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.
A growing number of forensic researchers are questioning how the field interprets the geographic ancestry of human remains.
Oct. 19, 2021, 2:30 a.m. ET
Racial reckonings were happening everywhere in the summer of 2020, after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis by the police. The time felt right, two forensic anthropologists reasoned, to reignite a conversation about the role of race in their own field, where specialists help solve crimes by analyzing skeletons to determine who those people were and how they died.
Dr. Elizabeth DiGangi of Binghamton University and Jonathan Bethard of the University of South Florida published a letter in The Journal of Forensic Science that questioned the longstanding practice of estimating ancestry, or a person’s geographic origin, as a proxy for estimating race. Ancestry, along with height, age at death and assigned sex, is one of the key details that many forensic anthropologists try to determine.
That fall, they published a longer paper with a more ambitious call to action: “We urge all forensic anthropologists to abolish the practice of ancestry estimation.”
In recent years, a growing number of forensic anthropologists have grown critical of ancestry estimation and want to replace it with something more nuanced.
Criminal cases in which the victim’s identity is entirely unknown are rare. But in these instances, some forensic anthropologists argue, a tool like ancestry estimation can be crucial.
The assessment of race has been a part of forensic anthropology since the field’s inception a century ago. The earliest scholars were white men who studied human skulls to support racist beliefs. Ales Hrdlicka, a physical anthropologist who joined the Smithsonian Institution in 1903, was a eugenicist who looted human remains for his collections and sought to classify humans into different races based on certain appearances and traits.
An expert on skeletons, Dr. Hrdlicka helped law enforcement identify human remains, laying the blueprint for the professional field. Forensic anthropologists thereafter were expected to produce a profile with the “Big Four” — age at death, sex, height and race.
In the 1990s, as more scientists debunked the myth of biological race — the notion that the humans species is divided into distinct races — anthropologists grew sharply divided over the issue. One survey found that 50 percent of physical anthropologists accepted the idea of a biological concept of race, while 42 rejected it. At the time, some researchers still used terms like “Caucasoid,” “Mongoloid” and “Negroid” to describe skeletons, and DNA as a forensic tool was still many years away. Today in the U.S., the field of forensic anthropology is 87 percent white.
In 1992, Norman Sauer, an anthropologist at Michigan State University, suggested dropping the term “race,” which he considered loaded, and replacing it with “ancestry.” The term became universal. But some researchers contend that little changed about the practice.
When Shanna Williams, a forensic anthropologist at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville, was in graduate school around a decade ago, it was still customary to sort skeletons into one of the “Big Three” possible populations — African, Asian or European.
But Dr. Williams grew suspicious of the idea and the way ancestry was often assigned. She saw skulls designated as “Hispanic,” a term that refers to a language group and has no biological meaning. She considered how the field might try, and fail, to sort her own skull. “My mom is white, and my dad is Black,” she said. “Do I fit that mold? Am I perfectly one thing or the other?”
The body of a skeleton can provide a person’s age or height. But the question of ancestry is reserved for the skull — specifically, features of face and skull bones, known as morphoscopic traits, that vary across different groups of humans and can occur more frequently in certain populations.
One trait, called the post-bregmatic depression, is a small indentation located on top of some people’s heads. For a long time, forensic anthropologists assumed that if the skull was indented, the person may be Black.
But forensic anthropologists know little else about the post-bregmatic depression. “There’s not been any understanding as to why this trait exists, what causes it, and what it means,” Dr. Bethard said.
Moreover, the science linking the trait and African ancestry was flawed. In 2003, Joe Hefner, a forensic anthropologist at Michigan State University, used trait lists from a key textbook, “Skeletal Attribution of Race,” to examine more than 700 skulls for his masters thesis. He found that the post-bregmatic depression was present in only 40 percent of people with African ancestry, and is actually more common in many other populations.
