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Competing Truths: Epistemic Authority in Popular Science Books on Human Sexuality

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The article examines the rhetorical strategies through which popular science books written by scientists participate in epistemic controversies. The analysis focuses on two books, Niles Eldredge’s Why We Do It and Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the
  Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Download by:  [University of Helsinki] Date:  18 January 2017, At: 04:46 European Journal of English Studies ISSN: 1382-5577 (Print) 1744-4233 (Online) Journal homepage: Competing Truths Venla Oikkonen To cite this article:  Venla Oikkonen (2013) Competing Truths, European Journal of EnglishStudies, 17:3, 283-294, DOI: 10.1080/13825577.2013.867181 To link to this article: Published online: 17 Feb 2014.Submit your article to this journal Article views: 90View related articles Citing articles: 2 View citing articles   Venla Oikkonen COMPETING TRUTHSEpistemic authority in popular science books onhuman sexuality The article examines the rhetorical strategies through which popular science bookswritten by scientists participate in epistemic controversies. The analysis focuses on twobooks, Niles Eldredge’s  Why We Do It  and Nancy Etcoff’s  Survival of thePrettiest , which address the debate about the evolution of human nature and sexual-ity. Although the books differ radically in their arguments, they appropriate similar textual strategies in order to negotiate epistemic authority. Both books engage in‘boundary work’ by appropriating dichotomies such as science versus politics, true ver-sus false Darwinism, and linguistic clarity versus inaccessibility. The article argues thatit is this potential for large-scale boundary work that renders popular science booksappealing rhetorical tools for those wishing to participate in cultural debates aboutscience. Keywords:  boundary work; epistemic authority; evolutionary psychology;popular science book; sexuality Introduction Popular science books take up considerable shelf space in most major bookstorestoday. The rise of the popular science book as a commercially successful genre isoften associated with such works as astronomer Carl Sagan’s  Cosmos  (1980), evolu-tionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s  The Blind Watchmaker   (1986) and cosmologistStephen Hawking’s  A Brief History of Time  (1988). However, the roots of the genrelie much deeper, as popular science books were already being published regularlyand read widely by the mid-nineteenth century (Luey, 2010: 25–44). There is alsoconsiderable variation within the genre. As Jon Turney observes in his overview of popular science books, the genre includes self-help books, books promoting scien-tific literacy, scientists’ biographies and autobiographies, as well as what Turneycalls intellectual entertainment (1999: 121–24). The books’ audiences also vary, aspopular science addresses general readers looking for a solution to a particularproblem, educated readers interested in novel ideas and professional scientistsworking in other fields. While many of the books are written by science journalists European Journal of English Studies , 2013Vol. 17, No. 3, 283  –  294,   2014 Taylor & Francis  and other professional writers, the genre has also provided practising scientists withan opportunity to introduce their projects to the reading public.The popularisation of science has been an object of considerable attention anddebate. On the one hand, several UK and US national surveys of the public’sscientific literacy in the 1980s led to the introduction of the ‘public understandingof science’ movement that encouraged scientists to communicate their results tonon-specialist readers (Gregory and Miller, 1998: 2–8). On the other hand,assumptions of value-neutrality and a one-way movement of knowledge from sci-ence to society implicit in the public understanding of science have been challengedby science studies scholars. For example, Stephen Hilgartner (1990) has questionedwhat he calls the ‘dominant view of popularization’, the assumption that scientificdiscoveries are simply translated from science to society in a straightforward man-ner. By examining how a cancer report was quoted, paraphrased and popularised,Hilgartner demonstrates that the very boundary between the popular and theprofessional is blurred, allowing for strategic appropriations that serve variouspolitical agendas.The debate about popularisation has also touched on the popular science bookas a genre. For example, Susheela Abraham Varghese and Sunita Anne Abraham(2004) maintain that popular science books are important for scientists as means of developing theory through metaphor and other non-scientific textual devices. Bycontrast, Thomas Lessl’s (2002) and Slavoj Zˇizˇek’s (2002) explorations of the tex-tual politics of writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinkersuggest that the genre enables academics to engage in epistemic struggles. I startfrom the premise that, while popular science books may allow theoretical innova-tion, they also encourage extensive narrative development which renders thempowerful rhetorical tools in debates about what counts as good science. As opposedto magazine articles and other short forms of science reporting, popular sciencebooks enable scientists to fully develop an authoritative voice, which, as Scott L.Montgomery (1996) observes, is crucial in producing epistemic prestige outsidethe scientist’s field of study. Despite this key role of popular science books in cul-tural debates, studies of rhetoric in popular science typically focus on magazines(e.g. Curtis, 1994; Pramling and Sa¨ljo¨, 2007), science news in the media (e.g.Conrad and Markens, 2001; Wilcox, 2003) or questions of audience and discourse in general (e.g. Montgomery, 1996; Myers, 2003). There are much fewer studies (Luey, 2010; Mellor, 2003; Turney, 1999; Varghese and Abraham, 2004) that address the popular science book as a specific mode of popularisation.This article examines how popular science books written by scientists seek toconvince the readers that the described methods and results represent the cutting-edge in science. In other words, it asks how these books produce  epistemic author-ity  , the belief that the proposed account is the most accurate one. My discussionfocuses on two texts, Niles Eldredge’s  Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the SelfishGene  (2004) and Nancy Etcoff’s  Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty   (1999),which both take part in the heated debate about human nature and sexuality thatfollowed the introduction of sociobiology in the 1970s and the rise of evolutionarypsychology in the early 1990s. Significantly, the books’ arguments differ consider-ably, as Eldredge critiques and