Our attempt to correct the record about E. O. Wilson: a joint letter to Scientific American—which, of course, they rejected.

January 19, 2022 • 8:00 am

UPDATE: David Sloan Wilson has also published the letter on his site “This View of Life”.


A bunch of people in evolution and genetics took exception to an op-ed in Scientific American by Monica McLemore, which called E. O. Wilson a racist just days after he died. The author, who apparently had almost no familiarity with Wilson’s work, gave no examples of his supposed racism, and left out quotes showing his opposition to racism. Anybody who knew Ed also knows that he was no racist! Many of the signers below knew Ed well.

The author also indicted others, including Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, for the same sin:

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

My “bon mot” on this: “Did Mendel see green peas as superior to yellow ones?”

The fun didn’t end there, for McLemore got further entangled by trying to accuse the normal distribution in statistics of racism!:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

This is too ridiculous to critique except to say that everything in that paragraph is wrong.

I wrote a critical rebuttal on this site about the badly misguided piece, which apparently constitutes part of Scientific American‘s campaign to morph from an organization teaching laypeople about modern science into an ideological venue for promoting “progressive” leftism and trying to effect social change. (No change, of course, will be effected by publishing ignorant nonsense like that. It is virtue-flaunting, pure and simple. Do they think that equality will come from accusing Ed Wilson of being a racist?)

A lot of us in the area were steamed at the arrant nonsense purveyed by the author, apparently approved for publication by Scientific American and its editor. We petulant scientists found each other on social media, and an initiative to write a critique of the Sci. Am. hit job was begun by geneticist Razib Khan. It came to fruition in the piece below, signed by many evolutionists and geneticists. It was rejected, of course: I fully expected that a journal that would publish such a flimsy attack on Wilson et al. wouldn’t want to hear the truth.

But the rejection was even worse because some of the staff at Scientific American reached out to Razib, saying that a formal rebuttal might be more useful than social media outrage. In other words, their own people solicited a response from Razib and others. From that it’s clear that not everyone on the editorial staff is overjoyed with the new woke direction of Scientific American! After promising us we’d get a quick response, they sat on our response for a week or so, finally giving Razib the thumbs-down after he had to inquire.

The journal of course acted abysmally here, though its most abysmal action was the publication of McLemore’s piece. But then they more or less asked us to respond, then refused to publish what we wrote.

After this reaction, Razib and I decided to publish the original submission, with its signers (all by their permission) on our websites, so at least you can see the panoply of scientists who think that the Wilson article was ridiculous. Razib put up his piece last night on his Substack site; it’s called “Setting the record straight: open letter on E. O. Wilson’s legacy.” I urge you to read it; although we’re posting the same text and signers of the rejected article, Razib has a very good introduction about his views and about how the piece came to be.

After the rejection, we got an email by editor Laura Helmuth, who, I think, is largely responsible for running the journal into the ground out of sheer ideological bias. The letter gave what I think are lame reasons for not running our piece. I quote (with interpolations):

We would be happy to publish other articles about E.O. Wilson’s research and legacy, but we avoid running direct rebuttals of earlier articles. This is a standard practice in most magazines to avoid being too self-referential, and so each article stands on its own.

Does anybody really believe that? First of all, Scientific American has run direct rebuttals of earlier articles: here are two (granted, they don’t do it often). Nor do their instructions about what and how to submit say anything about prohibiting rebuttals. But above all this, how else would a journal correct itself if it publishes distortions or errors, which are pervasive in the Wilson piece? “Each article stands on its own?” What that means, translated into regular English, is “each article is immune to criticism.” Besides, this article doesn’t stand on its own; it lies prostrate on its own. Helmuth wrote more:

As you may know, we publish a range of perspectives in our Opinion section, written by authors such as Monica McLemore who are presenting their own experiences and analysis.

It is not an “experience” to claim that Ed Wilson or Mendel were racists. Those are assertions of fact, and need to be—but weren’t—backed up with any evidence. I suspect this emphasis on “personal experience” is part of the woke path that the journal is treading. As the journal says in its instructions for authors of opinion and analysis pieces (my emphasis):

We look for fact-based arguments. Therefore, if you are making scientific claims—aside from those that are essentially universally accepted (e.g., evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth; vaccines do not cause autism; the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun) we ask you to link to original scientific research in reputable journals or assertions from reputable science-oriented institutions. Using secondary sources such as news reports or advocacy organizations that do not do actual research is not sufficient.

I guess they waived those rules for this article.  Nor is there any note that rebuttals or critiques are not permitted.

Finally, a lame offer.

If you’d like to suggest a different article, or revise this one to be a stand-alone piece rather than a rebuttal, we’d be happy to work with you or your coauthors.

When I saw that, this thought letter instantly crossed my mind, “Dear Ms. Helmuth, I would like to write an article called ‘Why E. O. Wilson and Gregor Mendel were not racists’. I promise, however, not to mention McLemore’s article in the proposed piece. Yours, Jerry Coyne.”

I ask Ms Helmuth: what other way can we rebut false claims in your magazine than to cite the source and nature of the false claims?

At any rate, our letter is below the line; there are 33 signers, and you may recognize some of the names. Kudos to Razib for organizing it. I’ve added links to every name so you can verify the existence of those who signed.

In all likelihood, Scientific American will ignore this, whether it gets published here or in their magazine, but they do so at their peril. The wide range of interests of the signers, and the diversity of areas they work in, plus the fact that many actually knew Wilson and his work, should constitute a potch im tuchas to Helmuth and her magazine. And at least they know now that their own editorial staff is not 100% behind the new course the journal is taking.

