Luana Maroja criticizes the Society for Systematic Biology for hosting a largely ideological Presidential talk

July 12, 2023 • 8:33 am

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.

Twitter location for the drawing

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.)

23 thoughts on “Luana Maroja criticizes the Society for Systematic Biology for hosting a largely ideological Presidential talk

  1. What is being honored are scientific contributions, not the character of human beings.

    There are a variety of motivations in this business of namings. It occurs to me that one that might be in play here is the effacing of contributions by previous generations so as to imply that meaningful contributions can only be made by ideological peers. I would expect that the search is on for politically acceptable peers for whom to re-name the prizes.

  2. Yes indeed kudos to Luana for her continuing work on these very important issues. This is never easy, going against the political grain, so as Jerry said in the Skeptical Inquirer podcast, Luana is very brave, and she follows in the footsteps of a number of earlier brave scientists.

    Regarding society meetings: my experience is pretty much from the 80’s and 90’s to maybe 2010ish. In the earlier years I found subspecialty technical meetings to be of good use in meeting other researchers in my field. Of course this was before internet and daily high bandwidth comm capability…long distance call on a black desk phone with an analogue dial. As time went on I got to know pretty much everyone in my technical area and stayed current on what they were doing in real time. So the meeting talks were more performative than informative….perhaps that was obvious as the attendance for a session of six papers nominally had an audience of 6-10 people depending on number of co-authors and perhaps an author’s spouse. However, I found these meetings very useful in allowing me to attend talks from other subspecialties and making contacts with some of those researchers leading to what in those days was called multidisciplinary collaborations. I think that i almost always found the plenary talks (which i think were like your president’s talk) to be pretty useless.

    Again big kudos to Luana…hang in there!

  3. Quote quiz:

    “Punish the past to warn the future” with a “scientific attitude”, like a “doctor curing a disease”.

    Who wrote that guidance? Read below for the answer.

    Should be easy to find, but the answer is:



    Mao Zedong – in regard to though reform by his political party – about which we know quite a bit.


    Robert J. Lifton
    Losing Reality

  4. What would a history of evolutionary biology look like without Darwin, Wallace, T. H. Huxley, Fisher, Haldane, Wright, Mayr, Simpson, Dobzhansky, Stebbins, J. Huxley, Lewontin, and all the rest? Luana Maroja is so right about how inspiring it is to read the history of one’s field. I have read much of Mayr’s voluminous work and have read nothing to indicate that he deserves what he’s getting—a man who is no longer with us and cannot respond. Mayr would defend himself vigorously were he able.

    Where will the demonization end? Whom from the list above will be next?

  5. Your posts are consistently very informative and SO depressing. Do these people not realize (or care) that humans are all to some extent a product of their times? I see in the slides used in the president’s talk that they have changed the Linnaeus Games to the Entomology Games because (gasp!) 250 freaking years ago Carl Linnaeus didn’t “get it right” by our standards! What a bastard! And I have read that Charles Darwin could be unreasonably strict and demanding with his domestic employees. We had better get to work because his name has to be expunged from all sorts of things. Seriously, I suggest that every academic society just remove every human name from every award, library, medal, etc. because upon close inspection we will find that nobody has ever really lived up to the required standards. We all are, and have always been, merely human. Sorry. I know how terribly disappointing that is.

  6. 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.

    Neither do I, and it’s a good question. From what I can tell, we’re seeing the same thing happening in a lot of areas. A claim is made that something is racist or sexist or homophobic— and when examples are finally provided, they’re either well in the past or only tenuously connected to whatever is being accused.

    This looks like catastrophizing — to irrationally think about a situation, person, or event as being a disaster, a monster, or in crisis — and it fits with Greg Lukainoff’s theory that we’re currently experiencing a surge of what might be call an Anti-Cognitive-Behavior-Therapy zeitgeist. My own tendency is to see the outgoing President of the SSB as taking on the role of a Mommy: somebody (or a lot of somebody’s) are very, very hurt and upset so must be reassured that well of course they are, it’s a very very bad thing. Telling them they’re overreacting and things aren’t as bad as they think is possibly putting some sort of burden or blame on them (though goodness knows Mommy too might be caught up in the black-and-white thinking which sees nuance as insensitivity.)

  7. > generally restricting human reproduction in the face of overpopulation, as they tried in China

    While I agree with the general point you are making, I don’t think China’s one child policy is “relatively unproblematic” or “positive eugenics”. It led to forced abortions and all sorts of trauma for Chinese people. For one recent example, only three years before the policy was abolished, see
    My wife grew up in China, and because she had a younger brother, her family ended up on the run for a long time in order to avoid punishment for the “crime” of having two children. It’s difficult to put a number on this because of course the government is not exactly collecting stats on it, but I would imagine these are very normal sorts of human rights abuses that resulted from the one child policy.

    Jerry, I know you are pro-choice, and I hope you are as supportive of women’s right to choose in a context where the state is trying to force women to have fewer children as you are in a context where it is trying to force them to have more.

