Change the language of ecology and evolutionary biology! An example from sickle-cell anemia.

March 8, 2023 • 9:00 am

I may have mentioned this article from Trends in Ecology & Evolution before, as it outlines all the possible harms that the language of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB) can cause. Click to read:

Here’s one bit:

In recent years, events such as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and waves of anti-Black violence have highlighted the need for leaders in EEB to adopt inclusive and equitable practices in research, collaboration, teaching, and mentoring.

As we plan for a more inclusive future, we must also grapple with the exclusionary history of EEB. Much of Western science is rooted in colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, and these power structures continue to permeate our scientific culture.

Here, we discuss one crucial way to address this history and make EEB more inclusive for marginalized communities: our choice of scientific terminology.

By now you should be familiar with this kind of writing, which can be simply copied from one scientific field practicum to another. Chemistry and physics have their own papers calling for a new inclusive terminology, too.

And once again we see the unproven assertion that the “colonialist, white supremacist, and patriarchal” nature of EEB has excluded minorities, and also that the language of the field practicum has been partly responsible for that exclusion.

This is doubly fallacious. It is neither the nature nor the language of science that has kept minorities out of the EEB pipeline, but racism in the past, bigotry whose effects have never been repaired, creating a longstanding underclass. It is change in the nature of society, not in the nature of science, that will create the equal opportunity allowing oppressed people access to careers in science.

And frankly, I consider the claim that the language of our field has contributed to that exclusion a risible proposition. “Field”, for example, which refers to an area of study, has been deemed racist because it harkens back to the days of the plantation. The folks at Stanford have decreed that it’s to be replaced by “practicum.” Thus the age-old ecological tradition of “fieldwork” is now supposed to be “my practicum of studying ecology in the outdoors.” That suggestion would be hilarious if it weren’t true.

Further, the journal American Naturalist has suggested that EEB is ridden with ableist terms, including the population-genetic concept of “fitness”. (By the way, that is my most-viewed post of all time, with nearly 150,000 views.) If any disabled person has been kept out of EEB by this term, or any others, I’d like to know about it, for of course this article gives no such instances.

The article above links to a fill-in form in which you can suggest your own inclusive or innocuous term to replace harmful ones.  Go to this page by clicking on the screenshot:

This is part of “The EEB Language Project,”  which aims to increase equity in the field practicum by changing words. You are invited to note your own “harmful term”, suggest a more inclusive replacement term, and then give comments. In this way the language of EEB will be Newspeaked into equity.

Now despite the patronizing nature of this project, much less its futility, it’s amusing for those of us in EEB to think of such terms. A colleague and I came up with half a dozen in just five minutes. Here’s one that, I’m sure, has stifled diversity in the field greatly. But to explain it, I must give a biology lesson.

Harmful term:  “Heterozyote advantage”.

What it means: This is an example of where the genetic constitution at a single locus (chromosome site) is such that the heterozygote, containing two different gene forms, has a “fitness advantage” (substitute your own less ableist language) over either of the two homozygotes.  The classic example (and one of the few we know of) involves the genetic disease sickle-cell anemia.

There are two forms at this gene, which produces the beta chain of hemoglobin: “S“, the so-called “normal allele” (substitute more inclusive language), and the mutant form (you can say “alternative allele”) s, responsible for causing the debilitating disease sickle-cell anemia.

The “s” allele arose when a mutation in the DNA coding for the beta chain (in the genetic code, GAG—>GTG), changed the amino acid in position six of the Hb β chain from glutamic acid to valine. That changes the charge of the hemoglobin molecule, affecting its behavior in the presence of the parasite. If you have only one copy of the mutant form (allele), ergo are a heterozygote with the genetic constitution Ss, you produce half normal and half abnormal hemoglobin, but half is good enough to allow you good health. And if you have two copies of the normal allele (SS), you’re of course also fine.

But if you have two copies of the sickle-cell allele (ss); you get sickle-cell disease, and will have a painful illness and in all probability die young.

The twist in this story is that if you are a heterozygote in West Africa, where malaria is prevalent and often fatal, the heterozygote has both good health and protection against malaria compared to the normal and abnormal “homozygotes”, SS and ss. We’re not sure why this is, but the presence of the single sickle-cell allele in a carrier makes its blood cells break open prematurely when infected by the malarial parasite. This impedes reproduction of the sporozoan parasite that causes malaria so Ss “carriers” gain some protection against the infectious disease. Normal homozygotes (SS) have blood cells that rupture on schedule, so if you’re SS, you can get malaria and die.