Our letter is below the line:

The great entomologist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92. Within three days, Scientific American published a bewilderingly flimsy opinion piece that ignored his exceptional legacy of scholarship, innovation and advocacy, instead using his passing to attack science’s history of “white empiricism” and “scientific racism.” The piece suggests Wilson’s and other seminal thinkers’ works were problematically “built on racist ideas” and calls for “truth and reconciliation… in the scientific record.”

Wilson’s scholarly treatises and popular books appeared over an astonishing span of five decades, and their visionary breadth and graceful prose inspired generations of scientists. His  dozens of works include: The Theory of Island Biogeography; Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; Consilience and The Future of Life. Among his countless awards were the 1990 Crafoord Prize, non-medical biology’s equivalent of the Nobel, and Pulitzer Prizes for the books On Human Nature and The Ants. Wilson, a lifelong conservationist, is often credited with kickstarting an evolutionary understanding of universal human behavior, as well as developing models foundational to ecological theory.

No stranger to intellectual dust-ups, Wilson had for decades endured sometimes misplaced vitriol and ad hominem attacks. But he strived to uphold standards of integrity and insisted on putting science first, even when activists stooped to physically attacking him. Wilson was spared the indignity of reading Scientific American’s mystifying reappraisal. But such a weakly sourced and misinformed piece raises troubling questions about the state of scientific inquiry and discourse. “The complicated legacy of E. O. Wilson” is alarming, not because of any revelation about Wilson, since it’s hardly about him, but for the casual lapses in basic editing and fact-checking behind its extreme claims.

In “The Complicated Legacy,” Dr. Monica R. McLemore, professor of Nursing and Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, unloads an arsenal of buzzy accusations on the late scientist, dragging in Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Karl Pearson and Gregor Mendel for critique in the process. She quotes Craig Venter and Francis Collins, but neglects to link their allusions to “the complex provenance of ideas” and underinvestment “in research on human behavior” to widespread “scientific racism” in any way.

And what specific evidence does McLemore present against Wilson or the nineteenth-century scientists she holds up for opprobrium? She claims to have “intimately familiarized” herself with Wilson’s work, having enjoyed his fictional Anthill and thus being disappointed by Sociobiology (which touches on humanity only in its 26th and final chapter), because of its role in the orthodoxy that human differences “could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.” But alas, she doesn’t appear to have familiarized herself even minimally with the basic science, because this proposition is empirically unassailable. Twin, adoption and DNA-level studies on millions of individuals consistently demonstrate that just about all human traits, from height to intelligence and personality, owe at least some, often much, of their variation among individuals to genetic influences – not to be confused with genetic determination as in the opinion piece by McLemore. And yet like Darwin, Wilson actually argued eloquently for a universal human nature, a premise that undermines racist agendas.

Furthermore, although McLemore apparently intended to damn Wilson by attributing to him this factual insight, it is not at all clear that the flowering of human behavior genetics even belongs in the ledger of Wilson’s scientific accomplishments. The germ of behavior genetics predates Wilson’s insights by decades. The fact is, sociobiology helped pave the way for other evolutionary approaches to human behavior, with a focus on understanding our human commonalities, as well as the nascent field of cultural evolution.

More perplexing lapses of scholarship follow. McLemore lumps Wilson, b. 1929, together with Pearson, Galton, Darwin and Mendel (born between 1809 and 1857), castigating all for “problematic” and “racist ideas.” Galton, Pearson and Darwin held Victorian views we find reprehensible today. But, the enduring truth or falsity of a scientific theory does not depend upon the anachronistic opinions of the scientists who helped develop it. So, has McLemore discovered bias in Wilson’s legacy?

Here, the author proceeds only to demonstrate a baffling ignorance of one of the most basic concepts in modern statistics. Calling on her expertise in public health, she claims “the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.” But this is nonsense. Far from a conspiracy of biased humans, the “normal distribution” is a widely observed feature of the natural world. Across the animal and plant kingdoms, traits like human birth weight and height, cucumber length, bovine milk production, indeed any trait with many random, independent variables at play, can often be found to approximately follow a normal distribution. “Normal” simply refers to a probability distribution with a certain mathematical form, the value-neutral outcome of random variables that have hewed to certain patterns.

Finally, we learn that “the description and importance of ant societies as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued.” It beggars belief that among the most serious offenses the author could dredge up from a wildly prolific career “built on racist ideas” was Wilson’s use of the term “ant colony,” a standard term for cohabitating groups of ants, wasps and bees in entomology. Perhaps it is by this logic that she also invites us to condemn Mendel, the father of genetics, whom she counts among Wilson’s intellectual forebears and who “published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas.” Is Mendel, the Augustinian monk, famously pottering over his pea plants in obscurity, now racist for discovering the Law of Segregation? Or because he found that yellow peas are genetically dominant over green?

Following this uncompelling evidence, the author puts forward three suggestions for the health of science. She calls for new methods in science (an odd plea in the age of CRISPR and ubiquitous whole genome sequencing), “diversifying the scientific workforce”, a massive and important priority in academia today, and finally “truth and reconciliation … in the scientific record.” The entire idea of a “scientific record” is hard to interpret, but she suggests citational practices to flag “problematic work” and unironically nominates “humanities scholars, journalists and other science communicators” to make these judgments.

There is one point on which we can agree with McLemore: “It is true that work can be both important and problematic—they can coexist. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate and critique these scientists, considering, specifically the value of their work.” Indeed, this is how science has always proceeded. Unfortunately, McLemore continues “and, at the same time, their contributions to scientific racism.” Alas, Scientific American’s readers will find neither a clear definition of this sinister undercurrent, nor any instances of its actual existence in Wilson’s thought.

