The phrase “truth and reconciliation” describes a constructive process for coming to terms with a troubled past. It has been used to resolve bitter political conflicts and achieve national unity, starting with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995. I would like to initiate a similar process to resolve a bitter scientific conflict.
The idea of comparing a scientific conflict with political conflict is likely to raise hackles from the very beginning. Are not science and politics totally different enterprises? We expect bitter conflicts in politics whereas science is supposed to result in objective truths upon which everyone can agree. Saying that science is like politics appears to sully its reputation.
It is not my purpose to rob science of its dignity. When it comes to science, I’m a true believer. I believe that there is a real world out there that can be apprehended by the human mind–but only if we follow a collection of practices known as the scientific method. The individual mind is too feeble and prone to biases to directly apprehend reality. Even groups of people, left to their own devices, will be prone to biases that depart from reality to serve their collective interests. Science isn’t natural. It is a cultural invention that must be carefully maintained to work properly. When science functions as it should, it does indeed result in objective truths upon which everyone can agree. As far as I am concerned, there can be no higher calling than to be a scientist.
While we’re at it, let’s restore some dignity to politics. Wikipedia, that great populist body of knowledge, defines politics as “the process whereby groups of people make decisions.” Politicians are noble to the extent that they make wise decisions on behalf of everyone in their group. They are ignoble to the extent that they make partisan decisions that benefit some at the expense of others or the long-term welfare of the group as a whole. When politics functions as it should, there can be no higher calling than to be a politician.
Of course, politics rarely functions as it should–hence the low reputation of politicians. It’s easy to blame individuals, but we also need to blame whole political systems. Politics isn’t natural, any more than science is natural, especially at the large scale at which it must be practiced in modern life. Politics needs a well-designed system of checks and balances, similar to the checks and balances associated with the scientific method.
A truth and reconciliation process becomes necessary when politics hasn’t been working as it should, which is a droll understatement for the injustices that took place during the apartheid era in South Africa and elsewhere in the world. An essential part of the process is for a society to acknowledge what happened, even if all wrongs cannot be righted. Revisionist histories must go. Truth is required for reconciliation.
What happens when science doesn’t work as it should? Such is the case for the controversy over group selection, which began with Darwin, became prominent during the 1960′s, and continues to fester at all levels of scientific discourse, from the pages of scientific journals such as Nature to popular science blogs. Thankfully, scientific conflicts no longer result in torture and death, as they once did and as political conflicts still do. Nevertheless, the word heresy appears disturbingly often in the annals of the group selection debate and proponents of group selection have risked scientific death in the form of rejected articles and grant proposals, lost job opportunities, and all-around social exclusion. Most of all, the group selection controversy is still plagued by historical revisionism. There is not even a basic consensus on what happened, least of all in textbooks, and many accounts read embarrassingly like patriotic histories, complete with black-and-white villains and heroes.
It is precisely because I am such an idealist about science that I am calling for a truth and reconciliation process for group selection. Something has to change. The controversy didn’t need to drag on for decades and it will continue for decades more unless something deliberate is done. The goal is to be constructive–to heal rather than aggravate old wounds. Yet, even healing can be painful, for scientific conflict no less than political conflict.
Another reason to initiate a truth and reconciliation process is because group selection is arguably the single most important concept for understanding the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective. Recall Wikipedia’s definition of politics as “the process whereby groups of people make decisions.” Why should people be expected to make decisions “for the good of the group” in the first place? Why should they be expected to act “for the good of the group” after a decision is made? These are the questions that caused Darwin to propose the theory of group selection in the first place.
How fitting, that a process for resolving conflict and achieving unity in the political realm can be used to resolve conflict and achieve unity in the scientific realm about the nature of politics from an evolutionary perspective (to be continued).