My recent partner in crime at the Skeptical Inquirer, Luana Maroja of Williams College, recently went to the joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society for Systematic Biologists (SSB). They often host meetings together, and did so this year in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am no longer a member of any of these groups, as I have always found meetings more of a place to meet up with distant colleagues than to learn science, though many, especially grad students and postdocs, go to hear what’s going on in evolutionary biology and to make contacts that might help them get jobs or postdocs.
As the years have passed, all three societies, like nearly all biology societies, have gotten increasingly woke, and increasingly many of the talks—especially the Presidential talks—are less about science and more about societal reform, racism, and similar issues. Names are being expunged from awards because those people are supposedly associated with racism or bigotry; there seems to be a lot of virtue flaunting (granted, this is often meant well); and the societies even hire safety officers who charge large fees to police the meetings for bad behavior (there has been almost none; these precautions seem largely unnecessary). They now even even have “Evo Allies” who are supposed to be on the lookout for bad behavior. While well intentioned, these efforts might well have a chilling effect on interactions between colleagues, as Luana describes in her letter below.
Like me, Luana dislikes these trends, foolishly thinking that science meetings should be about presenting science instead of promoting a “progressive” version of social reform; that removing names from awards, if done at all, should be done with the utmost care; and that hiring outsiders to police the behavior of meetings, as well as walking around looking for bad behavior, is patronizing to a group of adults.
When the past President of the SSB, Brian O’Meara, gave the annual society Presidential address (it’s the outgoing President who does this), Luana was surprised to hear that there was only a smidgen of science but a lot of talk about eugenics, including a discussion of the supposed “pro-eugenics” views of the famous evolutionist Ernst Mayr, who was not a eugenicist. (Despite this, the SSB has tried to vote to remove his name off the Ernst Mayr Award, given for the best student talk. As the addendum to the letter below notes that they failed, but only narrowly. This cancelation is coming.)
So Luana wrote to O’Meara, and allowed her letter to be published on the Panda’s Thumb website. Be sure to check out the endnotes, which give arguments from several people (including David Hillis, former President of the SSB) on why it’s “outrageous” to try to expunge Mayr’s name from the award. O’Meara’s slides for his talk are publicly available here, so you can check them out yourself.
A few excerpts from Luana’s talk. This is about the de-emphasis on science in favor of social reform and on largely nonexistent problems in these three societies:
In the past, most presidential addresses I attended were motivational – designed to demonstrate and enhance the listeners’ love for evolutionary knowledge and research. Your talk started this way, too. But this motivational part was quickly replaced by what seemed to me an attempt to taint Ernst Mayr, setting the stage for a new vote in which his name would finally be removed, replaced by a nameless prize. Unfortunately, I disagree on several grounds with this idea as well as with other points you made during the talk. First, I want to mention your emphasis on “sexual harassment” (keep in mind I am a woman who grew up in South America experiencing lots of serious harassment). You seemed to ignore, or not know about, some reasons to oppose hiring a “safe evolution” consultant. The feel of largely performative surveillance in the meeting (which thankfully seems to have decreased since 2019 – the projections of “Safe Evolution” on the wall are now gone!) can actually chill interactions between colleagues, especially interactions between older men and younger women. Such interactions are often of great benefit to biologists beginning their careers, but older male biologists might now want to avoid them out of fear. I wrote about this issue here and will not repeat myself – but please read it to see other reasons why people like me might be opposed to hiring consultants.
On removing names from prizes. For someone like Mayr, who had a pretty spotless record on human rights, expunging his name is ridiculous. And seriously, I think any student would be much happier to put on their c.v. that they received the “Ernst Mayr Award” from the SSB than the “Outstanding Student Presentation Award,” the suggested alternative. There’s a certain panache associated with a name like Mayr that doesn’t go with the nameless alternative. Luana continues:
Further, I think that you seriously misrepresented the views of Ernst Mayr. I and many others who wish to remain anonymous—such is the climate of today’s academia!—left your talk feeling that you are preparing the Society for a new vote to remove the name from the prize. For several reasons, some of us are opposed to removing evolutionary history from prizes. When I began my studies in biology, named prizes were a big motivation for me to learn the interesting history of our discipline. Starting with Will Provine’s biography Sewall Wright, I became an avid student of the history of evolutionary biology. I believe history should be learned as it really happened, even if today we might not fully agree with all the actions of people from the past. Erasing names of awards also erases the motivation to learn this rich and amazing history, depriving graduate students of knowing about the accomplishments of those influential in our field. Finally, it is essential that students know why a prize is named after a biologist – it is always due to their contributions to the field and never due to any bad actions. What is being honored are scientific contributions, not the character of human beings.
What is even more distressing is that you seemed to be deliberately attempting to find bad things about Mayr and his career to justify expunging his name from awards.
