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Can sociology and biology mix?


Arguing over the use of words in science
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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Words have now got used in so many different senses. I think, oddly enough, the fault probably lies in the Atlantic Ocean, and there's not enough communication between American and European biologists.

[Q] Well, that's certainly true of the American usage of the word group selection.

Yeah, it means something quite different, and it makes life very difficult.

[Q] Very confusing.

I don't know what you do about it. You see, there isn't... It's not like, I don't know what it's called, the Committee on Zoological Nomenclature, who lay down rules about what animals are to be called, you know, and you can't cheat on these rules, you have to give them certain kinds of names and so on. And they... the Committee sits and decides that the proper name of this animal is so and so. Well, that's all right, but there's no way, I think, that scientists in general can have... we can't pass laws saying that the meaning of the word 'gene' shall from now on be so-and-so, I mean, there's no way you can do that. So, we are stuck with the fact that we're going to find ourselves using words in different senses. I suppose we  try... have to try to teach our students to watch out for it and don't get involved in a passionate row when actually you think the same thing, you're just using different words to say it. And it would be valuable if, you know, this was part of science education. I think it probably isn't, is it? Do you teach your students that? Perhaps you do.

[Q] No more than you do.

No, no. I do occasionally, by illustration, but it is worrying, the amount of confusion there is on these issues. The other thing, you've talked about as the Gestalts, which in relation to... I am interested in the fact that scientists do find it helpful to see the same problem from different points of view. And there, I think, the only thing one can say, well, look, try to train yourself to use both, and you know, whichever is useful, use. It's ridiculous to get into a passionate argument about... for example, I think it would be ridiculous to get into a passionate argument about whether the right way to think about the evolution of social behaviour was a gene-centred or an inclusive fitness calculation. It would be absurd, because there's no possible way of settling it. And yet, I keep on coming across philosophers who seem to get all uptight about just that sort of issue.

The late British biologist John Maynard Smith (1920-2004) is famous for applying game theory to the study of natural selection. At Eton College, inspired by the work of old Etonian JBS Haldane, Maynard Smith developed an interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory and mathematics. Then he entered University College London (UCL) to study fruit fly genetics under Haldane. In 1973 Maynard Smith formalised a central concept in game theory called the evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS). His ideas, presented in books such as 'Evolution and the Theory of Games', were enormously influential and led to a more rigorous scientific analysis and understanding of interactions between living things.

Listeners: Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins was educated at Oxford University and has taught zoology at the universities of California and Oxford. He is a fellow of New College, Oxford and the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Dawkins is one of the leading thinkers in modern evolutionary biology. He is also one of the best read and most popular writers on the subject: his books about evolution and science include "The Selfish Gene", "The Extended Phenotype", "The Blind Watchmaker", "River Out of Eden", "Climbing Mount Improbable", and most recently, "Unweaving the Rainbow".

Tags: International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, Gestalt

Duration: 2 minutes, 29 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008