Ghosts of Science Past Still Haunt Us. We Can Put Them to Rest. (Undark)


By C. Brandon Ogbunu

Dec 13, 2022

Edward O. Wilson, known as the “father of biodiversity.” Visual: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Conversations about famed scientists who held troubling views on race should center not on cancellation but on progress.

One autumn afternoon during the mid-2010s, when I was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, I decided that I needed a break from the toil of a sinking project on viral population genetics. I left my small, dusty office in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and walked across a street to a building that had a vending machine. Just ahead of me, in line, stood Edward O. Wilson — famed naturalist and “father of biodiversity.” He eventually purchased a pack of mints.

Seeing a celebrity in their element is a groovy experience. That day at the vending machine, Wilson wasn’t “Professor Biophilia.” He was just an older man wrangling loose change in his pocket, trying to fix a sugar craving just like mine. But he was a legend. Through the years, I’ve read many of Wilson’s papers and trade books. I still cherish my signed copy of “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” an ambitious if flawed book that contains one of my favorite-ever quotes by a scientist: “The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I suppose that if gifted with a full quiver, he also writes like a journalist.” 

E.O. Wilson, as he was widely known, was beloved by many and respected by almost everyone in the science community. When he died in December 2021, even critics of his work paid their respects to the life of a wizard. But just days after his death, a posthumous revelation sparked a debate about what he really stood for. The controversy raised questions not only about Wilson, but about how the science community as a whole can confront its legacy of racism.

One might say that the controversy was foreshadowed by the final chapter of Wilson’s “Sociobiology,” his 1975 manifesto on how the science of social behavior should embrace evolutionary reasoning in humans. The book was as bold a scientific pivot as you will see. It took courage to be a master in one set of domains — as Wilson was in evolution, entomology, and biodiversity — and engage in another, especially the thorny topic of human behavior and culture, which Wilson took on in his book’s final chapter. “Sociobiology” made several important, resonant observations, but it was also criticized on the grounds that it directly or indirectly put forward a sort of reasoning that is adjacent to scientific racism and sexism. Detractors felt Wilson’s heavy emphasis on evolutionary explanations for human social behaviors radiated the same sort of reductive evangelism that underlies eugenics — science founded upon the idea that certain classes of humans were unfit to reproduce.

Naturalist and Harvard Professor, E.O. Wilson was beloved by many and respected by almost everyone in the science community. But after his death, controversy flared over his support of scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton. Hugh Brown/The Chronicle Collection via Getty Images

Wilson’s dive into the human realm was, in my view, an exercise in the worst kind of carpetbagging, in which an expert uses their large reputation in one arena to justify parachuting into another where they are ignorant or out of their depth. In doing so, Wilson followed, and maybe helped write, a blueprint that continues to influence generations of dumpster fire biological determinists. The controversy encircled Wilson for years, but his excellent reputation eventually transcended it.

After his death was announced, however, the conflict swirled anew. An essay in Scientific American revisited the connections between “Sociobiology”and scientific racism and, much more damningly, scholars uncovered archival evidence that Wilson was an ardent defender of J. Philippe Rushton, a scientific racist who spent a career peddling pulp science fiction about the essential differences between races, draped in the lingo of evolutionary theory. In the archival materials, Wilson referred to anti-racists as “scoundrels.” But apparently, he thought the actual scientific racist that he had a cuddly relationship with was a fine person.

Amid all of this, a circus began. 

A broad, mostly academic alliance formed to defend Wilson’s reputation. It included the typical cast of cancel culture vultures and race science grifters, along with a surprising number of enablers who should have known better. And most of it seemed to me to be driven by some bold hidden agenda: to portray critics of Wilson’s legacy as if they were some imaginary legion of scientific critical race theorists, destined to overtake your curricula, make you and your children sad, and cancel everyone you know and love. The fossil-clutching and fake outrage emboldened extremists, leading to the standard soup-and-salad of white supremacist threats and racist social media posts. Unhelpful, irrelevant debates surrounding Wilson’s character followed, and within a few weeks, people went on with their lives. 

What I’ve observed is a predictable cycle that happens time and time again in science: We discover (or re-discover) a racist thing that a luminary or popular person did or said; the criticism arrives, sometimes with a proposal that their name be removed from some relic or that we no longer honor them for whatever good that they did; a vigorous defense of the accused ensues, often manifesting as lamentations of cancel culture, appeals to academic freedom, attestations to the goodness of the accused, and insistences that the punishment should not be harsher than the crime; then comes a flowering of distracting, irrelevant pontifications about what really lurks in the hearts of people. (“What is a racist person really?”) 

