Rereading Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

The characters in my story are all defenders of the truth — it is just that they have different conceptions of where the truth lies.

— Ullica Segerstråle

It’s always risky to return to something that made a big impression on you when you were young. If at 36 that favorite movie you had at 12 isn’t as good as you remember it, and the book that blew your mind at 16 is actually pretty simplistic and juvenile upon revisit, do you really want to know?

I had such worries about Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate, which I first read in 2008 at the age of 24 and recently decided to pick up again. I’d once recommended it on a podcast and I wanted to know whether it was as good as I remembered, or if I had made a fool of myself.

I first mentioned it in my second article here, which introduced the word “erisology”, an umbrella term for “the study of disagreement and intellectual difference”. The reference fits well, because that’s what the book is: a long, very thorough analysis and chronicle of an extremely complicated disagreement. Or, perhaps more correctly, an extremely complicated family of disagreements involving dozens of actors and spanning several decades. In retrospect I think my own preferred approach to making sense of disagreements owes a lot to Segerstråle’s work in this book. It’s certainly been a goal of mine, a conscious and subconscious one, to emulate her approach.

“The Sociobiology Debate” gets its name from Edward O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in 1975. It was a massive tome discussing the biology of behavior across many species, among them Wilson’s own specialty the social insects. That didn’t provoke much debate, but the opening and closing chapters did; they took the thinking from the rest of the book and speculatively applied it to humans, arguing that a future, more developed science of sociobiology would be able to explain our behavior as well.

This caused a stir that grew to involve scholars across various subdisciplines of biology as well as academic psychologists and philosophers, plus a good helping of political activists including a group specifically formed to fight sociobiology. The battle went on for years, in books, articles, reviews and conference talks. It morphed and mutated and brought in new people over time, but it never really stopped. Defenders was published 25 years after Sociobiology, and is itself 20 years old now. The battles have continued, even more decentralised, complex and confused than before.

The author Ullica Segerstråle, a chemist turned sociologist originally from Finland and now at the University of Illinois, is likely better equipped to write this history than anybody else. Not only did she spend years doing research and interviewing all the major players about their role in the controversy, she was present at important events including meetings of the activist Sociobiology Study Group and the (in)famous seminar when a group of protesters poured a pitcher of water over Wilson.

Her account is divided into three parts, titled “What happened in the sociobiology debate?”, “Making sense of the sociobiology debate” and “The cultural meaning of the battle for science”. The first not only tells us what happened but goes deeply into the historical background. There’s a lengthy history of the field leading up to Wilson, dipping more than once into the philosophy of science and of biology specifically. This part can be heavy to get through if you didn’t come for an introduction to population genetics, but it sets up the pieces for what comes later quite nicely.

After going through who said what and when for about 150 pages, Segerstråle in the second part turns to explaining the motives of the different players — what they wanted, what they thought was important, what they took for granted, and the conclusions they drew from what everyone else said and did. In the final third she returns to her own present to look at the debate after two and a half decades. She discusses its relationship to the Science Wars in the 1990s, to philosophical debates about the nature of the will, and the meaning of the “Enlightenment Quest”.

Wilson and Lewontin at the center

What stands out to me about the sociobiology debate is how many “fronts” it had and on how many levels you can describe it. From high up above there’s the familiar macro-conflict between “nature” and “nurture””, which here like always turns into confused, muddy complexity as you look closer. Just beneath the top layer there’s a set of interlocking disagreements about the proper relationship between science and politics, the duties of scientists and the criteria for what counts as good science, all energized by personal scientific ambitions, deep moral convictions, clashing personalities and academic turf wars.

Segerstråle handles this by including a large cast of characters, each with their own concerns, but zooming in to focus on one specific conflict for a good part of the story: that between Wilson himself and his Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin.

Lewontin, himself a population geneticist, became Wilsons primary critic (even though he didn’t necessarily want the role). This is explained by him having, at the same time, both scientific and political objections to Wilson’s work. Due to their differing temperaments and academic backgrounds they first of all didn’t agree on what constituted good science. Wilson was a naturalist who spent most of his time in the field studying animals, and considered speculation based on observation a scientifically respectable practice. He also believed that science progressed through bold, creative leaps into new territory where rough drafts could establish a presence to be further developed later.

