More accusations that E. O. Wilson was a racist

February 4, 2022 • 10:00 am

There’s a new article in Science for the People magazine by Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons, which argues that E. O. Wilson was a racist. This is a different, more serious, and far better documented article than the Scientific American hit job by Monica McLemore, whose “research” apparently resulted from reading the last chapter of Sociobiology, which contains no basis for accusations of racism.  One can further dismiss McLemore’s claims because she also argued that Gregor Mendel was a racist, and for that there is not a scintilla of evidence, nor does she present any. She further eroded her credibility by claiming that the statistical “normal distribution” was racist. In other words,  What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

But this new article (click on screenshot below) has substantial documentation, based largely on Wilson’s association with and promotion of the work of J. Phillippe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist and author who apparently spent much of his life trying to show that there were racial hierarchies based on IQ, with, of course, black people below white. It would not be too strong to call the man an obsessive racist. I had never heard of the guy before the two authors found evidence of Wilson’s association with Rushton, but since then I’ve read more about it and also heard from two people who knew Rushton.

The two authors are identified respectively at the bottom of the article (I’ve added links):

Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons are a wife and husband team with an interest in the history of science. Dr. Farina is an Assistant Professor at Howard University with a PhD in Evolutionary Biology. Matthew Gibbons has a BA in Humanities and works in public health.

Farina and Gibbons (henceforth “F&G) report that they were going through Wilson’s archives at the Library of Congress, doing research on sociobiology, and came across some folders labeled “Rushton”, containing all of Ed Wilson’s correspondence with and about Rushton. This led to the revelation of a relationship that seems sufficiently unsavory and unwise on Wilson’s part that I’ve had to revise my opinion of the man downward. Click to read:

I am not writing this to defend Wilson. As far as I know, other pieces about his racism/bigotry are in the works, and I’ll reserve a more definitive judgment until I learn more.. As I said, what I know from the article above—and I have no reason to doubt its assertions—is sufficient to make me think less of Wilson as a person.  He was a flawed man, and his flaws were less excusable that, say, the ideas of someone like Darwin since Wilson lived in our era, and that’s that. But was he a completely flawed man—an obsessed racist like Rushton? You won’t find anybody who knew him that could agree with that.

Rushton can truly be described as a “race scientist”, and Wilson, who of course was somewhat of a biological determinist about animal behavior (including humans), seems to have gotten entangled in Rushton’s case. Rushton apparently kept getting into and out of trouble with the University of Western Ontario, and at one point was fired and then appealed.  Wilson wrote him letters of support for both his retention and his appeal, making a few statements that he and other scientists defended some of Rushton’s ideas about IQ.  As F&G note, Wilson’s letters were “ultimately inconsequential” because they were sent to somebody who had no say in Rushton’s promotion. But they do offer insights into Wilson’s thinking

Wilson supported Rushton’s promotion partly on the grounds that the man’s denigration violated his “academic freedom,” and it may well have (Rushton won his appeal), but that doesn’t excuse his further support of Rushton’s ideas. I might be persuaded to support the academic freedom of someone as odious as Rushton, but I couldn’t be persuaded to assent to his ideas nor promote him further. Wilson apparently did.

Wilson later sponsored a PNAS paper submitted by Rushton, but I’m not sure that’s a racist paper as I haven’t read it (you can read it here). At the end of a quck reading I do note that it does speak darkly of “IQ based educational and occupational hierarchies.”

Wilson later refused to sponsor another PNAS submission by Rushton, apparently because he, Wilson, didn’t want to be seen as racist as he was in the middle of a fracas about biological determinism with Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin (my advisor) as his opponents.

As I said, there’s little doubt that Rushton was a bad piece of work. Two of my friends had dealings with him. One, who dealt with Rushton by email, calls him a “lying sociopath.” The other, who knew Rushton socially and fairly well, said he was an “obsessed racist” and “evil.”

In the end, then, what do I think of Wilson after these new revelations, which are definitely NOT a hit job?  I think less of him as a person. While he was an excellent scientist in nearly every way, he was wrong in the case of Rushton. He was wrong (and foolish) to support Rushton’s ideas, he was wrong to sponsor papers by Rushton, and he was not sufficiently critical of Rushton’s obsessive racism at a time he should have been. Was Wilson a “racist”? It’s hard for me answer that question, and all I can say now is “I’m not sure.”  I’d rather defer dealing with that loaded characterization until more research reveals what Wilson said or wrote.

Should we devalue Wilson’s scientific ideas or legacy if he did treat a known racist favorably? You can certainly reassess who Wilson was as a person, but I’d argue that Wilson’s true contributions to the field—his work on ants, his conservation work, his popularization of evolutionary biology, and his promotion of a field studying the evolutionary/genetic basis of animal behavior—yes, all of that is to the good. In the main, because his life seems to me a net good, and his science usually excellent (a caveat: I did criticize the group-selectionist bent of his later years and wrote a very critical review of his book Social Conquest of Earth), I would honor him as a scientist.

Although I usually see the word “nuance” as a hedge, in this case I think it’s applicable. Wilson was foolish and harbored ideas that he didn’t think about deeply, or didn’t realize the social import of, and he certainly supported an out-and-out racist, sometimes broaching racist ideas. He was a flawed man with a weakness for human biological determinism.

But I reserve judgement on calling him an “overt racist” until I read the biographical studies that are in the works. But one thing is for sure: Wilson was certainly not in the same league as, say, William Shockley or J. D. Watson, men who I have no compunction about calling racists. You may fault me for not immediately applying the term “racist” to Wilson on the basis of one paper, but I don’t think the case is strong enough to tar him with that adjective right now. I will claim that he was flawed, and too much of a hereditarian with too little evidence for his views. And he should have known better when dealing with Rushton, or claiming that Rushton’s ideas were in the mainstream. They weren’t.

Addendum by Greg Mayer

Although Farina and Gibbons (F&G) are to be commended for attempting to find some evidence for the claim that Wilson was a racist, what they have been able to find amounts to small beer.

