For the past twenty years, the popular scientific mind has become increasingly swayed toward the acceptance of a particular credo commonly called sociobiology. Books by influential writers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson have rendered seemingly obvious the notion that our genes determine our behavior—that society, in short, is the direct creation of biology. What used to be considered social problems have thus become identified as genetic problems; alcoholism, schizophrenia, violent behavior, and sexual orientation are more likely to be seen as genetically disposed behaviors requiring intervention from the genetic, as opposed to the social, engineer.
It should come as a surprise, therefore, to the many journalists and opinion makers who have spread this notion—either unwittingly or because it suits their underlying ideological concerns—that sociobiology is hardly an accepted fact among working biologists, that it is, indeed, largely ignored or resented as an oversimplified and decidedly nonscientific doctrine. One of the chief opponents of sociobiology is Steven Rose who, as far back as 1984, in his book Not in Our Genes, began criticizing the sociobiologists (or Ultra-Darwinists, as he teasingly calls them) for promoting bad science based on a pernicious ideology, while lacking sufficient credentials to support their claims. In his latest book, Lifelines: Biology Beyond Determinism, Rose returns to the battleground with a fully articulated attack which, if it does not finally silence his opponents, will certainly broaden both scientific and political thought beyond the simplistic dogmas of sociobiology.
Rose’s chief assertion is that these currently favored explanations are far too reductionistic and deterministic to account for the complexity of biological phenomena. This assertion is backed by an extended discussion on the makings of science in general and on the perils of reductionism in particular. In regard to the making of science, Rose suggests that, no matter how objective scientists may wish to believe themselves, they cannot escape from certain subtle collusions with the society in which they work. For one, a scientific explanation does not arise in a vacuum. Rather, it depends on the prevailing historical, social, and ideological climate and on the availability of whatever technologies were employed in the development of the explanation.
Furthermore, the scientific method, that hallowed epitome of objectivity, is far from perfect. The method, Rose explains, depends upon observation. However, the act of observing is conditioned by past observations, by experience. Immediately, then, a scientist’s subjectivity—past experience that is particular to one person and to no other—is involved. Moreover, in order to end with a manageable body of evidence from which they can formulate meaningful explanations, scientists must limit that experience. One way to do this is to define their questions with precision—that is, what is it, precisely, that they want to find out? Behind these questions lie other, larger questions. Why do they want to find an answer? What kind of answer are they prepared to accept as satisfying? Physicists, for example, are often drawn towards symmetry; likewise, mathematicians speak of the elegance of a particular solution. However, these are human concerns that may have nothing to do with the purportedly nonhuman subject of study. Indeed, perhaps all subjects of study are inherently human, that is, anthropomorphized into forms recognizable to the human mind.
When scientists go further than mere observation and intervene in a natural process in order to test hypotheses, they may be, unwittingly, manipulating a process that is far more complex than the hypotheses can sustain. This is especially a concern in biology, where even the finest processes—an individual enzyme reaction, for instance—can involve hundreds of separate variables. It may be impossible to arrive at the final “truth” of a process because any particular process is so entwined with other processes. All “truths,” therefore, are contingent upon each other while, nevertheless, existing together as an ontological whole.
It is the crucial difference between ontology, or the object of knowledge, and epistemology, or the ways of knowing, that Rose especially emphasizes. He supports the view that there are many ways of knowing but only one object of knowledge. Physiology and biochemistry, for instance, may have, as their shared object of study, a frog, but each discipline approaches the frog from a different perspective. Both are valid, and neither can be reduced to the other, which is the hope among some scientists, primarily physicists and chemists: namely, to reduce all phenomena, living as well as nonliving, to a “final theory,” in which the most...
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