Our attempt to correct the record about E. O. Wilson: a joint letter to Scientific American—which, of course, they rejected.

January 19, 2022 • 8:00 am

UPDATE: David Sloan Wilson has also published the letter on his site “This View of Life”.


A bunch of people in evolution and genetics took exception to an op-ed in Scientific American by Monica McLemore, which called E. O. Wilson a racist just days after he died. The author, who apparently had almost no familiarity with Wilson’s work, gave no examples of his supposed racism, and left out quotes showing his opposition to racism. Anybody who knew Ed also knows that he was no racist! Many of the signers below knew Ed well.

The author also indicted others, including Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin, for the same sin:

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

My “bon mot” on this: “Did Mendel see green peas as superior to yellow ones?”

The fun didn’t end there, for McLemore got further entangled by trying to accuse the normal distribution in statistics of racism!:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

This is too ridiculous to critique except to say that everything in that paragraph is wrong.

I wrote a critical rebuttal on this site about the badly misguided piece, which apparently constitutes part of Scientific American‘s campaign to morph from an organization teaching laypeople about modern science into an ideological venue for promoting “progressive” leftism and trying to effect social change. (No change, of course, will be effected by publishing ignorant nonsense like that. It is virtue-flaunting, pure and simple. Do they think that equality will come from accusing Ed Wilson of being a racist?)

A lot of us in the area were steamed at the arrant nonsense purveyed by the author, apparently approved for publication by Scientific American and its editor. We petulant scientists found each other on social media, and an initiative to write a critique of the Sci. Am. hit job was begun by geneticist Razib Khan. It came to fruition in the piece below, signed by many evolutionists and geneticists. It was rejected, of course: I fully expected that a journal that would publish such a flimsy attack on Wilson et al. wouldn’t want to hear the truth.

But the rejection was even worse because some of the staff at Scientific American reached out to Razib, saying that a formal rebuttal might be more useful than social media outrage. In other words, their own people solicited a response from Razib and others. From that it’s clear that not everyone on the editorial staff is overjoyed with the new woke direction of Scientific American! After promising us we’d get a quick response, they sat on our response for a week or so, finally giving Razib the thumbs-down after he had to inquire.

The journal of course acted abysmally here, though its most abysmal action was the publication of McLemore’s piece. But then they more or less asked us to respond, then refused to publish what we wrote.

After this reaction, Razib and I decided to publish the original submission, with its signers (all by their permission) on our websites, so at least you can see the panoply of scientists who think that the Wilson article was ridiculous. Razib put up his piece last night on his Substack site; it’s called “Setting the record straight: open letter on E. O. Wilson’s legacy.” I urge you to read it; although we’re posting the same text and signers of the rejected article, Razib has a very good introduction about his views and about how the piece came to be.

After the rejection, we got an email by editor Laura Helmuth, who, I think, is largely responsible for running the journal into the ground out of sheer ideological bias. The letter gave what I think are lame reasons for not running our piece. I quote (with interpolations):

We would be happy to publish other articles about E.O. Wilson’s research and legacy, but we avoid running direct rebuttals of earlier articles. This is a standard practice in most magazines to avoid being too self-referential, and so each article stands on its own.

Does anybody really believe that? First of all, Scientific American has run direct rebuttals of earlier articles: here are two (granted, they don’t do it often). Nor do their instructions about what and how to submit say anything about prohibiting rebuttals. But above all this, how else would a journal correct itself if it publishes distortions or errors, which are pervasive in the Wilson piece? “Each article stands on its own?” What that means, translated into regular English, is “each article is immune to criticism.” Besides, this article doesn’t stand on its own; it lies prostrate on its own. Helmuth wrote more:

As you may know, we publish a range of perspectives in our Opinion section, written by authors such as Monica McLemore who are presenting their own experiences and analysis.

It is not an “experience” to claim that Ed Wilson or Mendel were racists. Those are assertions of fact, and need to be—but weren’t—backed up with any evidence. I suspect this emphasis on “personal experience” is part of the woke path that the journal is treading. As the journal says in its instructions for authors of opinion and analysis pieces (my emphasis):

We look for fact-based arguments. Therefore, if you are making scientific claims—aside from those that are essentially universally accepted (e.g., evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth; vaccines do not cause autism; the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun) we ask you to link to original scientific research in reputable journals or assertions from reputable science-oriented institutions. Using secondary sources such as news reports or advocacy organizations that do not do actual research is not sufficient.

I guess they waived those rules for this article.  Nor is there any note that rebuttals or critiques are not permitted.

Finally, a lame offer.

If you’d like to suggest a different article, or revise this one to be a stand-alone piece rather than a rebuttal, we’d be happy to work with you or your coauthors.

When I saw that, this thought letter instantly crossed my mind, “Dear Ms. Helmuth, I would like to write an article called ‘Why E. O. Wilson and Gregor Mendel were not racists’. I promise, however, not to mention McLemore’s article in the proposed piece. Yours, Jerry Coyne.”

I ask Ms Helmuth: what other way can we rebut false claims in your magazine than to cite the source and nature of the false claims?

At any rate, our letter is below the line; there are 33 signers, and you may recognize some of the names. Kudos to Razib for organizing it. I’ve added links to every name so you can verify the existence of those who signed.

