Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins: In defense of E. O. Wilson

May 18, 2022 • 10:00 am

If you’ve been following the fracas about biologist E. O. Wilson and the intimations that he was a racist or at least friendly with racists, you’ll know that there are at least three articles accusing him either explicitly or implicitly of racism (see here, here, and here).  Wilson’s also been defended by many of his colleagues and associates (see here, here, here, here, and here). The latest defense is by Michael Shermer, which you can see by clicking on the first screenshot below. But it may almost be too late. The anti-Wilson rot has spread so far that, without even a thorough checking of Wilson’s correspondence and history, several societies are considering de-naming awards bearing his name.

The entirety of the recent allegations that Wilson was either a racist or sympathetic to racists comes from his association with J. Philippe Rushton, whom I have no difficulty imagining as a bigot (or racist, as you will). Wilson himself, though, has no other history of racist remarks or behavior, and so the whole set of accusations come down to Wilson’s association with Rushton.

This association consists of several actions taken by Wilson, including defending Rushton when he was in danger of being being disciplined by his university job for his incendiary work on race differences, Wilson’s enthusiasm for a paper written by Rushton and one of Wilson’s students, Charles Lumsden, and Wilson’s defense of a paper in which Rushton claimed that, as Michael Shermer notes, blacks and whites were seen as the product to different forms of demographic selection.

From Shermer:

Again, to oversimplify, Rushton argued that while all humans are K-selected, some are more K-selected than others, suggesting that Blacks lean more toward r-selection compared to Whites and especially to Asians. This is why he called it “Differential K theory.” The implications were that Blacks are more promiscuous, have more babies, allocate fewer parental resources in each, develop sexual maturity earlier and, as if that wasn’t enough to ignite a radioactive cultural China Syndrome, are less intelligent and have longer penises, compared to Whites in the middle and Asians at the top (with, again, correspondingly higher intelligence and shorter penises).

But Wilson also declined to review a paper Ruston submitted to Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, as he didn’t want to be drawn into further controversy (Wilson was already being denigrated by the anti-sociobiology crowd.)

Ruston’s paper above really does seem to be invidious speculation (see below), and, as Wilson’s closest colleague Bert Hölldobler (co-author of the Pulitzer-winning book The Ants) observed:

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].

. . . 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!

Indeed. And Wilson’s behavior with respect to Rushton is mitigated by several considerations. As Greg Mayer argued in these pages, one of these was the likelihood that he was trying to help his student Charles Lumsden, who co-authored a paper with Rushton. Another was Wilson’s repeatedly expressed desire to promote academic freedom. Much of his defense of Rushton, as Shermer shows using Wilson’s letters, likely comes from Wilson himself having been repeatedly attacked by people like Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin (my own Ph.D. advisor) for his work on sociobiology—the field now called “evolutionary psychology”.  Wilson didn’t like the idea that—as he was himself accused of for studying the evolution of human behavior—some academic subjects could be deemed off limits. Finally, there is Wilson’s naiveté: he didn’t seem to realize that speculation by Rushton on differences between races—speculation unsupported by substantial data—was invidious and could be harmful.  I’m not trying to totally exculpate Wilson here, but given his entire career and history, naiveté seems more parsimonious than racism to explain l’affaire Rushton. This doesn’t excuse Wilson for bad judgment, but, as Bert notes, it doesn’t indict him for racism, either.

In the post below, Michael Shermer actually does what Wilson’s other critics didn’t: reproduces entire letters from Wilson to and about Rushton taken from Wilson’s archives. And what Shermer turns up is small beer: Wilson supporting a fellow harangued academic, and being naive about doing so. Click to read:

I’m not going to go through Shermer’s defense as a whole, as it would take pages and I assume readers here have either followed this saga or can read the references I’ve given for themselves. After reproducing Wilson’s entire relevant correspondence, Shermer concludes this, quoting two people who knew Wilson well (though not as well as did Bert). I quote at some length from Shermer (quotes from others are doubly indented):

Ed Wilson believed that science should be conducted honestly and without fear. And, as the April 1990 letter reveals, Wilson well knew the consequences of being labeled a racist, so here another hypothesis presents itself: Wilson supported Rushton not out of heretofore hidden or implicit racist proclivities or eugenical propensities, but out of sympathy for a fellow academic whose freedom to conduct scientific research was being threatened. Still, the hostile climate of such an association challenged even Wilson’s good will. When Rushton asked Wilson to sponsor an article he wrote for publication in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), for example, which at the time required membership support for such submissions, Wilson demurred, explaining:

You will recall that I’ve been called a racist (incorrectly, and unjustly) simply because of genetical arguments in Sociobiology, and on one occasion was physically attacked by a group of leftist brownshirts, the International Committee Against Racism. I have a couple of colleagues here, Gould and Lewontin, who would use any excuse to raise the charge again. So I’m the wrong person to sponsor the article, although I’d be glad to referee it for another, less vulnerable member of the National Academy if you locate one as a possible sponsor.

That’s it. That’s the worst of the Wilson-Rushton affiliation. Far from indicting Wilson as a racist, a properly contextualized reading of this correspondence—which responsible journalists and historians of science normally practice when unencumbered by ideology—exonerates Wilson from these calumnies hurled against his posthumous reputation. That is the assessment also made by the distinguished science writer Richard Rhodes, whose biography, Scientist: E.O. Wilson: A Life in Nature, required years of detailed research on Wilson. Here is what Rhodes told me when I queried him on this matter:

Ed wasn’t racist. More than most people, because he grew up in a racist society, he was aware of what that word means. He was, however, someone who encouraged people to pursue lines of research that might lead to breakthroughs, however unexpected or politically incorrect. He was especially eager to see research that might support his work on sociobiology. I suspect that’s why he encouraged Rushton—very carefully, if the NYRB quotes are accurate. He was as well, in those days, to use his own words, “politically naive.”

I also queried the University of California, Berkeley historian of science Frank Sulloway, who studied under and worked with Ed Wilson, and who penned a tribute to Wilson in Skeptic. Here is Sulloway’s assessment on L’affaire Wilson-Rushton:

It is exceedingly easy, without taking in the full historical and interpersonal context (Ed’s vision of applying evolutionary theory to human behavior, which was under attack) and the numerous attacks that Ed experienced personally (which essentially alleged that the mere application of evolutionary theory to human behavior was racist), to see all this new information as being very damning. But Ed was clearly coming to the defense of someone he thought had the right to consider where theory can take one in the study of human behavior, and the right to at least propose and test hypotheses whether they are socially acceptable or not.

Ed may be guilty of being rather naive in how far to go in supporting someone like Rushton, but this was part of Ed’s personality and nature—he was a very generous and enthusiastic person. Hence, I too don’t see any real racism here, unless something more concrete emerges, which—having spoken to people who knew Ed Wilson well—I doubt could possibly be the case. I also don’t think one can expect Ed to have understood in the 1990s the various research flaws that have been revealed in some of Rushton’s work during the three decades since that time. It is the nature of science that many theories, seemingly having strong support to begin with, later turn out to have been mistaken.

Because the scientific study of race differences has a history of being fueled by pseudoscientific bias in a search for justifying claims of white superiority, it may seem axiomatic that science should never touch the topic. But it is the objective study of the question of differences that has actually found biological unity among the human family, no basis for claims of racial superiority, and no justification for oppression. Science is what provides the most irrefutable biological bedrock evidence for rejecting racism. Ed Wilson knew this—and wrote of this—long before he supported Rushton.

Wilson himself said that the scientific study of human behavior gave no support for racism. I’ve put Wilson’s quote to that effect below the fold:

So what we have are several people engaged in the common attempt to tear down someone’s reputation by either calling him a racist or implying, based solely on his association with Rushton, that Wilson was sympathetic to racism. Neither claim will stand. Wilson wasn’t perfect, but one must balance his association with Rushton (which has substantial mitigating factors) against the enormous number of scientific advances Wilson made during his life. I conclude that, when it comes to Wilson’s “racist tendencies or associations,” there is no there there. Nobody who knew the man well can point to any racist statements or behaviors in him. I knew him, too (not intimately), and never saw any inkling of racism or bigotry. The correspondence reproduced by Shermer does almost nothing to impugn Ed Wilson as one of the greatest biologists of our era.  It’s time for people to lay off Wilson—especially people who know well what kind of attention unfounded accusations of bigotry get in an age that seems to despise heroes and delight in their destruction and deplatforming. But I’m afraid the knife is already in, and will be twisted further.