It surely says more about the spirit of our age than it does about Wilson that the editors of Scientific American chose to mark the passing of a scientist of his stature by debating baseless accusations of racism. A line Wilson penned to Nature in 1981 has aged well, “To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior.” Wilson’s insights speak for themselves and his dozens of worthy titles allow us to grapple with his actual ideas directly. His books are suffused with an abiding gratitude for and humble, lifelong wonder at the complexity of our natural world. Their impact will long outlive any hasty and poorly informed appraisals of his legacy.

Dr. Abdel Abdellaoui, Research Scientist, Department of Psychiatry, Amsterdam UMC, University of Amsterdam

Dr. Rosalind Arden, Research Fellow, London School of Economics

Dr. Georgia Chenevix-Trench, Professor, Genetics and Computational Biology, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University

Dr. Anne B Clark, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University

Dr. Jerry Coyne, Professor, Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago

Dr. Matthew Hahn, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology and Department of Computer Science, Indiana University

Dr. John Hawks, Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dr. Joseph Henrich, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Elliot Hershberg, Doctoral Candidate, Genetics, Stanford University

Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, Professor, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Molecular & Cellular Biology, Harvard University

Razib Khan, Unsupervised Learning, Substack

Dr. Nathan H. Lents, Professor of Biology, John Jay College

Dr. Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

Dr. Jonathan Losos, William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor, Washington University

Daniel Malawsky, Doctoral Candidate, Genomics, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Hilary Martin, Group Leader, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Nick Martin, Senior Scientist and Senior Principal Research Fellow, QIMR Berghofer

Dr. Corrie Moreau, Martha N. & John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity and Director & Curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection, Cornell University

Dr. Craig Moritz, Professor, College of Science, Australian National University

Dr. Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University University of Texas

Dr. Nick Patterson, Associate,  Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,  Harvard University

Dr. Steven Phelps, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. David Queller, Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology, Washington University in St Louis

Dr. Joan E. Strassmann, Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Alexander Wild, Curator of Entomology, Lecturer Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. Peter M. Visscher, Professor, Program in Complex Trait Genomics, University of Queensland

Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Emeritus Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution

Dr. Judith Wexler, Zuckerman Postdoctoral Fellow, The Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Dr. Richard Wrangham, Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Dr. Alexander Young, Research Scientist, Human Genetics Department, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

Dr. Marlene Zuk, Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota


Note: three people (names crossed out) decided to remove their names from the letter after it was rejected.

92 thoughts on “Our attempt to correct the record about E. O. Wilson: a joint letter to Scientific American—which, of course, they rejected.

    1. I used to think like E.O.Wilson that hit-pieces should be ignored. Why dignify them? But times have changed, hit-pieces no longer age and die – they live forever on the Interweb, to be rediscovered by anyone with an axe to grind.

      The only long term action I can think of is to unsubscribe from any magazine, newspaper or journal that perpetrates hit-pieces, do not follow any blog that perpetrates hit-pieces, and perhaps build up a list of rebuttal articles and links for curt answers to zombie hit-pieces.

        1. THIS! People of high status like you and many of the signatories need to be at the forefront of the pushback! Only a critical mass of prominent people disagreeing can make it safe for the rest of us to voice our own disagreement. Only those people can shift the Overton Window back to a reasonable place. So many people I talk to — and I include myself here — are afraid to publicly disagree even slightly with The Correct Narrative. We know our speaking out will have either have no effect, or, even worse, possible negative repercussions for ourselves, thus providing further evidence that speaking up is dangerous. Speaking up for us little people can end up being counter-productive, as it may only prove to others the dangers of doing so. We need prominent voices from all over to get the ball rolling to a place where it’s safe again for the rest of us to speak freely.

          Thank you for doing your part.

    2. It’s a near certainty. Any recurring publication with any claim at all to presenting “news” maintains whole filing cabinets of ready-written obituaries, and make at least some effort to update them regularly. (A friend who edited newspapers and managed broadcast newsrooms from Auckland to Aberdeen would put novice journalists onto revising the “Obits” filing cabinet in approximate birthday order as a piece of useful apprenticeship work during which they could learn about writing to deadline, typing accurately and quickly, how to use the “morgue” (cuttings files, past numbers, printable photographs), who did what in the newsroom, house style, good grammar, etc.)
      Whether it’s a “hit-piece” … well, I wouldn’t be surprised. But boy, they’d better be careful to check that he’s really dead before publishing it. Also, whether SciAm has any claim to presenting “news” is an open question. I can’t say I’ve picked a number up off the shelf for several years. (If I’m going to give money to an American publishing company, I’ll buy American Scientist – far more hours of reading per pound sterling, but with bi-monthly publication they’re even further out of the loop on “news”.)
      Obviously cheapskate operations will just use Google on the day of reported death. Or Wikipedia, which may or may not be worse. That’s the way the “news” industry is going these days. It beats employing journalists, and is better for the bottom line.

      Concerning the group letter, if SciAm are afraid to publish it, wouldn’t the likes of Nature or Science jump at the opportunity to deliver a good kicking (by proxy) to a minor competitor? With their weekly maw demanding column inches, they can slip a dagger into the ribs far faster than SciAm’s monthly cycle can handle.
      Hmmm, which publishing mega-corp owns SciAm – and which other publications? You can cross those off the list of potential publishers.

      1. Thanks for the detailed info.
        I likewise haven’t bought a scientific American for some decades. I’m not familiar with “American Scientist”, I doubt if many newsagents stock it in the UK.

        I believe Scientific American used to be pretty good in the 70s and 80s: I no longer have the copies, but some of the articles I recall include an article on symmetries in space-time (discussing parity, charge and time reversal);
        one on the long term future of the universe (the next 10^100 years) – this was before inflation was accepted, and assumed the proton had a half-life of about 10^32 years;
        One on Guth’s ideas on inflation (late 80s I think);
        and one pure maths one on group theory. I think that all finite groups had eventually been classified whatever that means!

