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.
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.)
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.
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.