Scott Aaronson hosts a guest post about the Sci Am hatchet job on E. O. Wilson

January 3, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Several readers called my attention to the new entry on Scott Aaronson’s website, which deals with the recent Scientific American op-ed about E. O. Wilson’s supposed “racism”. (You can find the original piece here. Did you know that Mendel was a racist, too?) The op-ed was execrable, and I’d hoped that Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief, would exercise some judgement by retracting it—but leaving it up, as they’ve done with other “canceled” pieces). No way, for I think the magazine actually wants to go in the Social Justice direction. And the author was black, so the optics would be even worse.

Over at his website Shtetl-Optimized, Scott Aaronson agrees, and writes a brief introduction to a guest post by Ashutosh Jogalekar, who notes that he once wrote for Scientific American (and copiously, too), but was fired for a few posts. (The Washington Post, which first called attention to the mess at Sci. Am. in 2014, explains Jogalekar’s firing here.)

Click on the screenshot to read Scott’s and Jogalekar’s takes.  Spoiler: they’re ticked off at Sci. Am.

I’m not going to bash the magazine or the author of the hit piece here, but will let these two have their say with a few quotes.

From Scott:

Anyway, in response to Scientific American‘s libel of Wilson, I wrote on my Facebook that I’ll no longer agree to write for or be interviewed by them (you can read my old stuff free of charge here or here), unless and until there’s a complete change of editorial direction. I encourage all other scientists to commit likewise, thereby making it common knowledge that the entity that now calls itself “Scientific American” bears the same relation to the legendary home of Martin Gardner as does a corpse to a living being. Fortunately, there are high-quality online venues (e.g., Quanta) that partly fill the role that Scientific American abdicate

After reading my Facebook post, my friend Ashutosh Jogalekar was inspired to post an essay of his own. Ashutosh used to write regularly for Scientific American, until he was fired seven years ago over a column in which he advocated acknowledging Richard Feynman’s flaws, including his arrogance and casual sexism, but also understanding those flaws within the context of Feynman’s whole life, including the tragic death of his first wife Arlene. (Yes, that was really it! Read the piece!) Below, I’m sharing Ashutosh’s moving essay about E. O. Wilson with Ashutosh’s very generous permission.

I think refusing to write for (or subscribe to) Scientific American is the proper response of scientists and laypeople. It’s not just this one article, either, for clearly the mission of the magazine has changed from informing the public about science to socially engineering American society to conform to the editors’ “Progressive Leftist” standards.

But on to Jogalekar, who sees Wilson as I knew him: a kindly man without a trace of racism in his psyche. Just a few quotes:

Ed Wilson was one of the gentlest, most eloquent, most brilliant and most determined advocates for both human and natural preservation you could find. Under Southern charm lay hidden unyielding doggedness and immense stamina combined with a missionary zeal to communicate the wonders of science to both his fellow biologists and the general public. His autobiography, “Naturalist”, is perhaps the finest, most literary statement of the scientific life I have read; it was one of a half dozen books that completely transported me when I read it in college. In book after book of wide-ranging intellectual treats threading through a stunning diversity of disciplines, he sent out clarion calls for saving the planet, for enabling dialogue between the natural and the social sciences, for understanding each other better. In the face of unprecedented challenges to our fragile environment and continued barriers to interdisciplinary communication, this is work that likely will make him go down in history as one of the most important human beings who ever lived, easily of the same caliber and achievement as John Muir or Thoreau. Even in terms of achievement strictly defined by accolades – the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize which recognizes fields excluded by the Nobel Prize, and not just one but two Pulitzer Prizes – few scientists from any field in the 20th century can hold a candle to Ed Wilson. My friend Richard Rhodes who knew Wilson for decades as a close and much-admired friend said that there wasn’t a racist bone in his body; Dick should know since he just came out with a first-rate biography of Wilson weeks before his passing.

One thing that the Sci. Am. hatchet job neglected was to mention the good that the man did, including his conservation work. That was an unforgivable omission. Although some would consider his work on evolutionary psychology to be a minus in his career, you’d have to be a complete fool to deny that the world was better for Wilson’s presence.

More from Jogalekar:

[The author of the op-ed] not only maligned and completely misrepresented Wilson but did not say a word about his decades-long, heroic effort to preserve the planet and our relationship with it; it was clear that she had little acquaintance with Wilson’s words since she did not cite any. It’s also worth noting the gaping moral blindness in her article which completely misses the most moral thing Wilson did – spend decades advocating for saving our planet and averting a catastrophe of extinction, climate change and divisiveness – and instead focuses completely on his non-existent immorality. This is a pattern that is consistently found among those urging “social justice” or “equity” or whatever else: somehow they seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.

In the end, the simple fact is that McLemore didn’t care about any of this. She didn’t care because she had a political agenda and the facts did not matter to her, even facts as basic as the definition of the normal distribution in statistics. For her, Wilson was some obscure white male scientist who was venerated, and that was reason enough for a supposed “takedown”. And the editor of Scientific American supported and lauded this ignorant, ideology-driven tirade.

