[Paleopsych] New Criterion: Paul R. Gross: Exorcising sociobiology

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Paul R. Gross: Exorcising sociobiology
From The New Criterion Vol. 19, No. 6, February 2001

    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 Yanomamö, 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., a 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 Yanomamö 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
    Segerstråle's impressive new book, Defenders of the Truth: The Battle
    for Science in the Sociology Debate and Beyond, [3][1] gives an
    excellent account of what has come to be called the "sociobiology
    controversy." Although Segerstråle 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.

    Segerstråle has attempted to provide "a view through the keyhole" to
    the inner workings of science and the means by which it changes. This
    scants the blatant politics of the attack she chronicles, emphasizing
    instead intellectual conflicts and alliances, opposed epistemologies,
    and different cognitive styles. But the real battle over sociobiology
    today is not an intellectual battle. It is a political battle, a
    moral--or rather a moralistic--crusade. Among the newest victims of
    this crusade are the late "father of human genetics," James V. Neel,
    and the renowned anthropologist Napoleon A. Chagnon. But to understand
    the attacks against them, we must return to E. O. Wilson and the
    charges made against him in 1975.

    Wilson seems to have been unaware of the full political implications
    of his final chapter. A respected member of the Cambridge
    (Massachusetts) community of able, ambitious, mostly leftish
    academics, he considered himself a good liberal on social issues. But
    he was and is, as Segerstråle notes, an energetic scientific planter
    as well as a weeder. He saw no more harm in deploying biology in the
    study of human behavior than in the study of ants or chimpanzees.
    Insistence upon absolute animal-human discontinuity is, after all,
    reversion at least to eighteenth-century pop-theology. In The Hub? In
    1975? Never!

    But Wilson had not been paying attention to the ideological storm
    clouds that had been gathering. Biology-phobia in the social sciences
    is a very old story, but from the end of World War II there was
    renewed fury on the academic left to expunge all vestiges of the idea
    that human behavior and sociality are, even in small part, products of
    our evolution (and hence of our genes). The reasons for this are easy
    to see. There was, first of all, a justified fear and hatred of Nazi
    eugenics. But there were also the increasingly vociferous demands for
    preferences and quotas for "minorities"-- including women (an honorary
    minority who form a majority of the population)-- because of prior
    racism or sexism. There was also the insistence on the West's moral
    inferiority to the Soviet "experiment" and to the Third World, a
    fixation upon capitalist-colonial wrongdoing, and the cultural
    excellences of the wronged "Other."

    The belief that "everything is political" implies that every problem
    can be fixed by political action. Biology introduces a few doubts to
    these believers and is therefore at best a diversion and at worst an
    enemy. The attack on so-called "biological determinism" that is part
    and parcel of the regnant social-science mentality today really
    involves a blanket rejection of any significant biological
    contribution to human performance or behavior. (Note, too, that the
    term "biological determinism" is a calumny: no serious scientist
    believes that biology-- heredity?--"determines," that is fixes, human
    behavior.) Instead of human nature, the champions of
    everything-is-political present us with the spectacle of an infinitely
    malleable potentiality. This idea is, of course, hardly new. It has
    been an important component of utopian thought for centuries. It
    figures prominently in the ideas of Karl Marx, for example, who
    insisted that it is not man's consciousness that makes social life,
    but society that makes consciousness. Thus, according to Marxists,
    social thought is the "Master Science." Hence, there is not only
    Marxist economics but also Marxist everything, including correct
    (Marxist) science. To have been an academic in the 1970s and to have
    been unaware of this was naïve; to have called upon biology, even if
    only as an aid to understanding culture, was a crime. It was this
    crime with which Wilson was charged. Segerstråle reports that

      In November 1975, a group called the Sociobiology Study Group,
      composed of professors, students, researchers, and others from the
      Boston area, launched an attack on Wilson's Sociobiology. . . . The
      first public statement by this group was a letter in The New York
      Review of Books. . . . The dramatic nature of this letter lay not
      only in its strong language, but also in the fact that among the
      co-signers could be found the names of some of Wilson's colleagues,
      working in the same department at Harvard, particularly Richard C.
      Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould.

