February 1, 2022
New Evidence of E. O. Wilson’s Intimacy with Scientific Racism
By Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons
The words “scientific racism” conjure up images of nineteenth century anthropologists measuring skulls with calipers. But it would be just as accurate to picture a Canadian psychologist in the 1980s obsessing over the size of genitals. That was J. Philippe Rushton, Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario. Many have chronicled the story of Rushton’s disturbing attempts to enshrine his pseudoscientific beliefs about the biological basis of racial personality differences (from IQ, to sexual promiscuity, to criminality) into the scientific literature.1 But few know the full story, of which we present new evidence in this article, of the behind-the-scenes support Rushton received from eminent biologist E. O. Wilson.
On December 26, 2021, Edward O. Wilson passed away at the age of 94. He is remembered fondly by most who interacted with him and engaged with his writings.2 He has a well-earned reputation as a fierce advocate for the conservation of biodiversity and a world-class expert on ants and other social animals.3 However, throughout his career, he faced charges of racism due to his attempts to use evolutionary theory to explain individual differences among humans in terms of their behaviors and social status. Wilson dodged these charges skillfully, almost never mentioning race in his work or public comments.
Now that he has passed, the nature of his legacy has become a topic of intense debate. When Dr. Monica McLemore urged the scientific community to grapple with Wilson’s relationship with scientific racism in a Scientific American op-ed,4 she received swift and strong backlash from biologists and other supporters of Wilson. A few weeks later, Razib Khan, a blogger with a BS in genetics, wrote a letter of rebuttal claiming that these “accusations” are “baseless,”5 attracting dozens of academics to sign their names in support.6
Racism in academia and education is a perennially relevant topic. The US Supreme Court recently agreed to hear cases that challenge affirmative action admissions at Harvard University and in the University of North Carolina.7 States throughout the country are banning or considering bans on the teaching of critical race theory.8 Demographics of faculty and graduate students in the US are far from reflecting the racial demographics of the country as a whole.9 Therefore, as Dr. McLemore put it, now is the time for “truth and reconciliation” as we confront how some prominent biologists have worked to lend credibility, both culturally and in the scientific record, to pseudoscientific notions of a biological racial hierarchy.
Evolutionary ideas continue to be used by “race realists,” scientists and commentators alike, to promote ideology regarding the origin and implications of individual differences among humans that fall into socially-constructed racial groups.10 Anti-racism in evolutionary biology requires an honest confrontation of these issues. While many have done this important work through the decades, including Theodosius Dobzhansky, Jerry Hirsch, Stephen J. Gould, Richard Lewontin, and Joseph Graves Jr, there is still much more work to be done.11 When answering the question of why scientific racism persists to this day, we can look at how systems, and the people within those systems, work to maintain credibility of racist and deeply flawed ideas.
Rushton died in 2012, but not before gaining a reputation as a prolific and outspoken racist. He spent the final decade of his life as head of the Pioneer Fund, a foundation that supports pseudoscientific research on race and is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an extremist group with white nationalism as their core ideology. He also spent his time writing articles for Mankind Quarterly and giving presentations for conferences of the hate group American Renaissance.12 All the while, Rushton maintained his credentials as a tenured professor of psychology. To this day, many of his most infamous papers remain published, although some have been posthumously retracted in recent years.13
We can’t know whether Rushton would have faded into obscurity without the professional support of his career by Wilson. However, while Rushton was a psychologist, he needed the backing of an evolutionary biologist to lend credibility to his biological claims.
Wilson and Rushton’s relationship is not a story of “guilt by association” or of honest mistakes and unfortunate missteps. It is a story about how racist ideas are woven into the scientific record with the support of powerful allies who operate in secret. While this story is extraordinary, it is not unusual.
“Dear Ed, … The battle continues, and I am now committed to carrying it to a victory, i.e., allowing genetic and evolutionary perspectives on race to be treated as normal science. … Again, my deepest appreciation for it all, With best regards, Phil.”
