Altering the Public Image of Science

Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy. Bernard D. Davis. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1986. 324 pp. $22.95. "What is this, a vanity publisher?"

By | February 9, 1987

Storm Over Biology: Essays on Science, Sentiment, and Public Policy. Bernard D. Davis. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1986. 324 pp. $22.95.

"What is this, a vanity publisher?" This, according to The New York Times, was Stephen Jay Gould's response to the printing of these provocative essays. In contrast, I am grateful that Bernard Davis has seen fit to publish them in book form, as I am with each new collection of Gould's charming essays.

The book consists of 44 chapters, all but one reprinted from earlier writings, together with newly written introductions. The individual topics are diverse: sociobiology, Marxism, molecular evolution, genetic engineering, XYY individuals, the IQ controversy, human behavioral genetics, the Asilomar Conference, Science for the People, Jim Watson, E.O. Wilson, Erwin Chargaff, Carl Sagan, Ezra Pound, Jeremy Rifkin, Sheldon Krimsky and more.

Yet there is a unifying theme— that science can be objective and suffers when it is politicized. Davis worries about the "moralistic fallacy"—the illogical effort to derive an "is" from an "ought"—as the converse of the naturalistic fallacy.

Several of the essays deal with the controversy over maintaining the Harvard Medical School's high academic standards while filling minority quotas. Davis questioned a student's being awarded a diploma despite having failed the National Board exams five times.

In one essay discussing the shutdown of a Harvard longitudinal study of XYY children, Davis warns of the dangers of regulating research by adverse publicity. In another, he critically reviews Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man, and notes that it is most lavishly praised by those without specialized knowledge of the subject matter. In discussing sociobiology, Davis deplores the political criticisms that have made an objective discussion of its scientific merits more difficult.

Davis is impatient with the denial of any significant genetic variation in human intelligence and other behavioral traits. He thinks this is not only scientifically wrong, but mistaken as an idealistic social policy. "If we wish to pursue the goal of equality on a realistic basis we must recognize the fundamental difference between social equality, which we can legislate, and biological equality or inequality, which is beyond our control."

Some of Davis' strongest criticism is directed at his Harvard colleague Richard Lewontin. To Davis, as to me, Lewontin presents a dilemma. He has spent his entire scientific career studying population genetics and evolution, and is a leader in the field. He is a brilliant conversationalist and writer, interested in a wide range of ideas. He is open-minded and has boundless curiosity about all aspects of genetics and evolution, except, seemingly, the view that these subjects can tell us something important about human behavior and society. As Davis says: "It is unfortunate that this truly gifted scientist trapped himself in evolutionary genetics, a field so at odds with his social convictions."

Davis has argued thoughtfully, forcefully, eloquently, outspokenly, and sometimes courageously for reason and objectivity, tempered with social concern, in science and education. I hope his plea will be heard.

Crow is professor emeritus in the Department of Genetics, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 53706.

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