Three evolution societies condemn the shootings in Atlanta; a few of us react

April 9, 2021 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Three of us wrote a letter in response to, and disagreement with, a statement issued by three evolution societies concerning the mass shooting on March 16 by Robert Aaron Long, who shot to death eight people, six of them Asian, at three Atlanta area massage parlors. On March 19, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE), the American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society of Systematic Biologists issued a statement condemning the killings.

This is the statement by the societies:

Dear SSE Colleagues,

The Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biologists stand in solidarity with the many Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander communities and vehemently condemn these acts of domestic terror. To our Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander members: we support and respect you. We will continue the work of transforming our Societies into safe and inclusive places for you, and for all members of our communities.

The murders of Soon Park, Hyun J. Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Delaina Ashley Yaun, and Paul Andre Michels in the Atlanta area are symptoms of violent anti-Asian racism, which has only increased since the onset of the pandemic in the United States last year. These events are widespread. Across the country, Asian elders are being attacked in the streets with increasing frequency. Asian and Asian-American communities have been living with heightened anxiety and fear every day. Asian women in particular have been the targets of these violent and racist attacks. We are outraged seeing perpetrators of these hate crimes once again excused at the expense of their victims, enabling continuous xenophobic and racist violence in the U.S.

We call on our largely white membership to capitalize on their privilege to support their colleagues. We must deny comfort and complacency in the midst of oppression by engaging in self-reflection and active anti-racism. Be vocal and openly expose and reject racism, prejudice, and exclusion in all forms both inside and outside academic spaces. Please reach out to those you mentor and the students in your classes. Tell them you condemn these acts and share resources where they can get support. Work with your trainees to make your shared spaces safe and welcoming for people of Asian descent. Learn the history of U.S. anti-Asian policy, military occupation, and colonialism at the root of these issues. There are endless resources, but here is one place to start: https://anti-asianviolenceresources.carrd.co/.

This violence is not external to our community and our scholarship. Some members of our community have been directly harmed, while others, also within our community, have caused some of this harm. There are numerous ways to practice effective allyship, and we include several useful resources below. If you want to learn more, you may be interested in following these Twitter accounts: @stopaapihate, @aapiwomenlead. Professional societies have a substantial role in making shared spaces welcoming and safe for all.

If you have been affected by violence and/or racist actions, please feel free to share your concerns and suggestions with our leadership. We need your input, feedback, and criticism to better support all of our scientists, especially those who have been actively excluded for so long. You can reach the society committees focusing on this work at these email addresses: diversity@evolutionsociety.org, asndiversity@gmail.com, diversitydirector@systematicbiologists.org

Some Resources:
Asian Americans Advancing Justice
OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates National Center
Anti-Asian Violence Resources
Free Bystander Intervention Training
How to Be an Active Bystander When You See Casual Racism
Ten simple rules for building an antiracist lab
Black and Asian-American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List
Anti-Asian racism and COVID-19
Anti-Racism Resources for the AAPI Community
Stop AAPI Hate website for reporting hate incidents

Tri-society Diversity Committees
SSB DEI Committee and Standing Against Racism Statement
ASN Diversity Committee and Statement on Anti-Black Racism
SSE Diversity Committee and Statement Against Racial Injustice

In response to this, Luana Maroja of Williams College, Jerry, and I sent the following letter to the SSE’s council on March 23. While writing the letter, another mass killing occurred in Colorado. We told the Council that we thought the statement above ought not to have been made. Our letter expresses our reasoning succinctly, so I need not restate its argument.

Dear SSE Council members:

We feel that the Society is misguided in issuing a statement about the killings that recently occurred in Atlanta. Furthermore, the expressed reason for the statement—to oppose anti-Asian violence—is premature, as there have been no findings by investigating authorities about what the motivation of the self-confessed killer is. Indeed, the evidence so far made public suggests that the crime was not motivated by racial hatred.

The officers of the Society are not like a newspaper editorial board, for whom expressing opinions on matters of the day is expected and warranted. Nor should the Society engage in consultations with, or polling of, its members to determine their views on such matters, and then express those views—even were it the case that the membership was unanimous in holding some opinion.

Our own reaction to the killings in Atlanta—and now, another episode in Colorado—is that gun violence, including the ease with which deadly weapons may be obtained, is a critical problem in American society. Though we feel strongly on this issue, we have absolutely no desire for the Society to express an opinion on the matter. It is wrong for the Society, as a Society, to have an opinion about any such social and political issues. Individual members may have opinions, and they should express them, but they should be expressed in the appropriate venues—political parties, elections, newspapers, protests, etc.—not on behalf of the Society.

It is not that the killings in Atlanta (or in Colorado) are not to be condemned in the strongest terms; nor that the issues they raise are unworthy of deep concern; nor that gun violence is the more fundamental issue; nor that there might be better ways to oppose racism (or gun violence). All of these things are worthy of public statement and debate; but the Society is decidedly not the forum for expressing such concerns. The purpose of our Society was—and should continue to be—fostering the study of evolutionary biology, not promoting political change.

The Society should issue a statement saying that the previous statement reflects the opinions of those who wrote it, and that it is not the policy of the Society to adopt positions on such matters.

Kind regards,

Gregory C. Mayer
Department of Biological Sciences
University of Wisconsin-Parkside

Luana S. Maroja
Department of Biology
Williams College

Jerry A. Coyne
Department of Ecology and Evolution
University of Chicago

I sent a similar letter to the Executive Council of the ASN; I am also a member of that society.

No response has been received.

As Jerry remarked concerning the letter written by a number of past presidents and vice presidents of the SSE concerning the former Fisher Prize, this is a kerfluffle that will interest relatively few. (The near simultaneity of the Fisher letter and the one above is coincidental. The SSE changed the Prize’s name last year, and that response, I suppose, must have been long developing; while the letter above was in response to something published in the same week.)

A retrospective look at a paper: Coyne and Orr (1989)

April 4, 2021 • 12:00 pm

The two best-cited pieces of scientific work bearing my name were both done in collaboration with my graduate student, Allen Orr, who was recommended to me by Bruce Grant, my undergrad genetics teacher at The College of William and Mary. Allen had gotten a B.A. in philosophy there, and went on to do a master’s degree with Bruce in Drosophila genetics. Bruce recommended him to me as a good prospect, but wasn’t sure how he’d work out as a Ph.D. student.

