Three evolution societies condemn the shootings in Atlanta; a few of us react

April 9, 2021 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Three of us wrote a letter in response to, and disagreement with, a statement issued by three evolution societies concerning the mass shooting on March 16 by Robert Aaron Long, who shot to death eight people, six of them Asian, at three Atlanta area massage parlors. On March 19, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society of Systematic Biologists issued a statement condemning the killings.

This is the statement by the societies:

Dear SSE Colleagues,

The Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists stand in solidarity with the many Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander communities and vehemently condemn these acts of domestic terror. To our Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander members: we support and respect you. We will continue the work of transforming our Societies into safe and inclusive places for you, and for all members of our communities.

The murders of Soon Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels in the Atlanta area are symptoms of violent anti-Asian racism, which has only increased since the onset of the pandemic in the United States last year. These events are widespread. Across the country, Asian elders are being attacked in the streets with increasing frequency. Asian and Asian-American communities have been living with heightened anxiety and fear every day. Asian women in particular have been the targets of these violent and racist attacks. We are outraged seeing perpetrators of these hate crimes once again excused at the expense of their victims, enabling continuous xenophobic and racist violence in the U.S.

We call on our largely white membership to capitalize on their privilege to support their colleagues. We must deny comfort and complacency in the midst of oppression by engaging in self-reflection and active anti-racism. Be vocal and openly expose and reject racism, prejudice, and exclusion in all forms both inside and outside academic spaces. Please reach out to those you mentor and the students in your classes. Tell them you condemn these acts and share resources where they can get support. Work with your trainees to make your shared spaces safe and welcoming for people of Asian descent. Learn the history of U.S. anti-Asian policy, military occupation, and colonialism at the root of these issues. There are endless resources, but here is one place to start: https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/.

This violence is not external to our community and our scholarship. Some members of our community have been directly harmed, while others, also within our community, have caused some of this harm. There are numerous ways to practice effective allyship, and we include several useful resources below. If you want to learn more, you may be interested in following these Twitter accounts: @stopaapihate, @aapiwomenlead. Professional societies have a substantial role in making shared spaces welcoming and safe for all.

If you have been affected by violence and/or racist actions, please feel free to share your concerns and suggestions with our leadership. We need your input, feedback, and criticism to better support all of our scientists, especially those who have been actively excluded for so long. You can reach the society committees focusing on this work at these email addresses: diversity@evolutionsociety.org, asndiversity@gmail.com, diversitydirector@systematicbiologists.org

Some Resources:
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates National Center
Anti-Asian Violence Resources
Free Bystander Intervention Training
How to Be an Active Bystander When You See Casual Racism
Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab
Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List
Anti-Asian racism and COVID-19
Anti-Racism Resources for the AAPI Community
Stop AAPI Hate website for reporting hate incidents

Tri-society Diversity Committees
SSB DEI Committee and Standing Against Racism Statement
ASN Diversity Committee and Statement on Anti-Black Racism
SSE Diversity Committee and Statement Against Racial Injustice

In response to this, Luana Maroja of Williams College, Jerry, and I sent the following letter to the SSE’s council on March 23. While writing the letter, another mass killing occurred in Colorado. We told the Council that we thought the statement above ought not to have been made. Our letter expresses our reasoning succinctly, so I need not restate its argument.

Dear SSE Council members:

We feel that the Society is misguided in issuing a statement about the killings that recently occurred in Atlanta. Furthermore, the expressed reason for the statement—to oppose anti-Asian violence—is premature, as there have been no findings by investigating authorities about what the motivation of the self-confessed killer is. Indeed, the evidence so far made public suggests that the crime was not motivated by racial hatred.

The officers of the Society are not like a newspaper editorial board, for whom expressing opinions on matters of the day is expected and warranted. Nor should the Society engage in consultations with, or polling of, its members to determine their views on such matters, and then express those views—even were it the case that the membership was unanimous in holding some opinion.

Our own reaction to the killings in Atlanta—and now, another episode in Colorado—is that gun violence, including the ease with which deadly weapons may be obtained, is a critical problem in American society. Though we feel strongly on this issue, we have absolutely no desire for the Society to express an opinion on the matter. It is wrong for the Society, as a Society, to have an opinion about any such social and political issues. Individual members may have opinions, and they should express them, but they should be expressed in the appropriate venues—political parties, elections, newspapers, protests, etc.—not on behalf of the Society.