The charge against Wilson is that he edited a paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 1986 by J. Philippe Rushton, a now-deceased Canadian psychologist, and that he wrote several letters supporting Rushton in 1989 and 1990 while the latter was coming up for tenure at Western Ontario University. Even if we grant the importance that F&G claim for these actions, they amount to very little in a life and career as long as Wilson’s. But there is little reason to grant them the importance that F&G do.

The PNAS paper. Let’s look at the PNAS paper first. The most salient fact about this paper is not Rushton’s authorship, but that one of the other authors is Charles J. Lumsden. Lumsden was the coauthor with Wilson of Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981) as well as the more popular Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of Mind (1983). Unlike Wilson’s earlier books, his mathematical collaboration with Lumsden in Genes, Mind, and Culture was savaged from all sides. The tone of Dick Lewontin’s review for The Sciences might have been predicted (“It has bolstered an absurd claim with an absurd model”, but the review of John Maynard Smith and N. Warren is even more damning, since it is written with such evident sympathy (“Our conclusion, then, is that little that is not self- evident emerges from the models, and that the results which LW regard as important, like the ‘thousand year rule,’ do not depend on the cultural components of the model, but follow directly from the assumption of high heritability and strong selection”).

Lumsden has not achieved the recognition– at least in evolutionary biology–of Wilson’s earlier mathematical collaborators (Robert MacArthur and George Oster). As Paul Harvey wrote in NewScientist about Wilson with respect to his collaborators, “Unfortunately, he was third time unlucky.” To my mind, the obvious motivating factor in the submission of this paper to Wilson, and of Wilson’s favorable decision as editor, is the participation of Lumsden, Wilson’s significant junior collaborator. One may raise an eyebrow about submitting papers to your friends, but this was the policy of PNAS at the time. Whether Wilson was interested in helping Lumsden or Rushton (or both) may be determinable from the surviving record of documents and correspondence (and Lumsden’s recollections), but it is at least premature to judge this on the evidence given. My guess would be that examining the correspondence will show that Wilson had an ongoing supportive relationship with Lumsden over many years, and that this paper was only a small part of that relationship.

Before moving on to the letters of support, one other curious statement by F&G concerning the paper is worth noting. They write “two months hardly seems enough time to” revise a manuscript for publication; but two months is plenty of time to do this, and it happens all the time.

The letters. The second charge against Wilson is that he wrote letters in support of Rushton during a tenure controversy at the latter’s university. This charge is in part undermined by F&G’s own statement that the letter they highlight was “ultimately inconsequential”. But the key context for Wilson’s support of Rushton is Wilson’s own experience with attempts to silence him and brand him a racist dating back to the publication of Sociobiology in 1975. Science for the People– the publisher of F&G’s piece– was a prominent antagonist of Wilson at that time and, evidently, to this very day. Wilson, as quoted by F&G, saw this as a matter of academic freedom. To do so does not imply an identity of views– I have known Marxists to defend conservatives, and vice versa, on this front. There is perhaps greater impetus to action when there is some overlap of views, but there is on current evidence no sign of Wilson’s endorsement of Rushton’s views as a whole. Wilson would clearly sympathize with someone who thinks there is genetic variability in the human population, and who Wilson thinks is being attacked because of that belief.

Further study of Wilson’s papers will be revealing, but Wilson has long expressed publicly his deep distress at the attacks, both verbal and in one case physical, that he experienced during the height of the Sociobiology controversy. I expect that his private correspondence will be replete with references to these events and his disputations with Lewontin and Steve Gould.

Zoological subspecies or geographic races. In zoology, when there is sufficient geographic structuring of genetic and heritable phenotypic variation that individuals’ geographic origins can be determined from their genetic and phenotypic characteristics, and vice versa, some systematists would describe the geographic segments of the species as subspecies. “Race”, in this context, is what subspecies are– diagnosable geographic segments of a species which interbreed where they come into contact. Theodosius Dobzhansky, who F&G tout as a hero, had no problem with the zoological concept of subspecies (see, for example, chapter 9 of his Genetics of the Evolutionary Process, 1970). He also had no problem with genetically determined variation in all sorts of interesting human qualities. But he thought variation and diversity in these qualities were good things– the more types of people the merrier: just as heterokaryotypes were more fit, and selection maintained high degrees of variability, in Drosophila, so too in people.

Wilson was very familiar with the zoological concept of subspecies because he thought they did NOT really exist. His paper with W.L. Brown from 1953 in Systematic Zoology is a classic attack on the whole idea of subspecies. Roughly speaking, Wilson didn’t believe there were races. Wilson clearly believed that there was interesting genetic variation within and among human populations (as well as those of other animal species), but he didn’t think that these variations were sufficiently structured and concordant to allow any useful identification of overall geographic patterns. He thought individual characters could be studied, and these might show geographic patterns, but that the patterns were discordant among characters.

F&G write “We can’t know whether Rushton would have faded into obscurity without the professional support of his career by Wilson.” To this rhetorical question we are led to answer, “Yes, without Wilson, he would have lapsed into obscurity.” When Jerry first briefly described F&G’s article to me, I vaguely recalled some Canadian guy who might fit Jerry’s precis, and indeed Rushton is the guy I vaguely recalled. But I couldn’t recall his name, or exactly what it is he had done or claimed. I have since learned that people I know who knew Rushton found him odious. But, pretty much, Rushton did lapse into obscurity. (Perhaps he was noteworthy in his own discipline of psychology.) One paper edited and a few letters sent neither made nor broke Rushton. Whatever effects Wilson had on Rushton, on present evidence, were small, and likely directed toward larger issues not closely tied to Rushton or Rushton’s views: the career of Charles Lumsden, and Wilson’s own experience with and opposition to attempts to silence academics loomed larger.

91 thoughts on “More accusations that E. O. Wilson was a racist

  1. J. Phillippe Rushton was the former director of the Pioneer Fund — the foundation whose funding Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray were criticized for relying on in their writing of The Bell Curve.