In all likelihood, Scientific American will ignore this, whether it gets published here or in their magazine, but they do so at their peril. The wide range of interests of the signers, and the diversity of areas they work in, plus the fact that many actually knew Wilson and his work, should constitute a potch im tuchas to Helmuth and her magazine. And at least they know now that their own editorial staff is not 100% behind the new course the journal is taking.

Our letter is below the line:

The great entomologist and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92. Within three days, Scientific American published a bewilderingly flimsy opinion piece that ignored his exceptional legacy of scholarship, innovation and advocacy, instead using his passing to attack science’s history of “white empiricism” and “scientific racism.” The piece suggests Wilson’s and other seminal thinkers’ works were problematically “built on racist ideas” and calls for “truth and reconciliation… in the scientific record.”

Wilson’s scholarly treatises and popular books appeared over an astonishing span of five decades, and their visionary breadth and graceful prose inspired generations of scientists. His  dozens of works include: The Theory of Island Biogeography; Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process; Sociobiology: The New Synthesis; Consilience and The Future of Life. Among his countless awards were the 1990 Crafoord Prize, non-medical biology’s equivalent of the Nobel, and Pulitzer Prizes for the books On Human Nature and The Ants. Wilson, a lifelong conservationist, is often credited with kickstarting an evolutionary understanding of universal human behavior, as well as developing models foundational to ecological theory.

No stranger to intellectual dust-ups, Wilson had for decades endured sometimes misplaced vitriol and ad hominem attacks. But he strived to uphold standards of integrity and insisted on putting science first, even when activists stooped to physically attacking him. Wilson was spared the indignity of reading Scientific American’s mystifying reappraisal. But such a weakly sourced and misinformed piece raises troubling questions about the state of scientific inquiry and discourse. “The complicated legacy of E. O. Wilson” is alarming, not because of any revelation about Wilson, since it’s hardly about him, but for the casual lapses in basic editing and fact-checking behind its extreme claims.

In “The Complicated Legacy,” Dr. Monica R. McLemore, professor of Nursing and Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco, unloads an arsenal of buzzy accusations on the late scientist, dragging in Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Karl Pearson and Gregor Mendel for critique in the process. She quotes Craig Venter and Francis Collins, but neglects to link their allusions to “the complex provenance of ideas” and underinvestment “in research on human behavior” to widespread “scientific racism” in any way.

And what specific evidence does McLemore present against Wilson or the nineteenth-century scientists she holds up for opprobrium? She claims to have “intimately familiarized” herself with Wilson’s work, having enjoyed his fictional Anthill and thus being disappointed by Sociobiology (which touches on humanity only in its 26th and final chapter), because of its role in the orthodoxy that human differences “could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.” But alas, she doesn’t appear to have familiarized herself even minimally with the basic science, because this proposition is empirically unassailable. Twin, adoption and DNA-level studies on millions of individuals consistently demonstrate that just about all human traits, from height to intelligence and personality, owe at least some, often much, of their variation among individuals to genetic influences – not to be confused with genetic determination as in the opinion piece by McLemore. And yet like Darwin, Wilson actually argued eloquently for a universal human nature, a premise that undermines racist agendas.

Furthermore, although McLemore apparently intended to damn Wilson by attributing to him this factual insight, it is not at all clear that the flowering of human behavior genetics even belongs in the ledger of Wilson’s scientific accomplishments. The germ of behavior genetics predates Wilson’s insights by decades. The fact is, sociobiology helped pave the way for other evolutionary approaches to human behavior, with a focus on understanding our human commonalities, as well as the nascent field of cultural evolution.

More perplexing lapses of scholarship follow. McLemore lumps Wilson, b. 1929, together with Pearson, Galton, Darwin and Mendel (born between 1809 and 1857), castigating all for “problematic” and “racist ideas.” Galton, Pearson and Darwin held Victorian views we find reprehensible today. But, the enduring truth or falsity of a scientific theory does not depend upon the anachronistic opinions of the scientists who helped develop it. So, has McLemore discovered bias in Wilson’s legacy?

Here, the author proceeds only to demonstrate a baffling ignorance of one of the most basic concepts in modern statistics. Calling on her expertise in public health, she claims “the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.” But this is nonsense. Far from a conspiracy of biased humans, the “normal distribution” is a widely observed feature of the natural world. Across the animal and plant kingdoms, traits like human birth weight and height, cucumber length, bovine milk production, indeed any trait with many random, independent variables at play, can often be found to approximately follow a normal distribution. “Normal” simply refers to a probability distribution with a certain mathematical form, the value-neutral outcome of random variables that have hewed to certain patterns.

Finally, we learn that “the description and importance of ant societies as colonies is a component of Wilson’s work that should have been critiqued.” It beggars belief that among the most serious offenses the author could dredge up from a wildly prolific career “built on racist ideas” was Wilson’s use of the term “ant colony,” a standard term for cohabitating groups of ants, wasps and bees in entomology. Perhaps it is by this logic that she also invites us to condemn Mendel, the father of genetics, whom she counts among Wilson’s intellectual forebears and who “published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas.” Is Mendel, the Augustinian monk, famously pottering over his pea plants in obscurity, now racist for discovering the Law of Segregation? Or because he found that yellow peas are genetically dominant over green?