As Richard Dawkins notes in his short appreciation of the life of Ed Wilson below, Wilson was a giant among organismal biologists. Wilson and Dawkins had their differences. Richard, like me, criticized Ed strongly for his late-life conversion to group selection as a general explanation of human traits and differences: our extremely critical reviews of one of Wilson’s books about this are here and here. But some scientific differences are no reason to rip apart a man with Wilson’s accomplishments.  Dawkins’s take is a respectful and measured evaluation of a man no longer able to answer his critics.

Click to read; I’ll give a few short quotes below:

Edward O. Wilson was a gentleman— a humane, humanist gentleman. He was also human, capable of being wrong, as we all are. I believe he was profoundly wrong in his latter-day disagreement with virtually everyone else in the field over kin selection and inclusive fitness (a purely scientific disagreement having no connection with the political pre-occupations of the Washington water-throwers or the wetly incoherent Scientific American author).

It would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge the existence of my highly critical review of The Social Conquest of Earth, which explains the nature of the disagreement. I stand by it and do not regret its outspoken tone (it is reprinted in my 2021 book Books Do Furnish a Life). But I also stand by my profound admiration for Professor Wilson and his life work.

Edward O. Wilson was a biologist of immense distinction. In addition to his unmatched expertise in the fascinatingly alien world of ants, he was one of the world’s leading ecologists. Together with Robert MacArthur, he invented the modern science of island biogeography. If he didn’t invent biophilia and consilience, his name will remain linked with those noble philosophies as their most articulate advocate. He was an astonishingly prolific and hard-working author. Having finished a book as substantial as The Insect Societies, one might have expected him to take a well-earned rest. Comfortable laurels would have beckoned to a lesser man. But no: “Because … there was some momentum left from writing The Insect Societies, I decided to learn enough about vertebrates to attempt a general synthesis.” The result was Sociobiology. Some momentum! And even Sociobiology, which might be thought sufficiently magnum for any normal lifetime, is dwarfed by The Ants, his later opus written jointly with Bert Hölldobler.

Not many scientists can boast two Pulitzer Prizes. Even more distinguished, he won the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, widely regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for disciplines “chosen so as to complement those for which the Nobel Prizes are awarded.” A great scientist and a great man.

From my acquaintance with Ed (he got me into Harvard, and I twice taught Bio 1 as his t.a.), I side with Richard and Michael on this one.

h/t: David

Click “continue reading”” to see Wilson’s statement on the study of human behavior and how it applies to racism:

Wilson’s quote from a 1981 letter to Nature:

To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior. As I stated in On Human Nature, “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.”

If there is a possible hereditary tendency to acquire xenophobia and nationalist feelings, it is a non sequitur to interpret such a hypothesis as an argument in favour of racist ideology. It is more reasonable to assume that a knowledge of such a hereditary basis can lead to the circumvention of destructive behaviour such as racism, just as a knowledge of the hereditary basis of haemoglobin chemistry and insulin production can lead to the amelioration of their pathological variants.

Shermer sums this up at the end of his piece:

These are hardly the views of a man with even a hint of racist propensities—adjacent, unconscious, systemic, implicit, or otherwise. In short, Edward O. Wilson was not a racist, nor a promoter of race science, and to suggest otherwise is a disservice to one of the great American scientists.

26 thoughts on “Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins: In defense of E. O. Wilson

  1. “Richard, like me, criticized Ed strongly for his late-life conversion to group selection as a general explanation of human traits and differences”. Hear, hear.

  2. It is certainly fitting that such a fine man and such a distinguished scientist is being so well defended, especially when one considers the current academic climate. This is completely off-topic, but, according to Aaron Sibarium (a serious young reporter with good sources), Joshua Katz (a tenured professor of classics) is about to be fired by Princeton and the spineless Eisgruber. If this story turns out to be true, it will prove a very dark day indeed in the academic world.

  3. Seems magnanimous of Sir Richard, given that (IIRC) Wilson in his waning days shot some snark Dawkins’s way about not being a real scientist, merely a popularizer.

      1. I think I asked Dawkins about this–or maybe it was someone else–but it’s clear that so long as Dawkins is typed as a militant atheist, he’ll never get a knighthood. He surely deserves one, though!!!