  2. [ writes/deletes for five minutes ]

    I suppose the importance of evaluating evidence of this sort is to understand how, while racism or personal flaws – e.g. as distinct from that which might appear in “everyday life” on the covers of check-out lane publications – pollute the professional enterprise, and essentially inhibit good science.

    I.e. this is NOT the equivalent of People Magazine.

  3. It would be interesting to know if Wilson supported others in their fights for academic freedom. It would be unfair to call Wilson racist if he wrote letters of support for hundreds of academics with Rushton as the only one with racist opinions.

  4. I would not judge him one way or the other. Do not know enough to terminate the good from the bad. It must be noted, however, that he is from Alabama, growing up many years ago in a segregated society.

    1. And he spent his life studying usually social and often hierarchical species that he did compare to human societies (Sociobiology.) So …

  5. Without going through the details, this is my humble opinion. Sometimes people associate personally with other people of questionable character. One has to be careful before rushing to “guilty by association”. Now, if there is more than a personal association, things change. But when you have to dig deep to find a couple of nasty pieces about somone whose work has been prolific and extended for decades, the charges seem to me flimsy. Virtually everyone has written, said or done something objectionable at some point or another. The destruction of a public intellectual, in my view, requires more than a couple of anecdotes. A professor with thousands of public engagements, lectures, recorded writings and personal interactions… an nobody seemed to know that he was a racist until someone started digging on some archives. Well, do we know for sure that he did not regret those faux pas and simply decided to disavow them internally without needing to publicly intone a mea culpa?
    What is the body of his work and the body of his life and personal interactions? Is a “footnote” enough to cancel someone? Maybe it is in the currente environment. Not for me.

    1. In the main I agree with you. I won’t “cancel” Wilson as a person on the basis of this one article. I do think he could have exercised better judgment vis-a-vis Rushton, given that Rushton was already known for his racist views, but if this is the only lapse, then surely we can’t tar him as a racist.

      1. I was eager to see your (Jerry’s) thoughts about F&G’s piece. I came across it yesterday. I’m too young to have followed any scandals about Rushton during the early 90s and only learned who he was this fall, when his ex-wife Elizabeth Weiss (a professor of anthropology at San Jose State and osteologist) was mobbed on Twitter–she was called a racist, I believe, for posting a picture of herself holding a skull. (Weiss has written for Quillette and Areo and is suing her employer for removing her access to remains:

        Anyway, Weiss and Rushton have a paper entitled “Brain size, IQ, and racial-group differences: Evidence from musculoskeletal traits” ( Here is the first paragraph of the article, in which they start with claims about IQ differences between races:

        “In the US and around the world, East Asians and their descendants average an IQ of about106, Europeans and their descendants about 100, and Africans and their descendants about 85. The lowest average IQ scores are reported for sub-Saharan Africa, about 70 (Jensen,1998; Lynn & Vanhanen, 2002; Rushton, 2000). Average IQ differences between individuals and groups, including mean racial-group differences, show up before age 5, and they last a lifetime (Jensen, 1998).”

        They then postulate that the presumed differences in IQ are due to brain size.

        OK, so that is radioactive, especially if the evidence for IQ is faulty, or if Rushton was trying to prove the existence of race differences, such that everything he found was skewed by confirmation bias.

        But what if there are population differences in IQ after accounting for crummy assessment tools and cultural differences? Aren’t there? Are standardized tests exactly that? Don’t we have like a bazillion data points showing that Asians score higher, followed by Whites, and then Blacks and Hispanics performing less well than either? Isn’t this the entire reason the far Left wants to get rid of the SAT/ACT/GRE for admission to universities?

        It seems insufficient to deal with the claim that Rushton is racist without overtly addressing the fact that there may be group-level differences in IQ. That said, I find it abhorrent to focus on it and would never study the topic. As a geneticist myself, I see no point in trying to rub incendiary differences in our faces. (Yes, on average those with PhDs in physics are smarter than me and Asian women have cuter faces and bodies, and this is threatening to my self-esteem.) But acknowledging possible differences is different than trying to prove they exist because one is racist.

        It could be that Ruston was both a fulminate and disgusting racist and possibly right about differences in IQ. Or he could be wrong about group differences in IQ. Whatever the case, it is also scary to tar Wilson due to being unwilling to denounce everything Rushton.

        Rushton gives me the creeps, but the pattern of going through someone’s letters to find proof of wrongthought or wrongsupport is not that different than people removing their names from the letter protesting the SciAm piece when they found out Razib Khan wrote it.

        1. … without overtly addressing the fact that there may be group-level differences in IQ.

          Just to point out that “IQ” (a behavioural trait) is influenced both by genes and environment, and thus the “incendiary” question is not whether there are group-level differences in IQ (we know that there are, as you say in your previous paragraph), but whether such are produced entirely by environmental factors (as could well be the case) or whether there is also a genetic component.

            1. There are other measures of intelligence: e.g., simply how long one stays in school. . . . Education years is highly correlated with cognitive performance on IQ tests.

            2. It seems to have been demonstrated that IQ (mental age/physical age • 100) is primarily a test of cultural knowledge(yes there is a genetic component in the ability to learn a new culture.) Psychologists have spent a lot of time and effort trying to make the tests more culturally (or really subculturally) neutral and this has decreased differences in scores. Accounting for socio-economic and educational differences does as well. Historic tracing of the development of IQ Tests suggests that the culture tested for is white, upper middle class, Northern, Urban, academic etc., So that northern urban “blacks” out score rural, southern, “whites.”
              Being able to Successfully study for the SAT, which is a kind of IQ test, is clear evidence of the cultural nature of these tests.

          1. We know that in a population IQ isn’t entirely due to environment. We have genome-wide association studies in over a million people that prove that genetics explains a certain portion of the variance in IQ.

