We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future
December 29, 2021
With the death of biologist E. O. Wilson on Sunday, I find myself again reflecting on the complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas and how these ideas came to define our understanding of the world.
After a long clinical career as a registered nurse, I became a laboratory-trained scientist as researchers mapped the first draft of the human genome. It was during this time that I intimately familiarized myself with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior.
His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public.
Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.
Even modern geneticists and genome scientists struggle with inherent racism in the way they gather and analyze data. In his memoir A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, geneticist J. Craig Venter writes, “The complex provenance of ideas means their origin is often open to interpretation.”
To put the legacy of their work in the proper perspective, a more nuanced understanding of problematic scientists is necessary. It is true that work can be both important and problematic—they can coexist. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate and critique these scientists, considering, specifically the value of their work and, at the same time, their contributions to scientific racism.
First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”
Second, the application of the scientific method matters: what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes. For example, the associations of Black people with poor health outcomes, economic disadvantage and reduced life expectancy can be explained by structural racism, yet Blackness or Black culture is frequently cited as the driver of those health disparities. Ant culture is hierarchal and matriarchal, based on human understandings of gender. And the descriptions and importance of ant societies existing as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued. Context matters.
Lastly, examining nurture versus nature without any attention to externalities, such as opportunities and potential (financial structures, religiosity, community resources and other societal structures), that deeply influence human existence and experiences is both a crude and cruel lens. This dispassionate query will lead to individualistic notions of the value and meaning of human lives while, as a society, our collective fates are inextricably linked.
As we are currently seeing in the COVID-19 pandemic, public health and prevention measures are colliding with health services delivery and individual responsibility. Coexistence of approaches that take both of these into account are interrelated and necessary.
So how do we engage with the problematic work of scientists whose legacy is complicated? I would suggest three strategies to move toward a more nuanced understanding of their work in context.
First, truth and reconciliation are necessary in the scientific record, including attention to citational practices when using or reporting on problematic work. This approach includes thinking critically about where and when to include historically problematic work and the context necessary for readers to understand the limitations of the ideas embedded in it. This will require commitments from journal editors, peer reviewers and the scientific community to invest in retrofitting existing publications with this expertise. They can do so by employing humanities scholars, journalists and other science communicators with the appropriate expertise to evaluate health and life sciences manuscripts submitted for publication.
Second, diversifying the scientific workforce is crucial not only to asking new types of research questions and unlocking new discoveries but also to conducting better science. Other scholars have pointed out that feminist standpoint theory is helpful in understanding white empiricism and who is eligible to be a worthy observer of the human condition and our world. We can apply the same approach to scientific research. All of society loses when there are limited perspectives that are grounded in faulty notions of one or another group of humans’ potential. As my work and that of others have shown, the people most burdened by poor health conditions are more often the ones trying to address the underlying causes with innovative solutions and strategies that can be scientifically tested.
Finally, we need new methods. One of the many gifts of the Human Genome Project was the creativity it spawned beyond revealing the secrets of the genome, such as new rules about public availability and use of data. Multiple labs and trainees were able to collaborate and share work while establishing independent careers. New rules of engagement emerged around the ethical, legal and social implications of the work. Undoing scientific racism will require commitments from the entire scientific community to determine the portions of historically problematic work that are relevant and to let the scientific method function the way it was designed—to allow for dated ideas to be debunked and replaced.
The early work of Venter and Collins was foundational to my dissertation, which examined tumor markers of ovarian cancer. I spent time during my training at the NIH learning from these iconic clinicians and scholars and had occasion to meet and question both of them. As a person who uses science as one of many tools to understand the world, it is important to remain curious in our work. Creative minds should not be resistant to change when rigorous new data are presented. How we engage with old racist ideas is no exception.
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.
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).
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.
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.
