The AAAS commits the naturalistic fallacy (and gets the insect wrong!)

September 21, 2018 • 8:30 am

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is sending us all frequent emails urging us to join; perhaps they’re short of cash. (I’m not a member, as I oppose their DoSER program that tries to reconcile science and religion.) The AAAS often uses current events, like Trump’s election (they don’t do this explicitly, but refer to real facts rather than fake facts, as well as to events like The Science March) to try to recruit members.

Their latest appeal for membership and money uses the diversity trope to get members, but conflates evolutionary success with social success as judged by persistence and diversity (presumably STEM diversity involving gender and ethnic parity).

Here’s their appeal. Note that they say we can get a “lesson” from the evolutionary success of beetles. 

I’m all in favor of diversity, though I don’t know if it can be judged by parity (proportion in AAAS compared to proportion in population) if different groups have different preferences. But what bothers me here is the message—to scientists!—that the existing numerical preponderance of beetle species and individuals, or their persistence over time, is somehow a reason for making science more diverse. And what is the indication of “success” they use for species? Number of species that have resulted from diversification, persistence over time, or both? They aren’t always the same. Beetles appear about 270 million years ago, and we have many species. Coelocanths comprise only two living species of fish, but they originated at least 400 million years ago. They are far less diverse than beetles, but have persisted longer.

We should never use what is true in nature to buttress our behavioral and moral choices in society, and for two reasons. First, the diversity of species reflects genetic and environmental conditions that impinged on ancestors: beetles may have been small and able to adapt to many niches, with their geographical isolation contributing to their species diversity.

That has nothing to do with promoting diversity within a scientific society, which is a social issue. And that leads to the second reason: what exists in nature is not always a good model for how we should construct societies.

In his new book The Evolution of Beauty, for example, Richard Prum makes much of female “sexual autonomy” in birds as a buttress for human feminism: because bird females make choices, this supposedly supports the moral stand that women should be able to make choices. And I agree with the feminism part, but what if Prum talked about deer, or elephant seals, or bedbugs, with the latter group showing “traumatic insemination” in which males bypass female choice by injecting their sperm directly through the female body wall, often injuring or even killing them? Which group you study will give you different moral lessons.

The upshot is that we should decide how to construct society without modeling it on animals in nature, for that makes our morality and social structure susceptible to changes in how we understand nature. Yes, in some cases biology can inform how we decide to structure society (example: research on whether fetuses can feel pain may, for some, affect how they feel about abortion), but in most cases it shouldn’t—and certainly not in the comparison between beetle diversity and AAAS diversity.

By all means promote social and scientific diversity, but don’t do it by pointing to beetles, for crying out loud. I would suggest, for instance, pointing to women or minorities whose contributions were undervalued, or who for many years simply weren’t able to contribute to science because of prejudice and barriers to entry.


Update: Note that one comment below suggests that the insect shown in the photo isn’t even a beetle (in the order Coleoptera), but is a shield bug (in the order Hemiptera). Another reader has confirmed that no, this isn’t a beetle: the image is in fact already extant on the Internet and was identified as a jewel bug—a hemipteran. Double shame on you, AAAS!

45 thoughts on “The AAAS commits the naturalistic fallacy (and gets the insect wrong!)

  1. It also depends on what they mean by “diversity”.

    There is plenty of evidence in the literature on crowdsourcing that diversity is crucial for success there, for example.

    However, in that case it means diversity in the sense of “everybody is different and is allowed to be different” or “viewpoint diversity”, it doesn’t mean it in the sense of “visible differences between people”.

    Unfortunately people often conflate these usages, or haver between them, or just straightforwardly bait and switch between them.

    Of course the third usage might contribute to the first two, and is sensible in the “equality of opportunity” sense anyway, but it is quite distinct.

    1. Yes! However, what immediately struck me about the AAAS promotional material was the fallacy of equivocation that presented an equivalency between beetle species diversity and the dependency of success of a society and the diversity of individuals that comprise it. The analogy is not good. All beetles are not created equal. Moreover, there is a core implication in the AAAS material, equally false, that biological species diversification is in some absolute sense “good”: the Naturalistic Fallacy. Few, I think, would try to convince us that the success and diversity of deadly human diseases in some way argues for feminism or a multi-racial/multi-cultural egalitarian society.

  2. Well – it’s true, I got a lesson – from PCC(E).

    I admit though, I’ve been a sucker for this model – you see some interesting story in the scientific realm, and then stare into the sky and all of a sudden “ hey! That’s just like ______!” Where ____ in this case is diversity. But of course, I’m sure they mean it figuratively not literally.

    1. Yeah, but while it might have been *born* as a hemipteran, it *identifies* as a beetle!

      So to call it a hemipteran is hate speech! Get with the diversity program!

      1. No it means ‘half-wing’. The forewings (which fold over the hind wings when it is not flying) are hardened near the base but membranous at the outer end, giving the appearance of half wings.

        1. Makes sense!

          I was thinking of helicopter, where the wing isn’t helical, but the functionality is closer to helical…. but that’s another story…

  3. Their argument about beetles seems tautological to me.

    They define success of a group as “having lots of diversity” and then claim the reason why beetles are successful is because they have lots of diversity.

  4. Is it just me or is there a veiled tacit implication that human races constitute different species? Tho presumably not AAAS’s intent, I think it will be taken that way by some.