            Ultimately, the effects of genes and environment are relative and interchangeable. If a nuclear bomb is dropped on your head, it doesn’t matter what your genes are, your environment determines your death. However, if you are born with mutations in the HEXA gene and have Tay-Sachs, at this point, there is no cure. You will die young, and that is entirely genetic.

            Back to IQ…

            An easy natural experiment would be to study the IQs of the children of parents who migrated to the US from China. If their ACT/SAT/GRE scores are similar to those in China, then we know the explanation is genetic. If their scores suddenly drop, such that they are closer to those of Whites in the US, then we know the explanation is the environment.

            1. Would we really though? If their scores were similiar to those in China, couldn’t culture be the explaining factor? It seems unlikely that the immigrated parents would abandon their old culture altogether.

              1. Well, the natural experiment works IF the scores differ.

                If the scores are the same, then we struggle with the issue you raised. However, we also know that behavior is influenced more by peers than by parents. So, US culture is likely to exert a greater influence on the biologically Chinese kids born in the US than their parents’ behavior, at least for a measure of IQ grabbed between 18-30.

                (OTS, to be respectful of Ceiling Cat’s Roolz regarding the number of comments one should leave, I can’t respond again. I don’t want to dominate this thread.)

  6. Does the fact that this article was written by a husband and wife team set off any alarm bells for anyone else? Perhaps I’m being totally unfair but you often find that such teams are propelled by an agenda that might not be totally honest.

    1. LOL. You can bet your bottom piaster that anybody writing for ‘Science for The People’ has a political agenda whether they are married or not.
      It is the direct quotes from Wilson that are damning here, not any commentary by the aithors.

      1. Biologists within SftP were highly critical of sociobiology, because of objectionable premises to the organization of the discipline and for the implications of using sociobiology to support racism, capitalism, and imperialism. E. O. Wilson, a biologist and entomology professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, whose book Sociobiology: A New Synthesis had helped start the debate, wrote that “the political objections forcefully made by the Sociobiology Study Group of Science for the People in particular took me by surprise.”


        That is pretty heavy stuff.

    2. I disagree. There are countless examples of fruitful truth search by husband – wife teams, the most famous the Curies, the Okazakis and Ugur Sahin & Özlem Türeci whose BionTech developed one of the best coronavirus vaccines. Of course, the natural closeness of views of spouses may create a mini echo chamber. But this can easily happen in other teams as well.

      (My comment is not to imply that I believe or approve these particular authors. Even if it is true that Rushton was a racist and Wilson supported him, I find it nasty to dig into the non-public writings of a recently deceased person in order to character-assassinate him. What comes next, studying personal letters and diaries?)

        1. Jumping in here

          I think it shows it is irrelevant to the content. Frankly, I think it is. It is interesting in a biographical sense.

          However, it is relevant to the perception because why say it in the first place.

          1. Although my comment started as reporting my gut feel, I’ve thought about it some more. Of course, it shouldn’t matter that they are husband and wife. The content of their piece should stand alone. On the other hand, the subject matter is more about morality than science. They are examining a famous scientist’s correspondence hoping to find evidence that he’s a racist at heart. I find that a bit detestable on its face. Is it really that important that we find out that E.O. Wilson is a racist? Will the world really be a better place if we know that?

            When “going after” someone, a husband-and-wife (or wife-and-husband) team can be expected to keep their own council about methods and motivation, more than with unmarried collaborators. Did they conveniently ignore other correspondence where Wilson says he’s not a fan of Rushton’s thesis but supports his academic freedom regardless? We’ll only know if their treatment of Wilson is fair if someone else goes to all the trouble to read his voluminous correspondence. I suspect we’ll see in the coming weeks as surely Wilson has many fans who would want to get to the bottom of this.

        2. … by “perception” I mean the editor wants the publication to appeal to an audience, so in their estimation, that audience sees something in “husband and wife team”.

  7. How much of this is Wilson sticking up for the idea that the extent of genetic influence on human behaviour (whether within-group differences or between-group differences) should be a scientific and empirical matter, not one placed out-of-bounds for ideological reasons?

    1. That seems possible; the always-interesting evolutionary thinker Gad Saad has argued that the academic pursuit of knowledge and truth should always be deontological and not based on the consequentialist notion that some avenues of inquiry ought not to be permitted because of where they might lead or how they might be misused. John Horgan did, in fact, wonder, around a decade ago in the pages of Scientific American, whether some research (e.g. on IQ) should be banned.

  8. Not being an academic, or a professional in any of the fields of science, I am somewhat standing on the sidelines of these controversies. Other than being appalled by the shallowness and pig-headedness of most advocates of wokeism.
    I just want to say that I admire the care you are taking in studying and challenging newly surfaced information about a respected scientist whom you obviously admire greatly. Placing individual data about a person within the larger context of their life and achievements? Waiting until you’ve had a chance to examine the evidence for an assertion that someone’s racist? Not mistaking an ancillary portion of a person’s entire life for the value of the whole? Why, where you could possibly have gotten these “mistaken notions”?

  9. Another criticism I have recently seen levelled against Wilson regards a positive blurb he provided for the book “A Troubling Inheritance”, by Nicholas Wade (Wilson’s blurb is visible on the book’s Amazon page). I have not read the book, nor am I very familiar with Wade’s work more generally. However, my quick internet search (including several posts on this very website which I think I read at the time but had forgotten) suggests that the book makes sweeping claims regarding racial behavioral differences with little to no evidence (in a similar vein, the one article by Wade himself that I took the time to read during my search, an article for Time, made claims regarding behavioral evolution among Europeans over the past 800 years for which he provided scant, if any, evidence and left me thoroughly unconvinced, to put it mildly). I can see how approaching that subject, in that manner, would come across as pretty unsavory.