His claims about humanity in Sociobiology (and in his later books Genes, Mind and Culture and On Human Nature) were thus not intended to be facts demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt. They were plausibility arguments that would in Wilson’s mind later be worked out and put on more solid ground as the science of sociobiology progressed. Therefore he saw fit to use, for instance, formulas that were known to be flawed, because they were the sort of thing a later, stronger version of his theories would include.

To Lewontin this was unacceptable. His philosophy of science was that of a hard-nosed experimentalist used to dealing with molecules. He disliked speculation and is described by a colleague as extremely smart but not very creative and imaginative[1]. As he saw it, science progressed by the gradual establishment of reliable facts, and so-called “science” that did not explain things in terms of the actual physical mechanisms involved wasn’t real science. A case in point was research on intelligence and its heritability. He did believe it was possible in principle to study the influence of genetics on intelligence, but only in terms of the concrete biochemical effects in the brain of known, identified genes. Research that dealt with abstractions like IQ scores derived from written tests, and then speculatively connected this mathematical construct to hypothetical genes, was definitely not serious.

Moreover, he had a particularly cynical view of what motivated researchers in the fields he considered pseudoscientific. Because properly scientific reasoning established its conclusion as an incontrovertible fact, supposedly scientific arguments that fell short of this standard — such as the speculation and plausibility appeals that made up Wilson’s draft of human sociobiology — was to Lewontin scientificially worthless not just in his own personal opinion, but clearly so even to the people who engaged in it. Thus they must have ulterior motives. These motives could be careerism, or lying in the service of a regressive political agenda[2].

Lewontin was primed to make negative assumptions about Wilson’s ideas by having in mind examples from scientists in history that he considered obvious examples of outright lies to justify racism. Segerstråle brings up his harsh judgment of the 19th century zoologist Louis Agassiz who he confidently declares a liar. In Lewontin’s eyes it was simply impossible to honestly believe something false — because it’s impossible to have valid, incontrovertible, evidence for it.

At the centers of different worlds

This aspect of the controversy strengthens my conviction that we so often underestimate how much other people’s assumptions and motivations differ from our own. We use our assumed understanding to draw further conclusions and build up complex but often mistaken reconstructions of other people and their motives in our heads. That we also overestimate other people’s understanding of our motivations and assumptions, and therefore misinterpret their behavior towards us makes it even worse.

It also shows how often disagreements can’t be reduced to a single issue. The conflict between Wilson and Lewontin wasn’t purely scientific nor purely political. Scientists in different fields may disapprove of each other’s methods but typically prefer silence to making a stink about it. But if political concerns come into play this changes. Lewontin was a self-described Marxist and radical who believed that bad science could easily be misused by actors trying to justify the social status quo, in a way that good, correct science could not. In this way his scientific and political views were intimately connected.

Given some core disagreements, and the fact that ideas can be more or less compatible with other ideas, you can almost picture how internally cohesive but mutually incompatible worldviews can grow, like crystals, from a few diverging “seed” convictions. And it wasn’t just the two of them. Segerstråle describes the formation of separate group belief systems on different sides of the conflict — belief systems that determined how various pieces of evidence was interpreted:

Thus, we can say that the two academic camps that had formed on the basis of the IQ and sociobiology controversies effectively came to live in two different worlds of factual knowledge, taken-for-granted assumptions, and attitudes towards such things as the media. Basic social psychological theory can make some predictions as to what will typically happen in a case of such pre-existing interpretive frameworks. Any incoming information will be accommodated in line with existing convictions; various well-known cognitive defense mechanisms will be operating to effectively protect the members of each camp from serious challenges to their existing ‘knowledge’; and within each camp, members will reinforce one another’s beliefs.

This understanding was what once convinced me that when you try to make sense of a disagreement you have to make significant effort to understand the interpretive frameworks to which each side subscribes. It’s difficult because it requires figuring out other people’s underlying mental architectures that they themselves take for granted enough to be unwilling or even unable to articulate in communication[3]. You have to look for clues and draw careful, tentative conclusions about how another’s mind is constructed: which ideas are linked and which aren’t, what supports and justifies what, etc. It’s like being a detective.