          1. I’m so glad you did this. It’s you, Jerry, who deserve the title Defender of the Faith, upholding the values of science and reason against those who would pull them down to advance their personal agenda through gossipy speculation about what this gifted scientist “really” meant.

            (Of course I’m using faith metaphorically. I do this throat clearing only to reassure you I have not obtusely missed the point of Faith not Fact!)

        1. There are a whole set of other lower honours which he hasn’t received. They have some rather ridiculously anachronistic names MBE ( Member of the Order of the British Empire) OBE ( Officer of… ) CBE (Commander of… )He hasn’t had one of those either and much lesser people have. I know several OBE’s who didn’t deserve it . ( It is often said to be Other Buggers’ Efforts)

      2. Isn’t she supposed to be a Defender of the Faith? Giving knighthoods to people who bash the faith would be at least inappropriate. If she started recognizing miscreants like Dawkins, the monarchy would become completely irrelevant and people will stop listening to what they say. They just wouldn’t matter anymore.

        1. Fookin’ royalty — they should be strangled with the entrails of the clergy (figuratively speaking), the lot of ’em (as Monsieur Diderot suggested).

          1. Good point! I did not know that he is now Sir Michael. Maybe defending the faith is not what she is about anymore. How absolutely horrifying! It won’t be long before Britain plunges into secularism.

            It turns out that she failed in her attempt to inflict an honour on David Bowie.

            The same source says that both T. E. Lawrence (George had offered him one) and Peter O’Toole turned down honours as well 🙂

            1. When Mick got his, Keith said he would never accept one, either. Then again, I doubt Her Majesty would offer him one, unless she started granting it in recognition for meritorious service to needles and spoons. 🙂

            1. I didn’t mean to suggest that The Stones were Satanists, Norbert. I was just joking around (something I do here from time to time).

              But thanks for the info about The Master and Margarita. I wasn’t aware of the connection between the Bulgakov novel and side one, track one of Beggars Banquet.

  4. The unjustified opprobrium exercised against E.O. Wilson for imaginary character defects is disgraceful. His courageous investigations of unpopular, but highly important, aspects of biology, social behaviour, and evolution may be scientifically disputed by some, but ad hominem attacks on the dead man do not change the results of his pioneering work. A quick glance at the meagre contributions of many of those currently engaged in his denigration suggests that some of his attackers would not be able to contest his work on a scientific stage and are consequently relegated to calumnious offences.

    It bears repeating that in Wilson’s February 1981 letter to Nature, he clearly stated “that a knowledge of such a hereditary basis [for possible acquisition of xenophobic and nationalistic feelings] can lead to the circumvention of destructive behaviour such as racism.” That was forty years ago. Wilson was asserting that scientific knowledge could help end racism.

  5. I often point out that the fabled red-scare in academia of the 1950s was much less virulent and comprehensive than the current atmosphere of enforced conformism. For one thing, the loyalty oath fad was not imposed on the dead. When I was studying Genetics as an undergrad in the late 1950s,
    nobody wrote denunciations of the great mutation researcher H.J. Muller for his clear Communist sympathies—he didn’t move to Leningrad in 1933 to enjoy the winter weather. For that matter, nobody denigrated Thomas Hunt Morgan for his association with Muller (which was certainly more extensive than E.O. Wilson’s association with Rushton).

    Come to think of it, H. J. Muller was distinctly partial to eugenics, which might be used against him retroactively today. Perhaps we can look forward to a Scientific American exposé of Muller as a eugenicist (and therefore a racist); and, worse yet, for leaving the Soviet Union in 1937 out of his displeasure with the truly Progressive academic atmosphere that was developing there, comparable in important respects to our own DEI-saturated and identity-obsessed atmosphere here today.

  6. I’ve long been a fan of Wilson’s and tend to agree that he wasn’t a racist. What isn’t clear from anything I’ve read on this, however, is the existence of conclusive evidence that Rushton was a racist. Have his ideas been scientifically rebutted or are they merely politically repugnant?

    1. Ruston’s research on race and intelligence was very flawed. He asserted Asians were intellectually superior to Caucasians who were, in turn intellectually superior to Blacks. Its been about 35 years since that was a hot topic in my corner of personality psychology. The main flaw in his work was that he “cherry picked” his samples. He used a high SES Asian sample and a low SES Black sample to make his argument, much like Jensen did with flawed racial studies in 1960s. I’ve forgotten where he got the Caucasian sample in his study from.

