Two days ago, for a small project, I compiled a list of ten ways that biology (and evolutionary biology in particular) has been distorted by ideology. These distortions usually come from the “progressive” (really “regressive”) Left, but the Right contributes, too. What’s important is that biological facts are being hidden or distorted in the service of people’s personal ideologies and politics. Ideologues find some lines of biological research, or conclusions from that research, uncomfortable—even deeming it dangerous—and think they’re doing a service by this kind of distortion and censorship. They aren’t.
Besides a few additional suggestions from readers in the comments, we have two new forms of distortion suggested by Richard Dawkins in a tweet:
Jerry Coyne has a fine list of 10 ideological distortions of biology. I can think of only 2 more: the recurrent ideologically-based yearnings to revive Lamarckism, and to revive group selection. Please read his list. Can you add to it?https://t.co/JQxDhQZQfx
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 24, 2022
I appreciate the call out! The “revival of Lamarckism”, I think, is the current view that epigenetic modifications of the genome, induced by the environment, can be inherited, and can constitute adaptations. There are no good examples: most of the alterations aren’t adaptive, and none of them last beyond a few generations. The ideology motivating this view is presumably a “Darwin-was-wrong” view, and perhaps the political notion that organisms are malleable by environmental change—though this form of change gets inscribed in the genes. (Another method is the “plasticity” hypothesis of Mary Jane West-Eberhard. but even my smartest colleagues can’t figure out how to interpret that theory.)
Group selection, of which we have no good examples in humans and only a few in other species (see the last chapter of my book Speciation with Allen Orr), may reflect another form of ideological “anti-Darwinism”, or perhaps a drive to explain how humans can become altruistic and kind via “selfish genes”. (But as Dawkins has explained repeatedly, apparent altruism, and certainly cooperation, can evolve via individual selection, and Steve Pinker has explained why group selection for human traits is cumbersome and unlikely.)
However, the promotion of group selection by Ed Wilson, the latest big revival of the idea, wasn’t so much in the service of an ideology but of ambition—Wilson wanted to be remembered for having his own Big Theory of human behavior, and group selection was it. His last books and talks pushed the idea that, in fact, almost every aspect of human behavior had evolved via group selection. (This isn’t just my interpretation, but one made by several of Wilson’s colleagues and friends.)
Now, this new article in Quillette, by a person using a pseudonym (no, I don’t know who it is), represents another substantial attempt to distort biology in the interest of ideology. The author documents at length how a whole group of Wikipedia articles, involving human behavior, intelligence, race, and other traits have been edited or even removed because the claims adduced weren’t comforting to the “progressive” Left. (And yes, the editing is all in the direction of expunging things that contradict wokeness). I haven’t checked the claims, which involves going through the editing history of many Wikipedia articles (the discussion is all on public view), but I direct you to the article to show you how censorious the woke editors have been.
Click to read:
The claims, if true, contradict Wikipedia‘s avowed aim of presenting the latest well-supported ideas from reputable sources; instead, they’ve cut out new and reputable sources in favor of older sources that buttress the ideologues’s claims, and have often replaced the claims of scholars with those of journalists. The aim is to effect “social justice”, not to give information.
“Tezuka” gives five examples of Wikipedia-tampering that he’s followed in depth; these are the areas covered:
1.) Recent evolution in our own species.
2.) Differences in average IQs among countries
3.) The “Flynn effect”: the observation that over the last century, IQs have risen gradually: about three points per decade
4.) The intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, well known for being academic overachievers.
5.) Race and intelligence: the controversy about the terms “no evidence” versus “no direct evidence”
I recommend you read the article, as here I will focus on only one area: “Ashkenazigate”. This kerfuffle resulted in the removal of the entire Wikipedia article on Ashkenazi Jews and intelligence and the mention of that association on the entire site. I was especially curious about this one, as 23 and Me tells me this is my own genetic constitution:
So what happened? The author first explains why the topic deserves an article:
Although they comprise only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population, the Jewish people account for a large portion of its top achievers in domains of intellectual success. For example, they have won between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s Nobel prizes, and comprise over half of its chess champions. Ashkenazi Jews are particularly noted for their high achievement, including their high average performance on IQ tests. In his textbook IQ and Human Intelligence (Oxford University Press, 2011), Nicholas Mackintosh gives the following summary:
[I]t has long been known that Ashkenazi Jews have an unusually high average IQ (see Chapter 1); some of them also have the misfortune to suffer from a number of diseases, such as Tay Sachs disease, caused by the possession of two copies of particular recessive genes. One suggestion is that the two are linked: while homozygotes with two copies of the genes develop the disease, heterozygotes with only one copy develop higher than usual intelligence (Cochran et al., 2006). (Mackintosh 2011, p. 285)
Aside from its scientific importance, this topic of research is also an important part of the rebuttal to antisemitic explanations for Jewish achievements. In 2006, Steven Pinker wrote in the New Republic that “Jewish achievement is obvious; only the explanation is unclear. The idea of innate Jewish intelligence is certainly an improvement over the infamous alternative generalization, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.”
