A post of mine on human genetics gets condemned and labeled “harmful” by a university

June 18, 2021 • 1:45 pm

On May 6 I posted a piece on racism and human genetics, making the point that while some early human geneticists promoted eugenics (this doesn’t happen any more), there were other geneticists who explicitly opposed it. I wrote it to counter an article by Lea Davis in Scientific American (of course), who claimed that white supremacy is baked into the structure of human genetics and that the field still carries the burden of white supremacy. Anyone actually studying human genetics in a university knows that Davis’s accusations are not true.

Here’s a short excerpt from my article that gives the tone of my piece, which is critical but not, I think, uncivil:

Beyond that, we have the multiple Kendi-an accusatons that all human geneticists are complicit in racism and white supremacy. A few samples [from Davis’s piece]:

How do we teach and talk about this incredibly problematic history? Despite the many scholarly texts available, there is rarely an open and frank acknowledgement that the very foundations of our field were rooted in the false and dangerous beliefs of biological race and human racial hierarchies. Today, there is an effort to distance modern genetics from the harms of eugenics. This shameful aspect of our shared history is often separated from the primary curriculum for human genetics trainees, relegated to classes in “ELSI” (ethical, legal and social issues), which are usually electives—or, worse, just one day of training. In large part, we are failing to disclose this startling racist legacy to young scientists entering the field; a sad irony for a discipline devoted to human inheritance. Our failure to acknowledge the racist origins of modern genetics also has repercussions in our (in)ability to attract and retain members of underrepresented communities in genetics and other STEM training programs. Thus, as time marches on, the knowledge of our harmful racist history is fading while the culture of whiteness continues to dominate.

No, there is an effort to teach people about the history of our field. But that should not include the accusation that STEM is racist, for every school I know of is trying to “diversify” STEM as hard as we can. The issue is a “pipeline problem”: few minority candidates have reached the Ph.D. stage. That itself reflects older racism, but not racism imbuing human genetics, for scientists are pretty much anti-racists.

Further, the “very foundations of our field were not rooted in racism”. Yes, some famous geneticists believed that, but by no means all. Was the monk Gregor Mendel a racist? Were the re-discoverers of Mendelism, Hugo DeVries, Carl Correns and Erich von Tschermak, determined to imbue the field with racism? Not that I know of. How about the popularizers of modern genetics: people like T. H. Morgan, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Alfred Sturtevant, Calvin Bridges, Sewall Wright, and J. B. S. Haldane? Nope. You can mention Ronald Fisher in support of racism, but his eugenics was based on poverty, not race, and at any rate never got purchase. No, our field is not founded on racism.

And I gave several articles by famous geneticists of the 20th century who opposed eugenics.

The article certainly provides an opportunity to debate Davis’s claims versus my own, but when someone tried to do that, a ruckus ensued. Here’s a comment that a reader made on my post this morning on “social constructs” (click on the screenshot to go to the comment):

I have been officially condemned! Well, I’m not going to defend myself here; you can read my piece for yourself and judge for yourself. I further deny that it could cause “harm” to anyone who didn’t already have psychological issues, and I assert that a robust debate on these issues is exactly what this benighted university (I don’t know which one) needs but is trying to prevent.

Shame on that department, and shame on that university! For their actions are inimical to the very purpose of the university: to say your piece, adduce what facts you have, and let students hash out the issues in class or even in their own brains.

39 thoughts on “A post of mine on human genetics gets condemned and labeled “harmful” by a university

  1. ARRRRGH! “Political correctness” running rampant! Sorry that happened to you…it’s happened to me, too. Nothing like having an “ever-so-correct-holier-than-thou” hammer to use while flailing about in opinion forums!

    1. I stumbled across a novel satirizing ‘Political Correctness’ on the Internet Archive recently. Entitled ‘Smoke Jumpers’ the main plotline of this 1992 novel by Paul Freeman involves the idea that a politician reaches the White House convinced that smokers are fit only to be beaten, degraded and slaughtered and convinces the wider population this is a good idea.

      One of the accompanying concepts in the novel is ‘Total Sensitivity’ and many of the satiric ideas immediately put me in mind of the Woke. The one that stuck in my mind was renaming a Maternity Ward to a ‘Infant Person Life Entry Zone’, because the word ‘Ward’ means ‘Ward of the State’ and thus construes dependency.

  2. Please hold the line. You have the knowledge, background and academic credentials to speak to those that are basing their judgements on suppositions and prejudice that emulates Orwell’s 1984. Thank you.