It is not that the killings in Atlanta (or in Colorado) are not to be condemned in the strongest terms; nor that the issues they raise are unworthy of deep concern; nor that gun violence is the more fundamental issue; nor that there might be better ways to oppose racism (or gun violence). All of these things are worthy of public statement and debate; but the Society is decidedly not the forum for expressing such concerns. The purpose of our Society was—and should continue to be—fostering the study of evolutionary biology, not promoting political change.

The Society should issue a statement saying that the previous statement reflects the opinions of those who wrote it, and that it is not the policy of the Society to adopt positions on such matters.

Kind regards,

Gregory C. Mayer
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Luana S. Maroja
Department of Biology
Williams College

Jerry A. Coyne
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago

I sent a similar letter to the Executive Council of the ASN; I am also a member of that society.

No response has been received.

As Jerry remarked concerning the letter written by a number of past presidents and vice presidents of the SSE concerning the former Fisher Prize, this is a kerfluffle that will interest relatively few. (The near simultaneity of the Fisher letter and the one above is coincidental. The SSE changed the Prize’s name last year, and that response, I suppose, must have been long developing; while the letter above was in response to something published in the same week.)

26 thoughts on “Three evolution societies condemn the shootings in Atlanta; a few of us react

  1. That’s a good letter. It should be clear and accepted that, unless specifically organized for that purpose, societies like this shouldn’t be political. Unfortunately, that concept seems to be going the way of the Dodo.

    1. Indeed. There are some people who aim to seize control of an institution so that they may use it as a platform to promote political change.

  2. If the evolution folks want to enter politics why not pick a much easier subject to identify, such as voter suppression. Attempting to call the shootings racial when there is yet no evidence for it is not a good start.

    1. Indeed, and it seems that the organizations that are first to rush to the front of virtue-signaling are those that are the least racist or sexist. As they say in journalism, “dog bites man” is not news; “man bites dog” is news. In the same way, leaving aside for the moment the strongest argument that Greg, Jerry, and Luana make for staying out of politics, non-racist organizations making anti-racist statements is not news. Now, if the KKK made such a statement, that would be news!

  3. Prominent on the SSE front page is the “ABOUT SSE” statement of the society objectives. Still no mention of antiracism as an objective of the Society. Still just a lot of boring stuff about evolution. The SSE Diversity Committee really needs to get on that. /s

  4. The only issue the Societies should be addressing is the issue of evolution. If they want to get into the political muck, at least make it about evolution, as with the current happenings in Arkansas. Anything else is virtue signalling and, more importantly and appallingly, a declaration that marginalizes any of their members (and even evolutionary scientists outside of their membership) who disagree with their statement. And it goes even further, in telling their membership that they must support a particular narrative constructed for political purposes (that this was a shooting prompted by racial hatred), which means that the Societies are declaring their positions on a particular end of the political spectrum and their willingness to bend or even ignore reality to serve that political position.

    The combination of politics that have no connection to their goals and the ignoring of facts for the purpose of making this statement are particularly horrendous coming from groups that are supposed to support science. Science is a facts-based business. Science deals with reality. Science can be used for political purposes, but its practice is not itself supposed to be driven by political motivations. We cannot allow the practice of science to be consumed by political goals, lest it result in ignoring facts and creating others for those goals, as has been done here.

  5. An admirable letter but I fear you are wasting your time. There are always people in any organisation keen to extend its remit. Pre retirement I was a member of a trade union here in the UK. Like all trade unions it existed to negotiate with our employer on pay and conditions. But it also continually issued statements condemning any bad things that happened anywhere in the world. Harmless enough perhaps, but inevitably such statements start getting issued for more nuanced issues and a pointless argument ensues amongst the members about subjects that are utterly remote from the purpose of the union. Twas ever thus.

    1. Your experience is similar to mine. Pre-retirement I was and now post-retirement I still am a member of a professional association. From time to time over a period spanning decades that association was fond of issuing toothless political pronouncements that amounted to virtue-signaling before that term was widely used. Now that that association seems to be fully taken over by the Woke, these statements are regularly issued. Greg nicely expressed my feeling about how my association is erring when he wrote: “It is wrong for the Society [or my association, SPB], as a Society, to have an opinion about any such social and political issues. Individual members may have opinions, and they should express them, but they should be expressed in the appropriate venues—political parties, elections, newspapers, protests, etc.—not on behalf of the Society.”

