A woke and fearful scientific society removes the names of famous scientists from all its awards

February 15, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Like every other evolution, behavior, and ecology society, the American Society of Naturalists (ASN) is going woke—engaging in performative acts that do nothing to deal with inequality but sure do a lot to flaunt virtue.  This time, however, they’re getting ahead of the curve, for they’ve decided that all their annual awards—and there are six of them—will be given different names no longer connected to well known scientists. I suppose that’s because one of those awards is the “E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award,” and, as you may know, Wilson has been accused of racism.

Here’s their official announcement (click on screenshot):

The rationale sounds bizarre: take the names off awards because it’s the recipient who should be honored, not the person after whom the award is named. But that’s unconvincing: everyone covets an award named after a famous person in the field. I remember when the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) started the Dobzhansky Prize, named after my academic grandfather Theodosius Dobzhansky. Designed to honor a young evolutionary biologist of outstanding accomplishment, I coveted getting it, but alas, I did not (however, two of my students and one of my grandstudents got it). At least to me, receiving a Dobzhansky Prize would have been much more satisfying than getting an “Outstanding Young Researcher” award. Why? I suppose it’s because some of the cachet of the name adheres to you too: I would have liked to have seen myself as an academic descendant of Dobzhansky (which in fact I really was). That’s why I’m proud of having gotten the Richard Dawkins Award. Though I can’t come close to his cachet, it’s an award for science, reason, and humanism, and if it were called “The Science, Reason, and Humanism Award” it wouldn’t have the same luster.

I see, by the way, that the SSE still has a few named awards, like the Stephen Jay Gould Prize, last given in 2019 to my ex-student Mohamed Noor, the W. D. Hamilton Award, last given in 2019 as well, and the Thomas Henry Huxley Award. Knowing that Huxley has already been canceled in some places for insubstantial accusations of racism, and knowing a little about Hamilton’s background, I suspect that those two prizes will be de-named, leaving only the Stephen Jay Gould Prize. And if there’s only one, better re-name that one, too.

I suspect that the real reason that the six ASN awards are being renamed (or rather, de-named) is because of fear that names might be “canceled” in the future on the grounds of racism. Why else would they say this:

Some awards will continue to commemorate individuals in their descriptions, as the ASN remembers the Society’s past while also working for a more inclusive and equitable future. The Council recognizes that removing names from awards is only a minor step towards dealing with the systemic problems in our fields. We are currently evaluating how to best use society funds to support more substantive initiatives to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, and will announce first steps at the annual meeting in June 2022. New names for Society awards will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

In other words, taking the names off the awards will somehow make society more inclusive and equitable. This is the height of performative Wokeism, because it accomplishes exactly nothing. In fact, it erases some admirable histories that should be better known. Let’s take a look at the list of ASN awards whose formal names will be changed. Below I’ve left the links up to the six awards named after people—awards that will soon be given some boring names.

AWARDS

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The American Society of Naturalists confers several awards each year to honor scientists of great distinction. The membership of the awards committees can be found here.

Sewall Wright was a famous theoretical population geneticist who, to my knowledge, hasn’t yet fallen victim to the mob, although his name is going off the prize, too. We already know about E. O. Wilson, damned, with meager evidence, as a racist. Jasper Loftus-Hills is a sad story: the ASN notes,

The American Society of Naturalist’s Young Investigator Award is in honor of Jasper Loftus-Hills, a young scientist who died tragically 3 years after receiving his PhD. This award goes to applicants who completed their PhD three years preceding the application deadline or are in their last year of a PhD program.

Lofus-Hills died in a car accident, and it’s my understanding that his family helped endow that award. Imagine how they’ll feel when his name is removed!

Ruth Patrick was a pioneer in limnology and botany, one of the earliest outstanding women ecologists. She won a slew of awards in her own right and did pathbreaking work in assessing environmental health using indicator species. She was given the National Medal of Science in 1996, and it baffles me why she wasn’t elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Further was the only one of 58 founders of SSE who was a woman.