At the request of the Library of Congress, Wilson donated much of the contents of his office—letters, reprints, conference proceedings, etc.—to the national archive. The Wilson Papers comprises hundreds of boxes of documents and numerous digital recordings. We started exploring these holdings in September 2021, out of our broad interest in the Sociobiology debate. We did not intend to investigate scientific racism. However, the four folders labeled “Rushton, John Philippe” caught our attention. And in light of the controversy initiated by the Scientific American op-ed, we hope to share them and provide additional context for understanding Wilson’s legacy and the broader legacy of scientific racism.14
One of the most striking documents is an impassioned letter from Wilson to Professor Case Vanderwolf, a neuroscientist in Rushton’s department at the University of Western Ontario. Vanderwolf’s department was in the process of defending their decision to sanction Rushton for scholarly misconduct, including denying Rushton salary increase and disallowing him from teaching. This was at the height of Rushton’s infamy, sparking student protests and international media coverage. E. O. Wilson wrote a strong letter of support for Rushton that harshly criticized the Department of Psychology and University of Western Ontario with dramatic flair.
“Dear Professor Vanderwolf: First rule for one who finds himself in a hole: stop digging. The University of Western Ontario is in a deep hole, being on the verge of violating academic freedom in a way that will give it notoriety of historic proportions.” Wilson’s letter begins, dated July 3, 1990 (box 143, folder 9). This was only months after Rushton made appearances on American talk shows by Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue to defend his claims about racial differences, fueling the broad notoriety that became characteristic of his late career.15
Wilson’s letter continues, “To be sure, you and Professor Cain have found fault with Professor Rushton’s writings on race, but some noted specialists in human genetics and cognitive psychology have judged them to be sound and significant.” Wilson asks Vanderwolf to consider a poll that “found that a large minority of specialists of human genetics and testing believe in a partial hereditary basis for black-white average IQ differences.” Further, Wilson states that the National Association of Scholars (a right-wing advocacy group) is soon to publish an analysis “concluding that academic freedom is the issue in this case and that Rushton’s academic freedom is threatened.” The National Association of Scholars remains actively involved today in fighting affirmative action in higher education admissions and against the teaching of critical race theory.
Vanderwolf replied a week later (box 143, folder 9) to clarify that he was not involved with the investigation, as Wilson had assumed, but was instead simply another professor at the University of Western Ontario who was greatly opposed to Rushton’s work. Vanderwolf writes to Wilson, “My disagreement with Rushton is that I believe he misrepresents data in his publications and that he is willing to accept the most dubious kinds of publications on par with well-conducted studies if they happen to agree with his own views. Would you accept an article in Penthouse Forum as evidence that black men have larger penises than white men? Rushton did.” Vanderwolf later detailed these and other criticisms in publications with the aforementioned Professor Cain.16
Rushton thanked Wilson in a hand-written note (box 143, folder 9) dated July 17, 1990. “Dear Ed … Vanderwolf has been one of my harshest critics and the letters from you [Wilson] have given him cause to pause, and think.” Rushton promises to keep Wilson posted and states, “The battle continues, and I am now committed to carrying it to a victory, i.e., allowing genetic and evolutionary perspectives on race to be treated as normal science.” Rushton signs off with “Again, my deepest appreciation for it all, With best regards, Phil.”
This exchange is not what spared Rushton’s career—from what we can tell, it was inconsequential to the investigation. But it is possible that the relationship that had developed in the decade prior between Rushton and Wilson contributed significantly to establishing Rushton’s scientific credibility, which he used successfully to appeal the charges of unethical scholarship by his institution and remain a tenured professor for the rest of his life.
In 1986, Wilson sponsored Rushton’s paper “Gene-culture coevolution of complex social behavior: Human altruism and mate choice” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).17 PNAS is one of the most prestigious journals in the world, and publishing in this journal is a signal of merit and broad interest in an author and their work. However, unlike most journals, submitting to PNAS requires sponsorship from a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Sponsorship is not only an endorsement of the quality of the publication but an agreement to act as handling editor, sending the manuscript out for peer review and giving recommendations for revision and acceptance.
The peer reviews were a mix of positive and negative feedback (box 143, folder 11). The first review was “highly favorable but [the reviewer] has some quibbles” and the second by a “friendly critic” was “very unfavorable.” Wilson asked Rushton to decide whether criticisms from the second reviewer could be “safely bypassed” while Wilson attempted to solicit another “tough but friendly reviewer.” Two months later, Wilson wrote to Rushton to inform him of his decision to accept the article. While there is no record in the collection of what happened in the interim, two months hardly seems enough time to overhaul the work, address the “very unfavorable” reviews, and make satisfactory revisions toward publishing in a prestigious journal such as PNAS.