    So why did Wilson provide the blurb? I have long deeply admired Wilson and his work, plan on continuing to do so on the whole, and am not planning on tarring him as an out-and-out racist absent more evidence. But I won’t pretend that these new bits of information don’t paint a slightly muddier picture. I think this fits in the same category of Wilson being, as Dr. Coyne puts it, “a flawed man with a weakness for human biological determinism”. But I’d be interested in knowing the thoughts of others, especially given the seemingly shaky science provided in Wade’s book.

    1. Nicholas Wade says clearly that the part of the book about racial behavioral differences is speculative.

      “Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution. Because the existence of race has long been ignored or denied by many researchers, there is a dearth of factual information as to how race impinges on human society. The conclusions presented in these chapters fall far short of proof. However plausible (or otherwise) they may seem, many are speculative. There is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear. And speculation is the customary way to begin the exploration of uncharted territory because it stimulates a search for the evidence that will support or refute it.

      “The reader may also wish to keep in mind that this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.”

  10. Thank you for this. I have long admired Wilson for his beautiful writing, his conservation message, and (some of) his ideas. I found the quotes in the linked article very disappointing.
    But not enough to throw away The Diversity of Life or Island Biogeography.
    I can appreciate scientific or artistic accomplishments without reference to unrelated opinions or actions of the scientist or artist. In fact, I insist on doing so.

    1. Certainly his working out of the principles of Island Biogeography and his work on biodiversity must be recognized as important contributions to understanding and it’s to be hoped eventually to solving/adapting to climate change.

  11. Wilson had a bit of a cranky element to him as well. I believe, in response to some criticism by Richard Dawkins, that he dismissed Richard as a “journalist”, not a scientist. That did happen later in life though, so not sure if that was characteristic of how he normally responded to scrutiny of his ideas.

  12. Rushton clearly admired Wilson and cited his work on several occasions. At a time when Wilson was defending himself against accusations of being racist, that alone might have made Wilson more kindly disposed towards Ruston. Also, since Rushton’s death in 2012 his science has been totally discredited but from what I can glean from google, during his lifetime he defended himself quite successfully. I think it would be valid to ask whether Wilson was defending Rushton’s science per se or Rushton’s right to study human behavior from a biological perspective. Of course since Wilson is dead, there is no way to ask him.

    I also think that among the ~47,000 pieces of Wilson’s correspondence given to the library of Congress, surely there are more interesting insights to be gained about Wilson than whether or not he was racist.

  13. I struggle on whether to read this article. I have not (yet).

    On the one hand, a clearer picture of people should never scare or offend us.

    On the other, I grow really weary of society treating every famous person like they ought to be a role model. They just aren’t.

    This whole implied notion that there are good people and bad people needs to go. Everyone’s a mix. That great song you like? The artist did or believed something horrible. I guarantee you. Same goes for that painting you admire. That theorem you use. The athlete who is the inspiration for your gym workout? Them too. Can we get the frak over it already, and save our ire for just the really egregious cases?

    Still not sure I’m going to read it. But I felt the need to vent.

    1. You have to read before you vent! Remember, one of Lukianoff and Haidt’s big errors in thinking of young people is that the world is divided up into good and bad people. It’s a very Manichaean way of thinking.

  14. Pulling this quote from Rushton’s Wikipedia page, it appears that Wilson wrote this of him:

    I think Phil is an honest and capable researcher. The basic reasoning by Rushton is solid evolutionary reasoning; that is, it is logically sound. If he had seen some apparent geographic variation for a non-human species – a species of sparrow or sparrow hawk, for example – no one would have batted an eye. … [W]hen it comes to [human] racial differences, especially in the inflamed situation in this country, special safeguards and conventions need to be developed.

    Nuanced, it seems to me that the last sentence seems to say “he should have said what he said differently.” And the whole quote seems a far cry from writing something to the effect of “Rushton has finally provided evidence for what we have all known for so long.”

    Also, this all seems to have been from 1991. Anything else, or are the subsequent 30yrs populated by crickets (ants?) on this?

  15. It’s important to highlight how important Rushton is for someone who hasn’t read his books, nor encountered an alt-right follower of his. Rushton was not only racist, but he was one of the most prominent open, outspoken, racialists in academia of the last 50 years. I’m not going to provide any links, but one can go to youtube (right now) and watch him over the course of many decades give lengthy lectures at white nationalist gatherings. He was a big draw, the president of the Pioneer Fund, the single major funder of modern race science, university professor, lecturer, writer of books, articles, and even made tv appearances.

    If you find those videos you can see him sharing the stage with organizers like Jared Taylor and flattering crowd members like David Duke. Rushton provided decades of very hateful material for this crowd; his work was full of historic revisionism, cultural denigration, the describing of Africans as lesser people lacking history, language, culture, violent, unintelligent, etc. He had chapters singularly dedicated to him paraphrasing historical figures repeating racism towards Africans; that they were naturally ugly, stupid, beasts, etc (page after page after page after page of his words interpreting those of others).

    Racism wasn’t just an aspect of himself nor just a part of his work, but the totality of it (which lives on, mind you, through his books, speeches, and articles). There isn’t a racialist alive today which hasn’t read Rushton, nor cites him, nor advance his arguments word-for-word.

    Don’t take my word for it. Just ask any other African on the internet and they will tell you that they have had at least one encounter with a Rushton quoter/citer directly denigrating them as a person.

  16. For me, the worst thing about this is not that EO Wilson associated with and supported unfavourable racist people (or at least one). His work will stand or fall on its scientific quality regardless of his personal flaws. If you had your heart set on an EO Wilson building or prize, you are now likely to be disappointed, but that’s a minor thing.

    The worst thing is that the Scientific American article looks like it was right in a stopped clock is right twice a day kind of way. People will defend that shoddy pile of crap by pointing to this work and the consequences for its author and the magazine will not be so severe as they should be.

    1. It should be noted that Stacy Farina supports the SciAm piece with no reservations. She tweeted this:

      Yup. As thrilled as I am that most are reacting to my piece with thoughtfulness and support, I wish
      had received the same reaction. The way that folks responded to her article was appalling.