He applauds Scott for severing ties with the magazine, and urges us to do likewise:

To my few friends and colleagues who still write for the magazine and whose opinions I continue to respect, I really wish to ask: Why? Is writing for a magazine which has sacrificed facts and the liberal voice of real science at the altar of political ideology and make believe still worth it? What would it take for you to say no more?

Well, I won’t work with them either, but they’ve never asked me, so I have nothing to lose!


UPDATE: Greg Mayer sent me a link to a 2014 interview of Ed Wilson in today’s Harvard Gazette. In there you can find Wilson saying this:

I stepped into a minefield by finishing this big book, “Sociobiology,” with a chapter saying how it could be applied to people. I tried to be cautious. I should have been more politically careful, by saying this does not imply racism, it does not imply sexism, I’m not trying to defend capitalism, so don’t drop the world on top of me. If I’d added that in the book, then I might have gotten off a little easier.

. . . But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked.

. . . When I was writing “Sociobiology,” if I had to do it over again, I would have written a solid piece in that infamous final chapter and said that it really tells us nothing about the best political system or correct ideology.

23 thoughts on “Scott Aaronson hosts a guest post about the Sci Am hatchet job on E. O. Wilson

          1. Click on the link to the author in the post above – it’s “(and copiously, too)”, and that takes you to posts by Jogalekar on the SciAm website. The Feynman article is at the top or very near it. I read it and, like Coel, found it innocuous.

        1. Ouch. I can’d disagree with anything Tara Henley says there, and the CBC is even worse than NPR (no kidding). But as a Canadian this all kinda stings. One hopes that Frances Widdowson’s union will win at arbitration. At my university, the faculty union is so woke that they would hold the door open while the administrators push out someone like Widdowson.

    1. More on that MRU prof (tenured!) who was fired –
      While neither party will discuss the case in any detail pending arbitration, it looks as though she got the punt because of her personal behaviour, although this was in connection with her heterodox views. One has to wonder if someone who acted like this but had more acceptable views would have been treated this way.

  1. I hope you’ll keep us informed about who is actually boycotting SA (to the extent practical, of course).

  2. Several days ago, Quillette posted a lengthy (and fascinating) interview with Wilson, from more than a decade ago, during the course of which Alice Dreger comments on “extreme leftism seemingly having become embedded in academia”, to which Wilson replies: “I’ve often said that the only place certain subjects are completely taboo is the university.” His comments on Gould are very interesting, as well as highly critical and very unflattering.

  3. Jerry, `there might be an error through context: “That was an unforgivable admission.” did you mean “omission”? (feel free to delete my comment afterwards)

  4. I don’t understand any legitimate reason why evolutionary psychology would be a minus on Wilson’s career in the eyes of any reasonable person. It’s an innovative and intelligent extrapolation from obvious facts of nature and the development of behavior and nervous systems to recognize that evolution has affected psychology. Otherwise, any given human’s psychology might just as easily be the same as that of a caribou or a crocodile or a cormorant. I’ve held off buying “Sociobiology” because of price (even in e-book form), but I’m again tempted by this to do so, even if only to read the last chapter.

    1. I agree. The contribution to evolutionary psychology is what got me interested in E.O. Wilson in the first place and has enriched my life immeasurably.

  5. I have no direct knowledge of E. O. Wilson, but was somewhat acquainted personally with Dick Lewontin, whom I admired (despite a cavil about a few of his popular writings). From all I have seen, Lewontin’s treatment of Ed Wilson was inexplicable, and a sad example of the outcome of too much
    politicalization. We might take this unfortunate episode as an object lesson about politicalization.

  6. Subscription cancelled. Had it since the late 90s, and it’s the only one I’d maintained this long. What a sad story of degeneration.

  7. “Somehow [the woke] seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.”

    Last night I watched “Don’t Look Up” and pictured folks like Helmuth and McLemore furiously tweeting about the fictional, imagined bigotry of James Webb, while the comet comes smashing down.

    Note the first author is our favourite queer Black cosmologist, who is also the author of the “white empiricism” paper cited by McLemore in that Wilson hit job. It’s a small world.

    1. O. … f.f.s!
      I recently saw another op ed somewhere about how, you know, the cool people shouldn’t touch anything to do with J.K. Rowling (you know why!) or Lin-Manual Miranda (why?) or a bunch of other people who did absolutely nothing wrong by any reasonable standard.
      A revolting attempt to just burnish ones’ I’m woker than thou creds.

  8. The Sci Am screed breathlessly reveals that James Webb, in his role of scientific administrator, failed
    to “stand up” for the LGBTQUIA+ community. The same charge could be (and presumably will be) made against many scientists who held administrative posts, going back to Isaac Newton, who was Master of
    the Royal Mint for many years. Between all these culprits, and all the others guilty of “white empiricism”(like the notorious racist Mendel), there will be a lot of cancelling to be done. It will be exciting to watch

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