At the time I was at the University of Maryland, took Allen on, and the rest was history. I had no idea how to mentor graduate students—Allen was my first—but it turned out he needed no mentoring: he was a self-starter. Over his few years in my lab, he published about ten papers and won the Society for the Study of Evolution’s Dobzhansky Prize in 1993, given to the person the SSE’s committee considers the best young evolutionary biologist.

The two most cited works include a pair of related papers (Coyne and Orr 1989, 1997), and our coauthored book Speciation (2004).

I summarized the main findings of the two papers, and gave a bit of their history, in a post from October of last year, which includes an interview I did about it in 2017 for Reflections of Paper Past.  At that time I didn’t know that two people, including my last student, Daniel Matute, were writing a retrospective of the 1989 and 1997 papers.

At any rate, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the journal Evolution, it’s been publishing retrospectives of notable papers that have appeared there. One chosen for this treatment was the Coyne and Orr duo. The retrospective paper, by Daniel Matute (UNC Chapel Hill) and Brandon S. Cooper, now at the University of Montana, can be accessed by clicking on the screenshot below, or you can get the pdf here. The reference to the retrospective is at the bottom. It will probably be of interest only to evolutionary geneticists, but it’s here for the record.

I have to say that Daniel and Brandon did a terrific job. It’s far more than a “retrospective” of our papers, but a new meta-analysis of existing data on how reproductive barriers between incipient species grow with time. (That was the subject of our original papers, and you can read the summary at the link above.) The new paper highlights where we were right, where we were wrong, what gaps there are in our knowledge about reproductive isolation, and what directions future research on the time course of speciation should take. In other words, it’s a review paper on a growing area of research rather than a discussion of just two small papers.

I’ll end by giving their abstract, which shows what the paper is about. But if you work on speciation, you’ll want to read their whole paper:

Abstract

Understanding the processes of population divergence and speciation remains a core question in evolutionary biology. For nearly a hundred years evolutionary geneticists have characterized reproductive isolation (RI) mechanisms and specific barriers to gene flow required for species formation. The seminal work of Coyne and Orr provided the first comprehensive comparative analysis of speciation. By combining phylogenetic hypotheses and species range data with estimates of genetic divergence and multiple mechanisms of RI across Drosophila, Coyne and Orr’s influential meta‐analyses answered fundamental questions and motivated new analyses that continue to push the field forward today. Now 30 years later, we revisit the five questions addressed by Coyne and Orr, identifying results that remain well supported and others that seem less robust with new data. We then consider the future of speciation research, with emphasis on areas where novel methods and data motivate potential progress. While the literature remains biased towards Drosophila and other model systems, we are enthusiastic about the future of the field.

____________________

Matute, D.R. and Cooper, B.S. (2021), Comparative studies on speciation: 30 years since Coyne and Orr. Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.14181

Evolution society renames Fisher Prize; some of us wrote a letter in response

April 2, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m putting this up for the record, for it’s likely that not many outside of evolutionary biology will be interested in this kerfuffle, though the wokeness of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) may be a harbinger of a general wokeness in science as a whole.

Not long ago the Society for the Study of Evolution, the premier society promoting the study of evolutionary biology, put up the following statement announcing a renaming of the Fisher Prize given for an outstanding Ph.D. dissertation paper published in Evolution, the Society’s Journal. Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) was one of the founders of evolutionary genetics as well as the modern science of statistics. We still use many of the tests and methods he devised.

But he also promoted eugenics, though not of the racist variety but the “classist” variety, urging the “lower classes” to have fewer children and the “upper classes” to have more. As far as we know, none of his recommendations was ever made into policy. Nevertheless, his views on eugenics were sufficient for the SSE to erase his name from the prize.

Here’s the SSE’s statement.

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize This award, formerly called the R. A. Fisher Prize, was renamed the SSE Presidents’ Award for Outstanding Dissertation Paper in Evolution in June 2020. This prize, first established in 2006, is awarded annually for an exceptional PhD dissertation paper published in the journal Evolution. The award comes with a $1000 honorarium. Nominations are due in January of each year. Learn more about the award here.

The original name of the prize was chosen to acknowledge Fisher’s extensive, foundational contributions to the study of evolution, particularly through his development of population genetic and quantitative genetic theory. Alongside his work integrating principles of Mendelian inheritance with processes of evolutionary change in populations and applying these advances in agriculture, Fisher established key aspects of theory and practice of statistics.

Fisher, along with other geneticists of the time, extended these ideas to human populations and strongly promoted eugenic policies—selectively favoring reproduction of people of accomplishment and societal stature, with the objective of genetically “improving” human societies. Fisher and other geneticists, ignoring logical flaws certain to undermine the efficacy of this program, were highly influential in promoting eugenic policies. Fisher in particular maintained his support for these ideas even after others had abandoned them. The eugenics movement was founded in racist ideologies, and although eugenics has been repudiated by the evolution community, the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color. We sincerely regret that authors of color may have chosen not to submit their work for consideration for this award because of its name.

For these reasons, the SSE Council voted in 2020 to change the name of the award, shifting its focus to the scholarly achievements of the awardee. The name also acknowledges that the winning paper is chosen by the three current society presidents. Going forward, SSE recognizes the need to continue to invest significant effort toward making our Society and our field more inclusive and more equitable. The Diversity Committee, established in 2017, has galvanized SSE’s major strides towards this goal, and welcomes input and involvement from the membership in prioritizing and carrying out its initiatives (read more here).

In September 2020, SSE Council approved a suite of actions proposed by the Diversity Committee to increase inclusion of and support for members of historically excluded groups in the field of evolutionary biology and through all of the activities of SSE. Updates on the progress of these actions can be found on the SSE website.

Ten past Presidents and Vice Presidents of the SSE, including me, objected to this renaming on several grounds (we do not favor renaming existing prizes), and sent the following letter to the officers of the SSE (I’ve omitted the names of the signers, though one was clearly me).

March 23, 2021

To the SSE Council:

While we applaud the efforts of the Society to enhance diversity in science, and to oppose racism and other forms of prejudice, we wish to express our concerns about the statement on the SSE website concerning the reasons for renaming the R.A. Fisher Prize (https://evolutionsociety.org/societyawards-and-prizes/sse-presidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution/ssepresidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution-context-statement.html). There are two issues that we feel should be considered.

First, the statement contains significant inaccuracies, which are injurious to the reputation of one of the greatest of all evolutionary biologists. These inaccuracies are listed below; for further details, see Bodmer et al. 2021 Heredity (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6). A scientific society surely has the duty to avoid factually incorrect statements.