Of the 17 morphoscopic traits typically used to estimate ancestry, only five have been studied for whether they are heritable, making it unclear why the unstudied traits would correspond with specific populations. “There’s been this use and reuse of these traits without a fundamental understanding of what they even are,” Dr. Bethard said.
Nonetheless, Dr. Hefner said, if nothing is known about a victim beyond the shape of their skull, ancestry might hold the key to their identity.
He cited a recent example in Michican in which the police had a skull that they believed belonged to a missing woman, one of two who were reported missing in the county at the time. When Dr. Hefner examined it and searched the list of missing people in the area, he concluded that the skull might have come from a missing Southeast Asian male. “They sent us his dental records over and five minutes later we had identified this person,” Dr. Hefner said.
Dr. DiGangi worries that these estimations could suggest to the police that biological race is real and increase racial bias. “When I say to the police, ‘OK, I took these measurements, I looked at these things on the skull and this person is African-American,’ of course they’re going to think it’s biological,” Dr. DiGangi said. “Why would they not?”
To what extent this concern plays out in the real world is hard to measure, however.
For the past two years, Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at North Carolina State University, has pushed the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Standards Board to replace ancestry estimation with something new: population affinity.
Whereas ancestry aims to trace back to a continent of origin, population affinity aims to align someone with a population, such as Panamanian. This more nuanced framework looks at how the larger history of a place or community can lead to significant differences between populations that are otherwise geographically close.
A recent paper by Dr. Ross and Dr. Williams, who are close friends, examines Panama and Colombia as a test case. An ancestry estimation might suggest people from both countries would have similarly shaped skulls. But population affinity acknowledges that the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization by Spain resulted in new communities living in Panama that changed the makeup of the country’s population. “Because of those historical events, individuals from Panama are very, very different from those from Colombia,” said Dr. Ross, who is Panamanian.
Dr. Ross even designed her own software, 3D-ID, in place of Fordisc, the most commonly used forensic software that categorizes skulls into inconsistent terms: White. Black. Hispanic. Guatemalan. Japanese.
Other anthropologists say that, for all practical purposes, their own ancestry estimations have become affinity estimations. Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist at Texas State University, works with the unidentified remains of migrants found near the U.S.-Mexico border. “When we reference data that uses local population groups, that’s really affinity, not ancestry,” Dr. Spradley said.
In her work, Dr. Spradley uses missing persons’ databases from multiple countries that do not always share DNA data. The bones are often weathered, fragmenting the DNA. Estimating affinity can “help to provide a preponderance of evidence,” Dr. Spradley said.
Still, Dr. DiGangi said that switching to affinity may not address racial biases in law enforcement. Until she sees evidence that bias does not preclude people from becoming identified, she says, she does not want a “checkbox” that gets at ancestry or affinity.
As of mid-October, Dr. Ross is waiting for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Standards Board to set a vote to determine whether ancestry estimation should be replaced with population affinity. But the larger debate — over how to bridge the gap between a person’s bones and identity in real life — is far from settled.
“In 10 or 20 years, we might find a better way to do it,” Dr. Williams said. “I hope that’s the case.”
Machine learning algorithms serve us the news we read, the ads we see, and in some cases even drive our cars. But there’s an insidious layer to these algorithms: They rely on data collected by and about humans, and they spit our worst biases right back out at us. For example, job candidate screening algorithms may automatically reject names that sound like they belong to nonwhite people, while facial recognition software is often much worse at recognizing women or nonwhite faces than it is at recognizing white male faces. An increasing number of scientists and institutions are waking up to these issues, and speaking out about the potential for AI to cause harm.
Brian Nord is one such researcher weighing his own work against the potential to cause harm with AI algorithms. Nord is a cosmologist at Fermilab and the University of Chicago, where he uses artificial intelligence to study the cosmos, and he’s been researching a concept for a “self-driving telescope” that can write and test hypotheses with the help of a machine learning algorithm. At the same time, he’s struggling with the idea that the algorithms he’s writing may one day be biased against him—and even used against him—and is working to build a coalition of physicists and computer scientists to fight for more oversight in AI algorithm development.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gizmodo: How did you become a physicist interested in AI and its pitfalls?
