More ideological distortions of biology described by Dawkins and an article on pervasive ideological censorship of Wikipedia articles

July 25, 2022 • 9:45 am

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:

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 ScienceMens Sana MonographsCommentary, and the New York Times, and the book Abrahams 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 ending:

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.

39 thoughts on “More ideological distortions of biology described by Dawkins and an article on pervasive ideological censorship of Wikipedia articles

  1. I find this headline misleading. It should be “More biological distortions identified by Dawkins…”

  2. Also a side note :

    Look how effective writing is here – as opposed to (in a de juris way?) – a video – either of the same text, or spoken.

    The counterpart is, of course, reading.

    Distinctions with big differences, in my view.

  3. Sorry this is unrelated, but I really want to read the Rosalind Franklin article (and send it to my daughter) but the link from Facebook seems to be broken.

    Thank you!

  4. The fate of RationalWiki is a dire warning here. For those not familiar, it started off as a very useful site with a rational/skeptical/atheists bent, and tried to be an honest, neutral and factual source.

    Then, during the Deep Rift wars in the above community it got taken over by the uber-woke (who got hold of the master passwords and locked out anyone who disagreed with them), and nowadays it is just a hit site, doing hit pieces on anyone who is critical of woke ideology. Their favourite (indeed sole?) tactic seems to be one of seeing how much they can smear people by labelling them “alt right” etc.

    The problem is that Google search engines and similar, perhaps as a relic from the old days, treats RationalWiki as a reputable source and so places it highly in searches.

    As well as knowing about the ideological bias in Wikipedia, we need to be aware of how much political bias there is in Google search rankings. (Pick a topic of woke interest and compare a Google search output to, say, DuckDuckGo.)

    1. To add, in addition to bias from Wikipedia and Google, we need to be aware of bias on such issues from Amazon (Example here: “Amazon deletes top-rated review of Angela Saini’s ‘Superior'”).

    2. I have a lot of funny anecdotes.

      (1) They used to have an article on “doxing” and greatly complained about how unethical and evil this is. Naturally, they listed most minor personalities you never heard about who did dox to document this bad behaviour. When GamerGate happened, they also critised them for allegedly promoting doxing.

      Then Rebecca Watson (hilariously) wrote an article on her SkepChicks site titled “I’m `Okay with Doxing”, filled with (demonstrable) falsehoods, but to make the point that doxing and trying to get people fired was a good thing. PZ Myers and the rest of the gang all agreed with Watson’s take.

      But at RationalWiki, the editors worked overtime, with ludicrous and ludicrouser reasons to keep Watson et al out of the doxing article. That would make them look bad, after all. In other words, spurious accusations are added easily, but when they come out to say they’re “Okay” with it, and have used doxing, there’s suddenly reasons to not include them.

      (2) RationalWiki also published PZ Myers’ extreme defamation of Michael Nugent (Atheists Ireland). I won’t repeat them here, find them documented on Nugent’s blog. When I challenged them to have them removed, the RationalWikians construed a case where they accused me of defamation, and banned me. Me pointing out their serious defamation, and their doublestandards was construed as defamation. That‘s how they operate. That was after a series of shenangigans, where they made fake accounts with my nickname, tempered with the login etc. and suchlike. Outwardly they pretend to play by some rules, but that‘s a joke.

      The defacto owner of RationalWiki is one “David Gerard” (I stress that’s the name he himself uses), a dubiously internet famous person for all the wrong reasons. Like a cult, they are immunized against any criticism of falsehoods, doublestandards etc. They just take the frequency of the accusation of not being very rational as a kind of prompt to make fun of the accuser. It’s just a name etc.

  5. Oh boy, I have so much to say about all this and I am glad you made this post.

    Firstly, I would like to add another distortion of biology I have noticed in recent years: “Life history theory” is being used by some evolutionary anthropologists and psychologists as a theory of how the environment regulates plasticity, instead of regarding it as a theory about the evolution of life cycles through genetic means. They are using this ideological distortion to explain away an uncomfortable fact: people who grow up in poverty are more likely to be impulsive, aggressive, and to have a more precocious sex life than those who grow up in more stable environments. Their explanation is that deprivation causes early sexual maturation and other behaviors, but some people like Stephen Stearns are not convinced (and neither am I).