          1. Inflation allows governments to service sovereign debt with ever less valuable fiat currency. If they couldn’t do this, the Universe would collapse.

            Or something like that.

          2. I was simply pointing out that the article was based on pre-inflation ideas, so at that time there were two possibilities considered: a closed universe with an eventual collapse, or an open universe with constant (but slowing) expansion. In both cases, the rate of expansion would slow right from the beginning. (I don’t recall whether the cosmological constant was discussed, but I suspect that if it was, it would have been a brief mention.)

            As we now know, the current theory is that the expansion will speed up (“dark energy”), so the times of the various states of the universe will be drastically altered. I have no idea whether this relates to inflation.

            As I mentioned, I was just trying to give an idea of when the article was published (early 80s if I remember correctly).

            1. OK. Yes, accelerated expansion changes things. It also implies that the Universe will expand forever, and will change the timescale somewhat. Inflation is not really relevant; the Universe could still expand forever or collapse after inflation. We‘re not even sure that inflation actually happened, but the accelerating Universe is pretty well documented by now.

              Theoretically, with a cosmological constant, depending on its sign and value, one has all four possibilities: the universe can expand forever or collapse in the future, and it can be spatially infinite or finite. We now are pretty sure that it will expand forever. Whether it not it is spatially finite is unclear and, because it is very close (no-one is sure exactly how close, though) to being spatially flat, which is also infinite but the border between negative curvature (infinite) and positive curvature (finite), we might never know.

              When I‘m not commenting on blogs, learning languages, spending time with my family, or practicing guitar and writing music, I do cosmology: http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/research/publications/publications.html

              1. Dude! You’re quite the polymath. I wish I was as smart and driven as someone like you (I’d gladly settle for just being as smart as I currently am, but with your much greater drive/motivation). How many languages do you speak?

              2. Before the discovery of dark energy there used to be two possibilities considered, as Pete Taylor says. But inflation is very much central to the later dark energy expansion, since it tends to flatten the universe and explain why it appears so exquisitely finetuned flat with its total matter-and-energy density perfectly balancing the initial expansion rate. Dark energy is important, but inflation sets the scene for the later hot big bang and the LCDM model that describes dark energy. AFAIK a dark energy universe could still crunch if it starts out far from flat.

                Why would cosmologists in general not be sure that inflation actually happened? They have accepted it for the last twenty years of its mere forty year history. I have cited this before here, but since it is a nice fresh review I quote from the US National Academy of Sciences 2020 Astronomical and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, Report of the Panel on Cosmology:

                The question of what process set the Hot Big Bang in motion and created the seeds of structure has been with us for many decades. Early theoretical developments, together with observations over the past two decades, have established the inflationary paradigm as the dominant picture in the field.

                Contenders have fallen by the wayside, a sign of a successful, theory. But it is also fertile since cosmologists do not yet know the specific inflation mechanism.

                The BICEP/Keck CMB polarization experiments put stringent upper limits on the amplitude of inflationary gravitational waves. We now stand at a crossroads for the inflationary paradigm because the improved measurements that could be performed in the coming decade will allow us to cross important theoretical thresholds and significantly improve our understanding of the inflationary epoch.

                The latest BICEP/Keck paper preferred a simple Higgs like scalar field* for inflation and predicted that within a decade we could test if there is the then expected amount of gravitational backreaction (small, but not unmeasurable).

                If you like, think of inflation as genetics in the post-Mendel, pre-Crick&Watson era.

                *I’ll note that if that happens, the questions about universe topology, extent, et cetera will fall into line with generic eternal inflation answers. But that topic is perhaps best left for another decade.

              3. I should perhaps add that inflation is as predictive as LCDM, if not more. The former theory makes IIRC 6 major predictions, the latter 5, and the inflation consensus seems to have formed while 4 of those have been tested. And perhaps the observed causality described in the Decadal Survey, inflation causing later LCDM structures.

                The next decade may see the two remaining predictions tested during the paring down of mechanisms.

        1. American Scientist is published by Sigma Xi, ‘the scientific research society’. It used to be very good when I received it as a member.

        2. SciAm still publishes decent science articles, at a bit above the ‘science for poets’ level. It’s just the op-ed type sections that have gone to trash. I have a relative that gives me a subscription to it as a bday gift, and so I see it every month. My 11-yr-old voluntarily (!!) reads many of the science pieces, so intentionally leave it out on the table for him every month and when he picks it up, I consider that a parental win. But I tell him not to bother reading the opinion pieces or columns.

        3. I remember each of those articles you mention, Pete. And Martin Gardner’s column before that. It’s sad there’s nothing like that any more.

          1. Glad I didn’t imagine them! I forgot about Martin Gardner, yes he was generally entertaining as well.
            I never actually subscribed, but simply bought issues in WH Smiths whenever I spotted an article that might interest me.

      2. “… if SciAm are afraid to publish it, wouldn’t the likes of Nature or Science jump at the opportunity …”

        No, since they are also now Woke, and wouldn’t publish a piece rebutting a black woman and defending a white male. (It pretty much is that simple.)

    3. I’ll be honest; I was expecting woke hit pieces on MLK on Monday. I guess he’s safe this year. But when the woke ‘must gore a sacred ox’ folks exhaust all their easier targets, no doubt someone will virtue-signal come for the Reverend.

      1. MLK was a heterosexual male, but he was also black. The intersection caste system requires that only blacks may attack the character of blacks.

  1. Dr. Monica R. McLemore suggests citational practices to flag “problematic work”. I guess we should use her as the first example.

    I would have been happy to sign the letter, but my signature would have added no weight or authority, sad face.