Julia Platt was another women who achieved at a time when women were very scarce in science. As the ASN itself notes:

Julia B. Platt (1857–1935) had credentials to impress. She studied embryology at Harvard in 1887 and then conducted research at Woods Hole, Bryn Mawr, the University of Chicago, Radcliffe, Hopkins Marine Laboratory, and at several German universities. She received her PhD in developmental biology in 1898 and then published 12 articles in just 10 years, including one in The American Naturalist in 1899. Most notably, she showed that neural crest cells formed the jaw cartilage and tooth dentine in salamanders. This conclusion was rejected by her contemporaries, who believed that only mesoderm formed bones and cartilage. It took 50 years for her hypothesis to be confirmed. Despite her depth of training and her productivity, she landed none of the academic positions for which she applied. Platt then wrote, “Without work, life is not worth living. If I cannot obtain the work I wish, then I must take up the next best” (quoted in Zottoli and Seyfarth 1994). She moved to Pacific Grove, California (where the American Society of Naturalists has recently held its stand-alone conferences), and became its first female mayor. She is noted for initiating marine protected reserves that were crucial for the survival of the California sea otter (Palumbi and Sotka 2012).

Here’s a smart and accomplished woman who had trouble getting her work accepted, most likely because of her sex. Her name deserves to stand—both for her achievements and to hearken back to the time when a woman with academic aspirations had a hard time making a go of it. So two women who deserve to be known will, in effect, be “erased”. Nobody’s going to bother to look them up if their names aren’t on the award, even if they’re given a footnote on the website. Must we revise history so we can forget how women were discriminated against in science? When half the awards are named after women—as they would have eventually had been if these societies weren’t de-naming everything—you’d forget there was a time when a good woman scientist couldn’t even get a job.

Finally, there’s the Ed Ricketts Award.  If you know Steinbeck, you know the ecologist and marine biologist Ricketts, who collaborated with Steinbeck on the famous book The Log from the Sea of Cortez, a book I devoured when young (Ricketts’ name isn’t on it). Ricketts also was a good writer in his own right, producing the famous popular book Between Pacific Tides about intertidal ecology.  His lab, which I think now serves as a gathering place for biologists, still stands in Monterey near the Aquarium, at 800 Cannery Row (Steinbeck, of course, also wrote Cannery Row, whose hero “Doc” was modeled on Ricketts).

If you were a young biologist, wouldn’t you like to put the words, “Recipient, Ed Ricketts Award, American Society of Naturalists” on your c.v.”? Yes, Ricketts liked his drinking and carousing, but that’s not a banning offense.

So, we have a mass erasure here, and for no good reason. The explanation—that it furthers diversity, inclusiveness, and equity—doesn’t make a lot of sense. Not only will the erasure not do that, but they are erasing two women, one of whom was ostracized in science, as well as a young scientist cut off in his prime.

I am not convinced that having named awards discourages minorities from becoming scientists, an argument I sometimes hear. After all, you don’t become a scientist because you hope to win an award. And by the time you do, it’s too late: you’ve accomplished something! Further, two of the six awards are named after women who were minorities in their own time. If they want to make the awards more inclusive, why not name an award or two after an accomplished member of a minority group? As time goes on, the list of names suitable for such awards will grow.

Neither am I convinced that they’re taking the names off awards because that detracts from the honor of the awardee. The most likely explanation, which pains me if true, is that they don’t want social media mobs to find out that some of the awards are named after people who, by modern moral lights, didn’t pass muster (E. O. Wilson has been one of these, though I can’t cast him out of the pantheon). It’s ineffably stupid to rewrite history by putting into footnotes those accomplished scientists whose every word didn’t comport with the ideology of AOC.

h/t: Nick

27 thoughts on “A woke and fearful scientific society removes the names of famous scientists from all its awards

  1. I guess it’s time to get rid of all awards and honoraria. We can’t recognize anyone because someone else will be offended. I guess we could call it the “Cash For You”(TM) award; but, again, people not receiving the awards will fell left out and “harmed”. No can do.

