Agustin Fuentes once again flaunts his virtue via misleading statements

September 8, 2022 • 12:45 pm

We’ve met Agustín Fuentes before. An anthropologist at Princeton, he’s trying to carve a niche for himself by defending woke science, most notably by being the most prominent person to publicly accuse Darwin of racism and sexism, and in so doing committing some scientific missteps. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Here’s a Fuentes whopper about “survival of the fittest,” a term that Darwin didn’t invent and generally avoided, using it only a handful of times in his writings:

[Darwin] went beyond simple racial rankings, offering justification of empire and colonialism, and genocide, through “survival of the fittest.” This too is confounding given Darwin’s robust stance against slavery.

This is wrong on two counts. First, Darwin never justified genocide, though he did think that by virtue of (inherited) superiority, the white race would come to dominate others by higher relative success. But never did he advocate the killing or extirpation of different ethnic groups. Second, the use of “social Darwinism” by others to justify such mistreatment of other groups was always rejected by Darwin. Darwin simply cannot be blamed for the misuse or misconstrual of his theory by others. In fact, I cannot think of what direct harm Darwin really caused to anyone, save his buttressing the views of English men and women of his time. I always maintain that if Darwin lived today, he would likely decry misogyny, racism, and white supremacy, and would be a liberal English guy. It’s unfair, again, to tar him for adhering to the moral standards of his time—indeed, in having higher standards.

As I said, Darwin was a bit of a sexist and a racist, but he was far less so than most men of his position and time; he was, in fact, an abolitionist. But let’s not plow already-furrowed ground. Fuentes has denied and been criticized for his views on Darwin by some very good scholars, including a bunch of scientists including his fellow anthropologist Frans de Waal (who cosigned a letter to Science), Robert Wright, historian of science Bob Richards at my own school, and evolutionary geneticist Brian Charlesworth. This is not a group of people you’d expect to agree on anything, but when Fuentes goes after Darwin for no reason other than to flaunt his own foresight and perspicacity, it’s irritating. I’d bet ten to one that had Fuentes lived at the same time as Darwin, and worked as an anthropologist, he’d be a worse sexist and racist than Darwin himself. But Fuentes has no view of context; his goal is to indict the past for failing to adhere to moral standards that are continually improving.

Fuentes has also argued that “biology” has rejected the bimodality of sexes (to humanity’s benefit!), and you can read all I’ve written about that and his other issues here.

Now he’s back again banging the drum—defending Scientific American (and dissing me and others) in his school’s student newspaper, The Daily Princetonian. Click to read:

I’m not going to go through this op-ed mush, as it doesn’t deserve it, but I will answer his claim about what we got wrong about “calls for diversity in science” (he’s referring most strongly to the new bent of Scientific American to publish woke garbage.

Fuentes (because he has a thin skin, he makes it personal from the outset, naming names and characterizing us as old white cis men (how does he know my gender identity?):

From University of Chicago biology professor Emeritus Jerry Coyne: “Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine” and “it is not science: it’s politics and sociology with a Leftist bent.”

From former Cambridge research fellow Noah Carl: “people who should know better have allowed once-great scientific journals to become a platform for woke activism” and “[I] have covered Nature’s descent into woke activism … now seems that Science is going the same way.”

Founded in 1845 and 1880 respectively, SciAm is the oldest and top popular science magazine and Science is the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Not exactly radical lefty ‘zines. Yet both have been called out repeatedly as “too woke” and “anti-science.”

What is driving this cluster of largely (but not exclusively) white, senior, and cis-gender scholars and pundits to complain? What have the SciAm and Science editorial boards done that is so horrible? Simply put, they have recognized that times are changing and including previously excluded and marginalized voices, experiences, and perspectives in their pages is not only the right thing to do, but also the necessary thing to do for a better and more vibrant science of the 21st century.

I will respond, but only briefly:

Dear Dr. Fuentes,

Once again you are mischaracterizing your opponents.  I, at least, have no opposition whatever to Scientific American or other science magazines “including previously excluded marginalized voices, experiences, and perspectives in their pages.” What i object to is when these voices and perspectives have almost nothing to do with science, but instead are used to further a “progressive” left ideology that happens to be the preferred political viewpoint of the editor. I would make exactly the same objection if the magazine were to replace scientific content with right-wing perspectives. Scientific American is, or rather used to be, a magazine of popular science, not of “progressive” ideology. What the critics object to—beyond the distortion of science and the attempt to rewrite history—is hijacking a magazine that people want to read so they can learn about science. I, for one, am not enlightened by hearing that Mendel, along with E. O. Wilson, were bigots. Did Mendel see wrinkled peas as “old” and thus inferior to nice round peas, bursting with the starch of youth? Oh, I forgot that you, too see age as a moral flaw. Nor do I get much from articles about how SETI is racist, along with the Jedi, or that creationism is a form of white supremacy.

