Once again: Was E. O. Wilson a racist? His closest colleague says “no way”!

April 6, 2022 • 10:00 am

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.

28 thoughts on “Once again: Was E. O. Wilson a racist? His closest colleague says “no way”!

  1. What can I say – excellent pieces here – and when I thought no more could be done with the question.

    I start to wonder about the fundamental epistemology behind the “charges of racism” fad. Is any evidence by definition evidence of racism? Is the question “is so-and-so racist?” sufficient to launch an antiracism campaign, or are more precise questions needed? Bah – it boggles the mind.

  2. 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?

    I’m likely getting way too cynical, but it seems to me to be part of a more general attack on science as being “white”, “male” , “Eurocentric”, and “colonised” — effectively just a “social construct” that is merely one way of knowing, and which needs to be knocked off its pedestal in favour of indigenous & queer & “marginalised-minority” “ways of knowing”.

    Thus any white, male scientist of prominence is fair game, and especially any white, male scientist who argued that biology is real and important for understanding humans (in contrast to the blank-slateist, social-constructivism of the social-“sciences”).

    1. Yes, being white, male, and prominent certainly seems to make someone a target; being dead and thus unable to refute the accusation seals the deal.

      1. “… and prominent …”

        The more I read about these .. whatever they are (what is it? News? Investigation? Surely not academic discourse … academic gossip, perhaps…) the pattern suggested to me is not “and prominent” but “first and foremost”…

        … then again, the unknown fired for “racism” we might not hear about. Alas.

  3. There’s an argument (The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen, 1899) that the Elite, or Leisure Class use Conspicuous Consumption as a marker of their superior social class. Since then ‘stuff’ has got a lot cheaper and more readily available so what is a person conscious of their social status to do? Perhaps they go in for Conspicuous Conviction to emphasise their superiority?

    Now conspicuous conviction needs something to be convinced about – and if such objects don’t exist, well make them up. The desire is to signal, the virtue or conviction are secondary and need not reflect the circumstances of people outside the Leisure Class.

    1. The sole intent of virtue-signaling (primarily, but not exclusively, via social media) is to demonstrate one’s moral superiority through some vacuous utterance which accomplishes nothing and is almost invariably devoid of any well-reasoned understanding or genuine nuance. The Scots (perhaps even more crazed by “wokeness” than the English), having recently apologized for the killing of witches three centuries ago, are now, apparently, contemplating the removal of a statue of David Livingstone (an ardent abolitionist) because of the Glaswegian connection to the slave-trade.

      1. The demonisation of Livingstone

        Now conspicuous conviction needs something to be convinced about – and if such objects don’t exist, well make them up.

  4. I was a postdoc in Ed’s lab in 1989-91, when some of Ed’s correspondence with Rushton occurred. During my time, we often had Tuesdays Lunches with Ed where we talked a lot about science, research and obviously with a very sociobiological bent. Never once did Ed mention Rushton or suggest we look up any of his work. The letters he wrote at the time (which none of us knew about) were clearly already backing away from any direct public support of Rushton’s ideas. Even the most ‘damning’ letters are private correspondences. Maybe Ed came to regret those letters, but really? Was he expected to give a public apology for something said in private to one person? Bert Holldobler is probably correct: Ed was very sensitive about censorship and maybe that formed the main basis for his support. Rushton’s ideas got their public airing, and were rightfully discredited and rejected by the evolutionary biology community. It is a sad byproduct of this controversy that once more Rushton’s papers are being discussed. They were relegated to the trash heap of forgotten bad ideas, which is where they should remain.

  5. I really thought Wilson’s quote/description in his letter to Nature in 1981, discussing how genes mix and flow through the generations was quote moving, almost poetic. It’s really quite a lovely description.

  6. Thank you for this article. The SciAm opinion piece – not based on fact, void of scholarly thought, but great at trumpeting a bias against science, the scientific method, and even Gaussian distribution, has grown rather long legs.

    The real issue, of course, is not that Wilson was a white male from Alabama, born almost a hundred years ago, but he was a scientist with data and conclusions that his detractors find problematic. Ad hominem attacks are much easier to conduct than serious scientific discussions. The offended rarely acknowledge that he clearly stated that his findings do not support any form of racism and that he declared “race” itself as unscientific and unsupportable.

    There is neither evidence that he treated other people as a racist would, nor that his science was driven by a motivation to prove any preconceived paradigm. This alone – Did he have an unbiased approach to investigation? – should propel the Wilson conversation, not his presumed short-lived support of some scientist with disgraceful flaws.

  7. I was a graduate student in Steve Gould’s group from 1978 to 1983. Gould was involved with Science for the People but, at least by the time I was there, his involvement did not seem to spill over into the training of his graduate students. (I may have been too green and apolitical to notice, however.) There was scientific conversation about gene vs. environment—and Dick Lewontin himself often said that genes and environment interpenetrate (seemingly providing a role for both)—but I don’t recall hearing any explicit charges of racism. Perhaps the acrimony had died down by that point.

