9780198505051 / 0198505051

Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond


Publisher:Oxford University Press, USA



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About the book:

How do scientists separate their politics from their work--or is such a distinction even possible? These questions frame the two levels of sociologist Ullica Segerstrale's analysis of the sociobiology controversy, Defenders of the Truth. From E.O. Wilson's 1975 publication of Sociobiology to his 1998 release of Consilience, he has consistently been the often-unwilling center of the vitriolic debate over human nature and its scientific study. Heavy hitters like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, and John Maynard Smith have lined up to attack and defend the scientific, political, and moral interpretations and implications of Wilson's synthesis, and Dr. Segerstrale tells a compelling story of their battles on multiple fronts. The author knows her science, having trained extensively in biochemistry before turning to sociology. While she distances herself from assessing the validity of the various claims, Segerstrale is clearly sympathetic to Wilson, who seems almost na´ve at times when his ideas are interpreted ideologically rather than scientifically.

That, of course, is the heart of the contention surrounding sociobiology. The political left, well-represented among evolutionary biologists, has long considered any genetic influence on human behavior anathema--such theories are believed to support racist policies, even in the unlikely event that they were not merely reflections of racist attitudes. To their credit, many scientists held more complex beliefs, but some used the ideological argument as a back door to introduce their own neo-Darwinian scientific theories. The struggle for understanding has been eclipsed for some time by the struggle for political and academic survival and dominance, and Segerstrale reports and scrutinizes both with humor, intelligence, and aplomb. The end of the controversy--if there can be one--is far off, but a careful reading of Defenders of the Truth will give insight into the forces influencing our scientific self-examination. --Rob Lightner

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