    Moving on to Wikipedia, I have also noticed very concerning ideological distortions by the far-left. If you read the Wikipedia article on totalitarianism, for example, you will see paragraphs near the end suggesting that leftwing dictatorships like Mao’s China and the USSR were not totalitarian. If you read the discussion section, the battle between radical and sensible editors becomes clear. I also noticed that articles on North Korea often have NK apologists casting doubt on the regime’s brutal human rights violations.

    I suggest people read the discussion pages of Wikipedia more often to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, and perhaps become more proactive in editing the Wiki themselves.

    1. “I suggest people read the discussion pages of Wikipedia more often…”

      Yup! And the edit history.

  6. … 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 …

    In the best tradition of Cicero pro domo sua.

    1. I don’t mind our Cicero standing up for his own house in this case – and I’m sure you don’t object either.

      I was amused to find the Wikipedia article on my grandfather, which stated authoritatively he died in the late 1930s. Must have been an imposter I knew when I was a boy in the early sixties!

  7. My understanding and it may be wrong … the average intelligences of women and men are very similar. The small difference may or may not be significant. The distribution of intelligence is very much broader for men. So when we picture a genius it is more likely a man. Similarly, when we picture a village idiot a man comes to mind (at least for me). Whereas the distribution of intelligence for women has a narrower distribution so we don’t get as many “extremes”.

    I speculate whether similar phenomena can occur for various ethnicities. Ashkenazi Jews being a prime candidate. (2 % in my case). And of course there is no reason why isolated ethnicities can’t evolve different traits.

    I suppose it is arguable whether any ethnicity is sufficiently isolated in modern times and whether modern populations have had sufficient times to mix? Of course variables like diet, geography, culture, education all make these things difficult to tease apart.

    1. What you postulate is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. The problem is that one is no longer allowed to suggest such things. Any citation of known facts (as solidly based as any can be: intelligence research is one of the oldest fields of formal psychological study) that point out differences between sexes, or, er, groups of people is to be stamped out immediately.

      1. Neil DeGrasse Tyson once pointed out – as NDT does, and IIRC – that human DNA shares over 95% (98%?) identity with chimpanzee DNA – yet, we intuit that – even though chimps are very intelligent – our own intelligence is , SURELY, way way higher.

        His point was we are probably way off, in the wrong direction, on that intuition.

        ‘Course, DNA is not everything, but its something.

  8. This is entirely in line with the rest of the woke activism: any evidence or information that contradicts the dogma must be erased, anyone who says anything that even remotely contradicts or challenges the woke (especially if it is based on facts and reason) must be canceled, and any method of quantifying intellectual abilities must be abolished. That is why universities no longer require or accept standardized scores like the SAT, GRE, etc. since they offer information that may go against the politically desirable outcomes.

    This is also why the Quillette article’s authors and this commenter prefer to be anonymous.

  9. I find it amusing, even hilarious, how social critics desperately look to biology to reinterpret violence in humans by questioning evolutionary theory. Somehow they cannot accept the existence of anti social behavior and violence except through social analysis, i.e. that society and culture are to blame for violence, not innate tendencies or human fallibility (or evil thoughts). This Nature vs. Nurture false
    debate never ends, thanks to the Marxists and post modernists. David Loye’s book Darwin Loves You is a good example of this but there are lots more. Just investigate Darwin with a microscope and you will find, they claim, that he “really” didn’t say what he said or that he “really” meant cooperation, not competition(i.e. natural selection) was more influential in human behavior. Fast forward to today, where the black and Identity Politics mafia are proposing social engineering a la Stalin to cure
    that “innate” racism (which, contradictorily, is assumed to be genetic and universal rather than
    socially transmitted, thus undercutting their anti evolutionary beliefs).

  10. What a fantastic read. I also think that the stuff discussed as going on in Wikipedia is essentially permeating all or almost all institutions in society which are or were respected for their expertise. It seems very valuable to document all of this as it’s happening so that it isn’t lost to history.

  11. I’ve heard claims about something called “intergenerational trauma,” the idea that one’s trauma is passed to one’s descendants. I’ve read this in the context of USAnian slavery (of course) and Holocaust survivors. Some proponent claim that intergenerational trauma is inherited epigenetically, thereby linking the two ideas. For example, alleged inherited trauma from slavery limits black USAnians’ achievements today. Is intergenerational trauma an actual scientific theory or is it all wokeness?