Thus we have a situation, but only in areas with malaria, where the normal homozygote is healthy but prone to malaria, the sickle-cell homozygote (ss) gets the genetic disease and dies young, but the heterozygote (Ss) is protected from both malaria and from sickle-cell disease. This is the classic case of heterozygote advantage (also called “heterosis”, “balanced polymorphism,” or “overdominance”).

If you measure the relative reproductive output of the three genotypes, giving the fittest one (Ss) a fitness of 1.0, you get these figures

SS = 0.85 (they produce 15% fewer offspring than Ss genotypes because of malaria)

Ss = 1.0. (genotype with highest production of offspring)

ss = about 0 (they don’t survive to produce any offspring).

Geneticists love this case because when the heterozygotes have the highest fitness, it actually maintains both alleles at stable frequencies in the population. Heterozygote advantage is a way to keep genetic variation in a malaria-ridden population. You can show that this fitness scheme will result in stable equilibrium allele frequencies of S = 0.87 and s = 0.13. As I said, this is a stable frequency, and if the gene frequencies deviate from it, they will return to the equilibrium.

In west Africa, the frequencies of the two alleles in fact match these predicted frequencies very well, supporting the value of mathematical population genetics. The frequency of homozygous ss individuals is the square of the frequency of the s allele, or about 1.7%.  It is a sad but ineluctable result of population genetics that because heterozygotes are the fittest genotypes, roughly 2% of the offspring will be born with a fatal disease, and this is simply because the individual with two different alleles has the highest fitness. There is no single allele whose homozygote has the highest fitness, and so, generation after generation, this fitness scheme above produces a large number of doomed infants. (One could take the absence of such an allele as evidence against God, who could have created one. Apparently the death of genetically diseased infants serves some purpose in the deity’s scheme.)

In the U.S., where malaria is almost unknown, the fitness scheme above reverts to one in which the SS genotype has the highest fitness, Ss is a tiny bit lower (Ss individuals can have occasional sickling “crises”), and that of ss remains zero. Eventually, in areas lacking malaria, every individual will become SS and the “s” allele will be eliminated.

It is because of the ancestry of many American blacks from West Africa that one sees sickle-cell anemia almost exclusively in the offspring of two individuals descended from that area (Ss X Ss, one-quarter of whose offspring will have the disease). But in the U.S., lacking malaria, natural selection will eventually eliminate the “s” allele. It will, however, be very slow.

One last note: sickle-cell anemia was the first “molecular disease” ever discovered: a disease caused by a mutation in a single gene that alters the protein it produces. And it was discovered by none other than Linus Pauling and his colleagues, who published this famous paper in Science in 1949 (click screenshot to read, or go here if you’re paywalled).

Now, on to the language issue:

Why the term “heterozygote advantage” is harmful. You notice in the above discussion I’ve used several verboten terms in EEB, including “normal allele”, “mutant allele”, and “fitness.”

To that I will add the term “heterozygote advantage” itself, which is harmful in two ways. First, the term “hetero” privileges heterosexual individuals over other LGBTQ+ individuals. And the idea that Ss individuals have a “fitness advantage” is doubly harmful, for it not only incorporates the ableist term “fitness,” but suggests that one genotype has an “advantage” over the other two. In reality, the SS and ss individuals are to be seen as “differently abled”, although I can’t manage to find a way that ss individuals with sickle-cell disease are “abled”. Some deep thought may suggest a way.

What the term should be replaced with.  This is dead obvious: “diversity advantage“.  The Ss genotype is best because it has the most diverse allelic constitution, possessing two alleles instead of one.  It privileges diversity over boring homogeneity, a result that is also a bonus.

From now on I suggest that my new term, which is mine, replace “balanced polymorphism,” “heterozygote advantage” (ableist), “overdominance” (that’s wholly offensive, conjuring up eugenics and superiority), and “heterosis” (again with the offensive “hetero”).

This is my contribution to inclusive language in EEB, which is mine. Lest you think the suggestion is dumb, remember that it’s no dumber than the notions of “relative fitness” and “fieldwork”, all slated for erasure in the new woke dictionary of EEB.

56 thoughts on “Change the language of ecology and evolutionary biology! An example from sickle-cell anemia.

  1. What is the difference between “championing” and “cheerleading”?

    … come to think of it, what is “championing”?

    1. As one of its definitions for ‘champion’, Merriam-Webster gives “one who shows marked superiority”. It is hard to conceive of a more ableist word!

      1. Ouch… the authors should apply for a retraction and resubmission, correcting all their terms that can cause harm. Terminology might be another

  2. Apparently, the EEB Project is racist. Why? They use the term “crowdsource.” The dictionary definition of crowd is “a large number of people gathered together in a disorganized or unruly way.” As everyone knows, lynching was performed by crowds. Thus, I find the word “crowd” to be offensive and harmful. The EEB must retract the use of the word and confess to its implicit racism. Moreover, its members must promise to take diversity training to help them overcome being agents of white supremacy.