    2. I am also not sure the letter will do much.

      The best way to prevent such events in the future is probably to be more engaged in the society’s election process. When you know an election is coming up, figure out how to submit a question (about social activism) to the candidates. Listen to their responses. And, if you’re like me, stop throwing society ballots in the trash, instead actually read the statements by the candidates and vote when the time comes. 🙂

      There’s also the ‘if you don’t like the way it’s run, run for office’ option. But for most of us, I expect that cure is considered worse than this particular disease…

      1. I was President of the SSE. And we’re not allowed to submit questions; we can only vote on candidates that the Society presents to us. (The council decides who gets to run.) I am positive the letter won’t do much save alert the leadership that not all the members are happy with their wokeness.

        Frankly, I know what I got into and I don’t appreciate people telling me that I won’t accomplish much or am wasting my time.

        1. Well that stinks that you aren’t provided any sort of forum to ask the candidates questions.
          Maybe a change in procedures/bylaws is another thing to put on the menu…

  6. I don’t think this kerfluffle will interest relatively few, at least I hope not. This is important and I’m very glad you are doing this. Not everything has to be political all the time. The more science is contaminated by the woke, the worse!! It is very serious. Thank you for writing this letter.

  7. I’m sure you will be labeled as anti-Asian racists for the letter. I’d rather societies like this stick to the reasons for which they exist, but I guess everyone feels like they have to take a stand on everything these days. There is no space left free from politics anymore. Sometimes though, I just want science, not “Political”science.

    I hope you don’t get a barrage of hate mail.

    1. No, I suspect I won’t get hate mail, and remember, Greg wrote the letter, and it was his idea. But this kind of response gets little pushback. I’m not anti-Asian; I’m justagainst scientific societies (and universities) taking political stands.

  8. A concise and well-written response to the SSE’s statement.

    As Carbon Copy noted at #5 above, were the Society to wade in on the political moves to teach creationism in Arkansas that would at least be somewhat understandable. But getting involved in an incident with no connection to evolution or the Society at all is totally unwarranted – especially given that its statement presumptuously assumes that the killer’s motive was a clear cut case of anti-Asian racism even though no such thing has yet been established in a court of law.

    1. Or, alternatively, Asian massage parlors could have been (as I believe he said) a convenient place to get sex. The fact is that since we don’t know whether bigotry towards Asians was involved in this, it’s best not to asset, as the SSE and so many people do, that it was involved. This is wish thinking, I believe: people (perhaps people like you) WANT it to be racially motivated. Why? Because it’s the narrative of the times.

      Also, please consider whether some males might consider the Asian phenotype more attractive, and that does not amount to racism at all, no more than does men who find women of any ethnicity (or hair color or body type) attractive.

      I’m sorry, but I’m not willing to be as certain as you are that the guy’s murders were motivated by racial animus.

    2. From the link:

      “WANG YUEN: ‘That’s right. So the kind of easy access and inexpensive access and continual access through those camp towns contributes to the idea that Asian women’s bodies are just for white male pleasure.'”

      From this, is one required to inescapably take it that only white males hold Asian women in this regard? Non-white males have no such interest in Asian females? She restricted her statement to white males, which for sure is quite true enough, but she avoided addressing non-white males. I perceive, however subjectively, that doing so would not conform to her preferred narrative.

  9. It is much in fashion now for English Departments, Medical Faculties, Evolution societies, bird-watching associations, and social clubs to issue pronunciamentos on political matters. The injection of politics (always, of course, from a uniform view) into every sphere of life was a defining feature of the social order in the late-lamented USSR and in its vassal Peoples Democracies. In those territories, the politicalization of everything was directed from above, by the apparatus of the Party-state and its police organs. It is remarkable that today we see this stance springing up spontaneously in the US, with no top-down direction, among the last generation of graduates of higher education. Who knew—that 30 years after East Germany’s collapse, many in the West would actually pine for a revival of the East German life experience?

  10. I work for a very large and prestigious American corporation.

    The day after the Atlanta shooting, the company’s internal homepage had several articles and condemnations and exhortations about anti-Asian violence. Many e mails from highest executive echelons sent as well as numerous conference calls open to all employees. This continues.

    When the Colorado shootings happened….nothing.

    Why the difference? I really think it’s due to Atlanta being perpetrated by a white male. Colorado seemed to repeat that, as was immediately reported up and down including progressives on my facebook page, and then it was found that the man was Muslim. And the event lost altitude.

    It’s gotten to the point that what matters is not so much the victims as the identity of the perpetrator. Put differently, for a crime to matter it must be intersectional: white male on any group/class considered victim.

    1. The recent attack on the Capitol police officers has also been quickly forgotten after it was revealed that the perpetrator was black. Given that he was an enthusiastic follower of Louis Farrakhan, the odds of his crime being motivated by racial hatred (and perhaps hatred for the police?) are also considerably greater than in the Atlanta shooting.

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