The accusations that biologist E. O. Wilson was a racist began with an unhinged article in Scientific American, which gave no evidence at all and, as a sign of its scholarly deficiencies, also accused Gregor Mendel of being a racist! Oh, and, based on semantics alone, it also claimed the statistical “normal distribution” was racist!
Of course, the racist hit-piece mode began before that, perhaps with the horrific death of George Floyd or even before that. And while in some ways the “racial reckoning” is a good thing, it’s also had bad side effects, including the rush to label many famous scientists of the past as racists, when in lots of cases the evidence was either thin or (as in the case of T. H. Huxley, in the opposite direction).
There have since been more scholarly arguments claiming or at least implying that Ed Wilson was a racist (see my post here and an NYRB paper here), as well as some defenses of Wilson, including here and the piece by Wilson’s close colleague Bert Hölldobler I’m highlighting in this post.
The more rational attacks on Wilson, though, have suffered by leaning too hard on Wilson’s association with Canadian psychologist J. Phillippe Rushton, who certainly seemed to have been a racist. Wilson sponsored a paper in PNAS coauthored by Rushton, wrote a favorable review of a paper Rushton tried to publish (but rejected another one), and wrote a letter of support for Rushton when he was about to be fired. (See also Greg’s addendum to my post here.) What people don’t seem to realize is that the paper sponsored by Wilson also had as a co-author Wilson’s protégé Charles Lumsden, whose work Wilson was constantly trying to promote. Rather than supporting Rushton’s ideas, Wilson’s sponsorship could be seen as a way of advancing Lumsden’s career. And defending Rushton against being fired could be also be seen as a simple defense of academic freedom, or, as Hölldobler does below, as a reflection of Wilson’s own trauma about being attacked on ideological grounds.
All in all, I simply can’t sign onto the slogan “Ed Wilson was a racist” based on what I know of him, what I knew from associating with him, nor from a few guilt-by-association accusations ignoring the possibility that Wilson was probably trying to promote his own colleague Charles Lumsden, not support Rushton’s racism. Nor will I run with those who imply that Wilson supported racist ideas because he was sympathetic to racism. For right now, it’s best to await further analysis that involves a broad reading of Wilson’s correspondence.
When that full correspondence is eventually sifted (it hasn’t been), we’ll know more. Using my Bayesian sense, for now I’d say that it’s way premature to call Wilson a racist, or imply that he was sympathetic to racism, but we should remain open to the evidence. From what I know of his own work, in fact, I see not a smidgen of racism, which to Wilson’s detractors seems to rest solely on Wilson’s association with Rushton or his advocacy of sociobiology, which Wilson denied promoted racism (see below).
So here we have another defense of Ed against these accusations by perhaps his closest professional colleague, Bert Hölldobler, another ant biologist who shared a floor at Harvard with Wilson. Bert co-wrote the magisterial book The Ants, with Wilson, and, knowing Bert, I can say that by no means was he an uncritical admirer of Wilson. Bert took strong issue, for example, with Wilson’s late-life conversion to group selection as an explanation of human behavior—and many other evolutionary phenomena. But he was well placed to assess Wilson’s character and the accusations against it.
Hölldobler does so in the magazine piece below published on Michael Shermer’s Skeptic site and Substack site. The two pieces are identical, and you can see them by clicking on either of the screenshots below. Shermer has a preface in the Substack site that there is more to come:
Note from Michael Shermer: In response to the calumnious and false accusations of racism and promoting race science against the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, made shortly after his death (so he can’t defend himself) by the New York Review of Books, Science for the People, and Scientific American, I asked his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler to reply, since he worked closely with Wilson for decades. I have penned a much longer and more detailed analysis of the affair, which will be published in the coming weeks. Watch this space and subscribe here.
And Michael prefaces Bert’s piece at the Skeptic site with this subtitle:
Is there vigilantism in science? Was the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrongly convicted of racism and promoting race science in the court of public opinion? Yes, says his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler.
(Hölldobler and Wilson are in the photo below.)
