Daniel Finkelstein defends E. O. Wilson (and mocks Scientific American) in the Times of London

January 5, 2022 • 11:45 am

I don’t subscribe to the Times of London, so I count on my UK readers to alert me to anything interesting there. And today two of them did: Readers Pyers, who said the article below was “a superb piece”, and reader Adrian, who said this of the same piece (quoted with permission):

Been following your posts on E O Wilson and that horrific Scientific American article about him. [JAC: see that article here.]

Just noticed this morning that the Times (UK) has weighed in on the issue via a regular op-ed writer, Danny Finkelstein. Finkelstein is a regular contributor to the paper, and is a Tory peer. He belongs however to a very liberal strand of Toryism, and wouldn’t have much in common with the current Tory party, I imagine. I consider myself centre left, but very much like his writing. He always makes me think and question my own biases. He’s one of my go-tos for getting a sensible conservative view on the world – so in that respect, in my view, he sort of fulfills the same role that Andrew Sullivan does on US issues.

Anyway, his take on the cancelling of E O Wilson is a good one. And he also stands up for Paige Harden too – seeking to build a consensus around the idea that truth is not a left or right wing political issue.

I confess to feeling bamboozled by life at the minute. It seems only a minority of the people I consider to be on ‘my team’, the centre left (there are honourable exceptions of course), are keen to stand up against the revisionism that is currently de rigueur. I do find myself increasingly agreeing with some folk I would once have considered odd bedfellows, on the centre right. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it is the polarised times we live in? I can’t quite decide between these options.

I currently tell myself that the extreme pathologies on the left and right of politics need to be opposed, and if that means centre left and centre right find common ground, then that is a good thing.

Now you won’t get anything but a few paragraphs if you click on the screenshot below, but the text is available via judicious inquiry. If you do have a Times subscription, you’ll get to see the whole thing. At any rate, I’ll give some quotes to show its tenor. Adrian has already informed us about author Daniel Finkelstein.

It is a remarkably well written and thoughtful piece, which defends Wilson against that idiotic attack in Scientific American, and also defends Kathryn Paige Harden, a left-winger whose recent book argues that the Left cannot ignore the palpable fact of genetic differences among people (my WaPo review of her book is here).  We are not, say Finkelstein and Harden, blank slates.

I can do no better than quote the author himself on a few selected topics (I’ve chosen the quotes and grouped them).

The ideological opposition to sociobiology (now called “evolutionary psychology”):

Last week EO Wilson died, and the world lost one of its leading scientists. The professor had started by studying fire ants and his knowledge of ants was peerless. But he had broadened as he had aged and had begun to consider human beings. Humans are animals too, after all, so our social organisation, our behaviour, our hierarchies, our urges will, to some extent at least, be the product of our biology.

This, the foundation stone of sociobiology, seems an unremarkable observation, but it provoked a remarkable reaction. Marxists and radicals, well represented in American universities, saw it not as a scientific hypothesis but as a political attack. Their argument was that human behaviour was overwhelmingly the product of social and economic organisation. Humans were, in essence, a blank slate, one very much like another. If Wilson was right, then this idea was wrong. If Wilson was right, societies were going to be harder to change. If Wilson was right, people might not come out equal even with all the social engineering in the world. So Wilson simply couldn’t be allowed to be right.

The weapon of choice in the battle to take down sociobiology was the accusation of racism. . .

The Scientific American screed:

Indeed one of the most useful results of studying the genetic and evolutionary basis of human behaviour has been that it has shown that the Nazis and other racists are wrong. And Wilson was quite clear about that. But unfortunately the accusation that Wilson was a racist was not made only by students. It was made by other academics seeking to protect unconvincing leftist ideas about social organisation. And it is still being made. A couple of days after Wilson’s death, Scientific American published an article by a University of California associate professor, reviving the charge of “racist ideas”.

It was an astonishingly muddled article whose vague arguments slip out of one’s hands every time one tries to grasp hold of them. Its appearance owed more to intellectual and political fashion than to rigour.

Indeed!

Kathryn Paige Harden on genetics:  I gave Harden’s book a mixed review. The first part, which shows the substantial genetic differences between individual humans—differences that affect our performance and chance of success in life—is very good, and well worth reading. It is the second part, where Harden discusses what social engineering can be done to make people more equal, that I criticized, for she offered no credible solutions. (Granted, solutions are very hard!).  Finkelstein:

Many of our abilities are heritable.

If we ignore this we are making social policy impossibly hard. As the egalitarian and geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden argues in her recent book The Genetic Lottery: “Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”

We don’t have to live with the outcome of genetic disadvantages. That would be like saying that although I’m short-sighted I shouldn’t be allowed glasses. But we do have to recognise genetic differences, or we end up denying glasses on the grounds that short-sightedness is the fault of capitalism and we need to nationalise the water industry first.

