Have no heroes, and no villains

by PhilGoetz 1 min read7th Nov 201073 comments


"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"

When Edward Wilson published the book Sociobiology, Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould secretly convened a group of biologists to gather regularly, for months, in the same building at Harvard that Wilson's office was in, to write an angry, politicized rebuttal to it, essentially saying not that Sociobiology was wrong, but that it was immoral - without ever telling Wilson.  This proved, to me, that they were not interested in the truth.  I never forgave them for this.

I constructed a narrative of evolutionary biology in which Edward Wilson and Richard Dawkins were, for various reasons, the Good Guys; and Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould were the Bad Guys.

When reading articles on group selection for this post, I was distressed to find Richard Dawkins joining in the vilification of group selection with religious fervor; while Stephen J. Gould was the one who said,

"I have witnessed widespread dogma only three times in my career as an evolutionist, and nothing in science has disturbed me more than ignorant ridicule based upon a desire or perceived necessity to follow fashion: the hooting dismissal of Wynne-Edwards and group selection in any form during the late 1960's and most of the 1970's, the belligerence of many cladists today, and the almost ritualistic ridicule of Goldschmidt by students (and teachers) who had not read him."

This caused me great cognitive distress.  I wanted Stephen Jay Gould to be the Bad Guy.  I realized I was trying to find a way to dismiss Gould's statement, or at least believe that he had said it from selfish motives.  Or else, to find a way to flip it around so that he was the Good Guy and someone else was the Bad Guy.

To move on, I had to consciously shatter my Good Guy/Bad Guy narrative, and accept that all of these people are sometimes brilliant, sometimes blind; sometimes share my values, and sometimes prioritize their values (e.g., science vs. politics) very differently from me.  I was surprised by how painful it was to do that, even though I was embarrassed to have had the Good Guy/Bad Guy hypothesis in the first place.  I don't think it was even personal - I didn't care who would be the Good Guys and who would be the Bad Guys.  I just want there to be Good Guys and Bad Guys.