Etcoff advocates evolutionary psychological modelsof human behaviour. In what follows, I first introduce a key analytical concept, 284  E U R O P E A N J O U R N A L O F E N G L I S H S T U D I E S  boundary work , as well as briefly review the debate about human sexuality. I thenturn to Eldredge’s and Etcoff’s books to examine the textual strategies throughwhich they participate in cultural negotiations over what counts as scientific evi-dence and who can define the meaning of human nature. I conclude by brieflyexploring the popular science book as a genre of popularisation. Boundary work I approach popular science books through the notion of   boundary work  developed byThomas Gieryn. In Cultural Boundaries of Science, Gieryn examines science as a‘cultural space’ that is fought over by scientists, journalists, policy-makers andinterest groups (Gieryn, 1999: 14). Invoking the metaphor of cartography, Gierynargues that what is at stake in such ‘credibility contests’ is how the bordersbetween good science, bad science, pseudoscience and popular science are drawnon the cultural map of science (18). Gieryn describes scientists’ attempts to revisethis cultural cartography as boundary work that typically takes three modes:  expul-sion  from the realm of science follows when there is ‘a contest between rivalauthorities, each of which claims to be scientific’;  expansion  is a question of onefield reaching out to new territory; and  protection of autonomy   takes place whenscientists challenge non-scientists’ politically motivated appropriations of science(15–17). For Gieryn, ‘the “epistemic authority of science” exists only in its localand episodic enactment’ and thus needs to be constantly renegotiated (12).Whereas Gieryn focuses on scientific controversies, Felicity Mellor (2003)explores what she calls ‘routine boundary work’ in popular science books onphysics and science fiction. Mellor demonstrates that popular science books oftenwork several boundaries, which enables them to accommodate inherently contra-dictory views of science (525). For example, by invoking both the science/sciencefiction boundary and the science/religion boundary, popular physics books areable to portray physics as magical and imaginative and yet rational (523). Melloralso observes that the books negotiate two mutually contradictory needs: that of representing popular physics books as bridging the gap between science and thepublic, and that of insisting that true science can only reside in the inaccessible(516). While this would logically deny  popular   physics books epistemic authority,the books’ engagement with complex boundary work renders them both insidersto science and communicators between science and society. Furthermore, popularscience books engage in what Mellor calls ‘boundary work across a temporaldimension’ (527). This strategy focuses on the past successes of science, so thatthe scientific future that the text promises appears as a necessary outcome of thepast.My reading of popular science books builds on this understanding of boundarywork as a textual means of producing epistemic authority. Rather than a character-istic of a particular field of science, boundary work is a set of rhetorical strategiesthat is available to any text or author. My analysis of Eldredge’s and Etcoff’s booksinterrogates the specific strategies through which boundary work takes place. COMPETING TRUTHS  285  From sociobiology to evolutionary psychology The debate about gender, sexuality and evolution broke out in 1975 following thepublication of   Sociobiology: The New Synthesis  by Harvard ethologist EdwardO. Wilson. As the title suggests, the book advocated a new field of study, sociobi-ology, to examine all social practices as products of evolutionary processes. Whilefocusing on animal behaviour, the book’s final chapter extended evolutionary mod-els to human social arrangements, thereby breaking the long silence in the study of human behavioural differences after the eugenics programmes of the early twenti-eth century and the horrors of the Nazi regime. The book also challenged disciplin-ary borders, as it argued that the humanities and social sciences should adoptmethods from the biological sciences – a claim seen by many as an outrageous actof disciplinary imperialism. Wilson’s 1978 book  On Human Nature  fleshed out theseproposals in detail, and Richard Dawkins’s widely read and debated  The Selfish Gene (1976) gave them a further, gene-centred twist.From the outset, sociobiology was attacked for being politically reactionary, asit carried potential implications for the debate about the evolutionary basis of rac-ism and racial differences in intelligence. Much of the critical attention was focusedon the question of human sexuality and gender differences. Critics such as RuthBleier (1984) and Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose and Leon Kamin (1984) argued that sociobiologists’ portrayal of men as aggressive, competitive and promiscuousand women as socially conservative, nurturing and monogamous reflected culturalstereotypes rather than scientific observation. Not surprisingly, sociobiology waswidely portrayed as a reaction to changes in class and ethnic relations as well as abacklash against the rise of the feminist movement.In the early 1990s, the sociobiological project was revised and reintroduced byevolutionary psychologists. Whereas sociobiology studies social behaviour and orga-nisation in general, evolutionary psychology focuses on humans. Developed by suchscholars as Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, David Buss and Steven Pinker, evolutionarypsychology builds on advances in cognitive science and genomics, thus providing anupdated version of sociobiology. However, the connection between the two scien-tific projects is an object of ongoing debate. While evolutionary psychologists preferto distance themselves from the racism and sexism associated with sociobiology, crit-ics have described evolutionary psychology as ‘sociobiology lite’ (Lancaster, 2006:110) or ‘sociobiology sanitized’ (Dusek, 1999). What is beyond debate is the cul-tural popularity of evolutionary psychology. This prominence is evident, for exam-ple, in the numerous, routine references to the evolutionary roots of human sexualbehaviour in talk shows, prime-time television series, women’s magazines and dinnerparty conversations. At the same time, the debate about where epistemic authorityover human nature and sexuality should be located remains unresolved. This is theintellectual environment in which Eldredge’s and Etcoff’s books were published. Asserting epistemic authority In  Why We Do It: Rethinking Sex and the Selfish Gene , Niles Eldredge criticisesevolutionary psychology for providing a false view of evolution as driven by the 286  E U R O P E A N J O U R N A L O F E N G L I S H S T U D I E S
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