Exorcising Sociobiology

By Gross, Paul R. | New Criterion, February 2001 | Go to article overview

Exorcising Sociobiology


Gross, Paul R., New Criterion


Innocents imagine that universities, the names of many of whose departments include "science" (as in social science), do not perform exorcisms. That is a mistake. Today, universities are among the busiest sites for the practice of intellectual exorcism. Ask any current student to define "investigate": you will get the definition for "indict." The latest outbreak of academic exorcism comes to us from anthropology. At issue are the Yanomamo, a stone-age, indigenous people of the Amazon rain forest. The current repellent effort rests on postmodern scripture: the idea that science is just window-dressing for Western hubris and colonialism.

Thirty years ago the distinction between technical disagreements and moral-political warfare began to dissolve. A whole generation of students and teachers became convinced that everything, including scientific inquiry, is inextricably political because knowledge itself was inextricably a social--i.e., political--phenomenon. Politics, meanwhile, is a matter too important for niceties. The Berkeley anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes exemplified these enthusiasms when she demanded from her colleagues, in 1995, a "militant anthropology" the education of a

   new cadre of "barefoot anthropologists" that I envision must become
   alarmists and shock troopers--the producers of politically complicated and
   morally demanding texts and images capable of sinking through the layers of
   acceptance, complicity, and bad faith that allow the suffering and the
   deaths to continue.

The excuses for such self-righteousness are manifold: a concern for virtue, the environment, racism, sexism, imperialism ... the list is endless. The capo-exorcists are professors; the soldiers are students, junior faculty, and journalists. Self-criticism is a rarity. "Critical theory" Marxist or postmodern, is about bad people--i.e., other people--never about oneself. The assassins believe themselves just, in public and in their hearts. This makes them political ruffians and intellectual terrorists, and academic terrorism is what we will see in the Yanomamo affair. But the thing is not new: there have been precedent demon-hunts in the last few decades. It is important first to recall their origins.

In the summer of 1975, E. O. Wilson, the distinguished Harvard zoologist, published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. This was a work of exemplary scientific scholarship, a weaving together of threads from many biological subdisciplines. In some of those Wilson was himself already a leader: population biology, ecology, evolution, animal behavior. He was the authority on an enormous group of social animals: the ants. His purpose was to show that results and methods were already sufficient for a systematic account of animal social behavior and for expanded new research on the hard science of it.

Scores of qualified readers quickly gave praise and had no qualms about the closing chapter, in which Wilson extrapolated from his findings to speculate about human social behavior. He was laying out a program for future research, as well as recording achievements. No serious scientist denies that humans are at least animals. This part of Sociobiology was clearly more sowing than reaping, defining what should be meant henceforth by that word. Then, suddenly, came an earthquake of highly public denunciation, spreading from the Harvard epicenter, which only now has been properly chronicled. Ullica Segerstrale's impressive new book, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociology Debate and Beyond,(1) gives an excellent account of what has come to be called the "sociobiology controversy" Although Segerstrale is a sociologist, she has taken the trouble to comprehend fully the science she writes about. It is worth noting, however, that the "battle" she writes about is really a case of academic assassination, not an argument over philosophy of science.

Segerstrale has attempted to provide "a view through the keyhole" to the inner workings of science and the means by which it changes. …

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