When an illustrious person dies, the hagiography usually starts while the body is still warm. The death of biologist E.O. Wilson last December 26 was no exception to this general rule. Of course, it’s considered impolite and in bad taste to speak ill of the dead right after they leave us; it can be the worst form of talking behind someone’s back. Yet there are no firm rules about when it is okay to do so. In some cases, colleagues, journalists, and other commenters never get around to “warts and all” portraits of the departed, especially when there are inconvenient truths involved. But all too often, defenders of the deceased’s reputation take it upon themselves to police the conversation, and attack those who do want to examine the warts, especially if they do it “too soon.”
I don’t doubt that Wilson is being rightly praised for his advocacy of biodiversity conservation and his contributions to our understanding of the natural world, especially that of ants and other insects. But the inconvenient truth is that Wilson, back in 1975, gave a major boost to genetic and evolutionary explanations for human behavior when he published his massive tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, to the acclaim of those convinced that biology played a bigger role in human affairs than previously appreciated, and the condemnation of those who thought it played an even lesser role.
In doing so, it has been argued, Wilson also provided considerable cover to racists who have long argued that inequities in human societies—most notably, socioeconomic differences between Blacks and whites in the United States—are due to biological differences rather than structural flaws in our society. And yet, at the time Wilson’s book was published, those who objected to his ideas—or more specifically, their application to human societies—were the ones who got accused of being politically motivated.
The first round of Wilson obituaries reflected this political bias very clearly. The “Sociobiology Wars,” as they came to be known, were treated in some obits as a kind of quaint and colorful ancient history, caricatured by one of their most memorable episodes: Anti-racist activists dumping a pitcher of water on Wilson’s head during a debate at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In a letter to The New York Review of Books, some denounced sociobiology as an attempt to reinvigorate tired old theories of biological determinism — theories, they claimed, that “provided an important basis for the enactment of sterilization laws and restrictive immigration laws by the United States between 1910 and 1930 and also for the eugenics policies which led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany.”
In her book “Defenders of the Truth” (2000), Dr. Segerstrale wrote that Dr. Wilson’s critics had shown “an astounding disregard” for what he had written, arguing that they had used “Sociobiology” as an opportunity to promote their own agendas. When Dr. Wilson attended a 1978 debate about sociobiology, protesters rushed the stage shouting, “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide!” A woman dumped ice water on him, shouting, “Wilson, you are all wet!”
In his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, Ed reported a monumental survey of the wide range of animal societies, including our own. That natural selection might shape human behaviors was questioned by some. Many critics made ad hominem attacks, which were short on scientific content. Ed responded vigorously, noting that the adaptive value of animal behaviors was not in dispute, however disturbing this might be to political philosophies. During this time, someone famously threw water onto Ed at a meeting—the amount involved grows with every telling of the story. When Ed told it, it was with a twinkle and an appreciation of this unique honor.
For anyone who was not around at the time, these hagiographic accounts (please read their entire texts for support for that statement) might leave the impression that the only opponents of Wilson’s application of sociobiological thinking to human affairs were crazy left-wing activists. But the truth is that noted scientists, including Wilson’s Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin, Ruth Hubbard, and Stephen Jay Gould, were among those who carefully examined Wilson’s ideas and found them to be in the long and sordid tradition of racial thinking about human biology. At around the same time, Harvard Medical School geneticist Jon Beckwith and others founded a Sociobiology Study Group to discuss and analyze Wilson’s book and develop a critique of his ideas, based both on solid science and the history of scientific racism.
I was around at the time, a graduate student in biology at UCLA and a member of Science for the People, the organization Beckwith and some other Wilson critics belonged to. Since most of the action was on the East Coast, especially in Boston and Cambridge, MA, I was not an active member, other than subscribing to the group’s eponymous magazine. But I did follow things closely, including the infamous water pitcher episode, and the 1976 publication of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, which greatly expanded on the idea that humans were largely at the mercy of our genes (a conclusion that Dawkins, with limited success, has tried to refute.)
But now, barely a month after Wilson’s death and while the hagiography is still more or less in full swing, we are suddenly faced with revelations that leave little doubt Wilson was—behind the scenes, and despite his public protests—a racist, or minimally, a sympathizer of race science (which is the same thing.) The scoop goes to Science for the People magazine in its new incarnation (the publication was moribund for many years), in a February 1 article by Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons, a wife and husband team (Farina is an assistant professor at Howard University with a PhD in evolutionary biology, and Gibbons works in public health.)
