The conference on academic freedom at Stanford included a panel on STEM with chemistry professor Anna Krylov from USC, Mimi St. Johns, an undergraduate in computer sciences at Stanford, Luana Maroja, Professor of Biology at Williams College, and me. Luana (who’s written on this site before) and I were to handle biology, and we divided up the task beforehand. Luana teaches undergrads as well as doing research, and so is able to observe the current impact of ideology on both areas. She thus had a more personal take on “the existential threat” of ideology to biology, and Bari Weiss, who was in the audience, published Luana’s remarks on Bari’s substack site. You can see them for free below (but subscribe if you read often); I’ll give a few excerpts:
Luana’s intro recounts her “woke tipping point,” which happened to be hearing an authoritarian proclamation by—who else?—Reza Aslan:
As an evolutionary biologist, I am quite used to attempts to censor research and suppress knowledge. But for most of my career, that kind of behavior came from the right. In the old days, most students and administrators were actually on our side; we were aligned against creationists. Now, the threat comes mainly from the left.
The risk of cancellation at Williams College, where I have taught for 12 years, and at top colleges and universities throughout this country, is not theoretical. My fellow scientists and I are living it. What is at stake is not simply our reputations, but our ability to pursue truth and scientific knowledge.
If you had asked me about academic freedom five years ago, I would have complained about the obsession with race, gender and ethnicity, along with safetyism on campus (safe spaces, grade inflation, and so on). But I would not have expressed concerns about academic freedom.
We each have our own woke tipping point—the moment you realize that social justice is no longer what we thought it was, but has instead morphed into an ugly authoritarianism. For me that moment came in 2018, during an invited speaker talk, when the religious scholar Reza Aslan stated that “we need to write on a stone what can and cannot be discussed in colleges.” Students gave this a standing ovation. Having been born under dictatorship in Brazil, I was alarmed.
Then the two areas of danger: teaching and research. Luana dwells on something I alluded to in my bit: the misguided denial of the sex binary, a fundamental observation in animals that is not only instructive about evolution, which repeatedly produces two and only two sexes in animals, but also enlightens is the very basis for sexual selection, which is responsible for a lot of the differences between males and females in animals.
The restriction of academic freedom comes in two forms: what we teach and what we research.
Let’s start with teaching. I need to emphasize that this is not hypothetical. The censorious, fearful climate is already affecting the content of what we teach.
One of the most fundamental rules of biology from plants to humans is that the sexes are defined by the size of their gametes—that is, their reproductive cells. Large gametes occur in females; small gametes in males. In humans, an egg is 10 million times bigger than a sperm. There is zero overlap. It is a full binary.
It goes on, but you can read for yourself. Luana does, however, highlight how this denial on teaching, which has a humorous sidelight:
In psychology and public health, many teachers no longer say male and female, but instead use the convoluted “person with a uterus.” I had a colleague who, during a conference, was criticized for studying female sexual selection in insects because he was a male. Another was discouraged from teaching the important concept of “sexual conflict”—the idea that male and female interests differ and mates will often act selfishly; think of a female praying mantis decapitating the head of the male after mating—because it might “traumatize students.” I was criticized for teaching “kin selection”—the the idea that animals tend to help their relatives. Apparently this was somehow an endorsement of Donald Trump hiring his daughter Ivanka.
Yes, one distraught student did somehow connect Trump and Ivanka with kin selection!
The ideological basis of this distortion? It’s the attempt to validate the diversity of gender identities by claiming there’s a diversity of sex as well. But there’s not: sex is binary while gender, which is more continuous, is bimodal, with most gender identities grouping at the male and female sociosexual roles but with many identities in between. Still, one shouldn’t confuse biological sex and gender, which, unlike sex, is a human social construct based on one’s individual choices. The bimodality of sex is a biological fact that says exactly nothing about the moral rights of individuals of different genders.
And then there’s the effect on research, with ideology not only limiting access to data but also what what you can publish. Be your results true or not, some journals won’t consider them at if they see potential for psychological “harm”:
But the field that is most directly affected is research related to humans, especially those dealing with evolution of populations.
As an example: The NIH now puts barriers to access to the important database of “Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP).” The database is an amazing tool that combines genomes (the unique genetic makeup of each individual) and phenotypes (the observable characteristics of each individual) of millions of people. These phenotypes include education, occupation, health and income and, because the dataset connects genetics with phenotype at an individual level, it is essential for scientists who want to understand genes and genetic pathways that are behind those phenotypes.
The NIH now denies scientists access to this data and other related datasets. Researchers report getting permits denied on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” According to one researcher, this happens even if the research has nothing to do with race or sex, but focuses on genetics and education.
But why is education attainment any more stigmatizing than health? Especially when all individuals in the database are anonymous? Given the large genetic variation between individuals in a group and the large environmental effect on phenotypes (especially those related to education), are results for the group level even that relevant?
Learning about what differentiates education attainment and occupation is more than an academic curiosity. Understanding the genetic pathways behind phenotypes might help us find solutions and help struggling children.
The denial or rejection biological truth affects two areas of evolutionary biology most of all: the idea that there are differences between groups, and the fact that differences between individuals, and averages between groups, might have a genetic basis. Ideologues reject both because difference implies ranking, and this supposedly implies superiority/inferiority, which in turn implies bigotry. And the notion that individual or group differences might be partly based on genes somehow makes them easier to reject than if they were cultural.
The facts are the facts, but why on earth should we judge the worth of a human or group based on biology? That’s an example of the “appeal to nature”, a fallacy that, in short, says “what we see in nature is what should be a model for behavior for humans.” This is bogus in two respects. If we base equality and worth of people on observations of nature, our morality then becomes contingent in biology, and is malleable to any alterations in what we know about nature. Further, what we see in nature is not always good, with many things far from models of human behavior. Nature is red in tooth an claw; there’s murder, theft, forcible copulation, and a whole host of things we want no part of. In fact, the appeal to nature already assumes a preexisting morality based not on biology but on other factors: preference, reason, utilitarianism, and the other bases of ethics. What is happening when we claim that all groups are identical in a given trait or traits, that all people within a group are identical for traits , and that there are more than two biological sexes, is the reverse of the “appeal to nature”. Instead of asserting that what we see in nature gives us guidelines for how to behave, the ideologues reverse the fallacy (which remains a fallacy): how we decide to behave in humans tells us what we must see in nature—and if we have to distort nature to see what gives us comfort, well, distort it we must.
This distortion is, as Luana emphasizes: an existential threat to biology—and to science in general. Her closing:
The censors and gatekeepers simply assume—without evidence—that human population research is malign and must be shut down. The costs of this kind of censorship, both self-imposed and ideologically based, are profound. Student learning is impaired and important research is never done. The dangers of closing off so many avenues of inquiry is that science itself becomes an extension of ideology and is no longer an endeavor predicated on pursuing knowledge and truth.