“Rushton is breaking the taboo and may, after hair-raising persecution, eventually get away with it. Free discussion, permitting fresh ideas and release of tensions, may be possible in the next ten years.”
A year later, Rushton again asked Wilson to sponsor a PNAS article (box 143, folder 11). Wilson declined. This time, the article is explicitly about race, promoting Rushton’s now infamous ideas about applying r-K selection theory to racial differences.18 A few months later, Rushton submitted the paper to Ethology and Sociobiology, for which Wilson provided a strong positive review (box 143 folder 11), although it was eventually rejected.
In Wilson’s September 1987 letter declining to sponsor this paper, he states, “You have my support in many ways, but for me to sponsor an article on racial differences in the PNAS would be counterproductive for both of us.” He recounts an incident of being attacked for his views and continues, “I have a couple of colleagues here, Gould and Lewontin, who would use any excuse to raise the charge again. So I’m the wrong person to sponsor the article, although I’d be glad to referee it for another, less vulnerable member of the National Academy.”19
Despite Wilson’s self-perceived vulnerability, he stuck his neck out for Rushton on many occasions. He behaved in many ways like a mentor. The relationship between the two men is almost heartwarming, until you start reading Rushton’s overtly racist work.
On July 1, 1989, Rushton received an evaluation from the Chair of the Promotion and Tenure (P&T) Committee, Dr. Greg Moran, rating his performance as “Unsatisfactory” (box 143, folder 11). Moran summarizes, “The members of the P&T committee were unanimous in their judgment that your overall performance in 1988–1989 was below the minimum acceptable level for a faculty member in this department.” While Rushton published extensively during this period, members of the committee “were of the unanimous opinion that your work on the genetic basis of race differences is substantially flawed and that your published record indicates serious scholarly deficiencies.” Rushton appealed the decision, and in his defense, he chiefly cited his numerous publications, some of which Wilson had helped to shape with his feedback in years prior through formal and informal communications (box 143 folder 11).
April 4, 1990, Wilson wrote to the Appeals Committee at the University of Western Ontario to support Rushton’s appeal of his Unsatisfactory rating (box 143 folder 9). Wilson argued that Rushton’s data and interpretation were “sound, being adapted in a straightforward way from well documented principles of r-K selection in biology.” He goes on to say that many other unnamed biologists agree with Wilson’s assessment, but added, “You may wonder why almost none have published their opinions. The answer is fear of being called racist, which is virtually a death sentence in American adademia [sic] if taken seriously. I admit that I myself have tended to avoid the subject of Rushton’s work, out of fear.”
Wilson’s aforementioned July 1990 letter to Professor Vanderwolf, while ultimately inconsequential, calls attention to a message of support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars through their publication Academic Questions. What Wilson does not mention is that Wilson himself solicited support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars in a letter to its founder Stephen Balch on November 6, 1989 (box 143 folder 10). On December 5, 1989, Wilson writes to Rushton, copying Balch, with the following message: “I am very heartened by the response of the National Association of Scholars (Academic Questions) to your case… Much as they like, your [Rushton’s] critics simply will not be able to convict you of racism, and there will come a day when the more honest among them will rue the day they joined this leftward revival of McCarthyism.”
A year later, on October 18, 1991, Rushton wrote Wilson an extensive letter of appreciation for his ongoing support (box 143, folder 9). Rushton had won his appeals, and the proceedings against him by his university had concluded. He boasted of a “solid” victory, “This year, on July 1, 1991, I received a rating of ‘Good’ despite an even greater percentage of my research being devoted to race differences.” He talks about his return to teaching “despite pickets, demonstrators, and the occasional class disruption.” He describes the important role that the National Association of Scholars played, facilitated by Wilson, in Rushton’s public defense.
In this same letter, Rushton tells Wilson that he compiled a book of supportive letters, including from Wilson himself. “A copy sat in the departmental coffee room for several months and bolstered those colleagues who might otherwise have felt I was too isolated to support. It is uplifting to look at that book and realize the strength of character of those, such as yourself [Wilson], who came forward to articulate principles in aid of so unpopular a cause. I remain immensely grateful for your help.”
Rushton never missed an opportunity to express his gratitude for Wilson’s support, and he was convinced that it played a major role in keeping his job. Rushton remained a Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Ontario for the remainder of his career, lending him credibility as he toured the country speaking to groups of neo-Nazis.