  2. This is an impressive letter and impressive list of signatories. Maybe it would be published in a prominent newspaper or other magazine?

  3. That is quite a good response! It might have been swallowed better if the rebuttal set the record straight without also kicking so much butt, however all of it – including the butt kicking – is amply justified.

  4. Sci. Am. having shamed itself by publishing the original hit piece now compounds that shame by refusing to print the excellent rebuttal posted above. And the journal’s claim in its instructions for authors of opinion and analysis pieces that “We look for fact-based arguments” is hard to swallow after reading McLemore’s woefully unfactual contribution.

  5. So does SciAm still have its Board of Advisors? If so, who are they? Because I dropped my long running (two generations since the 1950’s) in subscription several years ago when I found the quality of articles in noticeable decline, i do not have a hard copy of a recent issue to peruse the masthead page, nor can I find a full list on the web. In any case, the subject matter experts’ letter posted here by Jerry must go individually to each advisor along with one of Jerry’s synopses asking what has happened to SciAm. If we believe that the change in tone at the magazine is purposeful and ruinous of its traditional role aimed at scientific enlightenment for a generally educated public, then the issue is the responsibility of the policy-making board I would think and not staff-level editorial functionaries.

      1. Thanks jerry. Wow you are up early this morning orhaving a sleepless night. Who knew that one had to be so specific to get the current listing? The older lists I had gotten had a number of names I knew including Dawkins, Steve Weinberg I think, Lisa Randall, and Vinod Khosla. The only names I, as a more than ten-year now retired engineer are Professors Charpentier and Randall. In any case Ithink that your group targetting them individually would be appropriate.

  6. Excellent letter.
    I struck me that McLemore hasn’t got a clue about what a ‘normal distribution’ is. It appears she apparently thinks the vernacular term ‘normal’, as opposed to ‘abnormal’ (as in not according to the ‘norms’) is what a ‘normal distribution’ is about.
    She appears completely ignorant of the fact that its is a graphical representation of data. Maybe we should call it ‘De Moivre’s distribution’ or ‘Gauss distribution’. Indeed, it is often called the Gauss curve (Gauss must have been a racist, of course). She possibly doesn’t even know what a standard deviation is, secondary school statistics .
    Of course many statistical distributions are skewed (Landau, Vavilov or even Poiseuille), but I doubt she would know what one is talking about if she doesn’t even know what a normal distribution is.
    Look, I have great respect for nurses, they often do outstanding work, and I have always propagated to use them more confidently in health care. I’ve always defended their ‘usefulness’ there. But these last two examples, Clearwater and McLemore gives me reason to think they haven’t a clue about science and would better stick to their expertise. Cobbler, stay with your last.

    1. I am not trying to be snarky here, but apparently her writing derives from post-enlightenment, post-modern other ways of knowing and provides an example of what we can expect to substitute for science and math in the not too distant future. Aaargh!

    2. We need a mathematician to write a Sokal hoax-type article, woke-ly decrying the anti-fish bias in the Poisson distribution.

      1. He he he! Eric, what a lovely and humorous way to point out that I said Poiseuille (laminar flows and such, not negligable for fish), when I meant Poisson, of course. Like a post correcting grammar always has a grammatical flaw. How was that law called? At any rate, thanks for correcting me.

  7. I entertain dark fantasies of some very wealthy individual(s) hiring private investigators and other skilled researchers to explore all the ideas, writings, behaviors, and the so on (barring private matters in their own homes or regarding family members) of the likes of McLemore and the Scientific American editorial staff that publishes tripe that does not deserve to bear the name of that formerly beautiful publication, and then publishing articles “calling them out” for each and every even remotely “colorable” (get it?) problematic statement or action they have ever made or taken, employing top notch marketing via mainstream and antisocial media to ensure that these articles are seen by as many people as possible.

    I’m not Christian, but Jesus does have some nice lines attributed to him, and among the best is, “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.” He also had that whole sequence about the mote in one’s neighbor’s eye that I like, which carries a similar message. How ironic that Jesus (the character at least) should have more wisdom than the editorial staff at Scientific American.

    In his prelude to the letter, Razib Khan describes Scientific American as a publication that some would say has “lost its way”. I say it has done more than this; it has stumbled into a tarpit, and if it struggled at first to free itself, its strength is now clearly failing–indeed, it appears all but entirely spent–and it’s all but ready to be engulfed in the tar, where–perhaps–it might fossilize and eventually be of interest to distant future paleontologists of media.

    I think I’m pushing the metaphor too far.

    Anyway, this is an excellent letter, which comes as no surprise–as does, unfortunately, the fact that SciAm rejected it. I’ve shared this post and Razib Khans’s substack post on my own antisocial media accounts, such as they are. Thank goodness there are people like Khan and PCC(E) responding to such absurdities with appropriate ire and clear reasoning, or I would long since have despaired entirely. Thank you.

  8. Good letter. And I am pleased to see I’m in good company. I submitted my own piece to SciAm in response to that nasty tripe, and they have not dignified me with a response (I guess lowly Ecologists don’t merit emails). I don’t have your social media reach, so I am trying another journal with it. I’ll certainly toot about it should it get accepted elsewhere.

  9. A difficult question, perhaps: So, the writer of that article for Sci Am has a PhD from the UC San Francisco School of Nursing.

    There is a slackening of rigor that has occurred and is occurring throughout all intellectual fields from classical music to medicine and so on.

    This slackening involves such things as admission with softer credentials that many other peers; actual watering down of course content; and also, I have read, fear by faculty to correct the errors of certain groups since they may be accused of various transgressions.