    And of what was E. O. Wilson accused? Well, of bad science, of course,
    but also of being a friend of racism, sexism, and even genocide.
    Segerstråle notes that

      Wilson was presented as an ideologue supporting the status quo as
      an inevitable consequence of human nature, because of his interest
      in establishing the central traits of a genetically controlled
      human nature.

    The Sociobiology Study Group merged with the New Left's Science For
    The People and attracted and recruited support from other radical-left
    fraternities such as the Committee Against Racism (CAR). In due course
    CAR members attacked Wilson-- once physically--hounding and shouting
    him down in public. Although the shouting has abated, the slurs have
    never really ended. Meanwhile, Wilson has gone on to win every honor
    and international prize available to a scientist of his interests, and
    steadily to publish important new work far outside the field of

    But the artillery still growls by night. There are now a few real
    scientific issues. The descendant of sociobiology flourishes --an
    interdisciplinary field for anthropologists, psychologists, cognitive
    scientists, geneticists, even economists--but it no longer calls
    itself "sociobiology." In an attempt to purchase immunity from
    stink-bombs, it calls itself "evolutionary psychology." Segerstråle's
    attempt to make an epistemology of the continuing debate fails:

      In any case, the lack of . . . [a genuine] . . . scientific
      critique was only temporary: soon Gould and Lewontin changed their
      strategy and went full steam ahead with various scientific attacks
      on sociobiology. Arguably, though, Gould and Lewontin's new focus
      on the field's scientific shortcomings was not a real substitute
      for the continuing lack of genuinely scientific critique. In their
      writings, these two Harvard critics never quite abandoned their
      original moral/political condemnation of sociobiology.

    Nor have they and their followers abandoned it yet. There are new
    assassins and targets. The "scientific" objections take this form:
    sociobiology cannot be good science because data-gathering or
    theorizing insensitive to the harm it might do victim-groups is ipso
    facto bad science. This impresses the young, the aged New Left, and
    other philosophical naïfs. But it is tautologic nonsense. There is no
    connection between quality of inquiry and decorousness of result.
    More: a possible role for biology in human behavior implies that
    political action alone might not change everything for the better. For
    the political engagé, that is absolute heresy.

    Terence S. Turner is a professor of anthropology at Cornell. He has
    studied Amazonian indigenes. So has Chagnon, though he has been
    immensely more successful (by the standard measures of recognition). A
    self-identified political anthropologist and defender of human rights,
    Turner abhors "sociobiology" and has for years denounced it and
    Chagnon. For him it is vicious, rightist, reductionist. He is a vocal
    enemy of Chagnon, who thinks (and writes) that human evolution can
    help explain some of our doings, including--horror of horrors--our
    aggression. Leslie E. Sponsel, a professor of anthropology at the
    University of Hawaii, also specializing in "peace studies," shares
    Turner's hostility to sociobiology, indeed toward science in
    anthropology generally. These two represent the "cultural" ("social"
    in the U.K.) branch of the subject, which has in many places divorced
    itself from physical anthropology. Stanford University, for example,
    has separate departments.

    In September 2000, Turner and Sponsel wrote a five-page e-mail to the
    president and president-elect of the American Anthropological
    Association. Somehow, this epistle was immediately sent on to many
    others in the field; overnight it was made public on the internet. No
    word describes it better than "hysterical." "We write to inform you,"
    it begins,

      of an impending scandal that will affect the American
      anthropological profession. . . . In its scale, ramifications, and
      sheer criminality and corruption it is unparalleled in the history
      of anthropology. . . . This nightmarish story-- a real
      anthropological heart of darkness beyond the imagining even of a
      Joseph Conrad (although not, perhaps, a Josef Mengele)-- will be
      seen (rightly in our view) . . . as putting the whole discipline on

    Turner and Sponsel had just seen proofs, they averred, of a book by
    Patrick Tierney, an investigative journalist, called Darkness in El
    Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. This
    book contains horrifying revelations about which they, ostensibly
    fearing for their colleagues, are sounding the alarm.