    1. Not Cool-aid, but something more poisonous: they drank ‘DEI committee’.
      (I’d compare Cool-aid to the cytotoxic venom of a puff adder, and DEI committee to the neurotoxic venom of a black mamba).

  3. I hope that “common” sense prevails and that Jerry doesn’t suffer any political bollocking or hassle.
    Is cancellation a social construct, do we think?
    Also, Jerry, you seem to have missed that Eric Yong won the Pullitzer prize for science writing, based mainly on his brilliant articles in the Atlantic.

  4. I’m surprised this hasn’t occurred sooner. With the woke going for Dawkins, Darwin, Pinker, Sam Harris, Bari Weiss, McWhorter, etc…it was bound to happen that they’d come for Ceiling Cat.

    Back when I was in graduate school, the writing was on the wall, but Ceiling Cat was not yet condemned.

    What the Gen Z and Millennial woke use is group, mob power. I think our only hope is fostering more collaborations between the Enlightenment liberal institutions.

    1. PCC (E) knew it was coming. He relishes a good fight and performs excellently.

      Funny how MOST of the divide seems generational* – a fact that portends badly for the future.

      *I’m “Gen X”, (50) btw, but nobody has heard about it existing I think. 🙁
      We’re not old enough to forget stuff but not young enough to know everything. 🙂

  5. The school in question, its ideology oversight apparachiks and administrators, and the pathetic collaborators among the faculty involved are beneath contempt. Nothing lasts forever, including this current spasm of quasi-Stalinist repression. When the pendulum starts swinging the other way, how stupid these people are going to start looking to everyone else.

    At this point, when things seem headed inexorably down the tube, it’s easy to feel that it’ll only get worse, forever. But I don’t think that’s going to happen. Our cultural history seems to be stitched together as a series of phases, and my guess is that the seeds of the next counterphase to the current craziness have already been sown. Even the Hundred Years War eventually came to an end, eh?!

    1. When the pendulum swings the other way (enough) “these people” will be hurriedly sanitising their blogs and tweets, rewriting history, and championing the ‘new paradigm’ for discourse.

      1. Of course—’twas ever thus. The really important thing though is that they’ll have lost their ability to dictate what does and does not count as legitimate academic discourse, and with it the power to intimidate their peers—many of whom will remember, even with all the post-hoc sanitising that will, as you say, inevitably go on.

        I just hope the change comes in my lifetime…

        1. I don’t know how old you are and what your life expectancy is, but I take a wild guess: it will take 10 to 20 years, so probably in your life time. In fact, if you look, you can find some seeds of push-back here and there.
          And I do not mean from the ‘Alt’ right, but more from the left side of the central ‘space’ bar. Our host is of course an early, reliable and steady force in that space, so he doesn’t count as an early sign either. But -I’m sure- instrumental in the pendulum.

          1. I’m fervently hoping you’re right, Nicholaas.

            I’m old enough that 20 years might be a stretch (though my family is exceptionally long-lived), but 10 is probably not too much to hope for. And yes, my guess is that it will be the left-liberal, Enlightment-inspired sector of the political spectrum—much like our host and many of us as well—who tip the scales in a genuinely progressive direction.

    1. Yes. Any geneticist who has not been accused of racism is questionable in my book. People are different and genetics are partly the cause. That is both indisputable and upsetting to a certain type of person.

    1. Yes. The word “performative” is becoming an essential descriptor for both the left and right wings flanking authoritarianism’s core.

  6. It appears from linked in that up until 5-6 years ago, lea davis was at the u chicago. Did you interact with her there? When did she have her awakening i wonder? I noticed from pubmed that she is co-author on an incredible number of papers the last few years. It was all i could do over my research years to write, edit, review, and push through (often with 1-3 coauthors) 4 or 5 papers a year while continuing to do the research that would form the basis of the next 4-5. It appears that the research world has really changed. How does her belief, and it is a belief not a science-derived fact or theory, impact the content of her incredibly prolific output?

    1. When you write about your beliefs, you can write and write and write, without scientific evidence or serious research. The latter takes effort and time, the former does not.

