Life in the Colonies
- Naturalist by Edward O.Wilson
Allen Lane, 380 pp, £20.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 7139 9141 0
- Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O.Wilson
Harvard, 228 pp, £19.95, November 1994, ISBN 0 674 48525 4
Arriving at university from the shelter of a London suburban home, I was soon introduced to curry. Unaware that Indian cuisine is built around a wide range of spices, my ambition was simple: I would prove my sophistication by eating without flinching the hottest Madras or Vindaloo. Something of the same determinedly trivial desire to prove himself is revealed in Edward Wilson’s Naturalist. The great myrmecologist’s memoir is filled with references to scaling the highest mountains, collecting the most species, and above all to standing where no (white) man had ever stood before, finding organisms hitherto ‘unknown to science’ or hacking his way through trackless jungle.
Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
In his review of Edward O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Bert Hölldobler and Wilson’s Journey to the Ants (LRB, 20 July), Steven Rose repeats some of his objections to sociobiology. He is entitled to be uncomfortable with ‘reductionism’ but he cannot discredit sociobiological research by reducing it to a straw man; and he cannot dictate what can or cannot be explained in the sciences. He trivialises Wilson’s position by stating that in his ‘reductionist argument’ Wilson fails to see that ‘it is not only religion which cannot be explained exclusively in terms of atoms or genes.’ Neither Wilson nor (probably) any other sociobiologist claims that cultural systems can be explained ‘exclusively’ by biology (or physics). As for Rose’s assertion that ‘even the self-organising properties of a single cell’ cannot be explained ‘merely’ in terms of atoms or genes, that issue is the subject of ongoing research. Rose’s confident pronunciamento cannot close the question. His metaphysical argument that ‘each level of complexity of living systems requires study in its own terms’ carries little weight at this point in the history of science. Those hallowed ‘levels’ – presumably mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology – are shifting historical artefacts, not rigid categories, and what they can or cannot explain are subjects of research. In the 17th century the Church advised Galileo that in science planetary astronomy may be studied in terms of mathematics but not physics. How the planets actually move, it was claimed, had been determined on the ‘level’ of theology.
Gabriel Dover’s review of Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA (LRB, 3 August) is an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics. He refers to theoretical geneticists as ‘thousands of molecular zombies’ and his review makes the unsubstantiated claim that the fundamental processes of life are not merely unknown, they are unknowable. He quotes approvingly Pollack’s prediction that ‘experimentation on human genes, no matter how imaginative, will never give a single, complete meaning to the human genome’ as well as his belief that ‘genes and proteins … are time-dependent and historically rooted; and we are finding out the hard way, neither is totally knowable or predictable.’ (Pollack’s argument, incidentally, is based on an analogy between the levels of physics – ‘unpredictable atoms’ – and biology.) Many scholars and scientists are understandably concerned that the liberal programme of reforming society may be restricted by the misuse of scientific knowledge to perpetuate social injustice. Rose faults Wilson for failing to ‘comment on the pseudo-scientific use of sociobiological claims by racists on the far right’. Would it not be better to engage political opponents on the ‘level’ of politics rather than by finding philosophical fault with scientific research?
Stevens Institute of Technology
Vol. 17 No. 18 · 21 September 1995
As an evolutionary geneticist reviewing Robert Pollack’s Signs of Life: The Language and Meaning of DNA, I would hardly be in the business of attempting ‘an ill-tempered attack on evolutionary genetics’ as misjudged by Harold Dorn (Letters, 7 September). The ‘molecular zombies’ in my review referred to the thousands of molecular biologists engaged in the sequencing of the vastness of the human genome and not to Dorn’s ‘theoretical geneticists’ (whoever and whatever they are). The central message of my review was that only through an evolutionary comparative approach to genetic organisation and biological functions can some corner of the unknowable nature of biological processes be lifted. In agreement with Pollack and with Steven Rose (LRB, 20 July), I emphasised that the ‘mess’ of biological processes, the inevitable products of a time-dependent, haphazard and contingent process of evolution, is, like history and economics, unknowable. Certainly the workings and evolution of the complex, interactive components that constitute a living organism will never be understood either through a ‘DNA sequence read-out’ or through the vulgar minimalism of the selfish gene.
