It’s one thing when magazines like Scientific American go all catawampus on science, but another entirely when a good scientific journal itself succumbs to wokeness. Sadly, this is happening, and nowhere more pervasively than in biology, especially evolutionary biology, where one is able to indict famous biologists of the past (including Mendel!), for both eugenics and racism. Now, however, we’re also being indicted for ableism.
The article below, from July’s American Naturalist (one of the major journals in ecology and evolutionary biology) shows two things. First, it’s one of the more ludicrous examples of science policing I’ve seen. Second, it shows how the American Society of Naturalists, which publishes the journal, has gone down the same woke road as the other ecology and evolution societies.
Let me say first that nobody I know in my field denigrates or wants to ignore the disabled, and nearly all of us (I have met no dissenters) favor accommodations to give them the same opportunities as others (ramps, special doors, Braille books, and so on). But the point of this article (click for a free read, pdf here, reference at bottom) is simply to buttress two false assertions: evolutionary biology rests, at bottom, on ableism and eugenics, and, more important, that the use of certain terms of art in the field, like “fitness”, is both ableist and discourages people from going into evolutionary biology. While you can argue about the prevalence of eugenics in the early history of evolutionary biology (it’s no longer part of the field), the claim that the language we use today is ableist and bigoted against disabled people is ludicrous. This article is a specimen of virtue signaling of the first water.
The abstract tells it all:
Evolutionary biology and many of its foundational concepts are grounded in a history of ableism and eugenics. The field has not made a concerted effort to divest our concepts and investigative tools from this fraught history, and as a result, an ableist investigative lens has persisted in present-day evolutionary research, limiting the scope of research and harming the ability to communicate and synthesize knowledge about evolutionary processes. This failure to divest from our eugenicist and ableist history has harmed progress in evolutionary biology and allowed principles from evolutionary biology to continue to be weaponized against marginalized communities in the modern day. To rectify this problem, scholars in evolutionary research must come to terms with how the history of the field has influenced their investigations and work to establish a new framework for defining and investigating concepts such as selection and fitness.
The piece’s hectoring tone, which tells us what we MUST do, pervades the entire paper, especially the final section, “A path forward.” Oh, and here’s part of the acknowledgments—the obligatory self castigation:
We recognize that our experiences do not encompass all lived experiences within the field of evolutionary biology. We represent a diverse range of abilities, genders, and sexualities. However, we also represent white settlers’ perspectives on these issues.
(I have yet to understand what unlived experience is! And what do white settlers have to do with ableism?)
The piece is chock full of questionable assertions about evolutionary biology (you’ll enjoy the sweating authors’ attempt to show that albino animals are not at a disadvantage). Of course early evolutionists and geneticists were fond of eugenics, but this indictment has been made many times before, and the paper adds nothing new. It’s no more cogent than indicting early evolutionists for sexism or classism. I’ll give just one statement about the past and pass on to what’s new: the claim that our field is rife with ableism and bigotry, and that hurts the careers of disabled people.
The roots of evolutionary biology are steeped in histories of white supremacism, eugenics, and scientific racism (Snyder and Mitchell 2006; McWhorter 2009; Withers 2012). In this article we will address eugenics and ableism, but we by no means wish to minimize the substantial role of evolutionary biology in racism and white supremacy.
Substantial role? Darwin’s book was published in 1859, but slavery had been a going concern for a long time before that. But I won’t argue further here. On to the ableism:
. . . many evolutionary biologists are likely well-intentioned people who would fight against many forms of disablism: forced institutionalization, forced sterilization, nonconsensual segregated education, and offensive language. However, these same people may inadvertently be reproducing ableist hierarchies on which these harms are built: the idea that there are superior and inferior forms of human variation; the idea that the value or desirability of a human life is conditional on particular physical, sensorial, or mental capacities; the connection of human worth to capitalistic productivity; the myth of human independence; European aesthetics held as the standard of beauty; or even the goal of longevity.
Note the patronizing “likely well-intentioned people,” as if there were a distinct possibility that all evolutionary biologists may not be well intentioned. So how do we evolutionists buttress ableism, much less capitalism and European aesthetics?
Mainly through language. According to the authors, the field is rife with words like “mutant/wild type”, “fitness optimum”, “mutations” (we should say “base pair change”), and “optimization”. They further maintain that although there are four “evolutionary forces”—natural selection, genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation—the higher concentration of work on natural selection as opposed to these other areas reflects ableism, “exemplary of the legacy left by the field’s eugenicist founders”, as if all the founders of evolutionary biology were eugenicists. No, it’s simply that natural selection is more interesting, especially because it encompasses things like kin selection, sexual selection, and explains all the adaptations in the world.