Finally, everyone involved eventually gets tired and goes home. Discovery. Defense. Distraction. Departure. The issue vanishes from our mouths, minds, and social media timelines, and we move on, no one any smarter, no issues resolved.

It is the same sequence that has played out in the aftermath of James Watson’s repeated rants against Black intelligence, and in the wake of another inflammatory Charles Murray article on race and IQ. The more contentious of these situations, however, involve revered figures from the past. Figures like the late Robert A. Millikan, a Nobel-prize winning physicist whose support for racist eugenics policies recently came to light.

This steady drumbeat of revelations raises difficult questions: How can science live with its ghosts — the figures from days of old who are revealed to be the authors, supporters, or enablers of bigoted ideas? How do we hold a ghost accountable? And how can we emerge from these revelations as a smarter and stronger community of scientists and citizen-scientists, with a clear vision for moving forward?

What’s certain is that we can do better than the race science Groundhog Day that we have been reliving since time immemorial. But first, we must shift the discussion away from arguments about the nature of the people who authored and supported these bad ideas, and toward frank assessments of the nature, scope, and consequences of their actions.

The first thing we must do, when confronted by a ghost of science past, is reflect

To reference an old concept from cultural critic Jay Smooth, in discussions of racism, the “what you are” conversation is less relevant than “what you did.” By freeing ourselves of the burden of having to debate the essential goodness of a bad actor, we can begin to have a more refined conversation about what accountability looks like. 

In the case of Wilson, I don’t care whether we formally label him a racist (“what he is”). I do know, however, that his support of Rushton amplified race scientists and their rancid ideas (“what he did”). And I know that race science is perhaps the most destructive intellectual scam ever constructed. It has poisoned basic conversations about human evolution and genetics, even — perhaps especially — for people with non-racist leanings or tendencies. It has stymied progress, muddied conversation, and discouraged talented people from studying genetics and evolution. As far as misinformation problems go, it sits alongside scientific sexism on pseudoscience’s Mount Rushmore. (Give the anti-vax and climate change denial movements time to mature slightly, and they will take their rightful place there as well.) By extension, people who support race scientists promote destructive misinformation. And Wilson did just that. 

Wilson and other scientists who have authored, enabled, platformed, or promoted racist ideas have failed in their primary job description: to participate in the scientific process in a responsible manner. We may even consider the infractions as acts of scientific malfeasance, rather than as the acts of insensitivity. Being mean is bad. Propagating dangerous misinformation might be worse. 

Crucially, reflection needn’t always produce a guilty verdict. In 2020, the Society of Systematic Biologists seemed to call into question the past writings of evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, proposing to change the title of an award in his name. When I looked back on those writings, I didn’t feel the “what he did” amounted to much of an infraction. (The society later clarified that the proposed name change was not meant to be an indictment of Mayr, but rather part of a broader strategy to promote inclusion.) 

How can science live with its ghosts — the figures from days of old who are revealed to be the authors, supporters, or enablers of bigoted ideas?

But when an appraisal of a person’s actions does point to clear wrongdoing, how do we act on that knowledge? I believe that any revelation of a racist transgression committed by a scientist we admire — be it big or small — should meaningfully change the way we look at that person and their body of work. No, we need not embrace the charge of “cancellation,” which offers few opportunities to learn or solve the problem of how to truly hold bad actors accountable. But we must come to see the ghost’s legacy in a new light. 

We must reconstruct.

To reconstruct a person’s legacy is to grapple with complexity. We should not be afraid of the multiplicities that are the lives of the people that we admire. It is possible to carry several, maybe even competing understandings in our head at the same time. This is standard in science: Newtonian and quantum mechanics, natural selection and genetic drift, somatic and germline mutation. Science teaches us that keeping track of counterintuitive, incongruous, competing, or even incompatible ideas is the only way to understand nature. 

This also goes for people. E.O. Wilson was a world-class scientist and made lasting contributions to several disciplines. But his amplification of pseudoscientists — and the misinformation they produced — are now part of his scientific legacy. That is, when we teach about him in our biology courses, when he is memorialized in biographies, we should tell the whole story. The bad should stand alongside the good. 

Ronald Fisher, an early 20th century polymath who helped found the field of population genetics and pioneer modern statistical sciences, is a canonical example of this duality. There is no debate to be had about the importance of his scientific contributions: Virtually everyone who has ever conducted any form of empirical research has been influenced by Fisher’s inventions. But he was also an architect of eugenics. His contributions to that dark chapter of science are also a part of his story. 

