May 2002


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Louis Proyect <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 30 May 2002 08:41:05 -0400
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(Posted to the Marxism list by Sam Pawlett)

Defenders of the Truth. By Ullica Segerstrale Oxford University

[This post is dedicated to all my teachers. They know who they are. I
hope I haven't let them down.]

This lengthy book attempts an exhaustive discussion both biological
and sociological of the "sociobiology controversy" that erupted in
the 1970's on university campuses and eventually trickled down to the
popular media. The book originated as a Phd thesis and offers yet
another insiders look into the nastiness of academic politics. As
aforementioned, the book explains on two levels, the first tries to
show why colleagues in the same department ended up on opposing sides
in fierce controversy. The second attempts to explain the actual
scientific and philosophical differences between the sociobiologists
and the Marxists. The book fails on both levels. The sociology is
little more than conspiracy theory and gossip of the type that
peppers the world's tabloids. The science is skewered towards the
sociobiologists and as explanation of their views it isn't very good
either. There is very little flesh on the large bones of this book.

The cast of characters includes the arch-villains Richard Lewontin,
Stephen Chorover and Stephen Rose and their thugs the Society for the
Study of Sociobiology for the People. Good guys are E.O. Wilson,
Richard Levins, Richard Dawkins, and Sal Luria. Given the amount of
time and passion she puts into discussing Wilson, it seems
Segerstrale's main goal is to rescue his political and professional
reputation from the heavy charges laid against him and the
caricatures of his views viz. That he is a hired gun for the
capitalist class and worse.

Interestingly, in a book of this length detailing a debate between
neo-darwinians and marxists, the word "capitalism" does not appear
until page 344. For ,after all, that is mostly what Marxism is, a
theory of capitalism with biology being a part of that theory. The
major works of the Marxists like Dialectical Biologist are only
mentioned in passing. Marx and Engels are not even in the
bibliography. No sustained examination or even exegesis of these
books is given. In discussing the critics of Sociobiology,
Segerstrale relies on Lewontin et al.'s book reviews of Dawkins and
Wilson which appear in the New York Review of Books and Times
Literary Supplement and other like publications. Furthermore, much of
Segerstrale's information comes from personal interviews with the
participants in the debate, which is kind of interesting.

Segerstrale is correct, I think, that the debate centers around
methodology, the sociobiologists (SBs hereafter) subscribing to a
reductionist methodological individualism (with the exception of
Wilson who is closer to Levins than Dawkins. Wilson calls Levins and
,begrudgingly, Lewontin geniuses.) with the critics favoring a more
holistic, ecological approach. Segerstrale sets up the debate as one
between the "weeders" who only criticise others views and the
"planters" who are constantly being creative. This is unfair to the
"weeders" since the "planter" paradigm is the dominant one in
professional science and one must work within it to get hired and
advance in one's profession.

Segerstrale misses the main point of the SB debate though, namely,
that method and content like genes, organism and environment are
inseparable. Segerstrale lets the cat out of the bag on page 355
"Neo-classical economists typically use models of self-interest,
optimization, strategies and the like - and these are exactly the
models that underlie much of sociobiological reasoning too". This
would only be natural since Darwin developed his idea of natural
selection after reading Parson Malthus. So in the end these is really
nothing new in the sociobiology debate, it is mostly contained in
Marx's polemics against the classical economists scattered throughout
his writings. . If SB is the same as neo-classical economics then it
shares all of its faults. I will not supply a list here . Darwin
applied the invisible hand explanation of the economy to nature with
Marx finding a kind of cruel irony in this before comparing
methodological individualism to Robinson Crusoe on his island ( i.e.
the economy is a bunch of Robinson Crusoe's maximizing their

Marx in Chapter 1 of Capital criticized what he called "fetishism" in
economics where relations between people appear as relations between
things. The critics of SB can be seen as continuing in the tradition
extending Marx's criticisms and methodology into biology. What
appears as relations between genes is really relations between genes,
organism and environment as genes cannot replicate by themselves,
they need to be embedded in cellular matter which in turn must be
embedded in an organism which in turn must be embedded in an
environment. These relations contain both positive and negative
feedback mechanisms between each other as well as other highly
complex relationships. Simply, the SB's are continuing in the
Anglo-American tradition of economic individualism while the critics
come out of the more holistic, Continental approach of Hegel, Marx,
Dobzhansky and Mayr.

As in most debates, the sociobiological debate comes down to
philosophy and in this case, differing philosophies of science. The
sociobiologists hold what I'll call a naive philosophy of science
(what Philip Kitcher calls 'Legend'). Science and its methodology
work in isolation, with progressive convergence on truth. By
contrast, the critics see science as part of an integrated, total
world view. For example, here is Maynard Smith discussing Dawkins:

"when he (Dawkins) is thinking about evolution, he is only interested
in differences that are genetic...if two animals differ for
environmental reasons, the differences may affect their chances of
survival, but it will not affect the nature of the children and hence
will have no evolutionary consequence." (Games, Sex and Evolution

On this account, genes operate in a vacuum, but as stated above, this
is impossible since genes cannot reproduce by themselves. Dawkins
then is recapitulating the nature/nurture fallacy that the critics
(including Wilson) argue so passionately against This fallacy leads
to a dead end.

On the sociological level, Segerstrale is interested in why the
debate occurred and what motivated the participants. She accepts Sal
Luria's view (ch 12) that critiquing sociobiology diverted valuable
time and energy away from serious scientific research. If researchers
had simply left Sociobiology alone, it would have disappeared without
a trace and would have had no effect on public politics. Bringing it
out into public did more harm than good. Segerstrale also accepts
Wilson's view that the critics received no scientific recognition for
this work (p295). Why ,then, did they do it? Segerstrale comes up
with the cleverest part of the book, the late Pierre Bourdieu's
conception of "moral capital". The critics wanted "moral capital" to
help with their personal struggles in academe for greater economic
rewards and public recognition as staunch anti-racists and
egalitarians. If this is true it is an attack on personal motives and
has no relevance to the truth of the critics views. This is also an
old conservative tactic of attacking the motives of left wing
intellectuals. Left and especially Marxist intellectuals are only
interested in personal power and use ideology to achieve that end. I
personally find it hard to believe that one could gain moral capital
by adopting a Marxist stance since Marxists are a tiny minority in
academia and public life and are generally disliked for their views.
It would seem to me to be the other way around, moral capital would
come from embracing pro-capitalist positions. Moreover, many of the
participants in the debate were already at the top of the professions
in their respective countries and had little to gain, academically,
by participating in the debate.

Segerstrale's book is good if you are interested in academic gossip
not if you are interested in sociology and science.

Sam Pawlett (failed philosopher, now on the dole)

Louis Proyect, [log in to unmask] on 05/30/2002

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