Second, it is unclear why the Council and Diversity Committee considered only the renaming of the Fisher Prize. The awards named after the following three people should also have been examined in this context. Theodosius Dobzhansky signed the Geneticists’ Manifesto of 1939, which expressed support for eugenic measures (Crew et al. 1939 Nature 144: 521-22). In his book Mankind Evolving, he remarked that “Equality means that all humans are entitled to equal opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, not that these capacities are identical” . In his Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Vol. 2. The Evolution of Sex, William Hamilton expressed support for infanticide as a solution to the problem of the accumulation of deleterious mutations in human populations, and a belief that Jews have innately higher mathematical abilities than the English. T.H. Huxley, while opposing slavery, believed that black people were inferior to white people (https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/B&W.html).

There is a general issue that the Society needs to consider carefully: to what extent do views that were held by eminent people in our field, and are today repugnant to most or all of its members, negate their scientific contributions? To focus attention on just one individual is to fail in this task.

Inaccuracies in the SSE statement about the Fisher Prize

First, it contains the misleading statement that “the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color”. The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, never accepted Mendelian genetics, and the mis-applications of genetics by white supremacists and the Nazis had nothing to do with population genetics as developed by Fisher, Haldane, Weinberg, Wright and their contemporaries; indeed, population genetics completely undermines the concepts of racial groups as homogeneous entities. This is the opposite of “causing harm” to ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination or persecution.

Second, Fisher was not “highly influential in promoting eugenic policies”. None of his proposed measures (family allowances for the supposedly better endowed intellectually, and voluntary sterilisation of people with learning disabilities) were implemented in the UK, and he never advocated the type of compulsory sterilisations carried out in the USA, Sweden and Germany.

Third, the policies promoted by the Eugenics Society in the UK, with which Fisher was associated until 1941, were not “founded in racist ideologies”. The Society was concerned solely with improving the genetic quality of the UK population, although individual members may have held racist views, as was common at the time. Many people of liberal and left-wing political views were members of the Society. Indeed the “The Geneticists’ Manifesto” of 1939 (Nature 144:521-22) contained statements about improving the human population that went substantially further than Fisher’s proposals. It was signed by Dobzhansky, Haldane, Huxley and Muller, among others. According to the introduction to the Wellcome Trust Archive of documents concerning the Eugenics Society (https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/makers-of-modern-genetics/digitisedarchives/eugenics-society/), the society publicly dissociated itself from Nazi ‘race hygiene’ in 1933.

Fourth, the claim that Fisher “maintained his support for these ideas even after other abandoned them” is not accurate; H.J. Muller continued to advocate eugenic improvement as late as 1959 (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 3:1-43). Fisher in fact withdrew completely from the Eugenics Society in 1941, and his only later publication mentioning eugenics was in the 1958 Dover edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection; the relevant section was virtually unchanged from the 1930 edition.

Fifth, the statement overlooks the work that Fisher did to encourage the development of statistics in India (see his obituary in Sankhya 24: 207- 208). This work probably achieved more to encourage scientific endeavour by people of color than most scientific societies have done in their entire history. Fisher had relatively few PhD students by modern standards; one was C.R. Rao, the noted Indian statistician, and another was Ebenezer Laing, the Ghanaian geneticist. This was very unusual for academics in the UK at the time. Fisher’s last known letter was a very friendly letter to Laing.

Sixth, the statement claims that there were “logical flaws” in his ideas about improving society; there are no logical flaws in these ideas, but they can of course be questioned on both empirical and ethical grounds.

That’s the letter. The response we got from an official of the SSE, though thoughtful, was basically to reject our objections. I am not at liberty to reproduce the letter, as it was a private response to the ten signers, but I will quote one of its statements:

There emerged a consensus, however, that naming of an award after an individual honors all that person’s dimensions.

This “consensus” is completely misguided, both for the SSE and in general. Who among any famous scientists, particularly before 1940 or so, did not have some views that should not be honored? Most scientists before that time expressed some racist, sexist, or politically “offensive” opinions, and that includes four of the greats, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and W. D. Hamilton. The latter three already have SSE Awards named after them. Why shouldn’t the SSE ditch those, too? (Note: as I said, we don’t favor that.)

And if you applied this standard to American history as a whole, virtually all of honored politicians and notables, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and so on, have dimensions of their actions or beliefs that aren’t worthy of being honored. My own view is that when we honor someone, we honor them for the good things they did, and I’ll add that such honors should be given when the good they did outweighs the bad. Based on these criteria, Fisher clearly deserves an honorific.

Nobody is perfect, for crying out loud. Who could afford to have all their beliefs and statements put before the public eye?

I still maintain that the purpose of the SSE originally was and should still be to promote the study of evolution, not to promote particular ideological, political, or moral statements. That can be left to the individual members speaking for themselves.

Further thoughts, by Greg Mayer. Putting aside the factual errors noted in the letter from the past presidents and vice presidents, the statement about the Fisher Prize from the SSE seems so suffused with cognitive dissonance as to be redolent of doublethink: Fisher is awful and must be degraded; but Fisher is responsible for extensive and foundational contributions that we use to this day– which is it?

It’s the inability to hold two thoughts at once– epitomized by the claim that an award “honors all that person’s dimensions”– that leads to this muddled thinking. Fisher can be a great scientist worthy of honoring and emulating in his science, without endorsing every part of his life. He had a lousy marriage, eight children, overcame really bad eyesight, held grudges, deeply mourned the death of his eldest son (an RAF pilot in WW II), supported the tobacco industry, was a British patriot, and an anti-totalitarian– some people will want to denigrate him for each of these things. But why would we think  anyone today has an exclusive insight into a final revelation of value? We can only imagine what we will be condemned for in the future; John McWhorter has contemplated a future in which those who have not opposed abortion will be retrospectively condemned.

Harvard severely disciplines evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak for his ties to Jeffrey Epstein, closes Nowak’s evolution institute

March 27, 2021 • 1:45 pm

This has been in the air for some time: after a few years of pondering, Harvard has rendered its judgment on evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak for his connections to Jeffrey Epstein.  I haven’t been a fan of Nowak, particularly his work with Ed Wilson and Corina Tarnita on group selection, but I don’t take any joy in a well known and highly productive biologist—even if some of the product was dubious—meeting his downfall. The gist of it is reported in this new Guardian article (click on screenshot):

The only thing I guessed wrong was in thinking that Harvard would fire Nowak. They didn’t. What happened to him, however, is nearly as bad:

Harvard University’s program for evolutionary dynamics is to close after an inquiry into ties between its director, Martin Nowak, and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

According to the university, the mathematics and biology professor violated several university policies through his contacts with Epstein, including giving the disgraced wealthy financier an office on campus which he visited more than 40 times between 2010 and 2018.

