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Internet Source: The New Criterion Vol. 19, No. 6, February 2001
Source URL: http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/19/feb01/pgross.htm

Exorcising sociobiology

Paul R. Gross I nnocents 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 , [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.”

T he 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 sociobiology.

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.

T erence 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 trial.
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.) [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.

B y 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 ( www.umich. edu/~urel/Darkness/oliver.html ).

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 follows:

[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.”

I t 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 http://www.anth.uconn.edu/gradstudents/dhume/darkness_in_el_dorado/index.htm.

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, $27.95.