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The extreme reaction of EO Wilson's colleagues


Can sociology and biology mix?
John Maynard Smith Scientist
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I do remember Wilson's book arriving on my desk. I think from the publisher. And I was very worried by the first and last chapter, for reasons I'll explain in a minute. But what I do remember is that, that Friday evening, in those days, every Friday, my group of people interested in evolution, the graduate students and so on, we used to get together somewhere and sit around and drink and talk about whatever. And they'd also got their hands on the book. And they were very enthusiastic, they thought, you know, here is a book which really puts a new way of looking at animal behaviour, it summarises it, it's going to really help to establish the discipline. And I think, in that sense, they were right. I was distressed by the first and last chapter. If you remember, it claimed things like that ethics was going to be 'biologicised'. Well, apart from it being an awful verb, I mean, it's nonsense. It commits what in England is called a naturalistic fallacy. But there was also the claim that the whole of the social sciences were going to sort of become part of biology. And I think that's also nonsense. I mean, if I can draw an analogy, I think that chemistry has been enormously important as an underpinning for biology. And a biologist who tried to ignore chemistry would do so at his own risk. But it doesn't mean that biology has therefore been taken over by chemistry. I mean, biology is still an autonomous science of its own. And in just the same way, I think that sociology has to remain an autonomous science of its own, but if it ignores genetics and evolution, then it's being as stupid as we would be if we ignored chemistry. But Wilson's claim, therefore, that they were just going to take over, that we biologists were going to take over sociology, seemed to me to be foolish. There was another thing that worried me, I think because of my Marxist past, I knew very well that this book was going to raise screams from every left-wing and Marxist biologist in America and in Britain, as indeed it did. And so we had quite an argument, and my students were thinking it was fine, I was saying, 'This is a disaster.' And not because I didn't think most of the book was excellent, which it is, but because of this sort of first and last chapter was going to... I foresaw, if you like, the whole sociobiology row that was going to blow up. However, in retrospect, I'm not sure that they weren't right and I wasn't wrong. I think possibly we had to have the row, not that I'm any more willing today than I was then to accept Wilson's claim that sociology can be taken over by biology, but I do think that the possibility of introducing evolutionary and genetic ideas into the social sciences, had to be discussed. And if it had to have this really rather antagonistic form of discussion, well, so be it. And the thing that makes me feel this particularly is that during the last few years really, there's been a rearousal of interest in applying Darwinian ideas in psychology, under the title of evolutionary psychology, in medicine, under the title of Darwinian medicine, and so on. And although there is... there is some opposition to this, although there are people complaining, no, no, you can't introduce biology, in general, the discussion is being carried out in a politically calm and rational and sensible way. I think if we hadn't had the whole row about sociobiology, we'd be having it today.

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: EO Wilson

Duration: 3 minutes, 47 seconds

Date story recorded: April 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008