Planters, weeders, couplers and decouplers

Getting a glimpse of what’s in another’s mind can be both fascinating and a little unnerving, like seeing the dark silhouette of an underwater creature. There were parts of the book where I was both fascinated and unsettled by getting a view of belief systems that at once made others’ motivations easier to understand, but also felt threatening because of how incompatible with my own viewpoint they were[4][5].

For example, I’m a total “planter” by temperament. Segerstråle distinguishes between “planters and weeders in the garden of science” where planters focuses on science as the generation of new hypotheses, theories and explanatory models and weeders on criticising and excising those hypotheses/theories/models that aren’t up to snuff. Members of the camp that agreed with Lewontin that not all science was created equal, and that undercooked theorizing lent itself to political misuse are more likely to be characterized as “weeders” by Segerstråle[6]. She quotes from Not in our Genes by Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin:

Critics of biological determinism are like members of a fire brigade, constantly being called out in the middle of the night to put out the latest conflagration, always responding to immediate emergencies, but never with the leisure to draw up plans for a truly fireproof building. Now it is IQ and race, now criminal genes, now the biological inferiority of women, now the genetic fixity of human nature. All of these deterministic fires need to be doused with the cold water of reason before the entire neighborhood is in flames. Critics of determinism, then, seem to be doomed to constant nay-saying, while readers, audiences and students react with impatience to the perpetual negativity.

The “planters” in question, who were more liberal with speculations, would in turn strongly disagree that their theories implied anything of the sort Lewontin and his coauthors claimed. Partly this reflects a difference of opinion on the relationship between science and society: planters tended to be scientific traditionalists who often believed that “is” didn’t necessarily imply “ought”, that the freedom of inquiry was essential and itself a moral good, and that restricting research output due to political concerns was a serious threat to the integrity of science. Conversely, the weeders considered it an obvious duty for scientists to consider the social consequences of their research. Perhaps, suggests Segerstråle, they wanted to bring about such a norm by acting as if it already existed.

This might sound familiar to anyone who’s read my article on the Sam Harris-Ezra Klein controversy (and its follow-up Decoupling Revisited), which shares a lot of characteristics with the sociobiology debate. Was it simply a conflict between “decouplers”, in this context people who prefer to decouple scientific questions from their social context and implications, and “contextualizers” (or “couplers”) who believe it’s impossible to do so, and dishonest to pretend you can?

My initial characterization of “decoupling” in those articles is in fact a combination of two ideas: Keith Stanovich’s notion of cognitive decoupling — the practice of excluding the real world context of a scientific/logical problem and treating it as a formalistic, “mechanical” procedure — and coupled thinking as used by Segerstråle. Coupled thinking is mentioned twice in the book, once described as the belief that good scientific practice and progressive social views goes hand in hand (and thus that correct science could virtually by definition not be used for politically regressive ends), and the second time more generally as the belief that those who disagree with one’s own scientific views do so for political reasons.

This certainly explains some of the controversy but by no means all of it. Some scientists on both sides could be reasonably described as decoupling science from politics, like Richard Dawkins[7], Peter Medawar, John Maynard Smith and Salvador Luria, but notably not Wilson himself. Sociobiology and his following books, especially his 1998 work Consilience, was part of a grand moral-scientific agenda that involved putting morality on a genetic foundation and remaking the humanities to be built upon biology.

Does that mean that Wilson was in fact every bit the conservative (or worse) hierarchy-hugger the critics imagined? Not really. While nature vs. nurture is often cast as conservative vs. progressive, this fight took place in academia and genuine conservatives were basically nowhere to be seen. In the sense that the controversy had a political dimension — and it definitely did — it was between radicals (often but not always explicitly Marxist) and liberals. Wilson’s desire to work out a genetic basis for morality did clash with a certain radical conception of humanity, which made some code it as right-wing[8], but it, and he, was not.

