the boys. At the same time, the science practiced by feminist sociobiologists such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Barbara Smuts, Thelma Rowell and others provided a blueprint for the strongest applications of sociobiological theory to field studies of animal behavior in non-human populations. The importance of feminist primatology to the broader study of animal behavior is well-documented in Donna Haraway's Primate Visions (1989) which, quite shockingly, is one of at least a dozen critical feminist contributions to the sociobiology debate that Segerstråle neither cites nor discusses.

For one of many specific examples, consider the author's assertion that "the opponents of sociobiology typically took a very absolutist.view of science". The critics, she says, only saw the situation in black and white. Segerstråle makes the case for this claim by limiting her data to particular, mostly Harvard-based critics. But in doing so she closes out a more subtle strain of thought about science. This strain emanated from my own work (1985, 1992), the work of Helen Longino (1990), Sandra Harding (1986), and Evelyn Fox Keller (1985). We all argued (then and now) that it was wrong to frame the debate about sociobiology in terms of good and bad science. Instead, we tried to develop tools aimed at understanding how ideological constructs become part of science done in good faith by successful, well-meaning scientists. Segerstråle devotes a 400 page book to debunking the "idea that there is an obvious link between a scientist's scientific views and political convictions". Had she done her homework properly, however, she would have found feminist critics of sociobiology working hard on theories of science that make just this point.

Scholarly books need not be neutral, and it is clear that Segerstråle dislikes the critics of sociobiology. Throughout the book her aversion emerges in sometimes subtle and, I suspect, non-conscious ways. For example, when she first introduces the well-known Harvard molecular biologist Jonathan Beckwith onto the scene, she identifies him only as a "political abuse watchdog and Science for the People leader". Forty pages later she lets slip that Beckwith is "an eminent scientist". In contrast, when we first learn about Bernard Davis, a proponent on the other side of the debate, he is described as a "Harvard colleague and microbiologist." In similar fashion, the author's disenchantment with the social critics of sociobiology and her sympathy with the proponents of human sociobiology seep into her analysis throughout the book.

A book that presents a complex analysis of a multifaceted debate about human sociobiology would be of great interest to working scientists and for classroom use. Alas, this book is dense with detail but an accurate and subtle account of how scientific debates and disagreements work does not emerge.

. . .

Anne Fausto-Sterling, Professor of Biology and Women's Studies at Brown University, has just published a new book entitled Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. (Basic Books, 2000).

Segerstråle, U. Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford University Press, 2000.

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