    1. As everyone knows, lynching was performed by crowds.

      I think the common collocation in this regard is “lynch mob.”

      1. I realize that the expression is “lynch mob.” But, really, is there any meaningful difference in the definition of both words? So, the obvious solution is for both words to go.😊 In place of those offensive and hurtful words, I propose the substitution of “exuberant folks.”

    2. The idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ is surely going to cause irreparable harm to any person of agoraphobic disposition?

  3. Lots of authors, and lots of opportunities for DEI statement brownie points (or is that term now harmful?)

        1. My daughter’s GG unit was not transexclusionary, and included a teen male with big mental health problems who thought he was a girl.

  4. ‘Practicum’ is derived from late Latin, neuter of practicus ‘practical’. Since the Romans were slave owners, colonisers by conquest, despoilers of colonial resources, cultural appropriators, and global polluters through their smelting of lead, the use of ‘practicum’ seems even more inappropriate.

  5. Replacing “heterozygote advantage” by “diversity advantage” nonetheless retains “advantage”—oops, I mean it privileges the word “advantage”. This is obviously colonialist, ableist, heteronormativeist, etc. etc.. And it violates the sacred rule of “equity”. Indeed, the example of relative fitness violates that principle in that 1.0 > 0.85. We will next be advised to reform the language not only of Genetics, but of Mathematics, so as to eliminate the colonialist, ableist concepts of > and < .

    I must admit to being curious about who spend time on this sort of thing. I don’t know EEB well enough to recognize the names of any of the authors of the paper, but I
    wonder if any of them do anything else. I suspect that fussing over the “colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy” in words like “field” etc. is a career gimmick by individuals who have no other ability to advance in their, uhh, field. This was how it went in that galaxy far away, during the period when attacks on the language of “Mendelism-Morganism” was a sure-fire career gimmick.

  6. Kingdom

    Kingdomism is the oppressive discrimination by animals against minerals. Also, progressive geology teachers will note that “pet rock” is an oppressive, kingdomistic term that should be replaced by the more sensitive “mineral companion.” The term “botanical companion” is what you should call your favourite plant, flower or corsage.


    This term should be replaced immediately by the more sensitive term “metabolically challenged.” Refer to living organisms as being “temporarily metabolically abled.”


    You were probably hired because your school practices credentialism, a plague on society in which people discriminate against others by forcing them to provide evidence of experience, knowledge, integrity or ability before being hired, admitted to a college, etc. To hire qualified people instead of unqualified people is unacceptable. After all, no one is really unqualified; instead they are “uniquely qualified.”

    Biology Departments

    If you got a degree from a biology department, you’ve helped perpetuate the oppressive, credentialistic culture that underlies our educational system. Biology departments are nothing more than places “where animals are tortured and then murdered to fulfil the sadistic fantasies of white male scientists lackeys of imperialistic drug companies.” Perhaps you did not know this.


    Progressive teachers call these tests “needs assessments.” Insensitive people have not yet learned that the word “test” is terribly offensive because it puts the responsibility for learning on students rather than on society.

    Failing grades

    Never tell students they have failed. Rather, declare that students who learn nothing in your class “have successfully achieved a deficiency.” It is also acceptable to refer to them as “knowledge-based non-processors.”

    Cheaters and Liars

    Students who lie, plagiarize, and copy the work of other students are not liars, plagiarists or cheaters. rather, they are “morally challenged” or better yet, “ethically disoriented.”


    To be a sensitive teacher, refer to lazy students as “persons of torpor” or say that they are “motivationally deficient.” The term “lazy” is offensive because it blames students for a condition that should be attributed to the failures of –yes, you guessed it — society. Woke teachers know that no student should be held accountable for his/her/theirs own actions.

    Lifted from ‘How To Be A Politically Correct Biologist’, by Roger Lewin

    1. If ‘Kingdom’ is not acceptable then surely all other taxonomic ranks must also be eliminated, embodying as they do, a clear and troubling sense of hierarchy that must inevitably deter the oppressed from entering biology.

      1. “Class” — well, enought said, simply an invention of white supremacy. “Order” is suspect, because white supremicists used to order their slaves to do things. “Family” is suspect, because it reinforces the heteronormative notion of the traditional family. “Genus” —- hmm, perhaps too close to “Genius”, with the harmful implication that some people are smarter than others. “Species”, maybe just specious. We need to adopt the Phylocode method of giving taxa barcodes, primarily to avoid all these harmful terms that may trigger genocide (or, at least, drive people like me to commit genocide).