Brian Nord: My Ph.d is in cosmology, and when I moved to Fermilab in 2012, I moved into the subfield of strong gravitational lensing. [Editor’s note: Gravitational lenses are places in the night sky where light from distant objects has been bent by the gravitational field of heavy objects in the foreground, making the background objects appear warped and larger.] I spent a few years doing strong lensing science in the traditional way, where we would visually search through terabytes of images, through thousands of candidates of these strong gravitational lenses, because they’re so weird, and no one had figured out a more conventional algorithm to identify them. Around 2015, I got kind of sad at the prospect of only finding these things with my eyes, so I started looking around and found deep learning.
Here we are a few years later—myself and a few other people popularized this idea of using deep learning—and now it’s the standard way to find these objects. People are unlikely to go back to using methods that aren’t deep learning to do galaxy recognition. We got to this point where we saw that deep learning is the thing, and really quickly saw the potential impact of it across astronomy and the sciences. It’s hitting every science now. That is a testament to the promise and peril of this technology, with such a relatively simple tool. Once you have the pieces put together right, you can do a lot of different things easily, without necessarily thinking through the implications.
Gizmodo: So what is deep learning? Why is it good and why is it bad?
BN: Traditional mathematical models (like the F=ma of Newton’s laws) are built by humans to describe patterns in data: We use our current understanding of nature, also known as intuition, to choose the pieces, the shape of these models. This means that they are often limited by what we know or can imagine about a dataset. These models are also typically smaller and are less generally applicable for many problems.
On the other hand, artificial intelligence models can be very large, with many, many degrees of freedom, so they can be made very general and able to describe lots of different data sets. Also, very importantly, they are primarily sculpted by the data that they are exposed to—AI models are shaped by the data with which they are trained. Humans decide what goes into the training set, which is then limited again by what we know or can imagine about that data. It’s not a big jump to see that if you don’t have the right training data, you can fall off the cliff really quickly.
The promise and peril are highly related. In the case of AI, the promise is in the ability to describe data that humans don’t yet know how to describe with our ‘intuitive’ models. But, perilously, the data sets used to train them incorporate our own biases. When it comes to AI recognizing galaxies, we’re risking biased measurements of the universe. When it comes to AI recognizing human faces, when our data sets are biased against Black and Brown faces for example, we risk discrimination that prevents people from using services, that intensifies surveillance apparatus, that jeopardizes human freedoms. It’s critical that we weigh and address these consequences before we imperil people’s lives with our research.
Gizmodo: When did the light bulb go off in your head that AI could be harmful?
BN: I gotta say that it was with the Machine Bias article from ProPublica in 2016, where they discuss recidivism and sentencing procedure in courts. At the time of that article, there was a closed-source algorithm used to make recommendations for sentencing, and judges were allowed to use it. There was no public oversight of this algorithm, which ProPublica found was biased against Black people; people could use algorithms like this willy nilly without accountability. I realized that as a Black man, I had spent the last few years getting excited about neural networks, then saw it quite clearly that these applications that could harm me were already out there, already being used, and we’re already starting to become embedded in our social structure through the criminal justice system. Then I started paying attention more and more. I realized countries across the world were using surveillance technology, incorporating machine learning algorithms, for widespread oppressive uses.
Gizmodo: How did you react? What did you do?
BN: I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel; I wanted to build a coalition. I started looking into groups like Fairness, Accountability and Transparency in Machine Learning, plus Black in AI, who is focused on building communities of Black researchers in the AI field, but who also has the unique awareness of the problem because we are the people who are affected. I started paying attention to the news and saw that Meredith Whittaker had started a think tank to combat these things, and Joy Buolamwini had helped found the Algorithmic Justice League. I brushed up on what computer scientists were doing and started to look at what physicists were doing, because that’s my principal community.