    We can’t honor any past great scientists because … well, they were (to a large extent) white men, and as we know, all white men are bad people. Certainly, we can’t name a prestigious science award after a prestigious scientist in the field under consideration. That would be completely irrational. I guess the name should be Cash For You or Medal For You.

    And, as we know, no one is worth honoring for anything.

  2. This all started in elementary school, nobody is a loser everybody wins a ribbon or button. Very sad. Also Jasper Loftus-Hills was a great friend and colleague (U Michigan) but died of homicide in a rural area of Texas, purposely run down by a couple of local hooligans who saw him tape-recording frogs in a roadside ditch.

  3. Without necessarily commenting on this particular situation, I will say this: When people quit acting like scientists, they cease to deserve respect as scientists. It is hard to buy into “the science” when the scientists have other agendas.

  4. Does the name of the award matter? You bet it does! I sometimes used to put on my resume that I had won the Newton Award in 1962. Was it Isaac Newton? No. It was the Charles L. Newton Award, but somehow that just did not sound as good as leaving the first name to the imagination. Either is better than The Special Proficiency in an Engineering Subject Award, though I suppose that is more descriptive.

  5. I’m starting to think all this renaming business is highly reminiscent of the new calendar the Khmer Rouge instituted in Cambodia, beginning with “Day One” to mark their revolution, as if erasing history really changes anything.

  6. For a while there I was thinking that this pre-emptive renaming was maybe for the best. But now I do see how wrong it is to take this approach, given especially that it includes erasing the names of several people who are not widely known and should only earn our gratitude and sympathy.

  7. “The most likely explanation, which pains me if true, is that they don’t want social media mobs…”

    I agree that’s the most likely explanation, which raises the question: what percentage of the population is to be thus feared? We can’t judge by the prevalence of vociferous activism on Twitter, as we know that it doesn’t reflect society as a whole—far from it. Is it about 15%? (I’m talking about extreme woke types.) It can’t be much more than that? If so, aren’t progressive institutions and initiatives at risk of losing the support of sane liberals that can’t take oppressive and deranged wokeism anymore? To placate a relatively minor segment of the population, aren’t they alienating a much larger one whose values are generally aligned with their overall principles?

    Or have some previously liberal institutions become so infected by the illiberal left that they’re adopting their woke policies not from fear of the mobs but because they believe in them? That possibility can’t be discarded.

    At any rate, I have no idea how representative I am, but I’m so sick and tired of the tyranny of wokeism that I’m beginning to be viscerally and reflexively repelled by the vocabulary of DEI, including the term “DEI” itself, even though I’ve always had a natural affinity with progressive values. I wonder how many otherwise progressive people are experiencing this “intemperate” antipathy toward woke ideology, to the point that they might fail to be supportive of sensible liberal goals—mostly because the latter are becoming so contaminated with wokeism that it’s not easy to tell what’s sensible and what idiotic or merely performative.

  8. Won’t the American Society of Naturalists be surprised when they are required by the High Woke to drop the colonialist ‘American’ from their name.

    And then they will be caught out again when they have to become the the ‘North America Society of Naturalists and Shamen’.

  9. Two thoughts, one unrealistic, one cynical.

    First thought: allow the recipient to ‘name’ the award after someone for the next year. It’s an added bonus to the recipient and allows the award to have a famous scientist’s name attached to it yet simultaneously allowing the cowardly institution to avoid any responsibility.

    Second thought: well I guess they can do like stadiums, and open naming rights to the highest bidder in order to bring some extra cash into the society. Who knows, maybe the American Society of Naturalists will get such distinguished award names as the Mars Bar Award and Exxon Award for Environmental Excellence.