      1. A comment that deeply undermines her credibility as a good faith critic of Wilson and his work. The response to the SciAm article was 100% justified.

    2. “The worst thing is that the Scientific American article looks like it was right [like a stopped clock]”

      I immediately understood and agreed. Then I thought if that is the fallacy (which is mine) of “legitimizing”.

  17. Wasn’t Science for the People the organization which had a member accost Wilson by pouring water on his head as he was giving a talk?

      1. @ an American Anthropological Association meeting in DC in a large packed auditorium around 11/1968. He managed to make it seem unimportant and went on with his presentation.

    1. What noble, admirable human primates. Their grandmothers surely were proud of them.

      What remarkable forebearance and restraint on the part of Wilson.

  18. There are hints in Wilson’s published works that he believed human populations differ in their innate intellectual endowments. Near the end of chapter 2 of On Human Nature, he wrote:

    “Given that humankind is a biological species, it should come as no shock to find that populations are to some extent genetically diverse in the physical and mental properties underlying social behavior. A discovery of this nature does not vitiate the ideas of Western civilization. We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity. The sociologist Marvin Bressler has expressed this idea with precision:

    ‘An ideology that tacitly appeals to biological equality as a condition for human emancipation corrupts the idea of freedom. Moreover, it encourages decent men to tremble at the prospect of ‘inconvenient’ findings that may emerge in future scientific research. This unseemly anti-intellectualism is doubly degrading because it is probably unnecessary.’”

  19. Wow! If Ms Farina would take off the blinders, she would see a very clear difference between her (and her husband’s) paper and the hit-job of Ms McLemore. That, if I remember correctly, was palpably amateurish – even to a complete layman like myself – and provided no evidence to back her assertions. F&G provide 20 footnotes from the correspondence they have reviewed. The reaction to Ms McLemore’s rubbish was exactly what a good mentor/teacher would provide to a student who’d knocked something up the night before submission.

    1. Farina and Gibbons certainly produced a paper in the proper scientific form, unlike McLemore, but I’m waiting to see if their sifting through Wilson’s voluminous correspondence was selective in a way that unfairly supports their agenda. It’s not like they were working on a Wilson biography and only happened to find that he was a racist. Everything points to them delving into it solely to find racist stuff. How many pieces did they conveniently ignore for lack of support for their thesis? Presumably there are Wilson fans that have access to the same material who will come to his defense … or not.

    2. Excuse me for saying so, but the correct titles are Dr. Farina and Dr. McLemore. I would not point it out, but women with PhD’s or MD’s are reportedly often addressed as “Ms.”

      1. Or just use their last names without honorifics, as physicians universally do when citing other physicians in academic discourse. As we say, “You know you’re really in trouble when another doctor calls you “Doctor”.

        I have nothing to say on the Wilson controversy, other than to say Dr. Coyne is right to focus on accomplishments and be honest about the shortcomings. Trying to decide if a now-dead figure was “a racist” is a fool’s game because everyone moves the goalposts to try to prove he was or wasn’t, using the same facts but their own ideas and sensibilities. It’s like trying to declare whether what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1911 was “actually” genocide, a crime that hadn’t even been defined yet. It just comes down to whether the Turks or the Armenians are more useful to you geopolitically as to which ones you want to curry favour with.

        Now if you discover that he faked his results or did something else that would discredit his own scientific contributions, like Wakefield with MMR, that’s another story.

        Remember, successful cancellers become (vice-) chancellors.

  20. I’ve only read one of Wilson’s books – Consilience – and there is a superb and brief description he provides for the correlation between genotype and environment:

    “heritability measured at the level of biology reacts with the environment to increase heritability measured at the level of behavior” – meaning that there exists an amplification factor, so be aware.

    I don’t have strong knowledge on Rushton – the link below is a debate between him and a geneticist Suzuki in 1989 – and the most I could gather, listening to portions, is that Rushton places IQ heritability at about the 50% level.

    1. This debate was a seminal event, and not only because it exposed Suzuki as the histrionic censorious ad hominem scold we know him today in his dotage. It figures prominently in Rushton’s obituaries written for the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship because Suzuki led the campaign to have Rushton fired, dragged before the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and investigated by the Ontario Provincial Police Hate Crimes unit, all without effect thanks to SAFS. And this was 1989! Before Twitter!

      For an in-depth analysis of Rushton’s scholarship you will have to look elsewhere but for a recap of the fury against Wrongthink it’s a good place to start.

  21. I have a piece (with my colleague Mark Borrello) on this topic that will appear in the New York Review of Books, possibly as soon as tomorrow. It was going through editorial when the SftP essay came out. We largely agree with that take, and strongly challenge the idea that this is simply “guilt by association” or Wilson overlooking Rushton’s background because he agreed with some things he said. Wilson pretty clearly endorsed racist applications of r/K selection and was very well aware of Rushton’s even more egregious racist research into brain size and IQ, etc.

    Ultimately, we don’t think this means we can’t respect Wilson’s contributions to ant biology, biogeography, biodiversity, etc. But it does pretty clearly suggest that what Gould and Lewontin accused him of–intending sociobiology to inform our understanding of human racial differences in ability–was more than just an “ideological” attack. Rather than “cancelling” Wilson, we hope this evidence will encourage a more open discussion about how current assumptions about genetics, race, and ability are approached.

    1. What is needed is an exhaustive analysis of Wilson’s thought, and for this it is necessary to analyze many of his writings and correspondences with other authors. This correspondence with Rushton without a broader context may distort everything, or it may be a reflection of his true thought, but to verify it, more study is necessary. It could be an exercise in defense of academic freedom (which is why Wilson was controversial, for dealing with topics that another scientist of his stature would not dare) or a compassionate support for a racist colleague. It is my opinion, too early to brand a humanist as great as Wilson as a racist. Sftp does, but they are not known for critical thinking and thoughtful reflection.