Bert keeps a low profile about personal stuff like this, so it’s both remarkable and a testimony to the strength of his feeling about Wilson that he wrote this rather long defense of the man. While Bert doesn’t suggest that it’s possible the PNAS affair was motivated by Wilson’s desire to promote Lumsden rather than Rushton, he does indict Wilson for his favorable review of Rushton’s paper in Ethology and Sociobiology (Lumsden wasn’t an author), which Bert calls “a serious misjudgment”. As for Wilson’s trying to prevent Rushton’s firing, Bert argues—and this may be true—that he was motivated more by trying to prevent others from being persecuted as Wilson himself had been (by Gould, Lewontin, and other Leftist biologists, argues Hölldobler).
And, familiar with Wilson’s own views and his vast record of publication, Hölldobler vehemently denies that Wilson wrote anything that was racist. Indeed, he says, Wilson decried racism.
Read the piece and decide for yourself, but I’ll give a few quotes by Hölldobler. I am not an unthinking fan of Bert dedicated to supporting him or Wilson, but did know both men, admire their work, and think that before you start slinging terms like “racist” against one of the most distinguished ecologists and evolutionists of our era, or implying he was sympathetic to racism and racists, you should read Bert’s piece.
I’ll give more quotations than usual in case you don’t want to read the paper—though you should.
Sadly, there are some quotes that don’t put my advisor, Dick Lewontin, in a very good light. But I don’t reject them, for I know well about Lewontin’s ideological biases. I also know for a fact that Lewontin despised Wilson and, when I interviewed Lewontin about his life, the discussion about Wilson was the one part he wouldn’t let me put on tape.
Here Bert accosts Lewontin for denying that there was any evolutionary/genetic basis for human behavior:
It was a point that Dick Lewontin himself acknowledged when he showed up at my office the next day, apparently eager to soften what he had said. Although I respected Lewontin as a scientist and colleague at Harvard, I did not appreciate his ideologically driven “sand box Marxism.” When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: “Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.” In fact, it is nonsense to claim that Ed Wilson’s comparative and evolutionary approach to behavior in any way endorses racism. This was a case of a scientist’s views being distorted to suit someone else’s ideological goals.
The “money quotes” by Bert below are in bold:
I always thought that a basic tenet of collegiality is to first discuss differences of opinion in person, especially when the opposing party are members of the same university, even the same department. The Lewontin lab was located on the third floor of the MCZ-Laboratories (Museum of Comparative Zoology), and Wilson had his office on the fourth floor. What prevented Lewontin, Gould, and other members of Science for the People from coming up and knocking on Ed’s door to discuss with him their disagreements? In a letter written to the New York Review of Books and sent on November 10, 1975, Wilson explained that he felt “that actions of the letter writers represent the kind of self-righteous vigilantism which not only produces falsehood but also unjustly hurts individuals and through that kind of intimidation diminishes the spirit of free inquiry and discussion crucial to the health of the intellectual community.” Thus, Science for the People launched its political war, and as is so often the case with ideologues, they erected a straw man to tear down with bravura.
I could go on with many more apposite quotes. The point is I never found one statement in his writings that would indicate that Ed Wilson followed a racist ideology. This was the invention, or rather the falsehood, created by the International Committee Against Racism (INCAR), members of which physically attacked Ed at the beginning of an invited lecture he was to deliver at a meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). This is intellectual fascism. In fact, even Lewontin made clear that Wilson is not a racist. As Lewontin said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson on December 3, 1975: “Sociobiology is not a racist doctrine, but any kind of genetic determinism can and does feed other kinds, including the belief that some races are superior to others. However, this is very far from Wilson’s intuition. Because Wilson is concerned with the universals of human nature — his chief point is that we are all alike.”
