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

By Moran, Gordon | Journal of Information Ethics, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Moran, Gordon, Journal of Information Ethics


Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond Ullica SegerstrOle. Oxford University Press, 2000, 493 pp. $35. ISBN 0-i9-850505-i.

There are basically two major thrusts to this book. One comprises a detailed chronological account of the prolonged, bitter scientific controversy in the field of sociobiology (which also involves a variety of other fields and sub-fields, such as eugenics, ethology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary biology, and so forth). The other relates to the nature of truth in academia, and the scholarly search for truth. The author approaches this second aspect of her work from the standpoint of "tension between scientific and moral truth." (But in reality this tension seems to be between scientific hypotheses, on the one hand, and questions of ideology-referred to frequently in modern terms within a context of "political correctness," on the other.)

As a scholarly endeavor, this book represents a large part of Prof. SegerstrOle's intellectual and academic e∂orts over a long period of time. She has accumulated a vast amount of source material relating to the controversy, and has analyzed and discussed it in a thorough, incisive manner. Besides, she has had extensive personal contact-via interviews, discussions, meetings, scholarly conferences-with many of the protagonists in this controversy. As a result, SegerstrOle's account of the controversy has in-depth coverage, is wide-ranging, and is rich in bibliographical material. It would be di[double dagger]cult to find more thorough studies of a specific controversy written by any other scholars in the field of the sociology or history of science.

SegerstrOle divides her work into three main sections: i) "What happened in the sociobiology debate?"; 2) "Making sense of the sociobiology debate"; 3) "The cultural meaning of the battle for science." In e∂ect, the controversy was provoked by the book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, by Edward O. Wilson (i975), which is a wide-ranging elaboration of the old hereditary vs. environment question.

In fact, in modern times, the subject matter of such a debate is fraught with highly-charged political and ideological overtones. It seems that the controversy quickly developed into a situation in which so-called advocacy research replaced a genuine search for the truth. In this sense, the title Defenders of the Truth does not really seem to correspond very well with the book's contents. Such a situation is also obviously prone to problems relating to information ethics. In fact, the book is filled with passages that represent questionable academic practice and non-scholarly behavior more than they represent a search for, and defense of, the truth. Here are just a few of many such examples found in the text: "witch hunts" (p. i5); "Missing: serious scientific criticism" (p. i5); "His lectures were interrupted..." (p. i6); "'lying' about genetic di∂erences while posing as experts..." (p. 44); "a serious misrepresentation" (p. 47); "misleading use of language" (p. 73); "Midgley's nasty tone and seemingly active misreading" (p. 76); "being 'dishonest' as Mayr accused Gould and Lewontin of being" (p. ii9); "slander and calumny ... bomb threats at lectures ... promise of a 'kneecapping'...." (p. i43); "Fear of Facts?" (p. 222); "unfairly accused" (p. 404); "deliberate distortion of the truth" ... "truth was being suppressed." (Such passages, and the many other similar ones throughout the book, might indicate that a more apt title for the study could be something along the line of Benders of the Truth, Upenders of the Truth, and Defenders of the Turf. …

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