Book by the sociologist of science Ullica Segerstrale, first published in 2000 by Oxford University Press.

The book attempts to chart a historical, sociological and cultural overview of one of the greatest paradigm battles in modern science, the one that has become known as the Sociobiology Controversy. It does touch on other controversies, and on related battles fought within the scientific community, however, and is obviously intended to be a part of a wider look at the inner culture and mode of operation of science and scientists.

The term Sociobiology in the sense in which it is used in the book was coined by the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson in his eponymous book of 1976. It was presented as a new field of scientific study, a synthesis of the existing disciplines of evolutionary biology, genetics and sociology. Although in this first book (which was a popular rather than a purely scientific work) he mostly talked about animals, nevertheless he implied, and later openly argued, that the current state and previous evolution of human culture can be, or will one day be (as the evidence to support his claims was by no means available at the time) traced to our genetic makeup. In effect he was striking a blow for the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate.

Today, with the advent of the Human Genome Project and the lasting popular acclaim of such "nature" advocates as Richard Dawkins, especially in the UK and Europe, it might be difficult to understand the violent response that Wilson’s claim that "genes hold culture on a leash" caused from the scientific community in the '70's. But at the time of its publication the theory went directly against prevalent political and professional opinions within the scientific community as well as beyond it.

Genetic explanation of human behaviour was heavily tainted with the brush of the malicious and disastrous results of the pseudo-science of eugenics and the actions of the Nazi regime in Germany, and with implications of social Darwinism. Sociobiology also came hot on the heels of a different scandal, that following the publication of extremely controversial studies of the distribution of IQ (and its potential hereditability) between various racial groups in the US (See also: The Bell Curve). This background, together with the liberal politics of the time and the strong left-wing bias of the academic world, lead to a huge over-reaction to Wilson and his theories, both by his peers in the life sciences and the wider public.

Sociobiology caused a storm which resulted in Wilson's lectures being picketed, pamphlets calling for his dismissal being handed out on campus, and on one memorable occasion Wilson himself being attacked prior to a talk on the subject given at a scientific convention, with nothing less than a pitcher of ice water. It also gave birth to a twenty year battle in the scientific press on the subject of sociobiology and any subsequent publications and studies supporting or denouncing it. A score of eminent scientist were and still are embroiled in this battle, and many of them have made good livings selling books on the back of its notoriety (not least of them Wilson himself). A good portion of the book is devoted to these occasionally improbable and amusing shenanigans, and demystifies several of the great biological thinkers of our time, among them the eminent popularisers of science Gould and Dawkins; in fact, this is where their life long rivalry and debate started.

Segertrale makes the case that above and beyond the obvious political implications of sociobiology, its most steadfast opponents were also engaged in an ideological battle of another kind with its supporters. At its centre was their general approach to "good" versus "bad" science, and its direct or indirect implications for society. I lack the technical knowledge go into the details of the various ethical and methodological viewpoints here, but they were amongst the most fascinating parts of the book for me. It also provides a good discussion of how that ephemeral council, "the scientific community" actually operates and what exactly it takes for a fact, however well documented in the lab or on the basis of field findings, to become accepted scientific truth.

Another valuable insight the book provides is that into the hearts and minds (or at least the manners) of scientists themselves. We are so used to revering science as the optimal tool for uncovering truth that we tend to ignore the fact that it is done by people, and is coloured by their various human foibles and prejudices. In the introduction to the book the author compares the unravelling of the controversy to an opera, which is an amusing and fittingly dramatic frame for what actually occurred. However, for me the twenty-odd-year battle for "the truth" resembles nothing so much as a newsgroup flamewar.

Here we have a group of supremely intelligent, articulate and, in the best sense, important minds using the basest of debate tactics, the wildest of straw men, the most cynical of manoeuvres in order to shut each other up - only what they really want is no to "win" and be done with it, but rather for the argument to go on and on forever so that they can go on listening to themselves and their cronies talk, and sell more books in the bargain. Grown men and women of eminence and fame resulting to such tactics as avoiding each other in the corridors while shooting cheap shots at each other in the scientific journals. People supposedly dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge shamelessly trying to suppress some of it out of political considerations.

In the final analysis, Segerstrale doesn't judge anyone, either one of the warring parties or any of the individuals involved. Her measured, balanced, sometimes amused narrative lets the reader step back and draw her own conclusions. (Mine, in case you're interested, is that the pros were nicer, but the cons are right.)

The book is written densely and scientifically - it is the product of almost thirty years of sociological research conducted by the author as she followed and documented the progression of the controversy, interviewed people from both sides extensively and was privy to their private discussions and public debates. You will get none of the pretty tales and flowery metaphors of Dawkins or Pinker here. Still, it is a fast paced read and is recommended warmly to anyone with even a peripheral interest in science and its governing ethics.

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