Here’s Hölldobler on Wilson’s defense of Rushton—the pivot on which the accusations of racism rest:
Having now looked at the work by Rushton with greater attention, it is clear to me that Ed could not have paid much scrutiny to Rushton’s work but rather was motivated by the impression he got from Rushton’s own description of his plight, namely, that he was being persecuted by far-left wing ideologues, as Wilson himself had been after publication of Sociobiology. Note too that Rushton had strong academic credentials as a former John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow of the Canadian Psychological Society. Nevertheless, Ed’s recommendation of a manuscript submitted by Rushton to the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, in which Rushton wrongly applied Wilson’s r-K selection model, was in my opinion a serious misjudgment. When Wilson encouraged Rushton to pursue this line of investigation and advised him not to be discouraged, at one point warning him “the whole issue would be clouded by personal charges of racism to the point that rational discussion would be almost impossible,” my guess is that Wilson’s response was colored by his own and painful experience and decision to continue with his work despite vicious attacks from Science for the People, rather than an in-depth examination of the of Rushton’s paper. If we could ask Ed today, I am sure he would say: “I made a mistake, I was wrong.” But a misjudgment made when reviewing a paper for a journal does not make Ed Wilson a racist or a promoter of race science!
Bert points out Wilson’s own arguments that biology does not justify racism:
In fact, in a note to Nature (Vol. 289, 19 February 1981) Wilson wrote “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 behaviour. As I stated in On Human Nature (1978), I will go further and suggest that hope and pride and not despair are the ultimate legacy of genetic diversity, because we are a single species, not two or more, one great breeding system through which genes flow and mix in each generation. Because of that flux, mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature within which relatively minor hereditary influences recycle through ever changing patterns, between the sexes and across families and entire populations.” In the 2004 edition of his book On Human Nature Wilson wrote: “most scientists have long recognized that it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races. Such entities do not in fact exist. Of equal importance, the description of geographic variation in one trait or another by a biologist or anthropologist or anyone else should not carry with it value judgements concerning the worth of the characteristics defined.”
And the money quote at the end. Here Hölldobler assesses the most serious and scholarly attack on Wilson as a racist, the paper in NYRB by Borello and Sepkoski:
In the recent New York Review of Books article, “Ideology as Biology,” by the historians of science Mark Borrello and David Sepkoski, I feel the authors make too much out of Wilson’s encouragement of Rushton which, as I said, was probably motivated more by his own painful experiences with politically provoked distortions of his work and unfair attacks, than by in depth scrutiny of his correspondent’s views. Looking at Rushton’s work today, when most experts agree that these kinds of IQ tests are biased and have to be taken with a grain of salt, Wilson’s positive response to Rushton’s pleas appears to me naive. I assume that he realized this later too, because to my knowledge he never cited Rushton’s work nor mentioned it in conversations I had with [Wilson].
Given Wilson’s numerous articles, books, lectures and public statements, which contain nothing even remotely supportive of racism, it seems unfair to zero in on this limited correspondence with a single colleague to be waved like a red flag to tarnish a scholar’s reputation. This may not be what Borrello and Sepkoski intended, but their disclaimer that they wanted to distance themselves from any scarlet letter activism and “cancel culture,” was gainsaid by the prevailing theme of their analysis that Ed Wilson was closely aligned with a racist, which in today’s culture of hyper-sensitivity to all matters of race and racism, they had to know would scuttle the reputation of one of the greatest scientists of our time. Such self-righteous vigilantism is highly unjust and distortive.
Greg echoed this sentiment in his addendum to my post that you can find here.
Overall, my present judgment is that attacks on Wilson, calling him a racist or implying he was, are tendentious and supported almost entirely by his association with a man who was a racist, Rushton. But in Wilson’s own work, as Bert notes above, there is not a line “even remotely supportive of racism.” If Wilson was a racist, why this absence of evidence, and the guilt-by-association ploy? Yes, Bert says that Wilson’s favorable review of Rushton’s paper was a misjudgment, and one that Wilson would probably admit today. But if that’s pretty much all that the critics have got, then we can let the dog bark but let our caravan move on.
Why is there such a rush to judgment here? Why the winnowing out of a long and productive life of a few bits of equivocal evidence to indict someone as a racist? Is this going to eliminate racism, or accomplish anything—even if such accusations were true (and I’m not convinced they are)?
I’m not going to psychologize any of the authors who attack Wilson or trawl through the history of biology trying to sniff out racism in figures like Mendel and T. H. Huxley, concluding that they were either racist themselves, sympathetic to racism, or “racist-adjacent.” But trying to exhibit your own virtue, or to place yourself on the “right side of history”, can be a powerful incentive. And that, at least, must explain a lot of the recent attacks on famous evolutionary biologists as racists.