  7. Astonishing that this nonsense is invading the hard sciences.

    ” But this potential can only be reached if we are willing to reckon with our role, collectively and individually, past and present, in upholding white supremacy and structural violence in science and academia. As educator and author Catrice M. Jackson has observed, ‘If you don’t have an antiracism plan, you plan to be racist’ ”

    So it goes something like “If you don’t confess you are a racist and white supremacist, then you certainly are a racist and white supremacist”

    1. I have done a little research about Catrice M. Jackson. I have not found anything about her education or studies, but only that she is an entrepeneur with an company, calling herself a Speaker, Educator, Author, Activist. She has written a number of books:
      – Antagonist, Advocates and Allies: The Wake Up Call Guide for White Women Who Want to Become Allies with Black Women
      – The Becky Code: How To Deal With White Woman Violence While Amplifying Your Joy
      – White Spaces Missing Faces: Why Women of Color Don’t Trust White Women
      – Weapons of Whiteness: Exposing The Master’s Tools Behind The Mask of Anti-Blackness
      – Black Couch Conversations: Let’s Talk About Black Love

      Is it just me, or is this not the same (verbal) stew over and over again, touted as a novel cuisine in different packaging?

      1. Reminiscent of a stroll through the aisles of a Christian book store, surrounded by the collected redundancies of Warren, Osteen, Turek, McDowell, etc.

  8. This was, as I wrote, a comical side of the present academic mood. A faculty DEI committee member put it this way in a department Email excommunicating the essay by Jerry that I had recommended : “I have already conveyed, in my initial response to Jonathan’s email, that I consider the sentiments expressed in the blog that Jonathan posted to be counter to our department’s stated mission, which is to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive (full statement here). …The purpose of my email today is to acknowledge the harm that is done to members of our community by statements like these. ”
    The committee member is a well-meaning fellow who was, I suspect, under pressure from other parts of the DEI establishment—mention has been made of a Dean’s office. We are already well aware that acknowledging “harm” is a popular ritual observance in the Church of DEI, corresponding perhaps to the earlier Confiteor in the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass.

    A striking example is the case of a Nashville choral composer named Daniel Elder. Mr. Elder, a liberal soul, was nonetheless dismayed by the burning of a Nashville courthouse in the course of a BLM demonstration, and he posted briefly that this was not a great idea. After the ensuing Twitter mob scene, his music publisher GIA demanded that he issue the following Mea Culpa: “I deeply apologize for the anger, offense, and harm that this post caused. While this offense was not intended, it is what was created. For this I am truly sorry.” Mr. Elder demurred to perform this Sacrament of Penance as directed. The publisher then announced that his views “do not reflect the values of GIA” and dropped him from their publication list.
    See: https://reason.com/2021/06/15/daniel-elder-cancel-culture-choral-composer-antifa-blm-gia/?fbclid=IwAR12Lr17RhHJ1Daqh-QbpL809Q60gsPIya1tpxYInM_db1iZ6_yV2kBe-OI .

    1. From reading the article, it seems that he is (accused of) being incendiary for opposing incendiaries.

  9. When I see the words “problematic”… or “colonialist”… it is time for me to move on. I’m too old for nonsense.

    “Our failure to acknowledge the racist origins of modern genetics also has repercussions in our (in)ability to attract and retain members of underrepresented communities…”

    Presumably this is a *provable* assertion? backed up by serious, empirical scholarship? Not just pulled out of some virtue signaler’s … earhole.

    Interestingly: although (apparently) while too many people don’t know about the racist pre-history of some geneticists a century ago, that fact is central to minorities being under-represented. See how that doesn’t jive? You can’t have both.

    I’m so terribly sick of woke. Nevertheless…. I’m grateful you do the dirty chores – digging through the intellectual filth to present it to us – I actually appreciate that (it’d drive me insane) though. So thank you PCC (E). It is interesting how many lefties (many folks here, myself included) are sick of woke also. I guess our lifelong leftist, humanist, rationalist credentials can’t hold up when some idiot shouts “RACIST!!” to anybody they disagree with.


  10. I read that post and I did not find it even remotely racist. The smear of “racism” is now being applied to any idea which is threatening to the “woke.” I took a sociology class for a medical/health curriculum in which I had to write an opinion explaining how “race was a construct.” I just started laughing to myself knowing that the medical community already has plenty of statistics showing that diabetes is more common among hispanics, that sickle cell is more common among blacks, and colon cancer more prevalent in whites, not to mention that trans-women do not get cervical cancer. I did not take the bait and instead I wrote a very aggressive offense of this whole situation, and I still managed to get an A. However, we are collectively in danger of becoming an empire in detritus like the one in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem.” It’s nice to find blogs and news outlets which are willing to defy the status quo for the sake of truth and the greater good.

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