It became clear to folks like me and Savannah Thais that physicists needed to realize that they have a stake in this game. We get government funding, and we tend to take a fundamental approach to research. If we bring that approach to AI, then we have the potential to affect the foundations of how these algorithms work and impact a broader set of applications. I asked myself and my colleagues what our responsibility in developing these algorithms was and in having some say in how they’re being used down the line.
Gizmodo: How is it going so far?
BN: Currently, we’re going to write a white paper for SNOWMASS, this high-energy physics event. The SNOWMASS process determines the vision that guides the community for about a decade. I started to identify individuals to work with, fellow physicists, and experts who care about the issues, and develop a set of arguments for why physicists from institutions, individuals, and funding agencies should care deeply about these algorithms they’re building and implementing so quickly. It’s a piece that’s asking people to think about how much they are considering the ethical implications of what they’re doing.
We’ve already held a workshop at the University of Chicago where we’ve begun discussing these issues, and at Fermilab we’ve had some initial discussions. But we don’t yet have the critical mass across the field to develop policy. We can’t do it ourselves as physicists; we don’t have backgrounds in social science or technology studies. The right way to do this is to bring physicists together from Fermilab and other institutions with social scientists and ethicists and science and technology studies folks and professionals, and build something from there. The key is going to be through partnership with these other disciplines.
Gizmodo: Why haven’t we reached that critical mass yet?
BN: I think we need to show people, as Angela Davis has said, that our struggle is also their struggle. That’s why I’m talking about coalition building. The thing that affects us also affects them. One way to do this is to clearly lay out the potential harm beyond just race and ethnicity. Recently, there was this discussion of a paper that used neural networks to try and speed up the selection of candidates for Ph.D programs. They trained the algorithm on historical data. So let me be clear, they said here’s a neural network, here’s data on applicants who were denied and accepted to universities. Those applicants were chosen by faculty and people with biases. It should be obvious to anyone developing that algorithm that you’re going to bake in the biases in that context. I hope people will see these things as problems and help build our coalition.
Gizmodo: What is your vision for a future of ethical AI?
BN: What if there were an agency or agencies for algorithmic accountability? I could see these existing at the local level, the national level, and the institutional level. We can’t predict all of the future uses of technology, but we need to be asking questions at the beginning of the processes, not as an afterthought. An agency would help ask these questions and still allow the science to get done, but without endangering people’s lives. Alongside agencies, we need policies at various levels that make a clear decision about how safe the algorithms have to be before they are used on humans or other living things. If I had my druthers, these agencies and policies would be built by an incredibly diverse group of people. We’ve seen instances where a homogeneous group develops an app or technology and didn’t see the things that another group who’s not there would have seen. We need people across the spectrum of experience to participate in designing policies for ethical AI.
Gizmodo: What are your biggest fears about all of this?
BN: My biggest fear is that people who already have access to technology resources will continue to use them to subjugate people who are already oppressed; Pratyusha Kalluri has also advanced this idea of power dynamics. That’s what we’re seeing across the globe. Sure, there are cities that are trying to ban facial recognition, but unless we have a broader coalition, unless we have more cities and institutions willing to take on this thing directly, we’re not going to be able to keep this tool from exacerbating white supremacy, racism, and misogyny that that already exists inside structures today. If we don’t push policy that puts the lives of marginalized people first, then they’re going to continue being oppressed, and it’s going to accelerate.
Gizmodo: How has thinking about AI ethics affected your own research?
BN: I have to question whether I want to do AI work and how I’m going to do it; whether or not it’s the right thing to do to build a certain algorithm. That’s something I have to keep asking myself… Before, it was like, how fast can I discover new things and build technology that can help the world learn something? Now there’s a significant piece of nuance to that. Even the best things for humanity could be used in some of the worst ways. It’s a fundamental rethinking of the order of operations when it comes to my research.