Epstein, 66, was charged with sex trafficking in 2019, shortly before he was found dead in his cell in the Metropolitan correctional center in New York. Epstein had faced an indictment accusing him of running a sex-trafficking ring of underage girls, some as young as 14.

Nowak will be barred from starting new research or advising students for at least two years, according to the university. The sanctions come almost a year after Novak was suspended following a university review that found he had extensive, previously unreported contact with Epstein. [JAC: Nowak was suspended on paid leave.]

The review of Nowak’s connections to Epstein found that the professor had facilitated Epstein’s efforts to use ties to the prestigious university Harvard as a tool to rehabilitate his image.

The review also found that Nowak devoted a page to Epstein on the center’s website that included links to the financier’s websites. The university received $9.1m in gifts from Epstein, including a donation of $6.5m to the evolutionary dynamics faculty in 2006.

According to the Harvard Crimson, the University took over $9 million from Epstein, but didn’t take any more money after his conviction for sex offenses in 2008 (Epstein committed suicide in jail while being held on a more severe set of charges). And Harvard did donate an unspent $200,000 of Epstein’s gift to victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. But Nowak continued to give Epstein perks, though who knows if that was to “rehabilitate his image.”

After conviction, Epstein remained a visiting fellow of Nowak’s Program in Evolutionary Dynamics (PED), had a visitor’s office and a key card, and visited the office over 40 times before he was taken into custody again. He also participated in several PED events. Given that Epstein had no credentials in the field, and his favor was being curried because of his enormous wealth and the perks that came with knowing him, this was deemed a violation of Harvard’s policies.  And there was this, which seems to me quite serious:

[The Harvard review] cites an incident in which Nowak falsely informed a grant-making foundation that matching funds for a PED grant came from a foundation run by Epstein, suggesting that Harvard report the incident to FAS’s Faculty Affairs Office.

Did Nowak know of Epstein’s conviction for sexual trafficking in 2008 (he was convicted of procuring a woman under 18 for prostitution)? I can’t imagine he didn’t, as it was public information.  So, at the very least, Nowak is guilty of spectacular misjudgment: giving a convicted sex offender without credentials in biology a position with his biology institute. I doubt that the same punishment would have been handed out had the recipient of Nowak’s largesse been a nonspecialist who hadn’t been convicted of sex crimes.

But this is not mine to reason why. All I know is that Harvard will be very careful in vetting its visiting fellow in the future! And I’m pretty sure that Nowak, who has a worldwide reputation in evolutionary biology, will find a job somewhere else, as I can’t imagine that he’d want to stay at Harvard.

Martin Nowak

Are sponges the closest relatives of the rest of the animals?

March 21, 2021 • 9:30 am

A new paper in Nature Communications highlights an ongoing controversy in the evolution of animals: what are the closest relatives of living multicellular animals?

First, though, we need to refresh ourselves on what “animals” are. Merriam-Webster defines them adequately:

Any of a kingdom (Animalia) of living things including many-celled organisms and often many of the single-celled ones(such as protozoans) that typically differ from plants in having cells without cellulose walls, in lacking chlorophyll and the capacity for photosynthesis, in requiring more complex food materials (such as proteins), in being organized to a greater degree of complexity, and in having the capacity for spontaneous movement and rapid motor responses to stimulation.

We’re leaving out the single-celled “animals” here (under “outgroups” in the figure below) and concentrating on multicellular animals.

The multicellular animals include (as the phylogenies show below), Ctenophores, or comb jellies, Porifera (sponges), Placozoans (free living but small multicellular organisms), Cnidaria (corals, jellyfish, sea anemones and their relatives), and Bilateria (everything else; all animals with a head and tail end, as well as a belly and a back at some stage of their life, including echinoderms which have these features as larvae).  Over the years, a combination of developmental, morphological, and molecular analysis has given rise to the two conflicting family trees shown below.

Both trees are the same except for a dispute about the “animal outgroup” (the “breakaway group” or “sister group”), the closest living relative to the vast bulk of the animals, and the first group to branch off from the rest. One school, shown on the left, adheres to the ctenophores, or comb jellies, as this sister group. The other, shown on the right, maintains that sponges occupy this position, and ctenophores branched off later.

 

Here’s an example of a ctenophore (photos from Wikipedia):

And a bunch of sponges:

Now the case for sponges as the sister group is based on the observation that ctenophores share unique features with the other animals, including elements of nervous systems, and (except for Placozoans) muscles and a tubelike digestive system (“gut”). But sponges have none of these. Moreover, sponges are made up of collared cells, or choanocytes, which are similar to “choanoflagellates“, singled-celled protozoans thought to be the closest relative to all the animals from sponges on down. This similarity implies that the common ancestor of multicellular animals might have been something spongelike, supporting the second phylogeny above. That implies that sponges changed relatively little after multicellular animals evolved, while everything else changed a lot more.

But some molecular phylogenies have suggested that the more complex ctenophores might be the outgroup instead of sponges.  This is a bit more problematic to both me and Matthew (see his BBC broadcast below), for if sponges are really more closely related to other animals than are ctenophores, why do ctenophores have muscles, nerves, and an in—>out digestive system like most other animals, but sponges lack these things? To hold that ctenophores are the sister group instead of sponges requires that you posit one of two possibilities:

A.) The common ancestor of all animals had nervous systems and muscles and a gut, which persist in all groups but the sponges, and the sponges lost these features. That seems unlikely, but it’s possible.

or

B.) The common ancestor of all animals lacked these features, but they evolved independently in the choanoflagellates and all other animals save sponges. This seems even more unlikely since it requires the independent evolution of three complex traits in two separate groups (ctenophores and [other animals minus sponges]).

This principle of “parsimony” alone suggests that sponges are the sister group, didn’t lose any of those features, and muscles, nerves, and a gut evolved only once.

The new article in Nature Communications supports the “sponges first” scenario. Click on the screenshot below to read the article, see the pdf here, and find the reference at the bottom of this post. The authors used a new way of making phylogenies using DNA data, dubbed “partition site-heterogeneous models” to eliminate artifacts that may have erroneously shown ctenophores as the sister group of other animals. I’m not going to explain that method and, to be sure, I don’t understand it. In fact, the main results of the paper for the layperson can be described very simply: the new method shows that sponges are the sister group to all animals, a result that makes sense.