Most famous for his studies on ants, E.O. Wilson was a world-class scientist and made lasting contributions to several disciplines. But his amplification of pseudoscientists are now part of his scientific legacy. Hugh Brown/The Chronicle Collection via Getty Images

Still, it is not enough to simply acknowledge that people are complicated and shrug our shoulders. After reflecting on a scientist’s misdeeds and working to reconstruct their legacy, we must address the damage and chart a path forward.

We must repair.

Modern efforts to repair the damage of racism often center around the naming and renaming of awards. Such was the case when the Society for the Study of Evolution decided, two years ago, to rename a prestigious prize that had commemorated Fisher, and when Caltech, after much debate and deliberation, decided to rename campus buildings named after Millikan and other eugenicists. 

There are many sensible reasons to change the names of relics named after people. They include the idea that to name something after someone is to honor them. If the namesake was an avowed eugenicist, then we should not honor them, because the ideas had negative real-world consequences. And there are good arguments for doing away with named awards altogether: Names on relics often — though not always — imply a lone genius model of scientific achievement that is proving to be less true. All the greats had help, and history hasn’t been fair with regards to who gets credit. There is even an argument to be made for leaving the name of an award or other monument intact, despite the transgressions of its namesake: Removing a disgraced name allows society to sidestep discussions of the harms the person caused and to avoid wrestling with the question of what it means that society ever honored someone who harbored such racist perspectives in the first place. (Here, I’m borrowing from a viewpoint commonly expressed in a related debate over the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States.) 

In my view, an organization’s decision to rename, dename, or keep the name of an award or other monument should be made collectively — by the group’s leadership, members, and other stakeholders — and should reflect that organization’s values and priorities. Whatever the decision, what is most important is that we recognize that symbolic decisions about names are not the solution to the problem of how we reconsider our past. These actions should not be the end goal of our efforts to repair, but rather the beginning of a longer and more important process. The same painful revelations that spur us to reconsider the names of awards and monuments can also serve as moments to pause, take stock of our efforts to foster inclusion, and even focus on building new statues that reflect our better angels. 

To reconstruct a person’s legacy is to grapple with complexity. We should not be afraid of the multiplicities that are the lives of the people that we admire.

Among my most esteemed scientific colleagues are several persons of African descent, some born in the United States around the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They include a virologist who uses evolutionary theory to build viruses that kill the bacteria that cause illness, a computational biologist who has developed statistical tools that allow us to understand the link between genotype and phenotype with greater clarity, and a zoologist who studies the complex phylogeny of animals. They are not only great scientists, but they have dedicated much of their career to opening doors for others. These colleagues, and others of many backgrounds, remind me that there are new people to celebrate, and new scientific statues to build.

Part of this statue building should also take the form of supporting the potential legends of tomorrow — many of whom are dealing with life challenges or languishing in self-doubt — and making it easier for them to participate in the scientific enterprise. Many young people with E.O. Wilson-like talent are currently sitting in, or outside of, biology classrooms, either unaware of their gifts, or seeing few avenues to become the next great scientist. They span geographical ancestries, nationalities, and gender identities. 

This more enduring form of reparation should be the true goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives: not to place more “butts in seats” or to add color to departmental website photos, but to unearth talents from communities of people who have been told — by scientific racists and others — that they have little to offer. And it is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly put to rest the ghosts of science past. 

Properly executed, the method above — reflection, reconstruction, reparation — has none of the flavor of cancellation. It removes distracting conversation about whether or not the ghost was a nice person. It focuses on the bad ideas themselves and seeks to construct a fair but full picture of who these scientists were. And it proposes ways that the scientific enterprise can repair the damage done — not through empty and performative gestures, but through creating more opportunities for more people to participate in the science enterprise.

Though I saw him in person several times, I didn’t know E.O. Wilson. I don’t know if he owned a pet or followed professional tennis; I don’t know if he listened to Charlie Parker or Frank Sinatra while counting the ants that he would become famous for; I don’t know if he voted for Obama or McCain in 2008. And I don’t care. 

I’ve surely been force-fed an image for decades: Wilson as a nature-loving, southern gentleman who was out of his element among the unfriendly elites of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I don’t know if this is true. And I don’t care.

Wilson was an evolutionary biologist who inspired many, opened our eyes to how nature worked, wrote many books with good ideas, and wrote others with corny and broken ones.

I also know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he amplified the authors of vile, regressive drivel. And I can accept this while still having respect for his contributions.

If I can remember the good and smile when I think of the mints that Wilson bought from a vending machine that one autumn day, then I owe it to his ghost to remember him for the wretched ideas that he and many others helped to propagate.

And so do you.

C. Brandon Ogbunu is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, and is an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.