    1. Yes, you are right in my opinion. The AAAS annual meeting in February 2018 examined the “need for diversity in science” – by reading the program I see they mean making STEM more inclusive – make it less intimidating for the under-represented groups. By groups they mean sex, gender/sexual identity, race, disability etc. From their SITE:-

      “With sessions addressing issues from gender and racial imbalance to disability accommodation and combating discrimination against sexual orientation, the 15–19 February meeting provided a forum for diversity experts to share research findings on what works best to create an environment in science education and practice that is welcoming to all”

      I don’t see how the profusion of extant species of the order coleoptera is a useful analogy for human diversity. Lazy marketing department babble.

      1. Presumably they intended to imply that a virus might mutate into a virulent plague which killed off only one race, one gender, or people with a single particular trait or viewpoint (“Country music is my absolute favori—- *coughcoughboom!”)

      2. ” . . . by reading the program I see they mean making STEM more inclusive – make it less intimidating for the under-represented groups . . . .”

        ‘ . . . provided a forum for diversity experts to share research findings on what works best to create an environment in science education and practice that is welcoming to all.”

        Exactly what makes science (math, engineering, technology) more intimidating to certain groups? I found it intimidating once I started college, and decided that at least one solution for me was that I needed to study harder. And having an unforced, sincere enthusiasm for the subject helps. Not everyone so has. (Although I must say that I occasionally got ticked off at certain instructors and professors whose academic gifts did not include the power of clear explanation.

        I’ll put on my long To Do List exploring this particular issue on the AAAS website and pinning down what these diversity experts say. Whatever their recommendations, I trust that one is not appealing to students’ celebrity-sodden pop culture predilections and enthusiasms in order to persuade them that science is “relevant.” (It’s certainly “relevant” to making a reality of their precious, borderline obsessive-compulsive digital demigod devices.) No one had to appeal to mine to get me interested in science.

        1. @Filipp/Filippo Are you saying that if one is really, really interested in science then getting marginalised should not dissuade one from continuing in the STEM field? Or are you saying that marginalisation of certain groups doesn’t happen? Or what are you saying? Make a simple statement please.

          1. I don’t know that I can make it simpler to meet your requirements. No doubt, I am lacking.

            Why don’t you take a stab at it? Pray tell, why is it necessary to “make it (science) less intimidating for the under-represented groups . . . .”? Why is science, qua science, allegedly more intimidating for under-represented groups? I’m all for making science less intimidating for – and more clearly and easily understood by – everyone.

            I say, again, it helps to have a genuine interest in – and a sense of wonder about – science for its own sake, and to be willing of ones own volition to do (more than) a bit of intellectual heavy lifting (studying), as opposed to requiring someone to appeal to and make connections with ones pop culture predilections/enthusiasms in order to somehow thereby make science personally “relevant” to one.

          2. No. You do the heavy lifting & tell me if my questions are on the mark or way off. I just see Filippo babble on the page.

  5. Ha! I got into the same argument some time ago! I didn’t use the Coelocanth as the counter against diversity = success; I used lungfish* -there are only a handful of species alive today, but genera goes back to the Devonian- but Coeolocanth is even better. I bet the AAAS just hired a PR firm who got some SJW intern to write this up.

    *Horseshoe crabs, originated in the Ordovician, are another counter.

  6. In general, one should not use science as justifying morals. Most moral judgements are (nearly) absolute [Do not kill. Do not be a pedophile.]

    On the other hand, scientific explanations are tentative. Eugenics was not moral, and the scientific facts weren’t facts.

  7. If they had used a ladybug for the image our lesson could be that cannibalism is key to success. At least until our competators take advantage of our insatiable appetite for the flesh of our young to poison us by being infected with a deadly fungus from day one.

  8. In addition to the Naturalistic Fallacy, the AAAS has surely also committed the Fallacy of Anthropomorphism. I’m imagining my New Age friends reading this, going out, and literally “asking a beetle.”

    Then they intuit the reply.

    Then they tell me about the conversation and assure me “It’s science.”

    Thanks a lot, AAAS.

  9. Darwin did everything he could to warn us against the naturalistic fallacy in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man,” given that he lived in Victorian England with a very pious Christian wife. It didn’t help. By the end of the century, “evolutionary moralists” were popping up all over the place, all assuming that evolution had a “goal,” usually involving some form of “human flourishing.” It was all for “the good of the species.” Several versions are described in “A Review of the Systems of Ethics Founded on the Theory of Evolution,” by Charles Mallory Williams, published in 1893. It, as well as a critique of such systems by the anti-Darwinist Jacob Schurman entitled “The Ethical Import of Darwinism,” are available online at Google Books. No one paid attention to what Darwin actually said about the matter until Westermarck published his “The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas,” in 1906. He was quickly forgotten, though.

  10. Per Wikipedia, there are at least 24,000 species of Ichneumonidae. Perhaps the AAAS would care to reflect at length on their modus vivendi and diversity.

  11. “Diversity equals success”

    Human flourishing is bad for animal and plant diversity. Probably the best thing we could do to improve diversity of beetles is to kill all humans.

    “Just ask a beetle”

    Beetles don’t care about diversity. Likewise, very few humans really care about beetles.

  12. I can’t help but suggest this is a symptom of Fantasyland

    Also, I suspect there are only a few individuals who came up with this marketing strategy and the higher ups didn’t really care much whether it was a beetle or a bug or anything like that – as long as it looks and sounds nice….

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