I just gave you the punch line, but have to add that the controversy isn’t settled. It is settling, however, as more and more biologists come around to the “sponges split off first” scenario. (I won’t even mention the controversy about the placozoans and ctenophores, and where they fit with relationship to Cnidaria.) Let me just put in the authors’ paragraph where they say that their finding of sponges as the sister group of all other animals is definitive: (my emphasis):

Several studies have already shown that gene family and unpartitioned phylogenomic analyses using more sophisticated substitution models reject Ctenophora sister in favour of Porifera sister. Here, we have consolidated these findings by directly showing that the primary remaining lines of evidence supporting Ctenophora sister, partitioned phylogenomics and measures of underlying support (such as ΔPSlnl values), do not do so when better-fitting site-heterogeneous models are incorporated into the analysis. Thus, the Ctenophora-sister hypothesis can now be wholly rejected in favour of the traditional Porifera-sister scenario of animal evolution, wherein the animal ancestor did not possess key traits such as a nervous system, muscles or a mouth and gut.

Ctenophores as the sister group is now “wholly rejected”! I suspect that not all animal systematists would accept this hypothesis. I do, tentatively, but I don’t fully understand the complex methods of analyzing DNA data (they used 60 animal groups, 406 genes, and 88,384 DNA sites).  My view of these complex methods is the same one that my academic grandfather, Theodosius Dobzhansky, held towards the experts in mathematical population genetics (Dobzhansky was innumerate): “Papa knows best.”

For a fuller explication of the conflict, as well as an overview of animal evolution in general, you can’t do better than Matthew’s 2018 Discovery PROGRAM on the BBC. The controversy about sponges-first versus ctenophores-first starts at 17:45. This program is very good, involves interviews with a lot of different biologists, and should be very clear to the sentient layperson. Plus it’s only half an hour long. Spend this Sunday learning a bit about animal evolution!

Click on the screenshot to hear the show:

_________________

Redmond, A.K., and A. McLysaght 2021. Evidence for sponges as sister to all other animals from partitioned phylogenomics with mixture models and recoding. Nat Commun 12, 1783 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-22074-7

A creationist professor of evolutionary biology in England

March 8, 2021 • 11:30 am

I was surprised to learn that there’s an advocate of Intelligent Design (ID) teaching evolutionary biology in Britain: one Dr. Richard Buggs, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at Queen Mary University in London. Heretofore I hadn’t heard of an ID advocate in a respectable British University.

Apparently Buggs (I’ll refrain from puns) has been pushing ID for some time, viz., in the Guardian article below from 2007. That was already two years after the Dover v. Kitzmiller case, in which a Republican judge ruled that ID was “not science”. The judge saw through the religious nature of ID, which really is a form of creationism because it posits a supernatural designer to get around what are seen by IDers as impossible evolutionary pathways. And, in fact, every advocate of ID or creationism I know of has religious motivations, with the possible exception of the haughty David Berlinski.  Buggs is no exception: he’s a diehard Christian. If ID wasn’t religious in nature, how come every one of its advocates is religious?

I won’t reiterate the 14-year-old article below except to say that Bugg’s claim that ID is a science is wrong. Despite promises of the Discovery Institute, ID has failed as a scientific program, as there is real no way to test it: the discipline consists of pointing out phenomena and then saying, “See, naturalistic evolution couldn’t have done that!” And since we’ll never understand everything, we can always say that God is hiding in the corners.

Two quotes from Buggs:

If Darwin had known what we now know about molecular biology – gigabytes of coded information in DNA, cells rife with tiny machines, the highly specific structures of certain proteins – would he have found his own theory convincing? Randerson thinks that natural selection works fine to explain the origin of molecular machines. But the fact is that we are still unable even to guess Darwinian pathways for the origin of most complex biological structures.

This is the Argument from Ignorance (for God). Yet because Buggs refuses to tell us who the designer is (he thinks it’s the Christian God, of course), he think that makes the ID enterprise scientific:

When a religious person advocates teaching ID in science without identification of the designer, there is no dishonesty or “Trojan horse”, just realism about the limitations of the scientific method.

That’s still the Argument from Ignorance, and comes down to the invocation of a supernatural designer when we don’t understand something. That is a tactic that not only doesn’t advance our understanding, but isn’t itself science. But let’s move on.

Ten years later, at BioLogos (article above), an organization dedicated to selling evolution to evangelical Christians (it’s failed at that), geneticist Dennis Venema took Buggs to task for insisting that the genetic data we have is compatible with the idea that a single breeding pair could be the literal ancestors of all of humanity. (Now where did Buggs get that idea?) Buggs is wrong because, as Venema shows at length, conservative estimates of mutation rates still show us that our species harbors far more genetic variation than would occur if our species went through a bottleneck of two people within the last 10,000 years. In fact, the size of the bottleneck was probably 10,000 to 15,000 individuals, which is NOT TWO (i.e., not Adam and Eve).

But I’ve written about that before, too, so let’s move on.

Dr. Buggs has a new 20-minute video (it came out three days go), and he’s still pushing Christianity and dissing atheism and Darwinism at the same time. His thesis: “Darwinian evolution is simply not sufficient to explain the world and its complexity to an great enough extent to preclude the existence of God.”

He begins by showing that there’s a correlation between intelligence and the level of complexity of a structure, using a snowman he saw (Paley used a watch). Since the human body is infinitely more complex than a snowman, doesn’t that show that there’s intelligence behind it? Well, no, because natural selection acting in Darwinian evolution can create complexity. It is this theory that, said Richard Dawkins (whom Buggs bashes throughout the video), knocked out the props under the only rational explanation for biological complexity: God. By dispelling the need for a supernatural force, said Dawkins, natural selection made it “intellectually respectable to be an atheist.” And Dawkins was right, for there are no other knockdown arguments for theism, and there’s a knockdown argument against it (the existence of natural evil, which can’t be explained by an omnipotent and loving God).

In fact, Buggs explains how natural selection works pretty well using a child’s wooden railroad track, but then gets into his real counterargument ten minutes in. Taking up arguments from Michael Behe, Buggs says that there are features of the biological world that cannot be explained by natural selection, but require enormous amounts of luck. He also asserts that there are adaptations that can’t be built up in a step-by-step fashion, with each step increasing the fitness of the possessor. That was Behe’s argument as well, but at least Behe used biological examples—all of which have been demolished. In contrast, Buggs does not cite a single example of an adaptation or feature that requires us to invoke a supernatural designer. He simply asserts that there are some biochemical features that require maladaptive steps, and “several of them in a row.” I don’t know of any, nor does Buggs cite any.