    Are we seeing in that article the results of this slackening? Was it on purpose and out of provocation that the ignorant statement about the normal distribution came about? Or was it that the writer truly did not know and nowhere in her year of study was she either taught what it was….an amazing thing given the PhD and its area….or perhaps that no teacher wanted to point out errors to to this person?

    And most of all: Is this what the future holds as typical?

    1. I’d say no. Being an expert in one field does not make one particularly knowledgeable in others, even closely related fields.

      So, specifically, I’d say that it does NOT mean that the UCSF Ph.D. nursing program has slack standards if one of their graduates doesn’t know much about E.O. Wilson. It just means one of their graduates is opining on a subject she was not trained in.

      1. I’ve no intention of arguing your point, but she demonstrated ignorance and / or worse in many things besides just E.O. Wilson.

      2. I have no training in science and statistics scared the daylights out of me.

        Yet, somehow I know what a normal (Gaussian, I believe) distribution is and can understand them mostly. And I am not a teacher at a university as she is!

        I also know that if you make remarks about something, especially highly accusatory ones, you should provide quotations and source. And not tell readers, as the writer of that Sci Am article did, to go find the sources themselves, which she did via twitter.

        Much more can be said….but I will stop there.

        1. I agree. Anyone wading into an academic field in which they are not trained risks making errors but the general lack of intellectual rigour in her article goes beyond that. There were assertions she made that did not need advanced training in evolutionary biology or in genetics to check. Had she done so honestly she would not have been able to make the claims she did. One would hope that the institutions at which she was trained would endeavour to inculcate the levels of critical rigour that would have led to her doing so. However, it is possible that they did but in her desire to advance her cause she chose to leave those intellectual tools aside. She would hardly be the first person to do so.

          It is particularly disappointing that Scientific American chose to print the piece without challenge. It is one thing to print opinion pieces but quite another to allow those pieces to make unsupported factual claims, especially when those claims besmirch the reputation of someone who is unable to defend himself from them. Scientific American has no excuse for not recognising that those claims were not just unsupported but also untrue.

  10. Jerry, since Sci Am supports totally unscientific practices, why not take a swing at it and find more big-name authors to support the letter and get it published in some other high-impact magazine? It would be a knockout blow.

    1. When something is published, even on a private website like mine, no other publication would touch it. If you have any suggestions, let me know. I have no idea which journals would even consider publishing it.

      1. What about New York Review of Books, where you have published reviews in the past? I have lost touch with it since Robert Silvers death and have had a long form piece that was critical of a political philosopher pontificating on math education rejected by the newer leadership, but historically I seem to recall NYR taking on such issues as this and not just in its letters section.

    1. I’d be surprised if Dr. Monica R. McLemore, professor of Nursing and Reproductive Health at the University of California, knew of Mendel’s “Law of Segregation.” Given how damning she thinks “Normal Distribution” is she probably wouldn’t have been able to resist mentioning the LoS if she had been aware of it.

  11. The excellent letter is longer than it should have to be, but the malarkey appearing in Scientific American is getting steadily worse. McLemore’s Sci Am hit-piece reads like a Titania McGrath parody: statistics limited to virtuous indignation about the word “normal” in the normal distribution, the word “colony” in ant colony, and, apparently, the word “dominant” in Mendelian genetics—although it may be that McLemore finds genetics as a whole to be “problematic” because DNA is not the same as DEI.

    McLemore represents two unfortunate academic trends. One, as poster #14 points out, is the slackening of rigor in academic training. The other, the vacuous, woke attitudinizing, was stimulated in the first place by some unfortunate, earlier attitudes—including, I regret to say, Dick Lewontin’s attitude toward E. O. Wilson. That is probably all McLemore actually learned (and knows) about E. O. Wilson.

  12. I second poster #13’s suggestion to contact the magazine’s Board of Advisors. Moreover, the subject should be the present editorship. The absurdities in the McLemore piece (the normal distribution, Mendel’s racism, etc.) descend virtually to the supermarket tabloid level, for which the current editor of Scientific American merits immediately dismissal.

    1. I contacted one of them, hoping they’d resign. Instead, this advisor, as well as another one, DECIDED TO TAKE THEIR NAMES OFF THE LETTER AND STAY ON THE BOARD OF ADVISORS. I have crossed off their names in the petition above.

  13. The hell it’s standard practice. I know I’ve seen that, and I’m pretty sure it was in Science – someone or a group taking issue with a paper, and the rebuttal to the rebuttal following that from the author(s).

  14. Excellent letter. I was expecting to find Richard Dawkins name under it, too, but perhaps he feels he was involved in too many such efforts recently and gave this a pass.

    Perhaps AR`EO takes it up, maybe with an extra intro like you and Razib each wrote for your blogs.

  15. Well done Jerry et al.

    The open letter is as excellent as the original piece was pathetic.

    (As a Univ. of Minnesota graduate) I wrote a laudatory note to Prof. Marlene Zuk, thanking her for her courage in signing.

  16. Associate Professor McLemore’s statement at cvp.ucsf.edu reads: “My program of research is grounded in reproductive justice, a lens I use to understand reproductive health and rights for people with the capacity for pregnancy.” I think that pretty much says it all.

    1. I might just be paranoid, but her frequent use of ‘the normal distribution’ sounds like she’s trying to covertly remind readers of ‘the bell curve’ with all its associations…

  17. “…Scientific American‘s campaign to morph from an organization teaching laypeople about modern science into an ideological venue for promoting “progressive” leftism and trying to effect social change. (No change, of course, will be effected by publishing ignorant nonsense like that. It is virtue-flaunting, pure and simple. Do they think that equality will come from accusing Ed Wilson of being a racist?)”