Now I’m not touting myself here as being super-smart; I just haven’t followed this very closely, though I’ve heard the claim that there is “overdominance” for a disease gene, like Tay-Sachs, so that although having two copies of the gene form (“allele”) gives you a fatal disease, having one copy gives you higher intelligence than usual. (Presumably having two copies of the “normal” allele gives you lower intelligence than having one copy, though I don’t know why that would be true.)
A similar kind of “overdominance” obtains for sickle-cell anemia. In Africa, having one copy of the disease allele (a mutant of the beta chain of hemoglobin) makes you more resistant to malaria, while two copies gives you the disease, usually fatal at a young age. Having two copies of the normal hemoglobin allele makes you susceptible to malaria. In such a situation, where the heterozygote has higher fitness than either homozygote, the gene will be maintained in the population by selection—called “balancing selection”. This is why the allele for sickle-cell anemia is so common in West Africa, as well as in U.S. blacks whose ancestors came from West Africa. (The frequency is declining in the U.S. because we don’t have malaria and also because there’s been substantial intermarriage between whites, who don’t carry the allele, and blacks.)
By the way, I used this example in my evolution course to show that evolution doesn’t create the best possible situation: the price of heterozygote advantage is having a number of people die from the disease and a number of people with two “normal” alleles die from malaria. If there was a beneficent creator, he would have endowed us with a hemoglobin allele that protects us against malaria when present in two copies but doesn’t cause sickle-cell anemia. Then everyone in Africa would be protected from malaria and not susceptible to the disease. But that hasn’t happened. This is another bit of evidence against a loving creator, for if our genes do reflect a creator’s will, he/she/it has allowed many people to die of malaria and sickle-cell anemia. (I didn’t talk about the god stuff in class.)
Anyway, I don’t know the evidence for this hypothesis for the Ashkenazi, and in truth am doubtful about it. Besides not knowing the single-gene evidence for intelligence, there has to be a correlation of intelligence with number of offspring for selection to work. Further, we need data showing that two copies of the “normal” allele give you lower IQs than the heterzygotes. I’d like to read about this issue in a brief piece, but the original article from Wikipedia has been EXPUNGED.
For reasons I don’t know—perhaps connected with antisemitism or just a general denigration of genes affecting IQ—the article, which was documented with sources, was proposed seven times for deletion from Wikipedia. Then the manipulators made it vanish:
In October 2020, Wikipedia’s “Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence” article was nominated for deletion the seventh time. The argument presented for its deletion was more or less the same one that had been made in every previous deletion proposal:
[O]ur article is some sort of pseudo-academic jaunt through fringe literature as promulgated by the IDW-sorts and the evo-psychs. Meanwhile, nary a hint is here that the true context of this is antisemitism. The article is here to wave a flag: such discussions of race and intelligence cannot possibly be race realist in the WP:NONAZI sense because look at who benefits at this article? *wink*, *wink*
This seventh attempt employed a tactic that had not been used in the other six. Rather than directly arguing for Wikipedia to cease covering the article’s topic, this deletion proposal suggested that the most effective way to address the nominator’s complaint would be to delete the article and then recreate it in an improved state. This argument succeeded where every previous deletion attempt had failed, and Wikipedia’s article about Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence was deleted on October 19th, 2020.
After the article’s deletion, this stated plan to recreate it turned out to be a false promise. Instead, references to high average IQ among Ashkenazi Jews were subsequently removed from every other Wikipedia article in which this topic had been discussed, including the “List of Jewish Nobel laureates” article and the general “Ashkenazi Jews” article, with edit summaries stating that the various papers, articles, and books discussing this topic were no longer reliable sources. Among the many sources rejected with this justification were papers and articles published in the Journal of Biosocial Science, Mens Sana Monographs, Commentary, and the New York Times, and the book Abraham’s Children by Jon Entine (Grand Central Publishing, 2007). Following the final removal of this material in March 2021, Wikipedia no longer covers the topic of Ashkenazi intelligence.
So it’s gone, and the ideologues have managed to suppress both data and discussion. Note as well that a change like this in one part of Wikipedia ramifies through the site, so that there appears to be no discussion of an interesting phenomenon—Ashkenazi overachievement—anywhere on Wikipedia.
As I said, I don’t know a lot about the topics covered, and nothing about Wikipedia editing, but this article does scare me about the power of ideologues to affect what has in effect become the world’s go-to source of information. (It shouldn’t be for scholars, but erroneous material on Wikipedia has made it into scientific publications.)
The author ends his/her/their article with a warning about this kind of censorship affecting the credibility of Wikipedia. (That will bring joy to the heart of Greg Mayer, who has been promising us an article on “What’s the matter with Wikipedia?” for many years. It’s even partly written.)
The original purpose of Wikipedia was to reflect the current understanding of the topics that it covers, not to exert an influence over fields to enact social change. The fact that it performed the first function so well for most of its existence, and came to be regarded as a trustworthy source, is what has made it such an effective tool for those who wish to use it for the latter purpose. While Wikipedia may ultimately prove successful at undermining research about topics related to human intelligence, it also may undermine its own reputation in the process. Formerly trusted institutions have begun to lose society’s trust as these institutions have surrendered to “woke” ideologies, as Quillette has previously described in the case of the New York Times, and Wikipedia will not necessarily be immune to this effect.
It’s clear why the author used a pseudonym.