Following this uncompelling evidence, the author puts forward three suggestions for the health of science. She calls for new methods in science (an odd plea in the age of CRISPR and ubiquitous whole genome sequencing), “diversifying the scientific workforce”, a massive and important priority in academia today, and finally “truth and reconciliation … in the scientific record.” The entire idea of a “scientific record” is hard to interpret, but she suggests citational practices to flag “problematic work” and unironically nominates “humanities scholars, journalists and other science communicators” to make these judgments.

There is one point on which we can agree with McLemore: “It is true that work can be both important and problematic—they can coexist. Therefore it is necessary to evaluate and critique these scientists, considering, specifically the value of their work.” Indeed, this is how science has always proceeded. Unfortunately, McLemore continues “and, at the same time, their contributions to scientific racism.” Alas, Scientific American’s readers will find neither a clear definition of this sinister undercurrent, nor any instances of its actual existence in Wilson’s thought.

It surely says more about the spirit of our age than it does about Wilson that the editors of Scientific American chose to mark the passing of a scientist of his stature by debating baseless accusations of racism. A line Wilson penned to Nature in 1981 has aged well, “To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior.” Wilson’s insights speak for themselves and his dozens of worthy titles allow us to grapple with his actual ideas directly. His books are suffused with an abiding gratitude for and humble, lifelong wonder at the complexity of our natural world. Their impact will long outlive any hasty and poorly informed appraisals of his legacy.

Dr. Abdel Abdellaoui, Research Scientist, Department of Psychiatry, Amsterdam UMC, University of Amsterdam

Dr. Rosalind Arden, Research Fellow, London School of Economics

Dr. Georgia Chenevix-Trench, Professor, Genetics and Computational Biology, QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute

Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science, Yale University

Dr. Anne B Clark, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Binghamton University

Dr. Jerry Coyne, Professor, Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago

Dr. Matthew Hahn, Distinguished Professor, Department of Biology and Department of Computer Science, Indiana University

Dr. John Hawks, Vilas-Borghesi Distinguished Achievement Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Dr. Joseph Henrich, Professor and Chair, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Elliot Hershberg, Doctoral Candidate, Genetics, Stanford University

Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, Professor, Organismic & Evolutionary Biology and Molecular & Cellular Biology, Harvard University

Razib Khan, Unsupervised Learning, Substack

Dr. Nathan H. Lents, Professor of Biology, John Jay College

Dr. Armand Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College London

Dr. Jonathan Losos, William H. Danforth Distinguished University Professor, Washington University

Daniel Malawsky, Doctoral Candidate, Genomics, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Hilary Martin, Group Leader, Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr. Nick Martin, Senior Scientist and Senior Principal Research Fellow, QIMR Berghofer

Dr. Corrie Moreau, Martha N. & John C. Moser Professor of Arthropod Biosystematics and Biodiversity and Director & Curator of the Cornell University Insect Collection, Cornell University

Dr. Craig Moritz, Professor, College of Science, Australian National University

Dr. Vagheesh M Narasimhan, Assistant Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University University of Texas

Dr. Nick Patterson, Associate,  Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,  Harvard University

Dr. Steven Phelps, Professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. David Queller, Spencer T. Olin Professor of Biology, Washington University in St Louis

Dr. Joan E. Strassmann, Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Alexander Wild, Curator of Entomology, Lecturer Department of Integrative Biology, University of Texas

Dr. Peter M. Visscher, Professor, Program in Complex Trait Genomics, University of Queensland

Dr. Mary Jane West-Eberhard, Emeritus Scientist, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution

Dr. Judith Wexler, Zuckerman Postdoctoral Fellow, The Hebrew University in Jerusalem

Dr. David Sloan Wilson, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Binghamton University

Dr. Richard Wrangham, Moore Research Professor of Biological Anthropology, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

Dr. Alexander Young, Research Scientist, Human Genetics Department, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine

Dr. Marlene Zuk, Regents Professor of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota


Note: three people (names crossed out) decided to remove their names from the letter after it was rejected.

Critical Race Theorists claim Dr. King as the first “CRTer”

January 18, 2022 • 10:00 am

I could kick myself for not having seen this coming. What has happened is that on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a federal holiday that took place yesterday, antiracists decided that they could not let the seeming disparity between King’s views and those of modern CRT go unaddressed. No, they had to go back, cherry-pick from King’s writings, and declare, as Kimberlé Crenshaw does below, that King was an advocate of Critical Race Theory (CRT) before the theory existed! His famous claim that people should be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin, has for a long time rankled those who think that pigmentation remains, and should remain, the most important trait of anyone.

And so, just as the Progressive Left tries to erase racist histories that don’t comport with modern views, people like Crenshaw (a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School and a founder of CRT) are trying to recalibrate King’s views so he fits perfectly into the Procrustean bed of CRT. The past must be made compatible with the present, but if the past is bad, it must be erased.