It wasn’t enough for Wilson himself to support Rushton’s work. He also encouraged his friend and colleague Bernard Davis to do the same in May of 1990 (box 50, folder 19). At Wilson’s goading, Davis penned a letter in support of Rushton’s work on racial differences in IQ to The Scientist. Wilson wrote to Davis, “Rushton is breaking the taboo and may, after hair-raising persecution, eventually get away with it. Free discussion, permitting fresh ideas and release of tensions, may be possible in the next ten years.”
Why was Wilson so sure that Davis would be willing to speak on Rushton’s work on race? While Wilson was cautious to rarely mention race publicly, Davis clearly had no such reservations. Davis was a professor at Harvard Medical School who was an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, particularly when it came to Black students earning admission to Harvard.20 Wilson’s papers reveal a close relationship with Davis (Box 50, 2 folders, Box 51, 6 folders), finding common ground and supporting each other against criticism leveled by Richard Lewontin.
“[About] our favorite anti-racists of the Left, … my way of putting it would be that anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
Davis frequently had Wilson’s back, especially throughout Wilson’s most high-profile controversy: the debate with Lewontin and Gould, who were outspoken and relentless critics of Wilson’s Human Sociobiology. By Wilson’s own account in the previously quoted September 1987 letter to Rushton, the two Harvard colleagues and critics had a chilling effect on his ability to support Rushton’s race science. One might wonder whether Wilson would have been far bolder, like Davis, without constant pressure from scientists like Lewontin and Gould.
This feud is well documented and has been the subject of much discussion about the nature of politics and ideology among scientists. But for Davis and Wilson, the “correct side” of the debate was obvious. In a letter to Davis (box 51, folder 5), Wilson provided some commentary about their “favorite anti-racists of the Left.” Wilson pontificated that arguing for equity among groups of people was ideologically similar to racism, adding the evocative phrase “my way of putting it would be that anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
This is one story of many that can be found among the letters of this famous biologist. The collection also includes correspondences between Wilson and notorious “race scientists” Arthur Jensen and Richard J. Herrnstein, and of course intense sparring with Gould and Lewontin. We encourage those with an interest to explore the collection.
But this is a part of a much bigger story. Close ties between biologists and white supremacists continue to exist. Racists are often thrilled for an opportunity to see their ideology lent credibility by biologists, especially those of great renown. If we are to address the history and present of racism in the field of biology and in our society at large, we need to contextualize these stories. On the one hand, we may recognize how the system can nurture racist ideologies that are legitimized by scientists; on the other, we may draw inspiration from and continue the work of those “scoundrels” who relentlessly “raise the charge” against racist pseudoscience.
Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons are a wife and husband team with an interest in the history of science. Dr. Farina is an Assistant Professor at Howard University with a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. Matthew Gibbons has a BA in Humanities and works in public health.
- Andrew S. Winston, “Scientific Racism and North American Psychology,” in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.013.516; Joseph L. Graves, “What a Tangled Web He Weaves: Race, Reproductive Strategies and Rushton’s Life History Theory,” Anthropological Theory 2, no. 2 (June 1, 2002): 131–54, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1469962002002002627.
- Scott Neuman, “E.O. Wilson, Famed Entomologist and Pioneer in the Field of Sociobiology, Dies at 92,” NPR, December 27, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/12/27/1068238333/e-o-wilson-dead-sociobiology-entomology-ant-man; Felicia He, “E.O. Wilson, Renowned Harvard Biologist Known as ‘Darwin’s Natural Heir,’ Dies at 92,” The Harvard Crimson, December 31, 2021, https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2021/12/31/edward-wilson-obit/; Bert Hölldobler, “Edward Osborne Wilson, Naturalist (1929-2021),” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 119, no. 5 (February 1, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2200201119.
- Doug Tallamy, “Remembering E.O. Wilson’s Wish for a More Sustainable Existence,” December 27, 2021, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/remembering-eo-wilsons-wish-for-a-more-sustainable-existence-180979298/.
- Monica R. McLemore, “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson,” Scientific American, December 29, 2021, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-complicated-legacy-of-e-o-wilson/.
- Razib Khan, “Setting the Record Straight: Open Letter on E.O. Wilson’s Legacy,” Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning (blog), January 19, 2022, https://razib.substack.com/p/setting-the-record-straight-open.
- After the revelation that the blogger held white nationalist views, several academics retracted their signatures. But many maintain that they are in agreement with the blog’s contents.