Now it’s true, as Buggs maintains, that sometimes genetic drift can outweigh natural selection in a population that is sufficiently small, and that can “dismantle” an adaptation in a way that might allow another adaptation to arise that couldn’t have been attained otherwise. But although we have plenty of examples of genetic drift on the molecular level, I know of not a single adaptation that requires the existence of genetic drift to come into being. I may have missed one or two, but they’re certainly not pervasive enough to dismantle Darwinism, Dawkinsism, and to require us to invoke God and Jesus.

Finally, and I won’t go into detail here, Buggs says that the origin of life was extremely improbable, requiring, according to his thesis, TOO MUCH LUCK (ergo, God). But that’s not credible, either. On a planet like ours, life arose within a billion years of its current 4.5-billion-year tenure, showing that when conditions are right, it doesn’t take forever to get life. You could also say, as Dawkins does, that there are gazillions of planets where conditions were right for the origin of life, and we happen to have evolved on one of them. That seems reasonable, but Buggs doesn’t like that argument because it also involves a form of “luck” (18:13) and further, he claims, the Universe isn’t infinitely old and doesn’t have an infinite number of planets, giving Dawkins “a low level of probabilistic resources” to explain the origin of life. This is nonsense. How many suitable planets are there in our Universe, which has been in existence for nearly 14 billion years? Enough to allow, I suspect, lots of life to evolve. “Luck”, taken as a small probability of life evolving, becomes a certainty when there are enough opportunities.

In the end, Buggs argues that Darwin didn’t really make evolution that much more credible, because we still need “huge doses of luck to make all of this work.” Buggs concludes that we need more than evolution, and more than Darwinism, to make atheism credible. We need, I suspect, God and Jesus. Hallelujah!

One gets an impression—not just from this video, but from Buggs’s history of pushing creationism—that he’s not being pushed towards ID by the facts, because a “designer” confirms his pre-existing Christianity. What we see here, I think, is a massive example of confirmation bias.

I’m not calling for Buggs to be fired, of course, because he can say whatever he wants on his own time. But I hope he doesn’t push these arguments in his biology classes. That would be a matter that Queen Mary would have to confront.

Nefarious fungus mimics a grass flower to facilitate its own transmission

February 14, 2021 • 12:30 pm

Some of the most fascinating observations in biology, at least to me, involve the comandeering of one species by a parasite, who take the host over, changing it in a way that facilitates the parasite’s own reproduction. “Zombie ants“, infected by a behavior-altering fungus, are one example, and some people think that the protozoan Toxoplasma gondii, which humans get from cat feces, changes the behavior of rats when it infects them, making the rats lose their evolved fear of cats. The infected rats then are more readily eaten by cats, thus facilitating the reproduction of the protozoan, which becomes infectious when it gets into the cats and exits through their feces. Any mutant protozoan with the tendency to make rats less afraid of cats will be more likely to be passed on, which of course is positive natural selection.  But in neither that case nor the case of zombie ants infected with fungus do we know exactly how the parasite commandeers the host and changes their behavior. Working that out will be a fascinating task.

Today we have another fungus that affects its host in a way detrimental to that host but good for the fungus. The system is described in a new paper in Fungal Genetics and Biology (click on screenshot below, full reference at the bottom), or find the pdf here.  There’s also a summary in Scientific American

Now there are a couple of cases known of fungi that actually take over a plant host’s development and produce pseudoflowers that attract insects. Those pseudoflowers, while made of plant material, are also covered with fungal hyphae. The fungus also somehow induces the plant to produce a nectarlike substance. Both the pseudoflower and nectar attract pollinating insects, who instead of getting pollen get covered with fungal spores. The spore-covered pollinators then move to a new infected plant. This is a way the fungus manages to disperse its genes and also (some fungi have “sexes” or mating types) effect matings with another fungus on another plant. It’s a form of fungal reproduction, just as pollination is a form of plant reproduction.

In today’s case we have something a bit different: the fungus, when infecting the plant, itself assumes the form of a flower that looks remarkably like the host flower. It also develops pigments that are known to attract insects, including those in the UV light spectrum. Finally, the fungus appears to emit volatile chemicals that are identical to some chemicals of the host flower that attract bees.

Did I mention that the fungus also sterilizes the host plant (a flowering grass), so that the fungus doesn’t compete with the grass flowers for pollinators?

Click to read:

The two species of grass that the fungus infects were found in western Guyana, and are “yellow-eyed grasses,” Xyris setigera and X. surinamensis. Both are infected with the fungus Fusarium xyrophlium, a new species described by these authors. When it infects the grasses, the fungus sterilizes them, so that they produce no flowers or mature fruit, and the fungus sets up a systemic infection of the grass plant. Infections are patchy in Guyana; not all grasses have them and most grasses don’t.

After a plant has been infected for a certain time, the fungal hyphae grow into a “pseudoflower” at the grass tip that is a remarkable mimic of the grasses’ own flowers. Have a look at this figure from the paper. The first three photos show the fungus “flower”, and only the last shows the grass’s own natural flower. Again, the faux flower in the three photos at the left is made of pure fungal hyphae; it’s not made of plant cells “directed” by the fungus to assume the configuration of a flower, as in other cases.

(From the paper): Fig. 1. Comparison of Xyris flower and Fusarium xyrophilum pseudoflowers collected in the Cuyuni-Mazaruni region of Guyana in 2010. (A) Young yellow-orange pseudoflower produced by F. xyrophilum emerging at tip of cone-like spike of Xyris surinamensis. (B) Mature pseudoflower of F. xyrophilum enveloping the entire X. surinamensis spike. (C) Longitudinal section of X. surinamensis spike showing partial fruit development in center and pseudoflower of F. xyrophilum. (D) Healthy yellow flower of X. surinamensis shown for comparison, with lateral petals and prominent erect hairlike staminodes. Scale bar: A–D = 5 mm. (For interpretation of the references to color in this figure legend, the reader is referred to the web version of this article.)

Do the faux flowers attract insects? Yes, they were observed to attract small bees, though the flowers weren’t watched very long.

Do the bees carry spores that they get from trying to extract nectar from the fungus? We don’t know. The fungus is “self-sterile”, having different mating types, so it’s likely that these false flowers have evolved to not only disperse the fungus, but to facilitating its mating, since the spore-laden bee would likely be duped again and, in so doing, bring together two spores that could effect a mating.