Crenshaw has a long op-ed in the Los Angeles Times (below) to this effect, but of course whether King was a CRT-ite before CRT existed depends on what you consider to be CRT, and of course it varies widely among different people. (To many Republicans, CRT means the undeniable assertion that “racism existed—and still exists—and we must acknowledge it”.) There’s a lot of room between that view and those of the most famous modern CRT-ist, Ibram X. Kendi.

Click to read, or inquire for a copy if it’s paywalled:

So was King really that far ahead of his time? I’ll use several definitions of CRT, beginning with one in Forbes by Ilana Redstone, founder of Diverse Perspectives Consulting and the CEO of The Mill Center for the Advancement of Critical Thinking, as well as a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Her definition, set out in “A straightforward primer on critical race theory (and why it matters)” has several aspects.

Now Dr. King isn’t with us, so we can’t really say how he’d react to Redstone’s tenets, though surely he’d agree with many of them. What I think he’d decry is the kind of “performative racism” described by people like John McWhorter. In fact, I hope McWhorter write’s a post on “MLK and CRT.”

It’s also true, as Crenshaw notes, that King’s agenda went far beyond “civil rights for blacks”. He was against the Vietnam War, was concerned about class- as well as race-based poverty, and held progressive-style views on affordable housing.  Crenshaw adds this:

It’s no accident that the firestorm over critical race theory has singed King’s message: King was, in fact, a critical race theorist before there was a name for it. A core observation of the theory is the recognition that the promise of liberation extends beyond the elimination of formal segregation and individual-level prejudice. Critical race theory explores how racial inequality was historically structured into the fabric of the republic, reinforced by law, insulated by the founding Constitution and embedded into the infrastructure of American society. Similarly, King observed in 1967 that “the doctrine of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit,” entrenched as “a structural part of the culture.”

several tenants embraced by progressive liberals, including the fact of “systemic racism”, which, however, was embedded far more deeply in government and organizations in King’s time than in ours. But on to the definition. I’ll put my own comments flush left, while quotes from Crenshaw or Pluckrose are indented.

CRT is a theoretical perspective that asserts that race is always about inequality and domination. CRT has a few main tenets, some of which can be (over)simplified as follows:

1. Colorblind racism—Deemphasizing the role of race and racism, including to focus on concepts of merit, is itself a manifestation of racism.

I’m not sure that King dwelt on this, as although he did decry racism, of course, I don’t remember him spending a lot of time calling people “racists” beyond the most blatant racism of the South.  But he certainly did not argue, as does Robin Di Angelo, that all white people are marinated in racism.  Here’s what Crenshaw says, though:

Contrary to countless assertions from the right, King did not endorse colorblindness. It wasn’t the remedy for dismantling the ugly realities that white supremacy had produced. Like today’s critical race theorists, King understood that American racism was systemic and demanded systemic remedies. He was forthright in acknowledging that anti-Black racism “was not a consequence of superficial prejudice but was systemic.” Throughout his career, King set his sights on institutional-level change, calling for solutions built on the race-conscious analysis of inequalities across our society.

Times and laws have changed in the last sixty years; would King still say this?

2. Interest convergence—Members of the dominant group will only support equality when it’s in their best interest to do so.

To some extent King did express this view, but also appealed, as did earlier abolitionists, to the moral sentiments of people, and activated those sentiments by staging nonviolent protests that would gin up sympathy by provoking racist brutality. His emphasis on nonviolence by the protestors, though, puts him at odds with modern CRT advocates, some of whom see little wrong with violence accompanying antiracist demonstrations. King did believe, however, that we didn’t have time to wait for people’s sentiments to change: that we had to force the change by either creating incidents that would change ideas, or enact laws forcing compliance by those who despised integration. With the laws, he thought, would eventually come tolerance.

3. Race and racism are always tied together. Race is a construct meant to preserve white dominance over people of color, while making it seem like life is about meritocracy.

I don’t remember King ever decrying meritocracy, nor claiming that all white people are invested in maintaining dominance over people of color.  Nor do I remember him making the Kendi-an statement that inequities—unequal representation—is always a sign of racism.

4. Inattention to systemic racism—An unwillingness to recognize the full force of systemic racism as determining disparities between groups is a denial of the reality of racism today (and evidence of ignorance at best and racism at worst).

See above. We no longer live in King’s day when the law and common practice did indeed make much of racism systemic. This is not to say that it’s gone: in many cases (I’m talking to you, Republicans), it’s gone underground, manifested in Republican backed bills to restrict voting eligibility and ban the teaching of CRT. (I oppose all such bills as restrictions on academic freedom.) But the bandying about of “systemic racism”, as if it’s baked into every business, university, and corporation, is misleading and often wrong.

When I wrote about Redstone’s piece last summer, I added a few more tenets of my own:

I’d add to that the following three points, which are mine. (Actually, points 5 and 6 come from Ibram Kendi and point 7 from Robin DiAngelo and many others):

5. (Really a supplement to point 4):  Inequalities in representation or groups, for example disproportionately low numbers of people of color in STEM fields, is prima facie evidence of current and ongoing racism in those fields and not a historical residuum of racism in the past.

See above. I don’t think King would adhere to the Kendi-an view here.