The idea that discovering natural difference in capacity is somehow right-wing is deeply puzzling. The truth doesn’t have a wing, it’s just the truth. But it’s not just that. There is a randomness to genetic inheritance, just as there is in economic inheritance. With the latter it is left-wing to observe this randomness and argue that we should help the disadvantaged poor. Why would people on the left not wish to even acknowledge the randomness of genetic inheritance? It is perverse.

The three reasons to rebut the ideological challenge to evolutionary psychology:

There are three reasons to rebut this challenge firmly. The first is that it is our duty to Wilson, a very great scientist. His contribution to the understanding of animal behaviour — of ants, of humans, of all nature — has been profound and it would be both cowardly and a tragedy to allow his reputation to be attacked when he is no longer here to defend himself against a baseless charge.

The second and even more important reason is that Wilson was achingly, obviously right. How likely is it that human beings are the one species whose capacities and behaviour aren’t largely influenced by biology? If every other animal’s behaviour demands an evolutionary explanation, how can it possibly be that ours does not?

He then refers to ideologically based criticism of palpable truths—like the fact of substantial genetic differences between individual humans adduced by Harden:

. . . Which is the third reason for defending Wilson and the study of sociobiology. Scientific methods and the search for truth matter. The accusation that sociobiology is racist rarely rises above the level of saying that as the Nazis were interested in genetics, genetics must be Nazi. It’s a bit like attacking Linda McCartney’s soya-based sausages on the ground that Hitler was a vegetarian.’

Finkelstein’s conclusion:

As we develop our capacity to study our genes we are going to learn more about human nature. We must be allowed to talk about that, even if the things we discover unsettle political activists and the orthodoxy they have adopted. We must defend good science against bad politics.

If the controversy over EO Wilson teaches us that, than the great scientist will have rendered us one final service.

This may be enough of an excerpt to satisfy you. If not, well, you know what to do.

22 thoughts on “Daniel Finkelstein defends E. O. Wilson (and mocks Scientific American) in the Times of London

  1. Neither the Washington Post , BBC or CNN online mentioned E.O. Wilson in their “Notable Deaths” in 2021. A studied insult.

    1. I only saw the BBC list but as far as that one goes I am not convinced it was a studied insult. The list was long on entertainment and sports personalities and UK politicians but not big on science. I think that’s as much a reflection of a humanities bias as anything else. I remember a list published in one of the broadsheet newspapers here of ‘young people to watch’ in the new millennium. There was not a single practising scientist in the whole list of people who were expected to be the movers and shakers of the coming years!

  2. “It isn’t racist to believe in genetic differences. To say we are the products of our biology, as the great scientist EO Wilson did, can’t be right-wing: it is simply the truth”

    Finkelstein certainly doesn’t mince words. Good for him. Will many in the US notice?

    1. > It isn’t racist to believe in genetic differences.

      The original feels like it has been reduced to a sound byte and is missing some depth.
      How would you feel about “It isn’t necessarily racist to believe in genetic differences – but some racists use the belief as a tool.”? Or maybe “Standard beliefs in genetic differences aren’t racist; however, some beliefs in genetic differences are.’

      I’d like to bounce it around first and see what other people think. I’ve seen people who use belief in genetic differences to justify their pre-existing racism. I’m trying to figure out how I would phrase the original, while reinforcing that knowledge of genetic differences is an important tool for non-racists in general and for scientists in particular. I want to make sure that people know that the well is not poisoned, but not to trust references blindly.

      It feels like the ‘guns don’t kill people; people kill people’ discussion. In both cases, we are talking about an impartial tool that some people abuse. However, to keep the analogy a bit more precise, ‘the belief in genetic differences’ is more similar to ‘the use of a gun’. Genetic differences and guns are tools; ‘belief in’ and ‘use of’ are what we ‘do’ with them.

      1. “It isn’t racist to believe in genetic differences.”

        I believe your quibble is included in the normal interpretation of this sentence. It means that a belief in genetic differences does not automatically make one a racist. This still allows that some may base their racism on a belief in genetic differences. As always, the devil is in the details.

      2. “It isn’t necessarily racist to believe in genetic differences – but some racists use the belief as a tool.”

        I agree that this would be better and more accurate.

      3. “How would you feel about ‘It isn’t necessarily racist to believe in genetic differences – but some racists use the belief as a tool.’?”

        By interpolating the word “necessarily” you automatically take the matter out of the realm of science and into that of interpretative speculation. You would never say “ice is not necessarily colder than steam” and expect to be taken seriously, because it could never be proven within the standards of scientific proof. The same is surely the case with genetics.

  3. I startled my wife by cheering out loud while I was reading Danny’s article this morning. I had it in mind to forward the link to PCC(E). Delighted that Pyers and Adrian got there first.

