A Heap of Cynicism


Intellectual Compromise: The Bottom Line, by Michael T. Ghiselin, New York: Paragon House, 256 pages, $24.95

Michael T. Ghiselin's Intellectual Compromise: The Bottom Line is another one of those books that tries to explain a complex phenomenon in terms of a theory that was not meant to cover it; for some reason, this seems to be a growing fad. The trend began, so far as I know, in 1976 with Richard Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene. The book included a chapter called "Memes," in which the development of ideas was said to follow the principles of natural selection, a view that's not at all implausible once you think about it. Ideas, after all, are "born," just as animals are; they replicate in the process of being communicated from person to person; and they even mutate, when people make their own alterations to the idea being communicated.

Later, in 1988, historian George Basalla argued in his book The Evolution of Technology that technology itself develops in accordance with Darwinian principles: New inventions arise when small alterations are made to an old one; if the invention fills a technological niche, it flourishes; if not it becomes extinct, and so on. So this is the prescription: Take an all-encompassing theory, apply it to some field, and see what happens. That's what Ghiselin does in Intellectual Compromise.

Ghiselin is a biologist and so you might think that he, too, like Dawkins and Basalla before him, would end up applying Darwin's theory to yet another discipline, but no. The all-encompassing theory he starts with is economics, as in the law of supply and demand, the division of labor, and cost-benefit analysis. The field he applies it all to is science, or, more properly, to scientists themselves, to the ways in which they conduct their business in these bottom-line days of the late 20th century.

Freshness, supposedly, is the reason for doing this: We're supposed to get a whole new slant on the discipline under study, novel perspectives, perhaps even bright new solutions to old problems. Unfortunately, we don't get any of that from Ghiselin's book. What we get, by and large, is an exhaustive, rigorously cynical account of how scientists can and do operate from base motives.

"We shall proceed through a series of topics," Ghiselin says at the outset, "explaining why scientists, as such, behave as they do." True to his word, the author considers such topics as the academic division of labor, the costs and benefits of cheating, common strategies for marketing one's ideas, the economics of scholarly citation (you cite my paper and I'll cite yours), techniques of administrative buck-passing, fraud in science publishing, how to doctor grant proposals to ensure funding, and so on and so forth.

Throughout it all, scientists are portrayed in the worst possible light: If there's a way in which a practicing scientist could go wrong at any stage of the game from undergraduate student to emeritus professor, Ghiselin is sure to have found it and to have laid out all the details in great and cynical completeness.

As far as his description of the problem goes, there's not much in the book that anyone could disagree with. But one has to wonder what's the point of it all. For it's not as if Ghiselin is telling us anything really new.

Take, for example, chapter 9, "The Costs and Benefits of Cheating." Everyone has a pretty good picture of the pros and cons of cheating by about age nine or so, but Ghiselin nevertheless marches through all the so-called incentives that operate to make scientists want to plagiarize, misrepresent someone else's position, get back at their enemies in print, muscle in on someone else's research project so as to get a free ride on their publication, or sabotage their competitors through anonymous peer reviewing.

All this happens, admittedly. But anyone who's been in an academic environment for more than five minutes knows that it happens and is already quite aware of the associated costs and benefits. So it is in the other chapters as well: Very little that Ghiselin says is wrong, it's just stuff that we already knew.

Then maybe the book's reason for being is that the author has a solution to the problem. Indeed he does, and in the last chapter of the book, "On Keeping Science Pure," Ghiselin reveals it. It's that scientists ought to be more honest. "So far as the problems of academia go," he says, "one solution might be to adopt a more favorable attitude toward honesty in all of our conduct, and not just in the scholarly life." Not only is this one solution, it's the only solution Ghiselin offers in the course of the book. Again, you can't say that this is wrong, it's just not exactly news. It's not even helpful.

What you can say on behalf of Ghiselin's book is that it's clearly written, with plenty of vivid analogies, well-chosen examples, and lots of insider anecdotes and vignettes, many of them taken from episodes in Ghiselin's own life. And if anyone out there still harbors the delusion that scientists are above the fray (because they pursue, after all, The Truth), Ghiselin's book will come as a much-needed, albeit rather shocking, corrective. But that's about all you can say.

The rest of it is a dreary recitation of well-known abuses. Indeed, the author doesn't even go into the problem of dishonesty very deeply, paying no attention to whether operating from base motives might in some cases lead to good science. Rather, his touchstone is the refrain, "A good scientist never lies," which is advanced as if its truth were self-evident, which it is not. In fact, Ghiselin himself accuses George Gaylord Simpson of dishonesty but later calls Simpson one of the "grand old men of evolutionary biology."

So, why do we have this book? More than anything, Ghiselin comes across as a scientist who has reached that point in his career where he's not getting any new ideas and so looks around for something else to do.

Ghiselin's own response to this common plight is to cast a jaundiced eye over all that he has seen and experienced during the course of his long and productive career. Naturally, he's seen lots of abuses and has had to put up with his share of idiots, bastards, and fools. He's fed up and has decided that he's not going to take it anymore.

Nothing wrong with this, of course, except that in order for the result to be a positive contribution to the practice of science or anything else, it's got to be more than a list of charges followed by a five-page pep talk. As it is, the book is sometimes embarrassingly, even naively, self-serving, as the author evens up old scores and gets back at his teachers, critics, reviewers, and other assorted opponents, illustrating in front of our eyes some of the tackiest practices he complains of.

Ed Regis, author of Who Got Einstein's Office?, writes frequently on science topics.