“Intellectual Compromise” is a biologist’s speculative romp through the garden of American scholarly behaviors. Michael T. Ghiselin belongs to a biological school whose members seek to account for the behavior of animals in economic terms. They typically deploy ideas such as profit and loss to analyze why animals behave one way or another with regard to food, defense and reproduction. In their economy of nature, behavior is “rational"--not in the ordinary human sense of reasoned assessment of alternatives but in the sense of being a reasonable expression of some principle of optimization--for example, maximizing the chances of survival and propagation. In this book, Ghiselin applies a similarly bioeconomic approach to the behavior of the human scholarly animal at large--though, in fact, he deals frequently with what he regards as its caged variety, the academic.
Ghiselin identifies an “economy of the intellect” analogous to the economy of nature: “Data are resources. Theories are capital goods. Scientists and schools from competitive and cooperative units.” Yet he is unconcerned with the intellectual economy’s particular pecuniary aspects such as jobs, budgets or programs. He is absorbed with exploring how principles of economic behavior can account for the ways that scholars (for which read mainly “scientists”) use their fundamental resources--their training, their IQ points, their position and above all, perhaps, their time. The model’s fundamental hypothesis is that what scholars seek to optimize is not the advancement and diffusion of knowledge but the advancement and sustainment of themselves and their special enterprises.
That hypothesis may not be news to many, but Ghiselin’s economic refractions of scholarly/academic behavior do yield some interesting, offbeat interpretations. To cite several examples: A scientist may remain in the same line of research simply because the “cost of retooling” may be too great when measured against the likely rewards. Or established scientists may be inclined to publish less than younger ones because the marginal return in reputation is smaller for, say, the one hundred and first research paper than it is for the eleventh. Or, professors are likely to “enjoy a greater degree of control over the raw materials and means of production"--that is, the supply and training of students--if they are in a sufficiently good position to market them. Or, attending meetings and the like “facilitates marketing, not only of the product, but of the producer.”
Ghiselin argues that, like the animal economy, the academic one is marked largely by features that sentimentalists may find unpleasant. There is competition within and between groups. The competitive emphasis, which fosters specialization because it maximizes output, also encourages different laboratories to “conceal their trade secrets” so as to maximize professional gain. There are predator-prey relationships. “Academics will try to destroy those branches of learning that reduce their own prosperity, and preserve those from which they derive a benefit.” Is life merely chemistry or something more? According to Ghiselin, the “real issue” here is not metaphysical but economic. “It is not whether biology can be reduced to chemistry, but whether biologists should be replaced by chemists.”
In 1967, Ghiselin joined the zoology faculty at the University of California at Berkeley, remaining through the period of campus turmoil. He appears to have been bruised at Berkeley, since he throws spitballs at the “kiddies” there and the faculty who indulged them by “mixing trendy politics with trendy science.” In 1978, he quit academia for the Bodega Marine Laboratory, where he continues to work, having been aided in his independence by a MacArthur Fellowship, during the tenure of which he composed much of this book. Thus, he writes about academia with an outsider’s distance--but also something of an apostate’s crankiness.
“Intellectual Compromise” is long on economic principles and academic anecdotes but short, self-confessedly, on systematic consideration of facts that might be pertinent to its principled arguments. While rightly stressing the competitive nature of science, it ignores the increasing collaborative activity in many fields that cuts across laboratories and institutions. While rightly recognizing the professional self-interest manifest in the pressing of one paradigm over another, it awards too little to the reality of substantive content in scientific disputes. (If there is no such content, why, for example, read Ghiselin?) He calls expressions of respect for good teaching mere window dressing, which may be true, by and large, of major universities but is hardly so of the hundreds of liberal arts colleges that populate the academic landscape.
Ghiselin flails against the corruption of science by government and academia; the quality of research in federal laboratories; the reliability of policy-related research, and the character of practitioners of applied medical research. There is a good deal of truth to his animadversions, but a good deal of distortion too. For example, while the quality of research in the facilities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture does often leave something to be desired, the laboratories of the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health are, in several fields of work, among the best in the world. Ghiselin is also free with moralizing obiter dicta (“As academics, scientists are paid to lie. They lie to the general public, they lie to their students, they lie to their colleagues, and they lie to themselves”). Behind Ghiselin, the cold-eyed bioeconomic analyst, lies a Ghiselin who is a sermonizer--in a sense, an Allan Bloom of biology, secure in his vision of the ideal scientific life and ready with ham-handed castigations of any departures from it.
Nevertheless, Ghiselin is a man of independent mind and pungent pen. His obiter dicta may be outrageous, but his book is spiced with aphorisms that are as apt (“Genius does not obey the rules, it ordains them”) as they are instructive (“Error is part of the overhead of doing research”). “Intellectual Compromise” may stimulate some useful fresh thinking about parts of the scholarly enterprise--at least, to borrow a bioeconomic concept, among readers who calculate that the investment of their mental energies in the topics it addresses would be warranted by the prospective returns.