6. The only way to rectify this kind of systemic racism resulting from ongoing discrimination is to discriminate in favor of minorities (i.e., affirmative action, dismantling meritocracies, etc.). As Kendi said, ““The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”

Crenshaw says this:

King invoked a “bank of justice” to be mobilized against the many structures of racial oppression to ultimately realize “the security of justice” for all Americans. This commitment explicitly extended to the mode of race-conscious practice that now goes by the name of affirmative action.

As you can read in several places (e.g, here and here), King did indeed favor affirmative action, but action based not just on race but on class. Whether he’d favor extending this action for an indefinite time, as seems to be happening now, is something we don’t know.

7.  Every white person, whether they know it or not, is a racist, embodying, even unconsciously, the tenets of white supremacy instantiated in point 3 above.

In an article at Counterweight, which I wrote about here, Helen Pluckrose distilled CRT down to four points, which I’ll number and add to the previous list:

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

and sets out four key tenets [JAC: these are similar to some of the tenets given above]

8. First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.

This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this.  In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.

I withhold statements about this, as I’m not significantly conversant with everything King ever said. I do argue, however, that he did not consider every white person to be racist or supportive of racism. I think self-flagellation of the DiAngelo stripe would embarrass King, and he’d see it as divisive and counterproductive.

9. Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.

This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.

See above.  King might have agreed, but he would not argue, I think, that every white person is racist because it serves their purposes, much less that every white person IS racist.

10. A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.

This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true.  [JAC: I’d take issue with the claim that there is no biological “reality” at all to populations, races, or whatever you call ethnic groups. The classical definition of “race” is incorrect, but the view that races have no biological differences and are thus completely socially constructed, is also wrong.]

I’ll largely pass on this one. As a biologist, I do consider that groups like “black” or “East Asian” or “Polynesian” are biologically meaningful, even if the concept of fixed, highly differentiated and finite races is a “social construct.” I am not sure whether King ever spoke about the “social construction” of racism.

11. A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.

Again, I largely pass, though I also know that King worked with too many white people during the Sixties to hold the naive view that all blacks were more competent to speak about racism than all whites. And I suspect he didn’t say much, if anything, about “intersecting oppressions.”

As you see, my ability to address this topic is limned by my limited experience with King’s writings and speeches. But I do get the impression that Crenshaw is cherry-picking King’s quotes to make her case. More important, though, is this: why do we need to make such a case? I am sure that King’s views would be considerably divergent from those of people like Ibram Kendi. So why force them into bed together?

This is done, of course, so that people can posit an uninterrupted continuity of ideas about racism, just as the 1619 Project posits a historical continuity of American racism going right back to the American Revolution.

King is not here to answer these claims or to speak for himself, and yet we wonder how he’d react. But I will maintain that even though his comment about “colorblindedness” has been the sole mantra of King cited by those who want to perpetuate bigotry, in the end the goal must be not an America divided, comprising mutually hostile groups with different interests.

Here are the last bits of King’s most famous oration:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

This is a dream of equality, not of division: a call to eliminate the “jangling discords of our nation”. And if true harmony, colorblindness and unity are not the ultimate goals of modern antiracism (yes, for some modern purposes we must pay attention to “race”), well, I’ll stick with King’s program.

Richard Dawkins in Areo on race and sex

January 6, 2022 • 1:00 pm

The title of Richard Dawkins’s new article in Areo (below) is one I pretty much agree with, and in his analysis he covers a lot of ground.  His main point, though, is that determining one’s “race”, which is said to be a social construct with no biological basis (that part isn’t true) is far more difficult, and in many cases impossible, than determining one’s biological sex. For example, what “race” are Barack Obama and Meghan Markle, both having one white parent and one black parent? You can say, “mixed white and black”, which is correct, but society—and especially the media—don’t like that ambiguity, and so tend to observe the “one drop” rule: if you have one “drop of blood” (i.e. relatively few genes) that are more common in blacks than whites, or one great-great-grandparent who is black, you can call yourself “black.” That this doesn’t hold in the reverse direction puzzles me a bit, but surely has to do with the original use of the “one-drop rule” to denigrate and enslave blacks. (A similar construct was used by the Nazis to designate “Jews.) (Now, however, adopting a minority identity has become somewhat of an advantage in the days of affirmative action.)

At any rate, the main point is correct: sex is a binary (with very, very few exceptions), especially when defined as we biologists do: males make (or have the potential to make) small mobile gametes, while females have larger and immobile gametes (or have the potential to make them or used to make them).  At birth you see over 99.99% of people fitting this binary, while the remainder are not some intermediate “sex” but represent developmental anomalies. The assertion that sex is not binary is what drove me away from the Society for the Study of Evolution, which declared that both sex and gender are a spectrum; to wit:

Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum. Indeed, experiments in other organisms have confirmed that variation in traits associated with sex is more extensive than for many other traits.

Among all people, evolutionary biologists should most understand that sex in humans and many other species is not only binary, but that binary-ness is the product of natural selection. So be it: this is part of the fulminating wokeness of many scientific societies (see previous posts), in which ideology now trumps scientific truth.

But I digress. Click on the screenshot to read:

There are multiple point in Richard’s article: I’ll group them into a couple of classes:

His tweets are often misunderstood.