    1. Is intergenerational trauma an actual scientific theory or is it all wokeness?

      There were some claims of weak epigenetic effects lasting a generation or two, but the claims didn’t really stand up to scrutiny. So, no, it’s not scientific theory of any standing. Children are born anew each generation, they don’t inherit any parental “trauma”, which of course is a good thing.

      Of course there will be cultural attitudes passed on.

      1. Fetal alcohol syndrome and child abuse are notorious components of inter-generational trauma. The are a “just-so” way of saying, “It’s in our genes so we can’t help it, and it’s your fault that our genes are messed up. Reparations please.”

        1. @Leslie MacMillan I’m a bit confused. Child abuse is certainly trauma, but FAS has a known medical cause and can be prevented by the woman’s avoiding alcohol during pregnancy. But is child abuse genetic or biochemical? I don’t know if FAS and abuse are comparable in that regard. I apologize if I’m not making myself clear.

          I agree with you about the messed-up genes claims = reparations claims.

          1. > FAS has a known medical cause and can be prevented by the woman’s avoiding alcohol during pregnancy.

            The trouble is, the mothers don’t, typically from conception right through to labour. (To give your child FAS you have to work at it.) The children are unlovable and unsocializable. The inter-generational curse is that you can’t rescue the children because the damage is already done by the time they are born.

      2. “Of course there will be cultural attitudes passed on.”

        Yes, that is what I suspected. I didn’t know if anyone had actually studied the epigenetics claims.

    2. “intergenerational trauma”

      I see pseudoscience in this term by use of Big Words.

      I also see how anyone can make themselves a victim by reference to anyone related to them – this tree becomes quite large, as one would expect.

    1. And talking of which, I’m currently enjoying a biography of John vonNeumann, one of the Budapest “martians”. I know this is a ridiculously narrow view of the horror of the Holocaust, but one of the things it wiped out was our only known and successful genius factory.

  12. i was quite pleased with the aside near Lamarckism “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.” , as I co-authered a negative review of her book: Nature 424 (3 July 2003) p 16

  13. The author ends his/her/their article with a warning about this kind of censorship affecting the credibility of Wikipedia.

    I don’t think that would be a bad thing. It should be more or less automatic to question what Wikipedia says, especially on controversial subjects. Journalists, in particular, should be extremely sceptical.

    This would be an improvement over the current situation which is that this kind of censorship is going on and Wikipedia is still believed to be credible by many.

    1. Yes, the Murray-Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect is strong at Wikipedia (I’d give a link, but they deleted the page – no they didn’t, they just don’t have one).

  14. If you go to Wikipedia’s main page and do a search for “Ashkenazi intelligence”, you get lots of hits in articles ostensibly about something else. One interesting one is a reference to Henry Harpending, who with Gregory Cochran and Jason Hardy wrote a book called “Natural history of Ashkenazi intelligence.”, in which they

    “…suggest that the high average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews may be attributed to natural selection for intelligence during the Middle Ages and a low rate of genetic inflow. They hypothesize that the occupational profile of the Jewish community in medieval Europe had resulted in selection pressure for mutations that increase intelligence, but can also result in hereditary neurological disorders… [I suppose the Tay-Sachs you mentioned]

    “…According to cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, this theory “meets the standards of a good scientific theory, though it is tentative and could turn out to be mistaken.”[17] On the other hand, geneticist David Reich has argued that the hypothesis is contradicted by evidence that the higher rate of genetic diseases among Ashkenazi Jews is in fact due to genetic drift.”

  15. Strangely enough (or is it), even the Hebrew Wikipedia does not have an article about “Ashkenazi intelligence”, but it does have a comprehensive one about “The Jewish genius” in which the only reference to “ashkenaz” is one paragraph starting with (Google translation): “The American anthropologists Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Herfending published a scientific article in 2005 in which they hypothesized that this was not a Jewish genius, but an “Ashkenazi” Jewish genius.”

    Reading this post aa well as the Hebrew Wiki article just one day after I donated money to Wikipedia. What a bummer.

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