Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

June 21, 2021 • 1:30 pm

On May 21, Princeton anthropologist Agustín Fuentes published a takedown of Darwin in a Science op-ed on the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Asserting that Darwin was a racist, a white supremacist, and a man whose ideas justified “colonialism” as well as “genocide,” Fuentes’s piece was over the top: a typical and execrable specimen of holding someone living decades ago responsible for adhering to the moral norms of his time. (Actually, Darwin, an abolitionist, was a far sight better than many of his contemporaries.) In other words, according to Fuentes, Darwin should have known better. But I bet you ten to one that Fuentes, had he been Darwin’s contemporary, would have been even more of a moral reprobate than Charles himself.

I criticized Fuentes’s piece here (and Robert Wright did elsewhere), though Jonathan Marks, a well known anthropological firebrand, sprang to Fuentes’s defense. Several weeks ago, a bunch of us evolutionary biologists got together and wrote a joint letter to Science criticizing Fuentes’s piece.  The journal sat on it, said it wouldn’t appear in print, but have at last put it online. You can see the link to our letter below, but I’ve posted the whole thing, along with our names, addresses, and the references we use.

Click on the screenshot to see our letter (and Marks’s):

What we wrote:

RE: “The Descent of Man”, 150 years on

“The Descent of Man” 150 years on

In this 150th anniversary year of Darwin’s “The Descent of Man” (1), Science published one article celebrating the progress in human evolutionary science built on Darwin’s foundations (2), along with a second, Editorial article, three quarters of which instead pilloried Darwin for his “racist and sexist view of humanity” (3). Fuentes argues that students should be “taught Darwin as [a] man with injurious and unfounded prejudices that warped his view of data and experience”. We fear that Fuentes’ vituperative exposition will encourage a spectrum of anti-evolution voices and damage prospects for an expanded, more gender and ethnically diverse new generation of evolutionary scientists.

What Darwin wrote was of course shaped by Victorian realities and perspectives on sex and racial differences, some still extant today, but this is not a new revelation [4]. Rather than calmly noting these influences, Fuentes repeatedly puts Darwin in the dock for the Victorian sexist and racist norms within which he presented his explosive thesis that humanity evolved. Fuentes incorrectly suggests that Darwin justified genocide. Darwin was frequently and notably more modern in his thinking than most Victorians. In The Descent he demolished the slavery-justifying view of different races as separate species, so inspiring the anti-racist perspectives of later anthropologists like Boaz (5). On sexism, Darwin suggested that education of “reason and imagination” would erase mental sex differences (1, p. 329). His theory of sexual selection gave female animals a central role in mate choice and evolution (1).

Students taught about the historical context for Darwin’s writing should appreciate how revolutionary Darwin’s ideas were, challenging many (but not all) prevailing Victorian perspectives (6). We lament the failure to celebrate the vast impact of those ideas at the expense of the distorting treatment Fuentes offers.

Andrew Whiten1, Walter Bodmer2, Brian Charlesworth3, Deborah Charlesworth3, Jerry Coyne4, Frans de Waal5, Sergey Gavrilets6, Debra Lieberman7, Ruth Mace8, Andrea Bamberg Migliano9, Boguslaw Pawlowski10 and Peter Richerson1

1School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, KY16 9PE, UK. 2Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, Oxford OX3 9DS, UK. 3School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH9 3FL, UK, 4Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, 1101 E. 57th St., Chicago, IL60637, USA. 5Psychology Department (PAIS Bldg), Suite 270, 36 Eagle Row, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA. 6Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Univ of Tennessee Knoxville, TN 37922, USA. 7Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33146, USA. 8(Editor in Chief, Evolutionary Human Science) Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK. 9Department of Anthropology, University of Zurich, 190 Winterthurerstrasse, Zurich 8057, Switzerland. 10(President, European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association) Department of Human Biology, University of Wroclaw, ul. S. Przybyszewskiego 63, 51-148 Wrocław, Poland. 11Department of Environmental Science and Policy, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
Corresponding author. Email: a.whiten@st-andrews.ac.uk

REFERENCES
1. C. Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. With an introduction by J. T. Bonner and R. M. May. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1871/1981).
2. P. J. Richerson, S. Gavrilets, F. B. M. de Waal. Modern theories of human evolution foreshadowed by Darwin’s the Descent of Man. Science 372, 806.
3. A. Fuentes. “The Descent of Man” 150 years on. Science 372, 769.
4. A. J. Desmond, J. R. Moore. Darwin. (Penguin, London, 1992).
5. P. J. Richerson, R. Hames. Busting myths about evolutionary anthropology. Anthropology News, July 18 (2017) doi: 10.1111/AN.510
6. H. E. Gruber. Darwin on Man. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1974).

We could have said a lot more, but there is a strict word limit for Science letters.

21 thoughts on “Our letter to Science about Agustín Fuentes’s Darwin-bashing

  1. Typical wokified behavior: they refused to print it. Too much of an embarrassment to have a hard-copy record of a group of distinguished evolutionists eviscerating Fuente’s cheap (and stupid) shot at Darwin, eh? So put it online and hope that people forget about it. Science has come to belie its name, just as Scientific American and New Scientist have (though the latter has been a fluff outlet going back quite far). We’ve noted at times that media with New York in their titles have become ideological megaphones for faux progressive screeds; maybe we’re observing the same effect with venues containing science, or some morphological variant, as part of their names? In any case, props to you folks for calling out ideology-driven defamation posing as sober reassessment (one caveat: Franz Boas’ surname is misspelled). But I think it’s clear that Science is on a one-way trip down the tube.