    When SciAm is publishing articles that show an ignorance of basic statistics known by high school kids a single standard deviation above average intelligence, you know it’s become trash. That article was read and approved by an editor! At a magazine ostensibly about science! It’s shameful.

    “…some of the staff at Scientific American reached out to Razib, saying that a formal rebuttal might be more useful than social media outrage. In other words, their own people solicited a response from Razib and others. From that it’s clear that not everyone on the editorial staff is overjoyed with the new woke direction of Scientific American!”

    i propose another possibility: telling lots of prominent people to stop posting their outrage on social media and instead write up a rebuttal, and then sitting on their hands for as long as possible before rejecting it, suggests that perhaps they were trying to shut you guys up for long enough to make the outrage obsolete. Unfortunately, this is both a significant possibility and even more dishonest and downright nefarious.

  18. A bit of gallows humor in the face of pseudoscience is that the inventor of “Conscilience” would spur a call for “reconciliation”.

    McLemore may not know about statistical distributions, but the name “normal distribution” derives from the famous central limit theorem that shows how under common conditions the sum of random variables will approach it [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normal_distribution#Central_limit_theorem ]. It isn’t just “a normal” property but it is “a natural” property.

    This may provide some context:

    ‘We conclude’ or ‘I believe?’ Study finds rationality declined decades ago
    Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.

    While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality towards emotion.

    Analyzing language from millions of books … as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”

    [ https://phys.org/news/2022-01-rationality-declined-decades.html ]

    1. Torbjörn is on to something here, in fact two things. First, one derivation of the central limit theorem uses “Chebyshev’s Inequality”. There it is, the word inequality. McLemore is doubtless unaware of this microaggression in probability theory, but if someone tells her about it, watch out! Second,
      if the normal distribution of samples of anything taken randomly is a natural property of the world, watch out again! These so-called “natural” relationships are not vetted by the DEI Committee.

    2. Torbjörn Larsson,

      Interesting essay at PhysOrg – certainly some need to find a “new balance” between “intuition and emotion”, on the one hand, and “rationality and science” on the other. The “tail” of the first clearly wagging the “dog” of the second far too often these days.

      But interesting graph between 1850 and 2022 – gives some reason to think that that period represents something of an interregnum of rationality in a storm-tossed sea of its opposite. It may qualify as a brief and sadly fading respite from too much of the “magical thinking” that has characterized far too much of mankind’s history – and of America’s in particular, right from its inception.

      Kurt Anderson – author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire – in an Atlantic essay that was a general synopsis of his book, gave a credible justification to that argument:

      “Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become. ….

      People see our shocking Trump moment—this post-truth, ‘alternative facts’ moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. But what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of mind-sets that have made America exceptional for its entire history.”


      And Carl Sagan in his Demon-Haunted World some 30 years ago underlined the same apprehensions about America’s direction and, with it, much of western civilization:

      “… science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time … when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

      Some cause to be more than a bit apprehensive.

      1. The only thing I’d take issue with is that any of that is unique to the US. It’s happened before in other places and times.

        1. I didn’t remember how extensive Google’s Ngram is, but Wikipedia says “English, Chinese (simplified), French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, or Spanish” – the paper ran Spanish to check on English.

          So it looks like it could be a global phenomena.

          There are other results that see the contrary trend (at least recently), such as a Swedish poll I have described here recently. The amount of conspiracy ideation and superstition (including religion, of course) had dropped further in the last 6 years.

        2. darrelle,

          Generally agree – it may be less that that is “unique to the US” than they they’ve more or less “refined” it to a fine pitch, to its purest and most salient elements, to its starkest and most profitable manifestations … 😉

          Which seems generally the case for both the best and the worst. I seem to recollect someone saying, several decades ago, that the demise of the XFL (Extreme Football League?) disproved Mencken’s adage that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” Some evidence that the XFL found new legs so maybe Mencken’s quip still holds …

          But as Jerry’s posts on the corruption of science in New Zealand more or less proves, the tenaciousness and perniciouness of “other ways of knowing” is rather ubiquitous.

          Nor is it unique to the 20th or 21st centuries. Any time science winds up conflicting with religious dogma is when the traditionalists, the dogmatists, the believers in papal infallibility wind up closing down those avenues. Irshad Manji’s “The Trouble With Islam Today” [and for the last 1400 years] discusses in some detail how that largely derailed Islam’s golden age in the tenth century or so.

          And, somewhat similarly, the Catholic Church and Galileo along with other religious fundamentalists before and since.

    1. Yes, I disgree with him but why is this point relevant to the post? I disagree with views of several of the signers, but we are all together in the point we’re trying to make on the petition.

  19. Interesting that McLemore waited until E.O. Wilson was dead to publish her Scientific American article—so that he can’t defend himself or sue for libel. (If I remember correctly, American libel laws don’t apply to the dead.)

  20. Greetings Dr. Coyne,

    I do not have a formal scientific background although my long-ago bachelor’s was in computer science. (I am now working on a PhD in biblical studies which is painful regarding the amount of evidence and validation required, even in the course work.) Thus, I will speak as carefully as possible in my response to your article. In fact, I really would appreciate any corrections to or suggestions on ways to better state what I have written below.

    I appreciated your rebuttal. Something as simple as the definition of a normal distribution, in my assessment, makes your point. In your rebuttal letter, the statement, “…the enduring truth or falsity of a scientific theory does not depend upon the anachronistic opinions of the scientists who helped develop it” is an excellent example of a truth statement that is logically sound! (I don’t have time to prove why, but I think you would agree with my assessment).

    Now, as an African American and as a theist (of the Christian variety), I understand, culturally speaking, that the scientific sons should not be held responsible for the “sins” of their scientific father(s). Yet, regarding what we call “race”, our culture, the United States of America – to use a scientific and technical phrase – IS ALL JACKED UP! I appreciated your response and Scientific America may indeed be bending to a leftist and progressive agenda to sell magazines or make the public happy. Their refusal to listen to you or Razib Khan or others may be indicative of their new bias.