- Adam Liptak and Anemona Hartocollis, “Supreme Court Will Hear Challenge to Affirmative Action at Harvard and U.N.C,” The New York Times, January 24, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/us/politics/supreme-court-affirmative-action-harvard-unc.html.
- Liz Crampton, “GOP Sees ‘huge Red Wave’ Potential by Targeting Critical Race Theory,” POLITICO, January 5, 2022, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/01/05/gop-red-wave-critical-race-theory-526523.
- Maya L. Gosztyla et al., “Responses to 10 Common Criticisms of Anti-Racism Action in STEMM,” PLoS Computational Biology 17, no. 7 (July 2021): e1009141, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009141.
- Nuno M. C. Martins, Michael J. Carson, and the Genetics and Society Working Group, “What Can Current Genetic Testing Technologies Tell You About ‘Race’?” Science for the People, November 19, 2021, https://magazine.scienceforthepeople.org/lewontin-special-issue/genetics-of-race-gswg/.
- Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (W. W. Norton, 1996); Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin, Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (Haymarket Books, 2017); Joseph L. Graves Jr, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2003).
- Mankind Quarterly is “a pseudoscientific journal founded after the Second World War to argue against desegregation and racial mixing.” See Angela Saini, “The Internet Is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience,” Scientific American Blog Network, accessed January 31, 2022, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/the-internet-is-a-cesspool-of-racist-pseudoscience/.
- J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: An Evolutionary Theory of Health, Longevity, and Personality: Sociobiology and r/K Reproductive Strategies,” Psychological Reports 60, no. 2 (April 1987): 539–49; J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: Contributions to the History of Psychology: XC. Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits (with Reference to Oriental-White-Black Differences): The 1989 AAAS Paper,” Psychological Reports 71, no. 3 Pt 1 (December 1992): 811–21; J. P. Rushton, “RETRACTED: Race and Crime: International Data for 1989-1990,” Psychological Reports 76, no. 1 (February 1995): 307–12; J. Philippe Rushton and Donald I. Templer, “RETRACTED: Do Pigmentation and the Melanocortin System Modulate Aggression and Sexuality in Humans as They Do in Other Animals?,” Personality and Individual Differences 53, no. 1 (July 1, 2012): 4–8.
- The materials presented in this article have not, to our knowledge, been made available to the participants on either side of the debate on Wilson’s legacy.
- Antony Violanti, “A Researcher, or a Racist? Ontario Professor Draws Fire for Theory That Links Intelligence and Race,” Janurary 16, 1991, The Buffalo News, https://buffalonews.com/news/a-researcher-or-a-racist-ontario-professor-draws-fire-for-theory-that-links-intelligence-and/article_a8e0861e-2725-5c7d-829b-0327202b671a.html.
- C. H. Vanderwolf and D. P. Cain, “The Neurobiology of Race and Kipling’s Cat,” Personality and Individual Differences 12, no. 1 (January 1, 1991): 97–98, https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(91)90138-2; Donald P. Cain and C. H. Vanderwolf, “A Critique of Rushton on Race, Brain Size and Intelligence,” Personality and Individual Differences 11, no. 8 (January 1, 1990): 777–84, https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(90)90185-T.
- J. P. Rushton, C. H. Littlefield, and C. J. Lumsden, “Gene-Culture Coevolution of Complex Social Behavior: Human Altruism and Mate Choice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 83, no. 19 (October 1986): 7340–43, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.83.19.7340.
- In summary, r-K selection theory was a term coined by Wilson to describe how evolutionary forces may act to produce two types of reproductive strategies: “r” in which organisms produce many offspring with little parental care and “K” in which organisms produce few offspring and care for them greatly. In his pseudoscientific analyses, Rushton proposed that people of African ancestry were “r” strategists and people of European and Asian ancestry were “K” strategists. Rushton was swiftly and widely criticized for using heinously inappropriate and racist lines of evidence and reasoning, from a scholarly and ethical perspective.
- Helen Fisher, “‘Wilson,’ They Said, ‘Your All Wet!,’” The New York Times, October 16, 1994, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/10/16/books/wilson-they-said-your-all-wet.html.
- R. D. Davis, “Academic Standards in Medical Schools,” The New England Journal of Medicine 294, no. 20 (May 13, 1976): 1118–19, https://doi.org/10.1056/nejm197605132942013.