In other words, he didn’t want to play along with the villain role assigned to him by some critics. Segerstråle discusses the often highly uncharitable readings[9] some of them had to subject his words to in order to make him say what was required of him. He had his agenda but it wasn’t so much conservative at its core as it was anti-religious. Wilson wanted to free people from the restrictive rules imposed on them by organized religion, and considered sociobiology a way to ground morality in something else. In a way he was a bit like Lewontin in that he seems to have believed that true science (a “genetically correct moral code”) would by default have desirable social implications.

Dawkins and Gould: The Next Generation

This fighting of different, to each other orthogonal fights carries over from Wilson and Lewontin to their spiritual successors Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould. Dawkins and Gould fought over the popular conception of evolution during the 1980:s and 90:s, a rivalry Segerstråle discusses in the last third[10]. To be very brief, Dawkins’s view is centered on natural selection of individual genes and gradual adaptation to the environment as the core mechanism of evolutionary change, while Gould argues that this pure, algorithmic view is inadequate. He insisted that structural path-dependency and contingent events played large roles in evolution and couldn’t just be brushed aside.

Just like the combination of political ideals and attitudes about good science animated Lewontin’s criticism of Wilson, it seems as if, at least in part, Gould’s distaste for the idea that society accurately rewards inherent merit animated his criticisms of Dawkins’s and others’ narrow focus on natural selection and on fitness as an attribute at the expense of structural restrictions and the slings and arrows of ordinary fortune as the determinants of evolution. It’s hard not to read Goulds tireless complaints over adaptationism — the tendency to think of all biological structures as by default having evolved to serve a particular function — as having heavily political overtones. Gould had a Marxist background and demonstrated a strong dislike for anything suggesting that evolution was somehow “fair” and that differential survival meant differential “fitness” on some kind of objective scale[11].

Having been interested in their differences for a long time, my judgment is that their beliefs about evolution don’t differ very much, certainly much less than their rhetoric would suggest. There’s even a case where Gould uses an analogy involving a cake (originally thought up by Patrick Bateson) to criticize Dawkins, one that Dawkins had in fact used to describe his own view in an earlier book. No, they mostly disagreed about emphasis and interpretation, and that was most likely due to them being preoccupied with different issues outside biology[12].

Dawkins’s enemy was, just like Wilson’s, religion, and more specifically creationism. His books were meant to show how blind evolution was capable of creating complex life of the kind we see in the world. They were meant to describe the mechanism that did the heavy lifting. Then there is lots of complexity and contingency involved in the history of life on Earth, but Dawkins doesn’t care as much about that. They’re part of what happened, sure, but don’t do explanatory work for how it was possible for it to happen without intelligent design.

That stuff is all about incidentals, not essentials — noise rather than signal, and Dawkins doesn’t mind putting it to the side because those details aren’t what matters in his fight. However, if you are Stephen Jay Gould and want to focus on how in biology as in society, success is not determined by individual fitness or merit but is largely contingent and restricted by other factors outside the individual, then the incidentals, the “noise” part of the process, is exactly what you want to put front and center.

It’s like if we want to explain how a car works, Dawkins’s scientific concern is with how the internal combustion engine can supply the energy for forward movement, while Gould’s side insists that a complete explanation of everything about the car is necessary and leaving that out misrepresents things so badly it becomes wrong. These differing scientific concerns intersect with their different “fights” to produce their complex disagreement[13].

A multitude of modern day descendants

The final third of Defenders of the Truth is both a retrospect of the sociobiology debate and the nature-vs-nurture debates that came with the increasing acceptance of biological explanations of human behavior (and the birth of evolutionary pshychology) in the 1990s, and an exploration of just how many philosophical questions these issues manage to touch: the nature of humanity, free will, the relationship between different scholarly disciplines and the status, role and responsibility of science in society.

It makes it clear just how closely many philosophical, scientific and moral ideas are interrelated. Furthermore, it becomes especially challenging to make sense of a debate where most of the many people involved are top-tier intellectuals who no doubt have spent a lot of time and effort meticulously building, sculpting and honing their worldviews to be internally consistent, and who hold sophisticated, individually differentiated views on every issue they discuss. The chances of simplifying well are a lot worse than if we were dealing with holders of disconnected beans-in-a-bag opinions, or standard-issue partisan packages.