Digging into Wilson’s letters held at the U.S. national archives, Farina and Gibbons came across a trove of correspondence between Wilson and the late scientific racist J. Philippe Rushton, who died in 2012. I will leave it to readers to look at this painfully clear article, but in my view it leaves no doubt that Wilson wholeheartedly supported, encouraged, and cheered on Rushton’s bogus and long discredited attempts to show that differences between Blacks and whites in IQ, socioeconomic status, and other measures were based on biological racial differences. There is no ambiguity here, which is making it very difficult for Wilson’s apologists to question the evidence (although they will still try.)
And it turns out that while Farina and Gibbons were working in the archives, an independent pair of historians of science, Mark Borrello of the University of Minnesota and David Sepkoski at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, were looking at the same documents and coming to the same conclusions. Their somewhat more comprehensive analysis, published on February 5 in The New York Review of Books, leaves little doubt about Wilson’s real thinking. And should it be that much of surprise? Nearly all the obituaries of Wilson emphasize his roots in Alabama and the segregated University of Alabama, and depict him as a southern gentleman scientist—without any examination of the possibility that the prejudices of growing up in the south might have left their mark on Wilson’s psyche.
This new evidence matters greatly, because over all these years the conceit of Wilson and his defenders has been that they were champions of scientific truth, and their critics were driven by politics and ideology. Indeed, the term “race realism,” used by Rushton and other scientific racists as a bludgeon against anti-racists and an attempt to depict them as cowards who cannot face what science allegedly tells them, can now clearly be seen as evidence of Wilson’s own attitudes and biases (Wilson was no shrinking violet in defending his ideas, as even the hagiographic retrospectives make clear.)
In their next to last paragraph, Borrello and Sepkoski lay out clearly what is at stake in a proper and accurate understanding of Wilson’s real legacy when it comes to his writings on sociobiology, which have been very influential in the years since:
Preserving a naively hagiographic picture of his career obscures the extent to which racist and sexist bias remains a glaring vulnerability of the science that has been built on his theories; indeed, such bias can motivate and blind scientists to deeply flawed interpretations of data. Racism in science, today, rarely announces itself with a white hood. Rather, it persists in tacit and unspoken assumptions, and hides behind claims of the inherent objectivity of scientific research.
In what follows, I would like to go back over the history of the Sociobiology Wars, and attempt to salvage—as others have tried over the years—the true history of these debates. They did not consist only of activists running around with water pitchers, a very minor part of the story, but serious and conscientious scientists trying to point out fallacies in a theory of human behavior that has left its damaging marks in today’s discourse about race and justice.
My purpose is not to do a deep dive into sociobiology and the arguments pro and con, but simply to remind readers—and alert those new to the debate—that there were serious scientific issues involved, not just left vs. right politics.
It’s a slim volume, only 120 pages, but certainly not a political diatribe. Sahlins argues, in effect, that anthropology is too important and too laden with its own facts and data to be left to geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and other scientists who often know more about ants and fruit flies than about human beings. Moreover, as Sahlins points out with many examples from societies around the world, human culture is too complicated—too cultural, as it were—to be reduced to simple biology, or even complex biology.
Sahlins spends a lot of the book discussing sociobiological notions of kinship and kin selection, which have been key to the thinking of sociobiologists over the decades (Wilson developed his own spin on how natural selection was acting, which I will get to shortly.) In essence, organisms, including humans, act in such ways as to increase the likelihood that their genes will get passed on to future generations. While not all proponents of this concept endorse Dawkins’ depressing contention that genes evolved to “swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control”—especially because the lumbering robots included us humans—the idea that human behavior can be largely explained by what is best for the replication of our genes has stuck hard in much biological thinking, even today.
