Reader Rodney called my attention to a new short piece in The Atlantic by Luana Maroja, an associate professor of biology at Williams College who has written in these pages about the suppression of free speech at her institution.
Williams College, of course, is undergoing the same type of wokely degeneration as did The Evergreen State College, whose downfall I’ve discussed in many posts. As Williams’s administration is pusillanimous, eager to truckle to the mob of demanding students no matter what they request, I see the school as doomed to fall from its high academic ranking. Maroja’s piece is largely about how the censoriousness of Williams students is eroding their science education.
Click on the screenshot to read the piece.
One difference between Maroja’s class and, say, Bret Weinstein’s biology classes at Evergreen State, is that Weinstein’s biology students didn’t seem to reject what he was teaching them about evolution and genetics; nearly all the pushback at his school came—as usual—from professors and students in the humanities. At Williams, however, Maroja describes considerable student resistance to her teaching about evolutionary genetics. The objection to teaching kin selection, which I’ve put in bold below, is priceless:
The trouble began when we discussed the notion of heritability as it applies to human intelligence. (Heritability is the degree to which offspring genetically resemble their parents; the concept can apply not only to physical traits, but also to behavioral ones.) In a classroom discussion, I noted that researchers have measured a large average difference in IQ between the inhabitants of the United States and those of my home country, Brazil. I challenged the supposed intelligence differential between Americans and Brazilians. I asked students to think about the limitations of the data, which do not control for environmental differences, and explained that the raw numbers say nothing about whether observed differences are indeed “inborn”—that is, genetic.
In class, though, some students argued instead that it is impossible to measure IQ in the first place, that IQ tests were invented to ostracize minority groups, or that IQ is not heritable at all. None of these arguments is true. In fact, IQ can certainly be measured, and it has some predictive value. While the score may not reflect satisfaction in life, it does correlate with academic success. And while IQ is very highly influenced by environmental differences, it also has a substantial heritable component; about 50 percent of the variation in measured intelligence among individuals in a population is based on variation in their genes. Even so, some students, without any evidence, started to deny the existence of heritability as a biological phenomenon.
Similar biological denialism exists about nearly any observed difference between human groups, including those between males and females. Unfortunately, students push back against these phenomena not by using scientific arguments, but by employing an a priori moral commitment to equality, anti-racism, and anti-sexism. They resort to denialism to protect themselves from having to confront a worldview they reject—that certain differences between groups may be based partly on biology. This denialism manifests itself at times in classroom discussions and in emails in which students explain at length why I should not be teaching the topic.
To my surprise, some students even objected to other well-established biological concepts, such as “kin selection,” the idea that, when individuals take actions for the benefit of their offspring and siblings, they are indirectly perpetuating their own genes. Startled students, falling into what we call the “naturalistic fallacy”—the notion that what occurs in nature is good—thought I was actually endorsing Trump’s hiring of his family! Things have gone so far that, in my classes, I now feel compelled to issue a caveat: Just because a trait has evolved by natural selection does not mean that it is also morally desirable.
Maroja’s main point is that we shouldn’t hide the truth about biology from students, for our determination to treat different genders and ethnic groups equally, and offer them equal opportunities, should be independent of biology. That’s a viewpoint I’ve long endorsed. But, I suspect, Maroja will be demonized at Williams because of this article—and especially from her suggestion that some of the dearth of American women in STEM fields may derive not from misogyny or bias, but from differential preferences of the sexes for areas of study (see some data to that effect here).
But even if one accepts that genetic differences between groups are irrelevant for how we treat people personally and legally, the mere suggestion that such differences exist is anathema to many, for such differences are seen a “biological determinism,” tantamount to racism and sexism. Nevertheless, some differences are of biological and general interest. Do sexes differ in preferences or sexual predilections? (That gives us some data on our evolutionary heritage.) Are there physiological differences among groups that might explain their differential success in athletics?
Some differences between groups, of course, aren’t worth studying because either their results are uninteresting or because they’re designed to feed into stereotypes. My advisor Richard Lewontin used to use, as an example, the hypothesis that Jews have genes for longer noses than other groups. There may well be such genes, as there are genes for morphological differences between other groups, but who would care?
As we see from Maroja’s discussion of IQ differences between Brazilians and Americans, she is no Charles Murray, but will the students of Williams be able to distinguish among different degrees of genetic determinism, or to understand that genetic differences among individuals of a group say nothing about the source of behavioral differences among groups? She ends with a John Stuart Mill-ian argument:
The argument favoring a certain amount of self-censorship is that it is necessary to protect minority students from feeling unsafe when they hear what they see as “hate speech.” However, by not talking about science that some find unsettling, we deny students opportunities for learning and for intellectual empowerment. How well can they argue their positions effectively unless they are seeing the world as it really is?