  4. Brilliant! I had never understood the objections to “Sociobiology” beyond the queries regarding the details of kin selection and altruism. Thank you Daniel, for the clear explanation that the arguments are simply based on political ideology, and are just scientifically wrong! EO Wilson remains one of my Zoological heroes.

  5. It seems hard for those who criticize genetic heritability to accept that we are biologically determined (evolved) to learn from others about what we should be believing and paying attention to.

  6. Jerry, somewhat related (a defense), here’s a bizarre twist!
    Twice now PZ has mentioned WEIT (book, not site) in the context of an ongoing squabble with Kent Hovind regarding debating evolution. To begin with, PZ was suggesting to go through WEIT, but, at Hovind’s suggestion, PZ would pick a chapter for a debate.
    That then changed to PZ recommending WEIT for Hovind to critique! That’s the jist.
    https://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2022/01/04/the-kent-hovind-challenge/

  7. I’m disappointed that so far none of the articles covering this controversy have expanded on Deborah Gordon’s accusation in the NYT obituary that E.O. Wilson tried to sabotage Gordon’s career. Is this true, or is it a slur by Gordon? Maybe Carl Zimmer (who wrote the obit) will drop by to comment?

  8. My favorite Wilson quote is what he had to say about communism (or was it socialism? or Marxism in general? He seems to have used the line multiple times):
    “Great idea. Wrong species.”
    No wonder he pissed off the Marxists.

  9. I was happy to see Finkelstein’s reference to Paige Harden in his defense of E.O. Wilson. Thought I would, as a leftist, throw in the observation that Paige Harden is not the only leftie to take on the “blank slaters”. I am referring to Freddie deBoer, who our host has cited several times in recent months. I subscribe to his SubStack, and strongly recommend his book The Cult of Smart. For those unfamiliar with deBoer, a good introduction to what he is about can be found at Razib Khan’s (who I also follow) long discussion with him at Khan’s blog recently. I believe deBoer, in his book, does a better job of addressing what Jerry felt were shortcomings in Paige Harden’s book.

  10. Too bad for the late scientists that got ill wrought criticism for political reasons.

    [It is a learning opportunity for me though, I have re-briefed myself on Gould, Lewontin, Wilson and Leakey and some of their theories.]

    Genetic differences and its clustering is of course important for biology and medicine – perhaps even more so in the latter. But of course environment remains important, and while genes may have a large lever the principal component differences is IIRC on the order of 10^-4 across a continent.

    And it is only ~ 100 proteins that show selection differences between us and the Neanderthal cluster.

    Very few proteins in the body have adaptations that make them unique compared to the corresponding proteins in Neanderthals and apes. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have now studied one such protein, glutathione reductase, which protects against oxidative stress. They show that the risk for inflammatory bowel disease and vascular disease is increased several times in people carrying the Neanderthal variant.

    The study, which is published in the journal Science Advances, examines the change in glutathione reductase in detail and was led by Hugo Zeberg at Karolinska Institutet and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute. They show that the Neanderthal protein created more reactive oxygen radicals, which are the cause of oxidative stress. It is the third protein change unique to present-day humans that has been studied so far.

    The researchers can only speculate about why this particular change came to be one of the unique changes that almost all modern humans carry.

    “Stopping oxidative stress is a bit like preventing something from rusting. Perhaps the fact that we are living longer has driven these changes,” says Svante Pääbo.

    [ https://phys.org/news/2022-01-modern-humans-effective-oxidative-stress.html ]

    You can’t entirely social engineer inflammatory bowel disease and vascular disease out of a population, what I know of. You have to wonder if the authors of hit pieces on genomics care about the suffering.

  11. [This nay be a partial duplicate, I don’t know if something happened with my login troubles of with the original comment being overly long.]

    Too bad for the late scientists that got ill wrought criticism for political reasons.

    [It is a learning opportunity for me though, I have re-briefed myself on Gould, Lewontin, Wilson and Leakey and some of their theory.]

    Genetic differences and its clustering is of course important for biology and medicine – perhaps even more so in the latter. But of course environment remains important, and while genes may have a large lever the principal component differences is IIRC on the order of 10^-4 across a continent.

    And it is only ~ 100 proteins that show selection differences between us and the Neanderthal cluster.

    Very few proteins in the body have adaptations that make them unique compared to the corresponding proteins in Neanderthals and apes. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden have now studied one such protein, glutathione reductase, which protects against oxidative stress. They show that the risk for inflammatory bowel disease and vascular disease is increased several times in people carrying the Neanderthal variant.

    “Stopping oxidative stress is a bit like preventing something from rusting. Perhaps the fact that we are living longer has driven these changes,” says Svante Pääbo.

    [ https://phys.org/news/2022-01-modern-humans-effective-oxidative-stress.html ]

    You can’t entirely social engineer inflammatory bowel disease and vascular disease out of a population, what I know of. You have to wonder if the authors of hit pieces on genomics care about the suffering.

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