Do the same bees pollinate the real flowers and the fake ones? That’s essential, for the mimicry involves duping the regular pollinators. Again, we don’t know. Note, though, that the faux flower has the same general shape and color as the real flower.

It’s interesting to note that, besides sterilizing the grass, the fungus seems to have no other detrimental effect on it. That’s what the fungus “wants,” of course, for its propagation depends on not killing off the grass, which is a perennial.

Bees not only see in the visible light spectrum, but also in the UV. The authors extracted pigment compounds from the fungus and found that there were indeed pigments in them that fluoresce in the UV spectrum. Thus bees could see more than just what we do. But we don’t know how the faux fungus flowers look to the bees, or whether bee vision makes the faux flowers resemble the real grass flowers. (There are many unanswered questions raised by this study.)

Finally, the authors looked at the volatile compounds of the fungus and flowers to see if they had anything in common; that is, was the fungus mimicking the odor as well as the appearance of the flower? Because the authors couldn’t get back to Guyana because of the pandemic, they used a related flower, X. laxifolia from North Carolina, compared to the lab-cultured fungus. Gas chromatography revealed only one volatile compound in common between the fungus and the grass flower: 2-ethylhexanol. This compound, however, is known to be a fairly powerful attractant of bees.

While many questions remain hanging, they can in principle be answered, and this paper describes a unique system: another weird way evolution works.  Here are some of the questions remaining:

a.) Did the fungus independently evolve its ability to produce faux flowers on both species of grass? (I would guess not.)

b.) Do the pollinators really move spores between infected grasses? (My guess would be yes; why else would the fungus evolve such an elaborate ability to make mimetic flowers?)

c.) What it is about infecting a grass that makes the fungus suddenly able to form flower-like shapes? Does some compound or gene in the grass itself induce the fungus to do this?

d.) How similar does the grass flower appear to the fungus “flower” to the eye of a bee?

e.) What other compounds of the fungus “flower” attract insects, and are they similar to odorants from the grass flower?

As Orgel’s Second Rule of Biology states, “Evolution is cleverer than you are.” And in this case it’s been very clever!

h/t: Jean

____________________

Laraba, I., S. P. McCormick, M. M. Vaughan, R. H. Proctor, M. Busman, M. Appell, K. O’Donnell, F. C. Felker, M. Catherine Aime, and K. J. Wurdack. 2020. Pseudoflowers produced by Fusarium xyrophilum on yellow-eyed grass (Xyris spp.) in Guyana: A novel floral mimicry system? Fungal Genetics and Biology 144:103466.

Virtual Darwin Day event on human evolution: tomorrow

February 12, 2021 • 12:45 pm

This will take place tomorrow, and it’s an online discussion of Darwin’s ideas about human evolution. Among the several scientists involved is Janet Browne, who featured in this morning’s post. It’s also free, unless you want to make a donation. The sponsor is the Leakey Foundation. (h/t Dom)

Date: Sat, February 13, 2021

Time: 1:00 PM – 3:00 PM CST

You can get tickets by going to the site below, or by clicking here; as I said, you can attend for free.

Click on the screenshot to learn more; I’ll give the list of participants below:

 

Leading scholars explore Darwin’s ideas about human evolution in the light of modern science.

About this Event:

Join The Leakey Foundation for a free virtual celebration of Darwin’s birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Descent of Man. This event brings together seven world-class scholars and science communicators to explore what Darwin got right and what he got wrong about the origin, history, and biological variation of humans.

In 1871, Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, a companion to On The Origin of Species in which he attempted to explain human evolution, a topic he called “the highest and most interesting problem for the naturalist.” This event explores how scientific ideas are tested and how evidence helps structure our narratives about human origins, showing how some of Darwin’s ideas have withstood more than a century of scrutiny while others have not.

This event features six ten-minute presentations with viewer opportunities to submit questions to the scholars. The event concludes with a discussion led by award-winning science journalist Ann Gibbons.

Jeremy M. DeSilva is an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College and a Leakey Foundation grantee. He studies the origins and evolution of upright walking in the human lineage. DeSilva introduces the program and reflects on Darwin’s impact on science.

Janet Browne is the Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. She has written a two-volume biography of Charles Darwin—Darwin: Voyaging and Darwin: The Power of Place. In 2013, she wrote the introduction to a republishing of Darwin’s Descent of Man. Browne reflects on Darwin’s life and times.

Brian Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. His interest in the evolution of social behavior has inspired research on humans’ closest ape relatives and humans’ best friend, the dog. Hare explores the Darwinian road to morality.

Yohannes Haile-Selassie is the Curator and Head of Physical Anthropology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and a Leakey Foundation grantee. He has made some of the most significant early human fossil discoveries in the history of paleoanthropology. Haile-Selassie reflects on the fossil evidence for human evolution.

Agustín Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. He is the author of Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of BeingThe Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional, and Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature. Fuentes reflects on race, racism, science, and hope.

Holly Dunsworth is a professor of anthropology at the University of Rhode Island and a Leakey Foundation grantee. Dunsworth challenges the traditional (often male-biased and Eurocentric) narratives of human evolution with exquisite clarity. She has contributed to NPR’s This I Believe series, and her posts to science blogs The Mermaid’s Tale and Origins. Dunsworth reflects on the role of the wife.

Ann Gibbons is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine and the author of The First Human: The Race to Discover Our Earliest Ancestors. She has taught science writing at Carnegie Mellon University and written about human evolution for National GeographicSlateSmithsonian magazine, and other publications. She was recently awarded the 2019 American Geophysical Union’s David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. She reflects on Darwin in light of modern knowledge and leads the scholars in a discussion.

Darwin Day Special: Darwin’s daily routine (and lagniappe photos)

February 12, 2021 • 9:30 am

The item below was singled out by the eminent Darwin scholar Janet Browne—you MUST read her magisterial two-volume biography of Darwin—as worth highlighting on Darwin’s birthday. It shows his catlike regularity, for his routine was vitally important to him, especially because he was chronically ill. And despite that illness, he wrote not just The Origin, but eleven other books, also keeping up a voluminous correspondence and doing his own empirical research.

Click on the screenshot to go to the piece at the fantastic Darwin Correspondence Project, the locus for all his letters and writings apart from the books.