I don’t think it’s weird to think about safety first. We have OSHA and safety groups at institutions who write down lists of things you have to check off before you’re allowed to take out a ladder, for example. Why are we not doing the same thing in AI? A part of the answer is obvious: Not all of us are people who experience the negative effects of these algorithms. But as one of the few Black people at the institutions I work in, I’m aware of it, I’m worried about it, and the scientific community needs to appreciate that my safety matters too, and that my safety concerns don’t end when I walk out of work.
Gizmodo: Anything else?
BN: I’d like to re-emphasize that when you look at some of the research that has come out, like vetting candidates for graduate school, or when you look at the biases of the algorithms used in criminal justice, these are problems being repeated over and over again, with the same biases. It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to see that bias enters these algorithms very quickly. The people developing them should really know better. Maybe there needs to be more educational requirements for algorithm developers to think about these issues before they have the opportunity to unleash them on the world.
This conversation needs to be raised to the level where individuals and institutions consider these issues a priority. Once you’re there, you need people to see that this is an opportunity for leadership. If we can get a grassroots community to help an institution to take the lead on this, it incentivizes a lot of people to start to take action.
And finally, people who have expertise in these areas need to be allowed to speak their minds. We can’t allow our institutions to quiet us so we can’t talk about the issues we’re bringing up. The fact that I have experience as a Black man doing science in America, and the fact that I do AI—that should be appreciated by institutions. It gives them an opportunity to have a unique perspective and take a unique leadership position. I would be worried if individuals felt like they couldn’t speak their mind. If we can’t get these issues out into the sunlight, how will we be able to build out of the darkness?
Ryan F. Mandelbaum – Former Gizmodo physics writer and founder of Birdmodo, now a science communicator specializing in quantum computing and birds
The outcry over free speech and race takes aim at Steven Pinker, the best-selling author and well-known scholar.
Steven Pinker occupies a role that is rare in American life: the celebrity intellectual. The Harvard professor pops up on outlets from PBS to the Joe Rogan podcast, translating dense subjects into accessible ideas with enthusiasm. Bill Gates called his most recent book “my new favorite book of all time.”
So when more than 550 academics recently signed a letter seeking to remove him from the list of “distinguished fellows” of the Linguistic Society of America, it drew attention to their provocative charge: that Professor Pinker minimizes racial injustices and drowns out the voices of those who suffer sexist and racist indignities.
But the letter was striking for another reason: It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.
“Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes,” their letter stated.
The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”
But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.
Also this month, 153 intellectuals and writers — many of them political liberals — signed a letter in Harper’s Magazine that criticized the current intellectual climate as “constricted” and “intolerant.” That led to a fiery response from opposing liberal and leftist writers, who accused the Harper’s letter writers of elitism and hypocrisy.
In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.
Reached at his home on Cape Cod, Professor Pinker, 65, noted that as a tenured faculty member and established author, he could weather the campaign against him. But he said it could chill junior faculty who hold views counter to prevailing intellectual currents.
“I have a mind-set that the world is a complex place we are trying to understand,” he said. “There is an inherent value to free speech, because no one knows the solution to problems a priori.”
He described his critics as “speech police” who “have trolled through my writings to find offensive lines and adjectives.”
The letter against him focuses mainly on his activity on Twitter, where he has some 600,000 followers. It points to his 2015 tweet of an article from The Upshot, the data and analysis-focused team at The New York Times, which suggested that the high number of police shootings of Black people may not have been caused by racial bias of individual police officers, but rather by the larger structural and economic realities that result in the police having disproportionately high numbers of encounters with Black residents.
“Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately,” Professor Pinker tweeted with a link to the article. “Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”
The linguists’ letter noted that the article made plain that police killings are a racial problem, and accused Professor Pinker of making “dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.”
But the article also suggested that, because every encounter with the police carries danger of escalation, any racial group interacting with the police frequently risked becoming victims of police violence, due to poorly trained officers, armed suspects or overreaction. That appeared to be the point of Professor Pinker’s tweet.