    There is something wrong with these claims. Turner and Sponsel seem to
    have known Tierney and about this book for a long time before they saw
    proofs. Tierney thanks Turner in the book for his help. They are both
    also on record citing prior versions of Tierney's claims. But never
    mind that. Their tocsin: publication is imminent; Darkness was about
    to be excerpted in The New Yorker. (It was also in fact a candidate
    for the National Book Award.) [4][2]

    What does Tierney charge? Well, I proceed from the ridiculous to the
    defamatory: Chagnon was a draft-dodger; he exploits ethnographic
    studies among the Yanomamö for his, but not their, profit; he is
    careless of human rights; he is a right-wing ideologue, out to make
    sociobiological points; he faked the Yanomamö fierceness made famous
    in his ethnography; thirty years ago, he joined the American medical
    geneticist (and physician and co-investigator, with Japanese
    colleagues, of the genetic consequences of the atomic bomb) James V.
    Neel in inoculating the Yanomamö with a "virulent" vaccine in order to
    induce a measles epidemic, thereby testing sociobiological and
    "eugenic" theories; and, finally, that Neel was a right-wing
    eugenicist, who performed illegal radiation experiments on the
    Yanomamö for the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of
    Energy). Most of this was supposed to have taken place in 1968. And it
    is only a partial list of the charges.

    The media jumped. Before anybody had seen even The New Yorker piece,
    let alone the book, a full-blown character assassination was underway,
    with no epistemological quibbling to confuse the audience. In England,
    The Guardian's headline read "Scientist `Killed Amazon Indians to Test
    Race Theory'" The publisher had obviously never allowed the manuscript
    to be read by reviewers competent to evaluate the evidence--not even
    those from the institutions where all the facts lay open for
    examination: the Universities of Michigan and California at Santa
    Barbara; the National Academy of Sciences (Dr. Neel was a member); the
    Department of Energy; and the federal vaccine safety and distribution
    agencies. Turner and Sponsel also arranged a suitable denouement: the
    national meeting of their association was scheduled for mid-November,
    2000, in San Francisco.

      The writers, both emeritus members of the Committee for Human
      Rights, have arranged . . . that the Open Forum put on by the
      Committee this year be devoted to the Yanomami case. This seemed
      the best way to provide a public venue for a public airing of the
      scandal, given that the program is of course already closed. . . .
      [W]e have invited Patrick Tierney to come to the Meetings and to be
      present at the Forum. [emphasis added]

    Things did not turn out as expected. Serious scholars, of whom some
    remain even in cultural anthropology (with more in adjacent fields),
    read The New Yorker piece. They got hold, with difficulty, of original
    proof-copies of the book. And then all hell broke loose.

    Tierney's "investigative reporting"--he claims to have given it ten
    years, some in the Amazon--is a tissue of misrepresentation,
    scientific ignorance, and groundless insinuation. The book is densely
    "documented," but, among the five-thousand notes, many refer to
    informants who can't be checked, most others to known enemies of
    Chagnon or to locals in Brazil and Venezuela who are in fact
    exploiters. Citations of documents or conversations say the opposite
    of what is in the documents, or of what the interviewees report
    independently. The entire "induced" epidemic story, central to
    Tierney's bill of indictment, is part innuendo and part gross
    incomprehension of the science. Turner was forced to withdraw publicly
    his endorsement of that part of Darkness in El Dorado. There were also
    no "illegal radiation experiments."

    What of Dr. Neel's racist "eugenics?" It is clear from their comments
    that none of the three--Messrs. Tierney, Turner, Sponsel-- knows what
    "eugenics" means. It looks as though Mr. Tierney was unaware that Dr.
    Neel, a physician as well as a scientist, had advice and assistance,
    in his effort to abort an existing measles epidemic among the
    Yanomamö, from the world's best sources. Neel's lifelong
    commitment--and great success--was in fact to defeating "eugenics"!
    All this is recorded--even, thanks to the aroused institutions, on the
    internet. The "draft-dodger" charge against Chagnon is simple slander.

    By the time The New Yorker extract appeared, Tierney had muffled some
    of its most outrageous claims--in language but not intent. Old proof
    copies of the book were out, and it was clear whence the backing-down
    was being done. The book, as published, uses still weaker language,
    reduced in many places to mere innuendo. But the tendentiousness is
    unremitting. No longer, for example, does Tierney invoke crazy
    sociobiological experiments and an induced epidemic. Instead, he is
    content with statements like this:

      The Venezuelan Yanomami experienced the greatest disease pressure
      in their history during a 1968 measles epidemic. The epidemic
      started from the same village where the geneticist James Neel had
      scientists inoculate the Yanomami with a live virus that had proven
      safe for healthy American children but was known to be dangerous
      for immune-compromised people. The epidemic seemed to track the
      movements of the investigators.