Further, according to the authors, the concentration on selective mechanisms themselves, as opposed to alternative explanations, is supposed to reflect ableism. But this isn’t true: the fact that clines (geographic gradients in gene frequency) were recognized as possible products of gene flow of neutral alleles as well as of natural selection did not arise from a growing moral awareness of ableism. That’s an arrant distortion. It arose from what science does: constructs alternative hypotheses—in this case, hypotheses that were possible only after the neutral theory of genetic variation arose in the Sixties.
Further, the authors advance the misguided idea that once we’re aware of our ingrained ableism, our scientific agenda will change:
A clear example of the potential pitfalls of disproportionately invoking and researching natural selection as an explanatory mechanism is evolutionary clines. Evolutionary clines, defined as a frequency change of measurable characters over a geographic area (Huxley 1938), have historically been thought to generally result from adaptive evolution via selection (Santangelo et al. 2018), and stable clines are often thought to have a selective origin (Haldane 1948). However, recent research demonstrates that it is possible for gradients in genetic drift to cause these same spatial clines in nonadditive traits without the influence of selection (Santangelo et al. 2018). This provides evidence that breaking away from the traditional rhetoric and mindset increases our understanding of biological patterns and processes, which is encouraging that going forward, biologists may consider other drivers of these clines (Santangelo et al. 2018).
In fact, alternative explanations for “selective” patterns have been going on well before 2018. I highly doubt that Santagelo was motivated to explain these patterns via drift because he recognized the ableism inherent in a selectionist view.
I could go on for pages taking this paper apart, but I’ll bring up just one more term that’s seen as ableist: the population-genetic word “fitness”. The authors’ discussion is muddled because they use “fitness” as equivalent to “able-bodied”, implying that “lower fitness” is somehow a slur on the disabled. They also get things wrong by implying that “inclusive fitness” (the reproductive ability of a gene taking account its effects on the reproduction of copies of that gene in relatives) somehow differs from the “fitness” of a gene copy itself. But they’re the same thing! “Fitness” includes “inclusive fitness”!
But first, if you look up “fitness” in the OED, you’ll see that the first six definitions show a usage beginning well before Darwin, and it’s only the seventh (added in 1993) uses the evolutionary-genetic definition. Using “fitness” as an indication of relative “well-offness” is hardly an innovation of evolutionary biology. In our field, the term was not used to denigrate the disabled, but simply to expresses the relative number of copies of a given gene variant in the next generation compared to alternative variants of the same gene. In population genetics, “relative fitness” is traditionally expressed on a scale from zero (the gene leaves no copies of itself) to 1 [(the gene variant leaves more copies of itself than any other variant]). Thus fitness ranges from 0 to 1, and the numerical value is plugged into various population-genetic equations to see what really happens as opposed to what you think intuitively will happen. It is a mathematical concept whose name in biology comes from Darwin, who was not, as far as I know, ableist.
The first OED definitions:
Let’s move on. I invite those of you who are evolutionists to read the section following this assertion:
The ableist lens of fitness has led to incomplete or inaccurate biological understandings.
Yes, there are misunderstandings of fitness (one of them, they argue, is that fitness is dependent on the environment, something that is taught from the very beginning of evolutionary genetics), but they are simple misunderstandings and do not reflect viewing nature through the “ableist lens.”
The authors also disparage the use of the term “survival of the fittest” because, they argue, it not only disparages handicapped people, but has led to social darwinism, a philosophy embraced by capitalists. Well, that’s not our fault, and at any rate I teach my students that “survival of the fittest” is inaccurate, but is more accurately characterized as “reproduction of the fitter” (something I’m sure would still be considered ableist).
Now, the authors’ thesis, as I’ve stated, is that research in evolutionary biology is misguided because we view it through a “distorted lens of ableism” (an assertion that they confect, and cannot support except by making stuff up), and because that ableism discourages people from studying evolutionary biology. The second claim is hard to believe, and they provide no good evidence at all for it. It’s just the same old claim: “This stuff harms people,” a claim that is invariably unaccompanied by evidence. The authors’ evidential support consists solely of speculation and this bit (my bolding):
These ableist teaching practices also serve to alienate and marginalize disabled and chronically ill students (Hales 2020) and may be partially responsible for disabled students and scholars exiting the field, along with noninclusive teaching/ researching practices (Laurentino et al. 2021). The proportion of disabled evolutionary biologists is far below the population average (Rushworth et al. 2021; 10.8% vs. 26% overall), as is the proportion of doctorate recipients who are disabled (8.1% of life sciences PhD recipients in 2020 vs. the same 26% of the population; NCSES 2021), although this is very hard to study quantitatively given small sample sizes in present studies (Wanelik et al. 2020).