(I should point out here that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists—the latter being sort of latter-day sociobiologists—are always quick to insist that they recognize a role for the environment, and Wilson always did so when criticized. The problem is that it’s a no-brainer that environment is involved, and this disclaimer often serves to justify returning to a focus on genes as if some sort of technicality has been dealt with.)
In his book, Sahlins provided a lot of examples of cultures, studied by anthropologists, in which kinship is not defined by those who are genetically closest, but in all kinds of other ways, including ties that have nothing to do with genealogy. In doing so, he paints a much more realistic portrait of human relationships, in which we often may be more willing to die for someone who is not genetically related to us at all than a close relative (eg, an estranged sibling or parent.)
The reason why human social behavior is not organized by the individual maximization of genetic interest is that human beings are not socially defined by their organic qualities but in terms of symbolic attributes; and a symbol is precisely a meaningful value—such as “close kinship” or “shared blood”—which cannot be determined by the physical properties of that to which it refers.
Before leaving Sahlins, I should qualify what I say above by pointing out that he did not argue that a “political framework” should not be used in analyzing sociobiology and its weaknesses in explaining human behavior. But what he did insist on is that the politics is at its root anthropological, ie, the way we describe human societies. Thus sociobiology is itself profoundly political, he concluded:
What is inscribed in the theory of sociobiology is the entrenched ideology of Western society: the assurance of its naturalness, and the claim of its inevitability.”
There is an interesting wrinkle in Wilson’s view of how natural selection operated, however, which eventually diverged from the strict focus on kin or individual selection. Dawkins and others before him, including the British evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith, waged a fierce war against the concept of group selection, in which natural selection is postulated to act on groups of individuals rather than individuals themselves. Wilson, however, eventually threw in his lot with advocates of “multilevel” selection (what might perhaps be called group selection lite, or kin selection heavy), particularly in collaboration with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (no relation)—the proposition that evolution can act on both the group and individual level. The two Wilsons published, in 2007, a paper in The Quarterly Review of Biology, “Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology,” which led some diehard kin selection theorists to declare that E.O. Wilson had betrayed his own cause.
Thinking and studying sociobiology
Marshall Sahlins’ foray into the sociobiology wars was just one example of anthropologists trying to weigh in with their own insights into human behavior. One of the best critiques, in my opinion, was penned by Jonathan Marks—now an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and author of “What it means to be 98% chimpanzee” and “Why I am not a scientist”—when he was still a graduate student at the University of Arizona.
In a 1980 paper for the Arizona Anthropologist, “Sociobiology, Selfish Genes, and Human Behavior: A Bio-Cultural Critique”, Marks engaged in a witty but cogent skewering of sociobiology’s misconceptions. Among his most important criticisms, in my view, is the use by sociobiologists of what the naturalist Ernst Mayr called “beanbag genetics,” in which genes are imagined as discrete entities which code for complex behaviors such as altruism, aggression, selfishness, conformity, and other attributes. Looking at genes that way made the mathematics of calculating the effects of kin selection on evolution easier, Marks pointed out; but it has resulted in severe oversimplifications that actually obscure what is going on, especially in the evolution of human behavior (if, indeed, human behavior is something that actually genetically evolves.)
Given the knowledge that a simple behavior such as aggregation in slime molds involves the interaction of fifty genes (May 1976), one may conclude that ‘conformity’ in humans, if genetically based, would be a very formidable genetic system.
This critique, by Marks and others, was prophetic. Modern genetic research reveals that there are unlikely to be individual genes for “altruism” or other traits that geneticists have tried to mathematically model in the past, but rather a constellation of hundreds or thousands of genes involved, each one adding a tiny statistical weight to the genetic makeup of an individual—and, in the end, rendering the notion of genetic determinism for any human trait essentially meaningless. This is certainly the lesson of today’s Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), which often require cohorts of many thousands of subjects to detect any genetic variation at all. (For more on this, I highly recommend the writings of Eric Turkheimer, a behavior geneticist who has questioned some of the commons assumptions of his field.)