  2. The reason they wouldn’t print the letter, except late and “below the fold”, is probably because they want to minimize embarrassment. They are also protecting a piece that must have garnered a lot of “clicks”. Where’s the integrity? Such a shame on them!

    1. Where’s the integrity?

      It’s a column on the last page of the cheque book? Where the auditors can see it.

  3. Push back on Wokeism must begin. Thank you!

    My contribution:

    WOKE (re-imagined version of “God” by John Lennon)

    1. HAHAHA! Excellent. By wild co-incidence I was listening to the Imagine album when I clicked this…
      Spooky. I thought my computer or I were losing our minds!
      Well done.
      D.A.
      NYC

      1. By wild co-incidence I was listening to the Imagine album when I clicked this…

        Had you been listening to the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, David, you might’ve snagged your own segment on CNN (per our host’s previous post). 🙂

    2. Very nice, though I don’t think John would’ve had an issue with postmodernism — as an artistic (including literary) movement. After all, A Spaniard in the Works exhibits postmodern elements.

      It’s when postmodernism jumped the shark to the social sciences that problems set in.

      1. And Yoko’s art — including in particular the piece John was checking out when they met — undoubtedly qualifies as “postmodern.”

  4. We know already that the woke are completely opposed to debate, or any public opposition or dissent at all. Still, I and so many others are grateful that you and other brave and prestigious academics are willing to put yourselves out there and oppose this garbage. We can only hope that eventually enough opposition will force its way through all these institutions captured by these damaging ideas and people, and become as visible as possible.

  5. I imagine a scene in a movie, the editors saying – perhaps Maggie Smith is the actress here :

    “But – but – you’re not supposed to SAY such things!”

  6. The short, cogent letter is masterful. Three cheers! Science’s refusal to print it is, as others point out, both contemptible and typical of the mindset which printed (and probably invited) Fuentes’ tendentious op-ed.

    1. The refusal to print reminds me of a quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams:

      “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
      “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.”

      Some are cancelled, some are ‘blackholed’, some are sent for re-education…

  7. Indeed a lot more could have been said, but within the restrictions of length it could hardly have been said better.

  8. Thank you for standing up to woke-ism. See Abigail Shrier’s “The Books Are Already Burning” on Common Sense with Bari Weiss:

    “The same is true for other professions. If you are a teacher, you entered the profession in order to expand young minds. If you are watching them being warped, it’s your responsibility to fight that. If you are a journalist witnessing lies being spread by your colleagues, it’s your responsibility to stand up for truth. If you are a professor, watching your colleagues being bullied — a med school professor watching hokum being peddled as fact, a scientist watching the corruption of research — there’s no one else to speak up but you. “

    1. Speaking of med schools and hospitals – there seems to be an awful lot of acupuncture and “alternative medicine” being peddled by (what I thought to be respectable) schools and hospitals these days. Some here in NYC. Presumably to get donor dollars from rich nuts?
      Disturbing.
      D.A.
      NYC

  9. I made a half-serious prediction here a month or so ago, that the astronomers would find the third interstellar object travelling through the Solar system (3I/DiscovererName), before the solstice. I can’t find the post now, but someone took me up on it. I think I gave myself odds of about 1 in 5 of being right within the time frame.
    So, I missed that one.
    Just.
    On Saturday the Minor Planets Mailing List received notification of an interesting object dug out of the archives from 2014, and still incoming.
    (Mail message)

    This new object, 2014 UN271, is not just unusual, but radically exceptional among all known bodies in the Solar System to date. Discovered about 29 AU out from the Sun and currently around 22 away, its orbit takes it from just beyond the orbit of Saturn (10.9 AU) all the way out to the Oort Cloud – no, not the Hill Cloud. the Oort Cloud.

    Orbitally, pretty weird and from a long way out, where passing stars stir the pot regularly. Not quite interstellar, but about as close as you can get without actually “slipping the surly bonds of Sol”.
    But other fun news – even though it’s well out near Uranus, it’s still pretty bright. Which means pretty big. There are always uncertainties (is it blackboard-black, coal-black, or peat-black?), but the current estimated size is 100 to 130 km diameter, which makes it a pretty chunky lump.
    Closest approach to the Sun (“perihelion”) is estimated at 10.9 AU (outside Saturn’s orbit!) on 2031 Jan 21 13:47:25 (the details will change as the observed arc of it’s orbit lengthens) which would mean some cometary activity, but you’d need a telescope to see it. It’s not likely to eclipse the glory that was Kohoutek.
    Not an interstellar object, but an interesting one nonetheless.

    No, we probably don’t have capability to do a fly-by. Functionally, our comet protection system is still “(non-avian) dinosaur grade”.

  10. Thanks to you and your colleagues for trying to correct the record. If left alone, this trash will be quoted as uncontested scientific fact by the ideologically so inclined with no rebuttal in sight. At least New Scientist had the integrity to print the letter that you and your colleagues wrote a few years ago regarding their “Darwin Was Wrong” cover, recognizing that it was less a scientific position of the magazine than a marketing ploy to attract readers and sell copies. But for Science not to print a letter from such a world class set of scientists???….particularly when you made the effort to fit their silly and i think demeaning length guidelines. Since you are reading Grayling, i believe he spends some pages at the start of the tome on the historical development of philosophy through the enlightenment and the breakout of elements of natural philosophy into a new area of observation and test called science. It appears that the woke and their popular literature is regressing back toward the pre-enlightenment middle ages.

  11. Well done. Science is cowardly for not printing it. As the Woke want it: No debate. Thou shalt genuflect before the Woke “truths”.

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