The linguists’ letter also accused the professor of engaging in racial dog whistles when he used the words “urban crime” and “urban violence” in other tweets.
But in those tweets, Professor Pinker had linked to the work of scholars who are widely described as experts on urban crime and urban violence and its decline.
“‘Urban’ appears to be a usual terminological choice in work in sociology, political science, law and criminology,” wrote Jason Merchant, vice provost and a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, who defended Professor Pinker.
Another issue, Professor Pinker’s critics say, is contained in his 2011 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” In a wide-ranging description of crime and urban decay and its effect on the culture of the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote that “Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”
The linguists’ letter took strong issue with the words “mild-mannered,” noting that a neighbor later said that Goetz had spoken in racist terms of Latinos and Black people. He was not “mild-mannered” but rather intent on confrontation, they said.
The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.
Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.
The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.
He has also suggested that underrepresentation in the sciences could be rooted in part in biological differences between men and women. (He defended Lawrence Summers, the former Harvard president who in 2005 speculated that innate differences between the sexes might in part explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Mr. Summers’s remark infuriated some female scientists and was among several controversies that led to his resignation the following year.)
And Professor Pinker has made high-profile blunders, such as when he provided his expertise on language for the 2007 defense of the financier Jeffrey Epstein on sex trafficking charges. He has said he did so free of charge and at the request of a friend, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, and regrets it.
The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.
The linguists’ society, like many academic and nonprofit organizations, recently released a wide-ranging statement calling for greater diversity in the field. It also urged linguists to confront how their research “might reproduce or work against racism.”
John McWhorter, a Columbia University professor of English and linguistics, cast the Pinker controversy within a moment when, he said, progressives look suspiciously at anyone who does not embrace the politics of racial and cultural identity.
“Steve is too big for this kerfuffle to affect him,” Professor McWhorter said. “But it’s depressing that an erudite and reasonable scholar is seen by a lot of intelligent people as an undercover monster.”
Because this is a fight involving linguists, it features some expected elements: intense arguments about imprecise wording and sly intellectual put-downs. Professor Pinker may have inflamed matters when he suggested in response to the letter that its signers lacked stature. “I recognize only one name among the signatories,’’ he tweeted. Such an argument, Byron T. Ahn, a linguistics professor at Princeton, wrote in a tweet of his own, amounted to “a kind of indirect ad hominem attack.”
The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics.
“Any resulting action from this letter may make it clear to Black scholars that the L.S.A. is sensitive to the impact that tweets of this sort have on maintaining structures that we should be attempting to dismantle,” wrote Professor David Adger of Queen Mary University of London on his website.
That line of argument left Professor McWhorter, a signer of the letter in Harper’s, exasperated.
“We’re in this moment that’s like a collective mic drop, and civility and common sense go out the window,” he said. “It’s enough to cry racism or sexism, and that’s that.”
White supremacy is baked into science and academia, from racist language in textbooks to a culture that excludes Black scientists from innovating and advancing at the same pace as their colleagues. But rather than more milquetoast statements and diversity initiatives, researchers want action. Organizers are asking the scientific community to participate in a work stoppage on Wednesday, June 10 to bring attention to racism in the world of research.
Two groups of scientists, technologists, and diversity and inclusion specialists have come together to organize a shutdown and strike on June 10, with the hashtags #ShutDownAcademia, #ShutDownSTEM, and #Strike4BlackLives. They’re asking science professionals and academics to stop doing business as usual and to instead focus on long-term action: protesting, educating themselves on the issues that Black academics face, and drafting plans based on existing work done by Black leaders on how they’ll dismantle the racism entrenched in their respective fields. Hundreds of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners and high-profile groups, have signed a pledge to take part.