Have the authors not considered an alternative to the “inequity” data, data that they use to imply that somehow evolutionary biology discriminates against the disabled or discourages them, by using terms like “fitness,” from entering the field? The obvious alternative is that it is harder for disabled people (and some of these are mentally disabled) to get Ph.Ds, much less become working evolutionary biologists? Where are the control data from other academic disciplines not polluted by a eugenicist history and bigoted terminology? There are none. It mystifies me why a group of scientists haven’t thought of this obvious alternative (and more parsimonious) explanation. But of course the default explanation must be “structural ableism.”
We can dismiss the equity figures, then, but what about the Hales 2020 paper, which you can read here? (Its title is “Signaling inclusivity in undergraduate biology courses through deliberate framing of genetics topics relevant to gender identity, disability, and race.) This is just another paper like the one we’re discussing, but using genetics instead of evolutionary biology (they are, of course, tightly connected). It’s policing language as a way of fixing society.
And no, there are no substantive data in Hales’s paper showing that teaching conventional “ableist” evolutionary biology alienates students. The paper, as you’ll see, is really an indictment of biology and undergraduate genetics for not using sufficiently woke language. Here’s one example: a table from the paper. I’ll leave it without comment, and discuss Hales’s “data”, such as it is, below.
So here are the sole data from Hales’s paper supporting Branch et al.’s claim about ableist evolutionary biology discouraging people from studying or entering the field:
Responses from Students and Colleagues
Undergraduate students in my courses have responded positively to recent intentional language shifts with regard to gender and disability, expressing appreciation verbally and on course evaluations for the efforts toward inclusivity. A subset of students readily adopted terms like “egg parent” and “sperm parent” into their written and oral vocabularies. For other students who did not demonstrate such a shift, it is not clear whether they were pushing back or were simply slower to adjust, especially because I acknowledged to students that I myself am still working toward consistency of language usage. There have been no explicitly negative responses. I aim to determine in the future whether students who have learned this terminology retain inclusive language choices long term. The approaches with regard to gender identity, disability, and race are applicable in some fields beyond genetics; colleagues not only in my department but also in other fields such as psychology who heard a presentation on these ideas have reported making relevant vocabulary changes in response to my suggestions.
There are no data here save the claim that some students (not even a majority is indicated) liked the new inclusive language, but also that some of them didn’t use it. Where are the data supposedly supporting Branch’s claim? I suspect there are no such data, and in that light there’s no reason to accept the authors’ thesis.
The paper ends with a demand—not a request—that we purge evolutionary biology of ableist language. Here we see the authoritarianism of this form of progressive politics:
How does evolutionary biology begin to divest from its eugenicist and ableist history and assumptions? First, it must demonstrate a constructive response to criticism; the field must be open to critique and engage with it in a responsible fashion. Instead of dismissing criticisms of our work as illegitimate social arguments, we should instead seek to refine our definitions and concepts to be more scientifically accurate.
Translation: “You better be open-minded about our arguments, but we don’t have to be open-minded about your arguments. You must fix your ableism, pronto.”
And the authoritarianism continues:
A defensive approach will not work. As a common example, we need to refrain from claiming that whatever ableist or eugenic connotations terms such as “fitness” and “selection” may have in the public sphere, we understand their apolitical technical definitions. This does not hold water because our views, and especially the views of scientists new to the field, are inevitably shaped by the public sphere and public discourse around evolutionary biology—hence the persisting popularity of survival of the fittest in general biology narratives and manuscripts. Similarly, we should cultivate dialogue among field members and refrain from adopting a defense of field members’ “academic freedom.”
Translation: “Fix your language because it’s misused by other people to denigrate the disabled. And let’s hear no talk of ‘academic freedom’ or free speech. If you don’t do what we say, you’re ableist.”
My own response to this palaver is, “No, thank you.”
Why did The American Naturalist publish this? To show how virtuous it is, of course. For this paper will do absolutely nothing to help disabled people.
Branch, H. A. et al. 2022. Discussions of the “Not So Fit”: How Ableism Limits Diverse Thought and Investigative Potential in Evolutionary Biology. Amer. Natur. 202:101-114.