Were I Snopes, I would investigate this and say “true”. Yes, sometimes his tweets are hamhanded, and he should have realized the potential for misinterpretation, especially when you’re Richard Dawkins and half the world is gunning for you. But ones like the following are, as he said, Socratic exercises.

This first one got me thinking, as it was intended to. I wrote Richard explaining to him why he was wrong, and then, after some correction and a LOT of cogitation, I realized that he was right:

If you don’t see that conjecture as true, read The Ancestor’s Tale.

This one was more problematic for Richard, though I agree with the bit about race, and would agree with the “literally” part so long as “literally men” means “biologically men”, and the same with women. This shades into point 2.

2. He’s been accused of being a transphobe. This is one of the tweets that led to that:

I happen to think that if a white person honestly identifies as black in the same way as someone with gender dysphoria identifies as a member of the opposite biological sex, they should be considered black. That idea is anathema to many, and is why Dolezal was ostracized and kicked out of the Spokane NAACP. The idea that transexuality might have similarities with trans-racialism was also what got the gutsy philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in trouble, and led to mass resignations at Hypatia, the journal that published her paper.  But I think it’s a valid philosophical question, and I don’t see why it’s impossible that someone like Dolezal could have identified as black. It’s the racial ferment in America, of course, that has prompted people to try to buttress transsexual identities but reject transracial identites.

As for saying that you should be denigrated if you deny transwomen as being real women, I would agree with Richard so long as the definition of “women” is “biological women” and not “transwoman” or “gendered woman.”  But the point is the same as Tuvel’s point in her paper: this is an interesting philosophical issue with real-world ramifications, and should not be seen as taboo or forbidden to discuss.

For those who claim Richard is transphobic, have a look at this part of the article:

If I chose to identify as a hippopotamus, you would rightly say I was being ridiculous. The claim is too facetiously at variance with reality. It’s marginally more ridiculous than the Church’s Aristotelian casuistry in identifying the “substance” of blood with wine and body with bread, while the “accidentals” safely remain an alcoholic beverage and a wafer. Not at all ridiculous, however, was James Morris’s choice to identify as a woman and his gruelling and costly transition to Jan Morris. Her explanation, in Conundrum, of how she always felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body is eloquent and moving. It rings agonizingly true and earns our deep sympathy. We rightly address her with feminine pronouns, and treat her as a woman in social interactions. We should do the same with others in her situation, honest and decent people who have wrestled all their lives with the distressing condition known as gender dysphoria.

Sex transition is an arduous revolution—physiological, anatomical, social, personal and familial—not to be undertaken lightly. I doubt that Jan Morris would have had much time for a man who simply flings on a frock and announces, “I am now a woman.” For Dr Morris, it was a ten-year odyssey. Prolonged hormone treatment, drastic surgery, readjustment of social conventions and personal relationships—those who take this plunge earn our deep respect for that very reason. And why is it so onerous and drastic, courageously worthy of such respect? Precisely because sex is so damn binary! Changing sex is a big deal. Changing the race by which you identify is a doddle in comparison, precisely because race is already a continuous spectrum, rendered so by widespread intermarriage over many generations.

Are those the words of a transphobic?

3.) Sex is binary.

I’ve defended this proposition so many times that I won’t do it again; just do a search on this website. Richard’s correcct take is that sex is biologically binary, and for good evolutionary reasons. Even Darwin noted the binary-ness of sex in animals. Richard delves back into the history of science, discussing the work of Darwin, Fisher, and Mendel, to explain why, though all inheritance is particulate, race appears to be a spectrum and sex a binary—yet both are based on genes.  Here we have an interesting take on the history of biology.  Richard’s ending:

The reason inheritance often seems to be blending—the reason we seem to be a mixture of paternal with maternal, and the reason racial intermarriage leads to a spectrum of intermediates—is polygenes. Though every gene is particulate, lots of genes each contribute their own small effect to, for example, skin colour. And all these small effects together add up to what looks intermediate. It isn’t really like mixing paint but it looks that way if enough particulate polygenes sum up their small effects. If you mix beads it looks that way too, if the beads are small, numerous and viewed from a distance.

Anyway, the point that is relevant to this essay is that particulate, Mendelian, all-or-none, non-blending inheritance was staring Darwin, and Jenkin, and everybody else in the face. It was staring them in the face all along, in the form of the non-blending inheritance of sex. Sex is pretty damn binary. Male versus female is one of surprisingly few genuine dichotomies that can justly escape censure for what I have called “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.”

Have a read; it’s free. I meant this post to simply call attention to Dawkins’s piece, but, as usual, I wrote more than I intended.

Daniel Finkelstein defends E. O. Wilson (and mocks Scientific American) in the Times of London

January 5, 2022 • 11:45 am

I don’t subscribe to the Times of London, so I count on my UK readers to alert me to anything interesting there. And today two of them did: Readers Pyers, who said the article below was “a superb piece”, and reader Adrian, who said this of the same piece (quoted with permission):

Been following your posts on E O Wilson and that horrific Scientific American article about him. [JAC: see that article here.]