University of Leicester
Vol. 17 No. 19 · 5 October 1995
Harold Dorn (Letters, 7 September) takes issue with comments I made on the scientific and political claims of sociobiology in my review of E.O. Wilson’s autobiography. His argument, as I understand it, is that: 1. neither Wilson nor any other sociobiologist offers reductionist explanations of social phenomena in terms of genetics or physics; 2. there is no metaphysical or philosophical analysis that can legitimately be made of scientific claims, so that the question of whether complex systems can be reductively explained is a matter of empirical enquiry; 3. hence my critique of sociobiology is more political than either scientific or philosophical.
To deal with Dorn’s points in order. 1. The clearest-cut reductive statements I have ever heard come from James Watson: ‘In the last analysis there is only one science, physics. There are only atoms; everything else is social work.’ I agree that Wilson would not put it in quite such triumphant terms, but I challenge anyone to read the opening pages of Sociobiology without drawing this inference. 2. Are levels of complexity ontological or epistemological? Dorn ducks this question by equating levels of complexity with different scientific disciplines, whose history interweaves the ontological and the epistemological. There are nearly as many meanings encased within the term ‘level’ as philosophers once found in Thomas Kuhn’s ‘paradigm’. But if Dorn really believes that there is nothing more to be understood about the two paragraphs that make up his letter than an analysis of the printer’s ink of which the black marks are composed and the paper on which they are printed, then I feel he might as well cancel his subscription to the LRB forthwith, for reading can have no meaning for him. 3. My critique of sociobiology is in fact simultaneously philosophical, scientific and political. Philosophical because I believe the logic of sociobiology is flawed in important respects; scientific because sociobiology’s framing paradigm often leads to inappropriate questions being asked about the world of living systems, and as a student of animal brains and behaviour, I find this regrettable. I tried to show why in my review. As for politics, it is sociobiology’s protagonists, not its opponents, who opened the debate by making claims as to its relevance to human affairs.
Vol. 17 No. 21 · 2 November 1995
In his recent letter (Letters, 5 October) Steven Rose quotes and targets a sweeping reductionist statement by James Watson, the Nobel laureate of double helix fame; and he informs us that his own ‘critique of sociobiology is in fact simultaneously philosophical, scientific and political’. To address the first point. Scientists’ world views – whether they be reductionist, dialectical, or what not – are not the same as their research. Many scientists are ‘reductionists’ and a few favour ‘dialectical explanations’ (as Rose does) on some philosophical level, but they continue to do and publish their research in less lofty terms. Edward O. Wilson has made some radical claims for the theoretical possibilities of sociobiology, but in Journey to the Ants (which Rose reviewed) there are delightful discussions of co-operation, communication, conflict and dominance in terms of field and laboratory observations and Darwinian theories. Sociobiological research can be and has been criticised and debated on scientific grounds, but Rose continues to claim that the science is guilty by association with the philosophical doctrines of those who do the research and with the political misuses to which it might be put. This brings me to his second point – Rose’s claim that he has homogenised science, philosophy and politics. What is it that animates his hostility to such eminent scientists who study ants and chromosomes? Is it merely their scientific errors or philosophical reductionism? No – it is Rose’s own political biases. In Not in Our Genes, which he co-authored, we are told that the real culprit is ‘bourgeois science’. And, it is claimed, the ‘struggle’ to create a socialist society is best served by ‘dialectical explanations’. Rose’s heartfelt commitment to what he sees as world betterment has made him vigilant in opposing the dangers of the misuse of science. But it has left him blind to the dangers of classifying scientific research in ideological categories such as ‘bourgeois science’, a tradition of research that few scientists, across the political spectrum, are aware of. In Nazi Germany, the Nobel laureates Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard denounced ‘Jewish physics’ and advocated what they called ‘aryan’, or völkisch, physics. In the Soviet Union, where the political authorities terminated and prohibited genetics research, terms like ‘reactionary science’ were bandied about. I’m sure Rose would not wish to see academic vigilantes patrolling the corridors of learning (as they have begun to do in the US). It should be clear by now that in the homogenisation of science, philosophy and politics it is always the politics that curdles.
Stevens Institute of Technology