Sociobiology of humans, without theoretical underpinnings in ‘beanbag genetics’… is a statement of social philosophy, not science; for without genes for altruism, one cannot speak of its evolution, except in a metaphorical sense. And to accept a metaphor as literally binding is surely a breach of logic.
I recommend reading Marks’ entire paper, as well as Chapter 9 in Jon Beckwith’s memoir, Making Genes, Making Waves, “It’s the Devil in Your DNA,” a chronicle of the Sociobiology Study Group and the Sociobiology Wars which certainly corresponds to how I myself remember them. Beckwith points out that the publication of Wilson’s Sociobiology was accompanied (as his death is now) with multitudes of uncritical media stories heralding the new biological explanations for sometimes mysterious human behavior—in the New York Times, People, Cosmopolitan, Playboy, Time (a cover story), Reader’s Digest, and even House and Garden.
To try to counter these one-sided accounts, Beckwith and other critics of sociobiology argued that genetic determinism (they insisted that was what sociobiology was, even if glossed up in a more sophisticated scientific veneer) was a key principle of eugenics, Nazism, and, in our day, attempts to justify unequal treatment of different groups in employment, housing, education, and other areas of life.
And of course, sociobiology was not the end of it. Some researchers believe that evolutionary psychology is the heir to sociobiology, with its panoply of “just-so” evolutionary stories for complex human behavior; and that every few years or so there is a media frenzy over recycled theories of human racial differences (The Bell Curve, published in 1994 by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, is still the subject of lively debate today; for evidence that racially motivated theories in science are again on the rise, please see Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini.)
It’s going to be interesting to see what Wilson’s defenders and apologists make of his newly revealed correspondence with Rushton. Some will no doubt insist that Wilson was simply encouraging Rushton’s right to free academic inquiry, not endorsing his racist conclusions. I think that’s going to be a hard case to make; and the inquiry into Wilson’s true views is not likely to be over. There will be other letters, hidden away in archives or in the files of his friends, which may also see the light of day.
Wilson vociferously insisted, from the 1975 publication of his famous book to pretty much the day he died, that his critics were driven by political bias, but not him. That was never a credible claim. Now, with the revelations of his personal racism, it has no credibility at all.
Beckwith, Jon. Making Genes, Making Waves: A social activist in science. (2002)
Sahlins, Marshall. The use and abuse of biology: An anthropological critique of sociobiology. (1976)
Saini, Angela. Superior: The return of race science. (2019)
Segerstrale, Ullica. Defenders of the Truth. (2000)
In addition, Jon Beckwith provided me with a detailed bibliography of papers by members of the Sociobiology Study Group and other critics:
Sociobiology: The Debate Evolves. A Special Double Issue (The Philosophical Forum: A Quarterly, vol XIII, nos 2-3, 1981-82)
Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature, by Philip Kitcher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985)
Allen, E. et al. Against Sociobiology. The New York Review of Books. pp. 182, 184-6 (Nov. 13, 1975) Reprinted in A. Caplan- . in The Sociobiology Debate. ed. by A. Caplan. Harper & Row. New York . pp. 259-264 (1978)
Alper, J.S., Beckwith, J.. Chorover, S., Hunt, J., Inouye, H., Judd, T., Lange, R.V., and Sternberg, P. The Implications of Sociobiology: Science.192:424-427 (1976).
Alper, J., Beckwith, J., and Miller, L. Sociobiology is a Political Issue. in The Sociobiology Debate. ed. by A. Caplan. Harper & Row. New York 476‑488 (l978).
Alper, J., Beckwith, J. and Egelman, E. Misusing Sociobiology. The Harvard Crimson. Nov. 19, 1979.
Beckwith, J. Triumphalism in science. (A review of The Triumph of Sociobiology, by J. Alcock., Oxford Univ. Press, 2001). American Scientist. 89:461-472 (2001).
Beckwith, J. The Political Uses of Sociobiology in the United States and Europe. The Philosophical Forum. XIII, #2, Winter, l98l, p. 3ll‑32l.
Beckwith, J. Biological Backlash: A book review of K. Bock. Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology. Technology Review. Oct. l98l. p.30.