Just noticed this morning that the Times (UK) has weighed in on the issue via a regular op-ed writer, Danny Finkelstein. Finkelstein is a regular contributor to the paper, and is a Tory peer. He belongs however to a very liberal strand of Toryism, and wouldn’t have much in common with the current Tory party, I imagine. I consider myself centre left, but very much like his writing. He always makes me think and question my own biases. He’s one of my go-tos for getting a sensible conservative view on the world – so in that respect, in my view, he sort of fulfills the same role that Andrew Sullivan does on US issues.

Anyway, his take on the cancelling of E O Wilson is a good one. And he also stands up for Paige Harden too – seeking to build a consensus around the idea that truth is not a left or right wing political issue.

I confess to feeling bamboozled by life at the minute. It seems only a minority of the people I consider to be on ‘my team’, the centre left (there are honourable exceptions of course), are keen to stand up against the revisionism that is currently de rigueur. I do find myself increasingly agreeing with some folk I would once have considered odd bedfellows, on the centre right. Maybe I’m just getting old, or maybe it is the polarised times we live in? I can’t quite decide between these options.

I currently tell myself that the extreme pathologies on the left and right of politics need to be opposed, and if that means centre left and centre right find common ground, then that is a good thing.

Now you won’t get anything but a few paragraphs if you click on the screenshot below, but the text is available via judicious inquiry. If you do have a Times subscription, you’ll get to see the whole thing. At any rate, I’ll give some quotes to show its tenor. Adrian has already informed us about author Daniel Finkelstein.

It is a remarkably well written and thoughtful piece, which defends Wilson against that idiotic attack in Scientific American, and also defends Kathryn Paige Harden, a left-winger whose recent book argues that the Left cannot ignore the palpable fact of genetic differences among people (my WaPo review of her book is here).  We are not, say Finkelstein and Harden, blank slates.

I can do no better than quote the author himself on a few selected topics (I’ve chosen the quotes and grouped them).

The ideological opposition to sociobiology (now called “evolutionary psychology”):

Last week EO Wilson died, and the world lost one of its leading scientists. The professor had started by studying fire ants and his knowledge of ants was peerless. But he had broadened as he had aged and had begun to consider human beings. Humans are animals too, after all, so our social organisation, our behaviour, our hierarchies, our urges will, to some extent at least, be the product of our biology.

This, the foundation stone of sociobiology, seems an unremarkable observation, but it provoked a remarkable reaction. Marxists and radicals, well represented in American universities, saw it not as a scientific hypothesis but as a political attack. Their argument was that human behaviour was overwhelmingly the product of social and economic organisation. Humans were, in essence, a blank slate, one very much like another. If Wilson was right, then this idea was wrong. If Wilson was right, societies were going to be harder to change. If Wilson was right, people might not come out equal even with all the social engineering in the world. So Wilson simply couldn’t be allowed to be right.

The weapon of choice in the battle to take down sociobiology was the accusation of racism. . .

The Scientific American screed:

Indeed one of the most useful results of studying the genetic and evolutionary basis of human behaviour has been that it has shown that the Nazis and other racists are wrong. And Wilson was quite clear about that. But unfortunately the accusation that Wilson was a racist was not made only by students. It was made by other academics seeking to protect unconvincing leftist ideas about social organisation. And it is still being made. A couple of days after Wilson’s death, Scientific American published an article by a University of California associate professor, reviving the charge of “racist ideas”.

It was an astonishingly muddled article whose vague arguments slip out of one’s hands every time one tries to grasp hold of them. Its appearance owed more to intellectual and political fashion than to rigour.


Kathryn Paige Harden on genetics:  I gave Harden’s book a mixed review. The first part, which shows the substantial genetic differences between individual humans—differences that affect our performance and chance of success in life—is very good, and well worth reading. It is the second part, where Harden discusses what social engineering can be done to make people more equal, that I criticized, for she offered no credible solutions. (Granted, solutions are very hard!).  Finkelstein:

Many of our abilities are heritable.

If we ignore this we are making social policy impossibly hard. As the egalitarian and geneticist Kathryn Paige Harden argues in her recent book The Genetic Lottery: “Genetic differences between us matter for our lives. They cause differences in things we care about. Building a commitment to egalitarianism on our genetic uniformity is building a house on sand.”

We don’t have to live with the outcome of genetic disadvantages. That would be like saying that although I’m short-sighted I shouldn’t be allowed glasses. But we do have to recognise genetic differences, or we end up denying glasses on the grounds that short-sightedness is the fault of capitalism and we need to nationalise the water industry first.

The idea that discovering natural difference in capacity is somehow right-wing is deeply puzzling. The truth doesn’t have a wing, it’s just the truth. But it’s not just that. There is a randomness to genetic inheritance, just as there is in economic inheritance. With the latter it is left-wing to observe this randomness and argue that we should help the disadvantaged poor. Why would people on the left not wish to even acknowledge the randomness of genetic inheritance? It is perverse.

The three reasons to rebut the ideological challenge to evolutionary psychology:

There are three reasons to rebut this challenge firmly. The first is that it is our duty to Wilson, a very great scientist. His contribution to the understanding of animal behaviour — of ants, of humans, of all nature — has been profound and it would be both cowardly and a tragedy to allow his reputation to be attacked when he is no longer here to defend himself against a baseless charge.