The statement above is true: Darwin moved into Down House on September 17, 1842, and died there forty years later. At the website above, you can also virtually visit Darwin’s study (just as it was when he worked there) and his garden. If you’re in England and have any interest in Things Darwin, get yourself to Downe, just an hour or so from London, and visit his undervisited home. It is a moving experience, and there’s a lovely pub nearby. You can even walk the Sandwalk, the garden path Darwin laid out to walk and think about biology.

He was regular in his habits, if not his bowels (he had constant problems with his digestion):

Note that Darwin did three solid hours of work per day, interspersed with his correspondence, walks, rests, and meals. Note too that after dinner he would retire to the drawing room with the ladies rather than joining the men.

He was a creature of habit, and we’re the better for it. Below are some photos I took on my second visit to Down House in 2008:

Janet and my friend Andrew Berry, who taught an evolution course at Oxford in the summer and did visits to Darwin-related places. He enlisted Janet to give his students a tour of Down House, and I went along. What a great guide!

Janet explaining stuff to the students:

Darwin’s study. The chair is where he wrote The Origin, on a board that straddled the arms:

The famous Sandwalk:

Darwin’s straw hat (under glass, of course):

Professor Ceiling Cat gamboling at the rear of Down House (I was chubbier then!). You can see that this was the house of a wealthy man. Photo by Andrew Berry

Horrors! Darwin discovered to be a sexist!

February 7, 2021 • 1:45 pm

I predicted a while back that the fall of Darwin due to his Unwokeness was imminent, and for that I was criticized by some who said such a notion was ludicrous. But it was inevitable, for Darwin was a wealthy white male who lived in mid-19th-century Britain, when the normal attitude of men of his class—or of any class—was sexism and racism.

If you know anything about Darwin, though, you’ll know that he was also an ardent abolitionist, along with members of his family and his wife’s family—the Wedgewoods. Nevertheless, he was also a racist, believing that black people were inferior to whites. You can see this in his Voyage of the Beagle and in the Descent of Man. What this demonstrates is that in that era you could be both an abolitionist and a racist. In fact, Abraham Lincoln, also an abolitionist, just had his name removed from a San Francisco public school for supposed racism, though it was racism against Native Americans.

Nevertheless, you could take nearly any male Briton from the mid-19th century and, if you could suss out his views, discover that he was a sexist and a racist. That makes Darwin simply one of many. But it’s good clickbait to indict Darwin because he’s the most famous scientist of his time—perhaps of any time. And it’s no surprise that the New York Times, mired as it is in identity politics and ideological purity, decided that it needed the clicks of calling out Darwin for sexism.

The essay below (click on screenshot) was written by Michael Sims, a nonfiction writer specializing in science. Click on the screenshot to read it.

The tedious part of this essay is that most of it isn’t about Darwin’s sexism at all: it’s about Darwin’s having met the well known “social theorist” Harriet Martineau at a party held at his brother’s house. Martineau (1802-1876) was indeed a remarkable woman, fiercely smart and independent, and a polymath often considered to be the first sociologist. She was also a tireless advocate of women’s rights. And, as Sims recounts, Darwin was much taken with her, finding her “invincible” and “a wonderful woman”.

In fact, three-quarters of Sims’s article is about Martineau, with a bit about her meeting with Darwin and more about how many people admired her while others took issue with her views and her feminism. So why Sims’s title? Because the last quarter of the piece is about Darwin’s views—expressed mainly in the 1871 book The Descent of Man—that women were intellectually inferior (but morally superior) to men. And that claim is pure clickbait.

An excerpt from Sims’s piece:

Decades [after having met Martineau in 1837], despite many respectful and admiring interactions with Martineau and other female writers and thinkers, as well as with his intelligent and well-read sisters, wife, cousins and colleagues’ wives, Darwin comprehensively dismissed women’s intellectual potential. “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes,” he stated in “The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex” (1871), “is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman — whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands.”

In 1881 the American educator and social reformer Caroline Augusta Kennard wrote to ask Darwin if she correctly understood him on the inferiority of women. Missing the irony, he responded by saying, “I certainly think that women though generally superior to men [in] moral qualities are inferior intellectually.”

He conceded that there was “some reason to believe that aboriginally (& to the present day in the case of Savages)” men and women demonstrated comparable intelligence, thus implying the possibility of regaining such equality in the modern world. “But to do this, as I believe,” he added, “women must become as regular ‘bread-winners’ as are men; & we may suspect that the early education of our children, not to mention the happiness of our homes, would in this case greatly suffer.”

Now here his view of women’s inferiority is clear. As I said, he was a sexist. But it’s not clear—and isn’t clear from what I remember of The Descent of Man—whether Darwin thought this intellectual inferiority was an evolved trait or a cultural one. Parsing what’s above, you could say that Darwin either thought that women had lost their intellectual ability through evolutionary disuse after “savages” evolved into modern humans in which women became maids and breeders, or, alternatively, that women were forced into those roles, but, given equal opportunities and rights, would become the intellectual equals of men. In other words, if one were one charitable, one could say that Darwin attributed women’s so-called intellectual interiority to the actions of The Patriarchy: culture rather than nature.

Still, it doesn’t really matter. Darwin was a sexist, and that’s true regardless of the origin of the inferiority he ascribed to women.

But Sims isn’t the first to detect this. Just Google “Darwin sexist” and you’ll find that this indictment has been leveled by many, and for years. And it would be true of Huxley, Lyell, and nearly every other famous or non-famous British male of that era —if they expressed their opinion.

Darwin was a man of his time. Were he raised in a milieu that was more like our time, he would certainly not have been a sexist or a racist, for his views, and that of his family, were generally liberal. Why, then, does Sims take the trouble to write a longish essay about something that everybody already knew? I can’t get inside Sims’s head, but certainly the New York Times would welcome any piece calling out the racism and sexism of a hugely famous white man.

But there’s no racism mentioned in Sim’s article. Stay tuned for that, because I can guarantee you it will come before long.

And yes, Darwin was a racist. But neither his racism nor his sexism do anything to devalue his enormous scientific contribution to humanity: the theory of evolution—not to mention the other work he did on plants, animal behavior, earthworms, domestication of animals and plants, and so on. If they start tearing down statues of Darwin, or renaming buildings that bear his name, I’ll be plenty mad. But I’m not sanguine. If they can cancel Lincoln, they can cancel Darwin. After all, they were born on the very same day, and were both men of their time.

That troubles our monkey again’ caricature of Charles Darwin from Fun, 16 November 1872. Source: The Darwin Correspondence Project.