    Because Wilson defended a role for genes in human behavior, he was vulnerable to being targeted by ideologues who wanted to tamp down anything that might be used to justify racism—even if the person targeted was not himself condoning racism. My judgment is that Wilson was victimized not for what he believed but for how his science might be used by those less scrupulous.

  8. I will have to read this properly on a larger screen tomorrow, rather than on a phone, but the quote from Lewontin about all means to win the political battle, is typical of both left & right extremists. As if there is some end-state of state. All societies evolve & change with time & I see no reason to expect humans to suddenly change that.

    1. This tw337 I put below as it is not coming through on the website (“mobile” format):

      [ begin quote ]
      Ah, now Jerry Coyne is parroting Shermer’s lies and straw men about our essay on Wilson. Apparently “truth” and “evidence” only matter when they don’t make you uncomfortable…? https://t.co/3lXixcbqCn

      — David Sepkoski (@Hallucigenia11) April 6, 2022
      [ end quote]

      ^^^ between the marks not written by me!

    2. The tw337 says – and I quote :

      [ begin quote ]

      Ah, now Jerry Coyne is parroting Shermer’s lies and straw men about our essay on Wilson. Apparently “truth” and “evidence” only matter when they don’t make you uncomfortable…? https://t.co/3lXixcbqCn

      — David Sepkoski (@Hallucigenia11) April 6, 2022

      [ end quote]

      (Sorry if this appears twice )

      1. Interesting. Unfortunately the article referred to (by Borello and Sepkoski) in the New York Review of Books is behind a paywall – only the first few paragraphs can be read by us proles. .

        1. You’re not missing much, in my opinion. Among tens of thousands of pieces of Wilson’s correspondence donated to the Library of Congress there were a half dozen or so(as far as I can tell) pertaining to Ruston that were penned over seventeen or eighteen years.

  9. I think it’s very difficult to determine whether Rushton was a racist or not. (Here I’m defining racist in the narrow sense of “someone whose actions were motivated by racial prejudice”, as opposed to the modern definition whereby everyone is a racist if they aren’t actively anti-racist.) Rushton had a lot of controversial ideas about race, many of which were overturned by later research, and he also was something of a publicity hound, but racism isn’t the only possible explanation for his actions. There is another attitude that can easily be mistaken for racism, that I think is best described as “contrarianism”: the desire to oppose the current intellectual orthodoxy, whatever it is.

    Contrarians are an essential part of science. Most of the time they turn out to be wrong, but in those few cases where they’ve been right (Galileo, Lavoisier, Alfred Wegener, etc) they’ve led to paradigm shifts in how their fields were understood. It’s also extremely difficult to predict ahead of time which contrarian ideas will eventually lead to paradigm shifts, as in the aforementioned examples, and which will ultimately turn out to be a dead-end speculation, as happened with Rushton’s hypothesis that human biological variation could be modeled using r/K selection theory. For this reason, in a general sense contrarianism shouldn’t be discouraged in science.

    To be clear, I’m not saying that Rushton necessarily WASN’T a racist, only that on the basis of his writings (or at least those of them that I’m aware of), there isn’t enough information to determine the answer either way. I also think it should be possible to recognize Rushton’s hypothesis as obsolete without assuming that he necessarily proposed it for a malicious reason.

  10. The resurrection of E. O. Wilson’s tangential connection with Rushton reveals that any connection, however minor, with a racist opens one to charges of racism. It follows that any connection with anyone who has ever been charged with being a racist puts one in similar jeopardy—so our host, and several posters, who all had connections with Wilson, are in danger of this charge. Indeed, any connection with someone who has a connection with anyone else who has been charged (meaning everyone on this list) had better watch their steps.

    1. But then what if someone is in fact found to be “racist” – what then? Aren’t there degrees of racism?

      No single person documents their every living moment which would bd necessary in principle to scrutinize every single aspect of a life. So this charge – like a host of other notions – is fundamentally unknowable – because we do not have every scintilla of information.

      In stark contrast to the continuous curation of modern “online personas”, where nothing is left out.

      There is no way out of this charge of racism, especially with the T. H. Huxley story.

  11. In his comment made in response to Greg Meyer’s addendum to Jerry’s earlier post Sepkowski said:

    “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”.

    This is directly undermined by the quote above from Lewontin who was clearly well aware that Wilson was not racist and that Sociobiology “was not a racist doctrine”. As other quotes from Lewontin indicate he believed the ends justified the means when it came to social justice and Wilson became collateral damage from this attitude.

    Wilson himself refuted that his views on sociobiology provided any justification for racism and there is nothing in his published writings that anyone has pointed to that can be said to be racist. I have not read anything suggesting that he was racist in his dealings with colleagues, students or others he encountered. In other words the vast bulk of evidence from his life suggests he was not a racist and the attempt to label him as one on the basis of the Rushton letters smacks of desperation to pull down come what may.

    1. I would have liked these inquisitors to have had the courage and ethics to publish the defamatory articles (it is one thing to reflect the content of the correspondence and another to make a value judgment based exclusively on one private correspondence, an act of incompetence not suitable in a professional historian) when Wilson was alive. Writing about the dead is easy.

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