Some understanding is possible if we’re talking about one-on-one disagreements like Lewontin/Wilson and Dawkins/Gould, but even they are drastic simplifications. Also I can’t help but think that this is getting even more difficult. Today there are many more voices than in decades past and extended one-to-one dialogue is the exception, not the rule. Even just plain, honest communication across ideological borders seems like the exception. The unrestricted flow of decontextualized bits of information on social media means that carefully thought up ideas of top academics regularly get picked up by us second-, third- and fourth-rate thinkers without the knowledge and context needed to understand them fully. Given that, it gets harder to know just how much sense you can expect something to make. If Joe says “X!” and Jane says “No, Y!”, their exchange of rehearsed talking points might be playacting a conflict between whole schools of thought clustered around X and Y that they don’t understand or even know exist. And they might mistake each other’s inability to justify X and Y to each other fully for proof of the inherent worthlessness of those beliefs. What is the best way to make sense of that disagreement? Do we go by explicit personal beliefs or by traditions and schools invoked?

Circling back

The book really is as good as I remembered it. That’s a huge relief, but writing a positive review also makes me a little bit suspicious with myself. Since 2008 I’ve learned to be more skeptical of accounts that cater to my own preconceptions and biases, so I can’t help but wonder if I like this book so much because it’s relatively friendly to my own views. For example, Segerstråle is quite willing to call out the dishonesty with which some of Wilson’s critics (most notably Chorover) twisted his words, and paints a picture of Lewontin’s personality that isn’t particularly flattering[14] compared to her depiction of Wilson.

There´s hardly anything in the book about what her own opinions are. This is probably prudent, but it makes you wonder exactly how far you can trust her account. The only relevant info I can find was from this old article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Although she admits that she thinks Mr. Wilson behaved better than his critics, Ms. Segerstrale says she can’t say which scientist was right. ‘I am not Wilsonian, and I am not Lewontinian,’ she says, but in her book she tries to present balanced scientific criticism of both sides. As for the moral ambitions of the opponents, she sees them both as ‘defensible’.

The same article quotes Irven DeVore, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard and minor character in the story, saying it’s “unlikely that there will be another review of this tumultuous period in evolutionary biology that is so thoughtful and comprehensive.” So I think my answer have to be that Segerstråle is likely as trustworthy on this as anyone can reasonably be. I would’ve liked to read some comments from Lewontin but according to the article he hasn’t read the book and doesn’t want to, stating that “I don’t know what it’ll tell me that I don’t already know”. For what it’s worth, that response doesn’t endear him to me.

After a second read 12 years after the first, I think I’ve been even more influenced by this book regarding how “erisology” is supposed to be done than I thought I was. It does a lot of work on its own to instill the kind of mindset I think you need in order to deal with disagreement well. It’s packed with quotable passages for the erisology enthusiast, and if you’re at all interested in the science, politics and philosophy of human nature, I absolutely recommend it.

• • •


I feel I’m familiar with this type, and I’m not a fan.

When interviewed by Segerstråle, Lewontin says:

I do not think that what he [Wilson] has been doing for the last ten years has been primarily motivated by a genuine desire to find out something true about the world, and therefore I do not think it is serious. One of the reasons my book review of Lumsden and Wilson had a kind of sneering tone is that it is the way I genuinely feel about the project. Namely that it is not a serious, intellectual project. Because I have only two possibilities open to me. Either it is a serious intellectual project, and Ed Wilson can’t think, or he can think, but it is not a serious project and therefore he is making all the mistakes that he can—he does. If it is a really deep serious project, then he simply lowers himself in my opinion as an intellectual.

Maybe the prince — the part of our minds that keep us from noticing the self-serving qualities of our behavior — plays a role in making this difficult. If we could easily articulate our background assumptions it would mean that we’d be bringing them into the foreground and recognize that they’re assumptions rather than obvious truths, which would reduce our commitment to them.

I’m thinking mostly of Stephan Chorover, author of From Genesis to Genocide, who ties together everything about biological accounts human nature, heredity etc. into a single idea that plays the villain role in a grand story stretching back many centuries and tells of constant attempts to justify oppression. I very much see why this story can be put together and why it makes sense, but judging by what else Segerstråle tells of Chorover his problem appears to be overstating his case in that he considers his own story to be The Truth and doesn’t grant any other ways of describing things any legitimacy.