“We need to hold our communities in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and academia accountable to ending anti-Black racism. This is critically important because of our role in society,” Brittany Kamai, an experimental physicist with a joint appointment at the University of California, Santa Cruz and Caltech, told Gizmodo. “It’s going to be hard, and it will be growth for the community. We’re asking the entire community of both STEM and academia to commit to growing together to eradicate this,” said Kamai, who is an organizer behind #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM and a Native Hawaiian.
The ongoing protests against police violence targeting Black people in the U.S. served as the catalyst for #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM to collaborate with the physics-specific effort Particles for Justice. But these issues have long been bubbling up in the science community. A report earlier this year found that the already-dismal percentage of Black students receiving bachelors degrees in physics hasn’t changed in 10 years, in part due to a lack of support and mentorship as well as a decline in funding of historically Black colleges and universities.
Discrimination against Black scientists rears its head in more insidious ways, too. Labs will still refer to various pairs of equipment as “master” and “slave,” while the most commonly discussed milestone in quantum computing is “quantum supremacy;” few, if any publishing outlets are actively working to evaluate this kind of language. Buildings on college campuses are named after racists and slave owners, and pseudoscience is often used to try to rationalize and justify racism.
“When [the academic community] does try to show the value of diversity and inclusion, they do it by having those who are already marginalized do the work of their own liberation,” Brian Nord, research scientist at Fermilab, told Gizmodo. “They have us who are already embedded in that system and facing the problems that the system created do these activities and join these committees and all of these things that have ultimately been shown just to be window dressing… There has not been real investment and commitment in us.”
This extra work, in turn, does not offer the same career advancement as, say, using that time to publish papers, and puts them at a disadvantage. When issues of police violence against Black people crop up, Kamai said, her peers have looked to places other than the academic community for support, such as Black-led scholar collectives.
“We don’t want more diversity, inclusion, and equity seminars,” Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, assistant professor of physics and core faculty in women’s studies at University of New Hampshire, told Gizmodo. “We want people to take action, including participating in protests, for justice, now. We need people to be active in reforming the institutions they work within, rather than waiting for a top-down solution.” Prescod-Weinstein is one of the organizers of Particles for Justice.
The groups are encouraging all scientists to use the day to educate themselves and their students, organize protests, contact their local representatives, and make action plans for how they’ll work to change science and academia beyond just a single day’s strike. Just as important, they encourage their Black colleagues to use the day to prioritize their needs and find community support.
Kamai said that #ShutDownSTEM is not aimed at scientists who are directly participating in mitigating the global covid-19 pandemic. The Particles for Justice group encourages covid-19 researchers take a moment on Wednesday to reflect on how their work can contribute to these calls for justice.
Nord told Gizmodo that he hopes physicists will apply the passion they bring to figuring out fundamental truths of the universe to the movement, as if his and all Black scientists’ lives depended on it. “That energy and creativity is what we need. We need them to bring their compassion and their willingness to learn new methods and new things from other people who already know how to do this.”
These movements require non-Black allies to precipitate change, especially in fields like physics. “Particle physics is one of the academic disciplines with the lowest representations of Black scientists,” Tien-Tien Yu, assistant professor of physics at the University of Oregon, told Gizmodo. “The strike will bring this fact to the forefront, and it is important for us as a community to understand why this is so, but more crucially, to propose concrete solutions. But first, we hope that given that this is a Black-scientist led movement, we non-Black physicists finally learn to listen to what they have been saying all these years.”
More than 3,100 academics have pledged to strike with Particles for Justice, including Nobel Prize in Physics winners Adam Riess and Art McDonald.
Major scientific groups have already signed on to take part. The arXiv physics preprint server, where scientists often post their research papers ahead of publication, will not mail its daily announcement on Tuesday. Groups such as the LSST Dark Energy Science Collaboration, the Dark Energy Survey, and others have already agreed to postpone regular meetings or are planning discussions for their group members. The Canadian Association of Physicists has also announced its participation.
Both Particles for Justice and #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutDownSTEM have listedactions that academics and science professionals can take in order to dismantle racism in their respective fields, if you’re hoping to get involved.