    1. Yes, I added the China thing as an afterthought, and realized when I did that yes, there were problems, esp. with sex-specific abortions. But if we were ever at a time when we had to limit births because of out of control population growth, I’d find this less problematic than killing people. Fortunately, we aren’t at that point yet.

      1. This is an instance where the expendability of fetuses in the name of reproductive rights or population control breaks down. Countries that find themselves in the position of having to cut their populations because they run short of food are usually in desperate financial/economic straits, too, and are often already in demographic decline, as China is. They will find it more affordable and less problematic to just let some people starve unnoticed, or die early of malnutrition, than to hunt down pregnant women and do forced medical procedures on them. A young woman who wants a family forced to abort and be sterilized suffers as much (and longer) as an elderly person who dies of pneumonia, even if her fetus itself doesn’t count morally.

        Food shortage has the extra fairness of spreading the grief around and not preferentially wiping out the next generation not yet born who will have to try to rebuild the economy. Pregnant women should get more food, not abortions. “We will make you have abortions” is also not a good advertisement if you are trying to attract immigrants to feed all the old people you didn’t want to go hungry.

        I don’t think it will come to that. Most famines are political in nature (murdering farmers and denying food transport to tribal enemies), not due to Malthusian over-population. Famines are becoming less common, not more common, even as population swells. If we stop making fertilizer we are in trouble. Meantime, voluntary abortion can be endorsed for family planning, but not for population planning. The latter is demographic folly, as China is learning.

  8. I looked at O’Meara’s presentation. What a weird talk to give at an international meeting. This is why I’ve given up my membership in most research societies based in the USA: they have become increasingly parochial and narrowly focused on American culture war topics, especially gender and race.

    I thought the really disingenuous part of the talk was O’Meara’s treatment of researchers who are interested in forecasting human population genetic variation under conditions of limited natural selection and continuing deleterious mutation. This is the lever he is trying to use to oust Mayr, who also wrote about his concern that unlimited human reproduction would lead to the resumption of natural selection among humans. O’Meara’s project seems to be to make this topic so toxic that one can’t discuss it without being called a Nazi. I think of this as prior restraint on the part of SSE.

  9. The conventional, pop-Left execration of eugenics always omits one aspect of its history: in the early 20th century, eugenics was favored by icons of the Left like G.B. Shaw, H.G. Wells, and the Webbs, not to mention the great mutation researcher H.J. Muller (Nobel in 1946). In 1932, Muller told the 3rd International Eugenics Congress that “eugenics might yet perfect the human race, but only in a society consciously organized for the common good”. [The following year Muller, who would no doubt be classified as “Progressive” today, moved to Leningrad in the Socialist wonderland. However, he found it prudent to leave the USSR in 1937.]
    Brian O’Meara is probably not familiar with this history. Instead, a vague cultural feeling has been spread by repetition and mimesis that “eugenics” is associated only with the Nazis, and turned it into a scare-word, for which The American Society of Human Genetics apologizes endlessly.

    1. It’s kinda ironic that in so many other ways the academy has tried to progress from understanding how the world works to doing something about it. But in select areas like human genetic variation the trend is the other direction: early progressives like Muller were proposing to do something, but now it’s considered harmful even to discuss what could be done (or the consequences of doing nothing).

  10. Cool! I’ve been a big Luana fan since I saw her at the Stanford conference earlier and then with Jerry lately.

    As noted above Diana Fleischman looks into the eugenics angle a lot also.
    She’s an interesting person, married to the very controversial Geoffrey Miller
    (I had to join twitter lately to be able to see tweets – apparently temporarily) but I won’t be tweeting myself. 🙂 I have a column for yelling my various rants when I feel so inclined again.


  11. I agree. Luana Maroja spoke with power and clarity at the Stanford event. Very impressive.

  12. Most people who led and supported eugenics during it’s “golden age” were first and foremost the rich upper classes (think First Class snobs on the Titanic, apart from Molly Brown!) and saw it as much as maintaining their grip on power and limiting support for the lower classes.

    My case in point they regarded their place through “blood and proper breeding.”

  13. While I’m generally on your side about this Jerry, I think there is a reasonable quandary
    that is worth worrying about or discussing.

    So taking what you wrote here:

    “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. “

    As an extreme example, what if it became widely known that a particular scientist, after whom an award was named, was found to be a moral monster, e.g. if the scientist was revealed to have been a sadistic serial child molester/killer?

    Would it not be reasonable for some people to have pause about being given an award with that scientist’s name, and hence have one’s achievements become inextricably linked to that name? A name that repulsed most people?

    Seems a reasonable worry. Or would someone disagree?

    But if so, that opens the door to the discussion of whether it can make sense to care about the character/actions of a scientist after whom we name prizes. The other side of the argument would point out nobody is perfect, and so we will always find something distasteful in a scientists life, especially scientists who lived in a past with somewhat different norms. But…does that negate any reason to worry at all about what such scientists do in their spare time, when attaching their name to a prize? Perhaps there is some way of working from the two extremes to
    some rational middle approach, though it would seem to bring in some subjectivity as to whether one person or another is offended or can tolerate X indiscretion.

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