    The virus was not "live" in the trivial sense. The vaccine used by
    Neel was the standard attenuated (a process first systematized by
    Louis Pasteur) virus preparation, multiple millions of doses of which
    had and have been given around the world, not just to "healthy
    American children." Among the millions of vaccinations, known serious
    consequences number three, all in children with prior severe
    immunodeficiency disease. The vaccine Neel and Chagnon obtained was
    the best available at the time; no vaccine was available for measles
    before 1963. The creation of effective antiviral vaccines was one of
    the great biomedical achievements of the twentieth century. The
    measles vaccine was developed by Dr. Samuel L. Katz (a distinguished
    Duke pediatrician) and Nobelist John Enders, inter alii. Dr. Katz has
    quietly shown since the scandal broke that the Tierney charges are
    nonsense. There is no case on record of such a vaccine ever having
    transmitted measles. Better vaccines are available today, but this was
    thirty years ago.

    That so delicious a story could be a complete fiction may seem
    unlikely, but then, many otherwise normal people think that
    Hollywood's version of the Kennedy assassination was a courageous
    exposé. Believers in vast right-wing conspiracies can get, however, a
    proper account of the measles epidemic from a long letter by William
    J. Oliver, M.D. (retired Chairman of Pediatrics at the University of
    Michigan), which dissects the Tierney/Turner/Sponsel account point by
    point. It is available online, in company with much related material,
    from the University of Michigan ([5]www.umich.

    This, with the dozens of other contributions from competent physicians
    and scientists, pushed Turner to recant his passionate endorsement of
    both Tierney's early and then-weakened stories of the Yanomamö measles
    epidemic. In an e-mail response to Katz on September 28, 2000, Turner
    excuses himself and Sponsel, and at the same time abandons Tierney, as

      [W]e did set about doing our best to check on its more shocking
      allegations. . . . One of the authorities we consulted was Dr.
      Peter Aaby, a well-known medical anthropologist and member of the
      Scandinavian medical team that has been working on measles in West
      Africa for some twenty years. He has gone over the cliams about the
      vaccine made by Tierney and refuted them point by point, in very
      much the same terms that you [Katz] have used. We are in the
      process of preparing a memo that will state our understanding of
      this matter, to help correct the confusion that the unauthorized
      circulation of our earlier memo [sic].

    No matter: the activist Tierney still gets his word in: "I sensed that
    the injustice done to the Yanomami was matched by the distortion done
    to science and the history of evolution. Yet the incredible faith the
    sociobiologists had in their theories was admirable."

    It looks as though the exorcism of "sociobiology" has, for the moment,
    failed again. But decent scholars have been hounded and besmirched.
    Perhaps they, too, will recover in strength, as E. O. Wilson has done.
    But Dr. Neel is dead, and the energetic Chagnon has retired from the
    field in which he is both an eminence and the target of bitter
    obloquy. (Some of his detractors say that he is not a nice man.) At
    the AAA meetings in November, 2000, most speakers exposed the conceits
    and deceits of Darkness in El Dorado. And thus far there have been no
    serious rebuttals from the book's promoters. Patrick Tierney's feeble
    and largely irrelevant written responses to the critical revelations
    can be found, along with links to many other important documents,
    online at

    Yet the dirty work is done. However far the exorcists retreat, they
    have damaged indigenous peoples, who are already afraid of outsiders
    (and should be, of some) and of medicine and who see only
    conspiracy--of both men and of gods--against them. Science and
    preventive medicine suffer already; stung by the worldwide attention
    to the horror story, the Venezualan government is moving to stop all
    future scientific contacts with such peoples as the Yanomamö. At the
    AAA meetings, however, Tierney received enthusiastic applause,
    presumably for caring. Those who applauded, the barefoot
    anthropologists and activists, will be teaching your children.


     1. Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociology
        Debate and Beyond, by Ullica Segerstråle; Oxford University Press,
        464 pages, $30.
     2. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated
        the Amazon, by Patrick Tierney; W. W. Norton & Co., 417 pages,


    1. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0198505051/thenewcriterio
    2. http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0198505051/thenewcriterio
    5. http://www.umich.edu/~urel/Darkness/oliver.html

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