I also see that  you use your new columnist space to once again go after Darwin, saying what you keep saying over and over again, notably this:

We do (and should) teach Darwin as a brilliant scientist, which he was. But when reading “Descent of Man,” students who are not white and don’t identify as male encounter assertions about their lower value as humans, their cognitive deficiencies, and their being “less than.” These are assertions made by the scholar we recognize as a genius and the originator of much in our understanding of the processes of evolution, and if not countered and corrected, can be a gut punch to some readers, a signal that they do not belong, are not equal or valued. This can be true even if many readers (such as older white cis-male ones) don’t notice it.

Thank goodness you are here to correct this; after all, it’s not as if historians of science have been pointing out Darwin’s bigotry (and the conflicts within him about this) for years. Do you really think that if you had lived and worked as a scientist in Darwin’s time, you would be the only intellectual in England who had an absolutely correct view of politics—the one you hold today?

By the way, you keep characterizing those of us who criticize you and your views as “white, senior, cis-gender, males”.  That is racism, ableism, ageism, and heterophobia all rolled up into one slur. It does you no favors to evince the same kind of bigotry that you decry in your opponents.


J. A. Coyne

20 thoughts on “Agustin Fuentes once again flaunts his virtue via misleading statements

  1. Brilliant!

    BTW, I have decided that I don’t like being referred to as ‘cis’ just because I am heterosexual. ‘Cis’ and ‘trans’ are terms used in chemistry to denote the optical orientation of different isomers. I object to their cultural appropriation by gender activists. So there!

  2. The response amounting to “they’re only saying that because they are white and male and think science belongs to white males and hate diversity” is among the least insightful they could come up with.

  3. Exceptionally well said. It’s infuriating when the fact that some one is old, white, and male is treated as an automatic proof that their opinions are wrong. We see this a lot in NZ in discussions of MM, one clown dismissing Dawkins as a “British retiree”.

    1. Don’t forget Dawkins’ comment along the lines of “if all they have to say against your idea is that you are a white male, you’ve already won the argument.”

  4. It’s interesting how terms which are not inherently derogatory like cis, white, and senior have nevertheless become terms of derision. Isn’t that the very definition of bigotry, applying negative associations to people’s inherent qualities?

  5. [H]ow does he know my sexuality? – or indeed your up-to-date gender identity.

    But a fantastic riposte – ouch!

  6. I have no idea of the meaning of “cis” … never bothered to look it up. But now I yam wondering, If i get called a “cissy”, should I take it as a compliment?

  7. Great letter!
    The Social Justice theocrats are almost impossible to debate, as they are fundamentalists who honestly believe they are the repository of all holy truth, but this particular debate strategy of theirs (argument ad victimum?) seems to me particularly underhanded and manipulative:
    “assertions made by the scholar we recognize as a genius and the originator of much in our understanding of the processes of evolution, and if not countered and corrected, can be a gut punch to some readers, a signal that they do not belong, are not equal or valued.”
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but if we are to take this advice, every time we read, write or think we need to hold in the center of our thoughts some hypothetical victim, essentially imagine the most emotionally fragile person on earth, and then center our entire discourse around them. As in, don’t say X is better than Y or Tribe X did something before Tribe Y, because someone somewhere may feel less-than and not equal or valued.
    This strikes me as a sort of therapeutic totalitarianism that would make any project larger than a self-esteem healing circle essentially impossible.

  8. Two questions:

    (1) How much damage to science is being done by this woke nonsense? I suspect that a lot of damage is being done now that won’t be visible for 10 years.

    (2) How do we make it stop?

    1. (2) How do we make it stop?

      We don’t. This is a generational issue. When has any generation ever decided they were wrong and their elders were right and gone back to the way things used to be. Like everything else they associate this with every evil that has ever happened in the past. This simply must play out until it becomes untenable and some future generation decides it is time for change. We can just hope with the pace of modern life that won’t be as long as it had been in the past.

  9. As a leftie, I try to be happy to hear and read prospectives from a fellow leftie. Everyone likes to come across things that are agreeable to their worldview!
    But what makes that ripe for criticism from the right is when these progressive statements are wrong on facts, both historical and biological. I am not happy when right-wing people have to correct “our side” about something!

  10. If a writer insists on criticizing some scientific position, s/he should be able to state the arguments scientists bring to bear in support of that position. For instance, anyone arguing that biological sex is nonbinary should be able to clearly state the arguments actual biologists bring to bear who claim that it is in fact binary. No matter how cleverly stated, straw person arguments are not cool.

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