      1. Contrary precedents exist: When Harvard did not want to admit Lewontin and Wilson defended him in the name of academic freedom and thought. It could be a firm commitment on Wilson’s part to academic freedom.

        I don’t want people to be judged so quickly. I believe that such a serious topic requires long reflection and extensive study with more perspective.

        1. Reading Borrello and Sepkoski’s article, it’s clear that Wilson’s affinity for Rushton went well beyond a defense of academic freedom. “A brilliant paper, one of the most original and heuristic written on human biology in recent years. It is the first coherent theory of human racial variation in behavior and reproductive physiology.”

  22. That’s a sensible & interesting commentary. If there is evidence we have to follow it, even if it leads us to uncomfortable conclusions. He still seems to have been a charming man. I just think there IS a difference if degree between the racism of a Rushton that seems ‘active’ if you like, & a ‘passive’ racism.

    We do not see here in their article evidence that he thought white people were better, do we? Do we know what he thought of racism? Was he ‘for it’ as it were?

  23. Thanks, #18. Wilson’s brief comment and his quote from Marvin Bressler says all the needs to be said
    on this subject. On the other hand, if the Bressler quote gets around, we may soon expect a committee to recommend that the Marvin Bressler Award at Princeton be cancelled, or the name changed.

  24. Until a majority of men are ready to admit that WOMEN in higher ed are the problem, all of this bloviating about idols being cast into the dustbin of history is a pointless exercise in navel gazing.

    The problem is women.

    1. I’m leaving this comment up, though banning the idiot who wrote it, just to show you the kind of stuff I regularly and kindly hide from your gaze. WHY, exactly, are women the problem? Rubiyat doesn’t say.

      You see why I get depressed sometimes? I get to deal with the lowest underbelly of humanity in comments like these.

      1. Jerry, I believe many if not most of my fellow readers of WEIT would approve of my speaking on their behalf when I say we are deeply grateful for your moderation of the comments. Your care has resulted in a forum that is a model of civility, intellectualism, good humor, and camaraderie. WEIT is a spring of fresh water in the overall cesspool of the Internet. Remember this when you’re getting depressed, and instead, be proud!

        1. I’d emphasize though that challenges are welcome – there’s some particular examples in the past – where one’s analytic and evaluative skill gets good exercise. Even stuff that sounds idiotic can reveal bizarre twists in thought. These leaks are useful in that regard.

          This one should be clearly uninteresting if they’ve met such challenges before. It has an edgy, loud sound but is paper thin. OK, women are the problem…. ummm, did they forget to say “checkmate”? I mean, they’re not even trying – because they know it’d make no sense except to be an A-hole. I wouldn’t want to be like Mr. Bungle…(obscure reference there)….

          …Also, some are hilarious!

  25. Yeah, I figured it’d be something like this. Simply saying that races *exist* is already enough to get you branded as a ‘racist.’ To point out that *difference* exist is well beyond that pale. So, Wilson is now to be dismissed as a ‘racist’ for the next generation or so. And in this political climate, there’s no possibility of anybody of his caliber taking his place as a science popularizer. Dawkins and Pinker are still around, but Dawkins is already pretty much cancelled, and the clock is ticking for Pinker. Once they’re gone, we’ll be stuck with P.C. lightweights like Tyson and Nye…

    1. What proof do you have that this cancellation has succeeded against Dawkins and Pinker? I suspect it’s only in the eyes of the cancellers. Have their book sales been hurt? i doubt it. Are they still giving well-attended talks? I don’t know but my guess is that they are. I certainly don’t think any less of them than I did before cancellation was a thing.

      1. I didn’t say that Pinker has been cancelled. Dawkins isn’t writing any new books and isn’t really much of a public figure, as far as I see.

        1. Just to say that, actually, Dawkins is still writing books. His “Flights of Fancy” came out only a few months ago, and from remarks in interviews he has others under way.

    2. As you’ve learned, Dawkins is still active–more active than someone his age who had a stroke should probably be. And where is your evidence, please, that “the clock is ticking for Pinker.” I’m all ears!

  26. I have the following doubt: If Wilson was truly a racist, but kept hidden until now, why would he donate some letters that put evidence on him for whoever wants to read it? He could have destroyed them before donating. Or he didn’t mind coming across as a racist? I think that he had nothing to hide and to understand Wilson’s thought a deeper analysis is needed.

  27. I think Greg Mayer’s additional remarks in the OP are very pertinent in evaluating how much of a dent the F&G article puts in Wilson’s reputation – i.e. not much. With respect to his own work, Wilson did not claim it as a justification for racism and I believe that in comments and interviews at various times he made it clear that he did not consider it as such.

  28. FWIW, I checked back in today to read comments. I was thrilled to see Greg Mayer‘s take! He offers valuable insights. Hope more people see it!

  29. With respect to Greg’s opinion, I’d invite people to read the essay I just published this morning in NYRB with my colleague Mark Borrello: There’s a paywall, but you can “register” (not subscribe) to get access to it.

    We provide some additional context to the Rushton affair, including Wilson’s referee report on the paper dealing with r/K selection. From both Wilson’s letters to Rushton and the report itself, it’s clear that Wilson supported and agreed with Rushton’s hypothesis that human races have different reproductive strategies, and that this helps explain why some races are more intelligent than others.

    Read it and make up your own mind!

    1. The article of yours is a dishonest when it states (repetedly) that Wilson endorsed and encouraged Rushton’s theory as if the theory were limited to Blacks and Whites. That’s not true. What about Asians? They are, theoretically, even more K-strategists than Whites, and Wilson knew that when he said what he said.

      The argument totally misrepresents that Wilson’s endorsement was about a matter of studying humans (NOT only Blacks and Whites, and at least the “three major races” Rushton originally proposed) in an evolutionary sense, acknowledging, zoologically, the study of genetic variance in developmental and life history perspectives.

      But there’s more. At the end of the essay the argument almost recycles Gould and Lewontin’s positions that human sociobiology are ultimatelly linked with discrimination and extremist political movements.