  10. I get so tired of all of this naming, cancelling, renaming, cancelling nonsense.

    I wish it were merely the shedding of the award’s name that we see. But it is worse than that! Now the quaking powers-that-be also feel compelled to go through and purify the list of recipients, rescinding the awards of those so honored if they (being human and all) ever committed a mortal “woke” sin. I noticed that last year Dawkins, himself, was victim of this. The American Humanist Association self-righteously revoked Dawkins’ “Humanist of the Year” title awarded to him in 1996. I’m no fan of Dawkins, but this is absolutely ridiculous.

    Stop the world so I can get off!!

  11. Logically, the next step should be the elimination of not just names on awards but of awards generally.
    After all, where is the “Equity” and “Inclusion” if there are those who experience the harm of not being Included in the list of awardees?

    Oh, wait: awards cannot be abolished because certain awards are for Diversity and Inclusion!
    See: https://www.definitionagency.com/diversity-and-inclusion-awards . Incidentally, one of these
    awards may be a significant straw in the wind: the “Diversity in Advertising Award” (UK), no doubt much
    sought after.

  12. If honours and buildings are named after people because they endowed them then the organisations who wish to rename should return the money to the heirs of the endower. That includes all the universities that rename buildings.

    1. I agree with you in theory, Dionigi. I suppose, however, that much would depend on the legal terms of the endowment agreement.

  13. This is so sad. I well remember Sewell Wright give a talk at the 1980 macroevolution conference in Chicago when he was 90 years old and I was just starting out at age 23. His talk was the highlight of the conference—one of the founders of modern evolutionary genetics in his own words explaining his famous Shifting Balance theory. To be awarded a prize in his name would be the honor of a lifetime.

    May his memory be a blessing.

  14. Time to fight back. No capitulation. Don’t give in to the cowards currently at the helm. How about well reasoned position papers submitted to the societies pop journals, laying out the arguments in favor of separation of science and politics. Science is eternal and universal, politics is ephemeral and parochial. Some history lessons on Deutsche Physik and Lysenkoism. Then petitions for honoring the giants of the science (other shortcomings be damned), and reform candidates for all of the society’s elected positions. Does wokism have a defense? I haven’t heard it.

    1. I think it is almost impossible to keep politics out of science and I am not convinced that it is entirely desirable to do so either. Of course, scientists should endeavour to investigate the world and its workings objectively and their conclusions should always be based on honest analysis of the data not on their ideological hopes. Having said that science is performed within the context of society and politics inevitably impinges on it. What research topics should be priorities? Unless you are a self-funding millionaire you have to apply for funding and the bodies providing this funding will in some way or another be influenced by political (amongst other) considerations. Then there are all sorts of ethical questions affecting many areas of research and I suspect few would argue against the need for ethical oversight of research programs, but what we consider to be ethical is not eternally fixed but evolves with society and forms a part of political discourse and thinking. And then there is the fact that for some scientists at least, their science may inform their political views. If your research is showing, for example, that the climate is changing dangerously or biodiversity disappearing at an alarming rate, I don’t think it is wrong or unreasonable for you to take your results to the politicians and seek to persuade them to make changes.
      Finally, regarding cancellation, I think that in many cases it is performative and pointless. The example in the OP is very sad and wholly unjustified but I can conceive, at least in principle, of scenarios in which the scientific achievements of a researcher should be outweighed by their other shortcomings. To give an extreme example, take the Nazi Mengele. As far as I know his ‘research’ did not produce any worthwhile scientific findings but let’s imagine it did. In that case would it be acceptable to honour his scientific discoveries – ‘other shortcomings be damned’? I don’t believe that it would and anything that honoured him in the slightest way would be an affront to decency and to the lives of the millions of jews and others that suffered during the Holocaust..

  15. The clip of the sheepherder trying to make his lunch is hilarious but I don’t understand the caption (about a Nobel prize).

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