  7. I agree with Christine that this is an opportunity for some DEI brownie points, or perhaps to pad one’s CV. “Harmful” words are low-hanging fruit. (Mea culpa if that’s a verboten phrase.) It’s a lot easier to call out bad words than it is to do actual science.

    Like a communicable disease, this one will need to run its course, inevitably leaving a lot of damage along the way.

  8. My contributions.
    1. Natural selection. It is a term invented by that racist white colonialist Charles Darwin. Replace with Environmental selection. The term ‘selection’ may also be problematical.
    2. Asgard archaea. Barely out of swaddling clothes, this new term for the Archaean relatives of the Eukaryotes evokes White supremacist mythology. It must go! Replace with Mother archaea.
    3. Chromosome. Literally that translates as “colored body”! I mean, wtf. Replace with Chromatin strand.
    4. Sex-linked inheritance. Since people who identify as either sex can develop regardless of their composition of so-called sex chromosomes, there is no educational value to tying sex with inheritance of traits carried on these chromosomes. Just say X- or Y-linked inheritance. But be careful. We are watching you.

    There. I’ve solved racial tensions. Or rather I get to say I have, and it took only about 5 minutes.

    1. “Chromosome”

      How’d I miss that one? A knock-down argument! Well done – now the Emperor has no clothes.

    2. “Replace with Mother archaea.”
      Haven’t you heard that the term “mother” is transphobic and should be replaced with “parent”?

  9. My $0.02 uploaded to their form:

    Harmful term
    ecology, any -ology

    Replacement term
    none. all -ologies preference the dominant knowledge system and must be jettisoned

    Additional Comments
    EEB itself is harmful to indigenous knowledge system practitioners by positing one dominant eco-knowledge system. Disband yourselves.

  10. How about “inclusive fitness”? Commenters on your December post about that AmNat paper on ableism pointed out that IF is both a harmful term and a harmful idea because it promotes discrimination against non-kin and leads to bigotry and racism. But the AmNat authors loved IF because, well, it’s “inclusive”.

    1. To get the ball rolling, I sent them “motherfucker”. All of Carlin’s forbidden words are biological so seems legit?

    2. To get the ball rolling, I submitted “motherfucker” (surely I’m not the only one to think of this). All of Carlin’s words you can’t say are biological, so seems legit?

  11. Is it bad of me to harbor visions of federal funding blacklists for such people? Yes, it is bad of me. Even though it is only visions. I mean the “blacklists”. Perhaps if I change the list to “a compilation of authors who contributed equally to their dearth of funding, listed alphabetically”.

  12. The standard model of contemporary physics posits that everything is made up of fields, electromagnetic fields being the best known. But there are fields for the strong and weak interactions too. Uh, if we need to drop the word, I don’t think practicum is the word to use. Nor can I think of another. So forget it, guys.

  13. I don’t know what’s more sad: the thought processes of these progressives or the fact that the rest of us are too afraid to stand up to these lunatics.

  14. It’s pretty clear that there’s little problem with racism in science if they’re reduced to looking for problematic words. Real racism would be refusing to test black people for sickle cell anemia or ignoring studies done by researchers who happen to be people of color or something direct and specific regarding behavior.

    Instead, it’s purported micro aggressions in vocabulary which are starting to resemble a belief in magic spells. Say the words “Heterozygote advantage” and a Native American turns into a newt.

  15. The Pauling/Itano/Singer/Wells paper is a nice piece of science history I was unaware of – excellent detail.

  16. Memory may be fading, and Stanford has lots to be blamed for, but I don’t think the practicum (“cum”??) nonsense was their doing. Wasn’t it some anthro journal with some bored and useless whitefolk trying to save us all from “field”?

  17. Are they concerned about words which may cause offence to SOME people or to ANY people? I ask because, of course, the word ‘evolution’ is itself offensive to those (poor benighted souls?) who believe that life on earth was simply conjured up by a supernatural being or beings.

  18. Thanks for the link to the EEB language project. Perhaps the best way to fight this sort of thing is to mount a denial of service attack. Now that we have AIs like ChatGPT, I bet the process could be automated to produce submissions similar to the one I just made.

    Taking this matter seriously, I submitted the word “discipline” with the following comment:

    I was raised by a narcissistic mother, who used physical and psychological abuse to control my behavior, characterizing these methods as appropriate *discipline*. I become sad and uncomfortable when I hear or read this word.

    I suggested the replacement word “craft.”

  19. Oh, heck, this is too much fun. I decided to add a few more terms to the EEB language project.

    Bad word: “Submit”

    The verb submit, and the noun submission are clear references to power imbalances among and between people. Ultimately equity must be about equalizing power. These words work against this mission.

    Replacement word: “Deposit”

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