The problem seems to be (I looked at the slides but didn’t hear the talk in person, nor is it yet online) that O’Meara, like many people who have a kneejerk reaction to the word “eugenics,” tend to lump together different forms of eugenics, some of which (like aborting a fetus with Down syndrome, choosing to use IVF with an egg lacking obvious genetic diseases, or generally restricting human reproduction in the face of overpopulation, as they tried in China), are relatively unproblematic “positive eugenics”. In contrast, people seem to think that “eugenics” means “negative eugenics,” which can involve sterilizing or even killing people. That is, when many people who don’t know the history of the field hear “eugenics,” they automatically think “Nazi killings.” That’s just wrong. Here’s Luana on that issue:
For example, you equated “positive eugenics” (an incentive for those with financial/educational capacity to reproduce more) with “negative eugenics” (castration—or worse—of those considered “inferior”). To me, these actions are as different from each other as a parent’s increasing a child’s allowance versus corporal punishment (e.g., positive vs negative reinforcement in training). Immediately after stating that “positive eugenics = negative eugenics”), you quoted from a letter in which Mayr asked the National Academy of Sciences to repudiate the arguments of William Shockley (that is, to reject negative eugenics, i.e., sterilizing people with IQs below 100). In his letter, Mayr explains that he is envisioning a future in which humans are so numerous that governments will have to impose restrictions on reproduction (you will need a license to reproduce!). In this letter, Mayr rightly states that reproduction is important and influences the gene pool (any biologist knows that), but that non-biologists will not understand the importance of reproduction and we should therefore stop using racist arguments. But read in its full context, Mayr’s letter is not arguing in favor of eugenics—at least not the kind of eugenics we all repudiate.
It’s time for someone to write an article laying out the different forms of eugenics and educating biologists on this issue. This would (if people read it) go a long way to eliminate all the misguided calls for cancelation of famous scientists and the de-naming of prizes.
Finally, O’Meara apparently asserted that modern geneticists are still pushing negative eugenics, even in the SSB. She shows that that assertion is simply bogus:
To buttress your assertion that eugenics has current support in SSB today, you construct a narrative using nonexistent associations between the SSB and eugenic episodes happening elsewhere. For example, you mentioned sterilization (voluntary or otherwise) in Puerto Rico in the 1970s (if I recall correctly). Yet you showed no connection between this and actions of the SSB; rather, you used the example to bolster the case that eugenics was alive and well in the Society. The same can be said about the quote from a judge in 2001. Once again, there is no connection to SSB, but you used the example to imply that SSB scientists were somehow behind this. I am baffled why you make these connections, and can only guess that somehow you’re trying to indict the Society for things it simply did not do. And I don’t understand why you did that.
And once again she emphasizes the difference between positive and negative eugenics (these should really be given different names to eliminate confusion, as “eugenics” is fraught with bad historical associations):
Finally, you cite a few modern papers to support your argument about modern eugenics (you gave full quotations but no names, though it did not take me long to find that the author is Michael Lynch). Yet, discussions about what civilization should do to prevent and eliminate detrimental mutations leading to disease are important, and now, with embryo and PGS screenings, these actions (via selective abortion or selection of embryos for implantation) are already taking place. You must realize that the main support for eugenics today (whether the name is used or not) takes the form of abortion of “genetically defective” embryos and the new form of embryo selection via PGS, which will soon be available for educational attainment and height, in addition to disease avoidance; indeed, western societies today favor many forms of eugenics. This is why I asked the question I did at the end. “Do you think aborting Down syndrome fetuses or selecting embryos based on polygenic scores is a form of eugenics?” To which you responded something along the lines “No, if it is the mother’s choice it is ok”. Notice that “mother’s choice” is also exactly what is behind “positive eugenics”.
This is not the whole letter by any means, and I have to give my partner in crime kudos for wanting go public with her complaints about not only this talk, but about evolution societies in general. She hopes to “start a general discussion” of these issues, though I’m not as hopeful as she, for Evo Ideologues are a tribal and entrenched lot, not often open to arguments. In my view Societies will not change; indeed, they may even go further down the rabbit hole.
But I suspect (in fact, I know) that there are many people who agree with Luana and with me on the Mayr renaming (as well as with Hillis, Matzke, and students Jackie Childers—who just got her Ph.D.—and Mario Cupello), but don’t want to make waves. By and large, scientists are cowardly in matters like this. But it’s my fervent wish that these Societies start concentrating on science again and ratchet back on the ideology and policing.
I’ll add the following note by Nick Matzke (who formerly worked for the National Center for Science Education but now is on the faculty of the University of Auckland in New Zealand) about the history of the Mayr Award kerfuffle, but note that there are additional links below this paragraph on the Panda’s Thumb site:
(Nick Matzke adds: For background on the 2022 attempt to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award, please see David Hills on the SSB vote on the Ernst Mayr Award, June 13, 2022, and the links therein. As the Ernst Mayr Award is specified in the SSB constitution, changing it required a 2/3 vote of the membership. The vote was 63.4% (according to an SSB email) or 63.2% (91/(91+53); the numbers presented in O’Meara’s presentation; there were also 14 abstentions. In other words, it was a very near thing, with most of the membership not voting; and I gather SSB membership has been as high as 3000 but has declined to about 650. Hopefully this is mostly a pandemic effect, but I’m not sure it helps when there are attempts to cancel famous personalities in the field without a serious scholarly debate informed by thorough and balanced consideration of people and issues within their historical context.)