    Yet, the scientist mentioned in the article (Pearson, Galton, Darwin, Mendel, and others) living in their culture, in their time, and in their space in history helped to setup the jacked-up state you and I now have to strive to unravel – you by promoting your understanding of naturalism and me by promoting my understanding of supernaturalism. The SA article may be stoking populace fires, after all, we just celebrated the MLK holiday. Yet, I – for one – cannot let my scientific nor my theological forefathers for that matter, off-the-hook. The cultural, systemic, sociological, and psychological jacked up state of the USA regarding race and ethnicity is a result of these powerful white men who are all now dead. I blame my theological predecessors even more so than the scientific ones because with an honest principled-based approach to the sacred text, they had NO basis for the American slave trade; NONE! The flawed “anachronistic opinions” of the scientist had “hard facts” to justify their practices but my theological forefathers should have known better. After all, it was mostly theist and deist the wrote the words, “all men are created equal” but they left that damnable practice in place and many of their “theological” descendants seem to have no problem storming the Capital of the United States 245 years after that document was signed.

    I think Professor Monica R. McLemore from UC San Francisco is being guided more by her wants, her desires, her beliefs, her worldview – these things are guiding her more than the quest for truth and reality. Her logic and premises are all flawed which easily (unfortunately) invalidates her message. Yet, there is something about her message which stings many in our jacked-up culture; maybe for the wrong reasons, but the sting is just as real. My limited understanding of evolution by natural selection (full disclosure: I am an old-earth creationist that accepts special creation at intervals in various epochs over large spans of deep time) seems to require improvement in a species, right? Why would such gradual improvement not positively impact the mental, psychological, and intellectual capabilities of isolated pockets of a population? Sure… we’re all mixed now but there are clear physiological differences in people groups. It only seems reasonable, as it did to our now deceased forefathers, that certain populations would be inherently smarter, better, and more civilized. After all, one well known atheist admits, “if you wanted to rear a human child to win a body-building contest and you had a few centuries to spare, you could start by genetic manipulation.” (See page 38 of the book, “The Greatest Show on Earth” by R. Dawkins) Why would this same principle not also apply to the mind?

    Maybe Professor McLemore sees the problems inherent in a logical outworking of one way of applying the scientific method using a naturalistic worldview with limited ethical or moral boundaries. I don’t know. I do know that whether we are progressive or conservative, theistic, or not, this country will tear itself apart if we don’t fix the jacked-up mess started by our predecessors.

    1. a. Your letter exceeds the length limits
      b. I don’t know what you mean by “jacked up” state. If you mean “racial devision,” yes it is
      c. HOWEVER, as a scientist, I’m not going to go easy on Dr. McLemore because she is a black woman. Surely you realize how patronizing it would be go “go easy” on someone making empirical assertions just because they’re black. In science it doesn’t work that way.
      d. Wilson and Mendel were not respsonsible for the racial division in America today. They were not racists. I suggest you do some reading about these people before you go accusing scientists of being responsible for our “jacked up” culture.

  21. Jerry, now that two of the signatories have withdrawn due to discrepancies with Razib, you should talk to each other and ally yourself with other scientists to write a rebuttal that can be published in a scientific medium. Science and its history deserve it. And Wilson too.

    1. I’d be glad to but nobody has suggested a scientific place that would actually ACCEPT a piece like that. Of course neither Science or Nature would, and it’s already been “published” on three websites.

  22. I see where two of the letter’s signers–Hoekstra and Moreau–have removed their names from the letter after suddenly realizing that Khan is such a racist that they don’t want to be associated with him even when he’s right. ( https://twitter.com/hopihoekstra/status/1483965066395459586 )

    Also that P.Z. Myers has jumped the shark all the way by defending the original Sci. Am. piece (apparently because of its larger point, “no saints”). Myers quotes comments by a historian of science that show that Wilson, though explicitly anti-racist in all of his writings, actually really was a racist because he once wrote a letter in support of a guy who is definitely a racist…or something like that.

    Might be worth a follow-up, especially if you can ask Hoekstra about it.

    1. It’s ridiculous. The historian is the son of paleontologist Jack Sepkoski. He commented that Wilson spoke out in defense of a study by Philippe Rushton on the r/k strategy applied to humans (every time something that is normally applied to animals is passed on to humans, a scandal arises), but the guy has not addressed the issue. with the honesty it requires. Yes, a guy who comments on the biases of others being totally biased.

      1. I hadn’t known the thug Rushton till now, sabotaging biology and putting EOW’s name on it, the way W James claimed to represent Peirce.

  23. I agree totally with your stance on this article and their refusals to accept your contribution. On E O Wilson himself however, does he not need proper critique for mechanising us all – which was equal opportunity denigration? (I’ve not caught up with his latest “multi level” idea yet though).

    I pass as weatherbeaten but my mum was harangued in the street in front of me. We know about learning differences just when people stronger than us judge solely on shallow ideas of body language. I was discriminated against on grounds of religion and in a health care setting. I’ve suffered less than others up till now but it was actual (intersectional). If I was of colour or race in the US I would be nervous, having been compared with an ant: I am nervous in the UK about it.

    If E O Wilson is making me “less than”, no thanks: that you think it’s fine for you, chills me just as much. As I said, that is no reason for the policies of that publication. The answer to the button pushing problem is not to be found in the button pushing system (Godel’s theorem).

    BTW to prevent confusion I think all evolution ought from now on to be renamed “Wilsonism” 😉

Leave a Reply