      1. I don’t think that’s what we mean by cherry-picking.
        In North America, most Asians would have been high SES and most Blacks would have been low SES in his day especially. Even if you could draw a truly random Asian sample and a truly random Black sample from the NAm population, the average SES’s would obviously be different. Everyone knows Asians in North American are wealthier than Blacks on average and live in better neighbourhoods. I don’t see how that makes his research flawed. His hypothesis was that race predicts intelligence. Given that intelligence and SES are strongly correlated, you will not be surprised to find that, if the hypothesis is true, race and SES will also be correlated. Since that is exactly what we see, it supports the hypothesis and doesn’t undermine it.

        I don’t know why you would control for SES if you are trying to look at the correlation of race with IQ across the population. Yes you might find that struggling unsuccessful Asians have the same average IQ as struggling unsuccessful Blacks and ditto for successful ones. But so what? That design is over-controlled because SES is so strongly correlated with IQ. If you control for SES you will obscure the correlation between race and IQ (which drives SES) and falsely claim there is none. It is fair to ask, Do Asians have higher IQs than Blacks because they are wealthier, and not because they are Asian? Or is that Asians achieve higher SES because they have higher IQ? But those are different questions from asking if average IQ scores differ across the races as Rushton did..

        Now of course why the racial IQ hierarchy exists (if it does) is not answered by Rushton’s work so far as I know. A layman like me would put it, “Nature or nurture?” In Rushton’s day it became fashionable to reject race as anything other than a social construct, so his analysis by race was seen as unscientific on its face. But not so today.

        What would be cherry-picking would be if you looked over the results after you had obtained them and only reported the results that supported your hypothesis and suppressed all the others. Say a researcher had IQ test results from 10 cities. Let’s say the IQ ranking Asian > white > Black appeared statistically significant only in Baltimore and Vancouver but not in any of the other 8 cities. If she reported in her paper only the Baltimore and Vancouver results, claiming they supported her race hierarchy hypothesis, that would be cherry-picking and dishonest. I’m not saying Rushton did anything like that, not saying he didn’t. I’m not familiar with that aspect of his work, just trying to make a point about what cherry-picking is and isn’t. To accuse him of cherry-picking you have to be specific.

        If work in this area has been out of fashion for 35 years — I’m sure it has — that could just mean it’s toxic to one’s career to be seen to be studying it. One can certainly ask, What is the point in studying this? What good does it do to anyone or to society to find out if Blacks on average really are duller (IQ-wise) than Asians? There are many research questions clamouring for funding. Why fund work like this?

        Rushton was obsessed with topics that were and are today considered unseemly and not worth studying, and of utility only to advance an ideology, which he did on behalf of white supremacist organizations. So this means he had unpalatable views about how society should address race.
        But none of that proves that he was wrong or dishonest.

  7. I just want to make something very clear: R-K selection theory is not nonsense, and it is in fact an actively investigated area of research today. They have only changed the name to life history theory, and it now focuses on what are called life history tradeoffs, which are conflicts between things like parenting and reproduction. If the data show that some of Rushton’s observations are true, then it’s better to face it than to ignore reality pathetically. Science should only be concerned with what is true, not with what is desirable.

  8. Given how important it is to combat racism, I worry how casually the r-word is used in cases like this. It’s like specific areas of scientific study are taboo and those who are perceived to violate it need to be dealt with in extreme terms.

    I honestly can’t see what the big deal is about the study of sociobiology (or even evolutionary psychology), because it’s not like any finding is going to somehow justify racism / xenophobia / sexism / bigotry etc. It’s a category mistake to think our nature justifies any of the horrors that we perpetrate on one another. Is doesn’t imply ought.

  9. Surely the best and most conclusive evidence that Wilson was not racist was that (as quoted above) he asserted that science provides no justification for racism, his writings were not racist in content or tone and the people that knew him well all say they never saw him speak or behave in a racist way. I believe that even Dick Lewontin who was a fierce academic and ideological opponent of Wilson’s Sociobiology was on record as saying that he did not believe that Wilson was personally racist.

Leave a Reply