One thing that felt upside-down to me were how otherwise good-natured, thoughtful, intelligent people could be so nasty to each other in print. How was it possible for mature adults to take such obvious enjoyment in ripping somebody else’s work into shreds and then act as if this made them good people and it was all fine and dandy and part of how things were supposed to be? Fair criticism is one thing, but nasty, accusatory, inflammatory attacks with rhetorical verve and obvious relish is quite another. To me this reflects badly on someone’s character. I’d expect people to behave like that behind closed doors, perhaps after a few drinks, but then muster more measured, sober criticism for the public arena. That’s certainly what I’d do. But when some writers (the philosopher Mary Midgley for example) when interviewed by Segerstråle seem a lot more relaxed, thoughtful and generous in person than they were in print I guess I have to accept that others sometimes have the opposite intuitions about propriety from mine.

A more famous example, beside Lewontin himself, is Stephen Jay Gould, who’s wrote The Mismeasure of Man, tearing into the history of intelligence research. He’s described by Segerstråle as wanting to “make debunking a positive science”.

Dawkins was irritated that his book The Selfish Gene from 1976 got drawn into the sociobiology controversy. He considered it to be about the evolution of animal behavior, and said that he, unlike Wilson, was “quite uninterested in humans”.

One reason for this misdescription is that from a certain far-left perspective, anything short of commitment to dismantling capitalism and delegitmizing any and all inequality as purely an artifact of the political system is considered conservative (or “defending the status quo”). This makes a certain amount of sense given the original, more literal meaning of “conservative”, but not given its normal use as the description of a political grouping.

Here Stephan Chorover appears to be the worst offender. Segerstråle recounts:

[M]uch effort went into making Wilson say what he ‘ought to’, so that his statements would better fit the picture the critics wished to paint. (This was usually achieved by quoting Wilson out of context, or by patching different parts of the text together.)

The best example is perhaps Chorover’s From Genesis to Genocide. In 1984 I was able to shock my class of well-intentioned liberal students at Smith College by giving them the assignment to compare Chorover’s representation of passages from Sociobiology with Wilson’s original text. The students, who were deeply suspicious of Wilson and spontaneous champions of his critics, embarked on this homework with gusto. Many students were quite dismayed at their own findings and angry with Chorover. This surely says something, too, about these educated laymen’s relative innocence regarding what can and cannot be done in academia.

This in particular is my own extrapolation of their debate rather than directly from Segerstråle, but it seems clear to me that Dawkins and Gould were similarly engaged in two different fights when they made their book-length arguments over how evolution actually works.

This concern certainly seems to have motivated Lewontin. Segerstråle points to him arguing that the differences between species are not the direct consequence of natural selection by using the famous phrase “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor riches to the wise man, but time and chance happeneth to them all”. She refers to it as his favorite all-purpose quote. I believe this reveals an attitude he likely applied both to society and evolution, one seemingly also shared by Gould.

I also suspect different temperaments that made them interested in different aspects of evolution (engineering-style vs. history-style approach) played a part.

This section shouldn’t be taken as a definitive or authoritative description of the disagreements between Dawkins and Gould. I’ve read a fair bit about it from several sources and I’m aware than it’s more complicated than this. Still, it’s the best I can do in a few hundred words. If you’re interested look into the philosopher Kim Sterelny’s Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest.

There could be a meta-bias here, where she describes both Wilson and Lewontin roughly accurately and I find the portrayal of Lewontin unflattering because I just don’t like personalities like his. Wilson is for example portrayed as intentionally provocative, but that doesn’t bother me because he isn’t particularly provocative to me. At most I find his wild ambitions a little naive, concerning, or mistaken.

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2 thoughts on “Rereading Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate

  1. I am reminded of the Robert Ingersoll’s quotation: “The destroyer of weeds, thistles and thorns is a benefactor whether he soweth grain or not.”

    I’d think that planters and weeders both have their role to play in the ecosystem of the development of science.

    Liked by 1 person

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