      You guys had one job. Unbelievebe. You literally dichotomized and moralized with manicheism the subject even more, biasing your own positions entirely. What a terrible and shameful piece of work and waste of time reading. People just can’t leave passions away anymore?

    2. This comment is in response to Borrello & Sepkoski’s (“B&S”) piece that Sepkoski references above:

      Seems odd and suspicious that B&S would (a) get their hands on the peer-review comments for a paper that was rejected and (b) quote Wilson by name as one reviewer and not name the reviewer that objected to publishing the paper, especially after providing the information that the reviewer had reviewed another of Rushton’s pieces.

      Not only this, but B&S cite essentially any interaction between Wilson and Rushton as evidence of Wilson “backing himself into a far-right corner.” It didn’t matter that the chronology went from Wilson turning Rushton down to crickets for 10 years. Given what Wilson went through, it’s not surprising that he was sympathetic to another academic being attacked. I’ve seen hoards of people distance themselves from Rushton but not a single account debunking him that wasn’t more politics than anything else. But using so-called evidence that Wilson had *read* some of Rushton’s work as evidence that he agreed with everything he wrote is ludicrous. By that definition, any of us that have read Rushton’s papers in response to the NYRB essay are guilty of racism if we don’t self-flagellate publicly.

      B&S stated their goal was to “clarify Wilson’s own opinion on race,” but they didn’t do much except show how desperate his opponents were/are to smear him. The fear tactics they used come off just like people sifting through a decade of tweets to ruin a reputation. Frankly, it’s creepy.

  30. I’m not going to get involved in B&S’s discussion of Wilson’s racism. I will say, however, that the authors unfairly tarred everyone who signed that letter to Sci. Am. about the abysmal McLemore article:

    “Far from being exceptional, Wilson’s attraction to proponents of extremist views is an all-too-common feature of scientific controversies around heated political topics. It is natural, when one feels defensive and unfairly attacked, to gravitate toward those who affirm one’s correctness, goodness, or courage. In refusing to accept criticism, Wilson backed himself into a far-right corner. Intentionally or not, many of his current defenders may be doing the same thing.”

    Really, I’ve backed myself into a corner by signing a letter also signed by someone considered an “alt-righter”? The point was what the letter said, which was true. B&S are tarring all the critics of McLemore’s article with “guilty by association.” I reject that imiplication. There sure are a lot of us in that corner!

    1. Old thread. I can’t imagine anyone will respond to it. I see quite a few mention that Rushton’s theories have been completely discredited. Could someone kindly guide me to the data that discredited his theories? I am not interested in the personal character traits of Rushton; I simply want to know how his theory was flawed. Thank you

      1. I think that will forever remain an open question, perhaps because no one really wants to dig up old graves.
        For the most determined recent efforts to discredit Prof. Rushton, see here:

        In 2020, (8 years after his death) the Dept of Psychology at Dr. Rushton’s university (Western University, called University of Western Ontario during his time there) issued the above statement disavowing his research. I am not familiar at a professional level with his work but he was very much in the news at the time. He was even investigated by the Ontario Provincial Police for hate crimes. The police issued a report to the Attorney-General of Ontario who decided not to lay any charges. (In Canada there is a class of crimes in which, contrary to usual practice of police independence, the police may not lay a charge without the consent of the provincial A-G.) This was not just some op-ed in a student newspaper demanding he be fired.

        So we should assume that this statement by his old Department ashamed of his memory is the best his critics can do. To my view as a consumer of the scientific literature but not an expert in this field, Rushton’s work on race-differential r/K strategies is most thoroughly rebutted in Reference 5 cited in the Statement: Anderson, J. L. (1991). Rusthon’s racial comparisons: an ecological critique of theory and method. Canadian Psychology 32, 73-83. (Free pdf.) I am not qualified to say “refuted” or “discredited”, and I have not read Rushton’s original papers. I am going only on what author Anderson says he wrote as she offers her critique of it. But I think this would be a good paper to start with if you want to dig into this. She (Anderson) cites other papers critical of Rushton’s r/K work. To her credit, Anderson seems free of motivated reasoning and she expresses no revulsion toward his opinions, merely notes that they are controversial and, to her conclusion, scientifically wrong..

        This is worth paying some attention to because Dr. EO Wilson has been criticized most harshly for his early interest — I won’t say defense as that’s probably too strong a word — in Rushton’s adaptation of Wilson’s r/K inter-species hypothesis. In sum, I think if Rushton’s work is to be condemned as “completely discredited” that claim would have to stand or fall on his r/K studies. And of course “discredited” can just mean wrong or mistaken, not necessarily with evil intent.

        The Statement makes at least one claim in its condemnation of Rushton that I think is incorrect, to wit:
        “Crucially, Rushton’s works linking race and intelligence are based on an incorrect assumption that fuels systemic racism, the notion that racialized groups are concordant with patterns of human ancestry and genetic population structure. This idea is rejected by analysis of the human genome: racialized groups are not distinct genetic populations [4]. What Rushton described as ‘races’ are socially created categories that do not reflect patterns of human inheritance or genetic population structure.” My understanding to the contrary is that race is not entirely a social construct, that there are (small) genomic differences that map to what we understand phenotypically as races. (This point has been discussed on this website.) If the view of race as merely a social construct is not categorically correct, then it cannot be advanced as evidence that Rushton was categorically wrong.

        Wish you enlightenment in your examination of Rushton’s legacy. There will be no movement to rehabilitate him because of the fracas that would result.

        “In a university you cannot get rid of a tenured professor without an unholy row, and though academics love bickering, they hate rows. It was widely agreed that the only way to get rid of Urky [the irksome Prof. Urquhart McVarish] would be to murder him, and though the Dean may have toyed with that idea, he did not want to be caught. Anyhow, Urky was not a bad scholar. It was simply that he was intolerable, and for some reason that is never accepted as an excuse for getting rid of anybody.” — Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels Frances Widdowson would disagree.

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