The second and even more important reason is that Wilson was achingly, obviously right. How likely is it that human beings are the one species whose capacities and behaviour aren’t largely influenced by biology? If every other animal’s behaviour demands an evolutionary explanation, how can it possibly be that ours does not?

He then refers to ideologically based criticism of palpable truths—like the fact of substantial genetic differences between individual humans adduced by Harden:

. . . Which is the third reason for defending Wilson and the study of sociobiology. Scientific methods and the search for truth matter. The accusation that sociobiology is racist rarely rises above the level of saying that as the Nazis were interested in genetics, genetics must be Nazi. It’s a bit like attacking Linda McCartney’s soya-based sausages on the ground that Hitler was a vegetarian.’

Finkelstein’s conclusion:

As we develop our capacity to study our genes we are going to learn more about human nature. We must be allowed to talk about that, even if the things we discover unsettle political activists and the orthodoxy they have adopted. We must defend good science against bad politics.

If the controversy over EO Wilson teaches us that, than the great scientist will have rendered us one final service.

This may be enough of an excerpt to satisfy you. If not, well, you know what to do.

Scott Aaronson hosts a guest post about the Sci Am hatchet job on E. O. Wilson

January 3, 2022 • 1:30 pm

Several readers called my attention to the new entry on Scott Aaronson’s website, which deals with the recent Scientific American op-ed about E. O. Wilson’s supposed “racism”. (You can find the original piece here. Did you know that Mendel was a racist, too?) The op-ed was execrable, and I’d hoped that Laura Helmuth, the editor-in-chief, would exercise some judgement by retracting it—but leaving it up, as they’ve done with other “canceled” pieces). No way, for I think the magazine actually wants to go in the Social Justice direction. And the author was black, so the optics would be even worse.

Over at his website Shtetl-Optimized, Scott Aaronson agrees, and writes a brief introduction to a guest post by Ashutosh Jogalekar, who notes that he once wrote for Scientific American (and copiously, too), but was fired for a few posts. (The Washington Post, which first called attention to the mess at Sci. Am. in 2014, explains Jogalekar’s firing here.)

Click on the screenshot to read Scott’s and Jogalekar’s takes.  Spoiler: they’re ticked off at Sci. Am.

I’m not going to bash the magazine or the author of the hit piece here, but will let these two have their say with a few quotes.

From Scott:

Anyway, in response to Scientific American‘s libel of Wilson, I wrote on my Facebook that I’ll no longer agree to write for or be interviewed by them (you can read my old stuff free of charge here or here), unless and until there’s a complete change of editorial direction. I encourage all other scientists to commit likewise, thereby making it common knowledge that the entity that now calls itself “Scientific American” bears the same relation to the legendary home of Martin Gardner as does a corpse to a living being. Fortunately, there are high-quality online venues (e.g., Quanta) that partly fill the role that Scientific American abdicate

After reading my Facebook post, my friend Ashutosh Jogalekar was inspired to post an essay of his own. Ashutosh used to write regularly for Scientific American, until he was fired seven years ago over a column in which he advocated acknowledging Richard Feynman’s flaws, including his arrogance and casual sexism, but also understanding those flaws within the context of Feynman’s whole life, including the tragic death of his first wife Arlene. (Yes, that was really it! Read the piece!) Below, I’m sharing Ashutosh’s moving essay about E. O. Wilson with Ashutosh’s very generous permission.

I think refusing to write for (or subscribe to) Scientific American is the proper response of scientists and laypeople. It’s not just this one article, either, for clearly the mission of the magazine has changed from informing the public about science to socially engineering American society to conform to the editors’ “Progressive Leftist” standards.

But on to Jogalekar, who sees Wilson as I knew him: a kindly man without a trace of racism in his psyche. Just a few quotes:

Ed Wilson was one of the gentlest, most eloquent, most brilliant and most determined advocates for both human and natural preservation you could find. Under Southern charm lay hidden unyielding doggedness and immense stamina combined with a missionary zeal to communicate the wonders of science to both his fellow biologists and the general public. His autobiography, “Naturalist”, is perhaps the finest, most literary statement of the scientific life I have read; it was one of a half dozen books that completely transported me when I read it in college. In book after book of wide-ranging intellectual treats threading through a stunning diversity of disciplines, he sent out clarion calls for saving the planet, for enabling dialogue between the natural and the social sciences, for understanding each other better. In the face of unprecedented challenges to our fragile environment and continued barriers to interdisciplinary communication, this is work that likely will make him go down in history as one of the most important human beings who ever lived, easily of the same caliber and achievement as John Muir or Thoreau. Even in terms of achievement strictly defined by accolades – the National Medal of Science, the Crafoord Prize which recognizes fields excluded by the Nobel Prize, and not just one but two Pulitzer Prizes – few scientists from any field in the 20th century can hold a candle to Ed Wilson. My friend Richard Rhodes who knew Wilson for decades as a close and much-admired friend said that there wasn’t a racist bone in his body; Dick should know since he just came out with a first-rate biography of Wilson weeks before his passing.

One thing that the Sci. Am. hatchet job neglected was to mention the good that the man did, including his conservation work. That was an unforgivable omission. Although some would consider his work on evolutionary psychology to be a minus in his career, you’d have to be a complete fool to deny that the world was better for Wilson’s presence.

More from Jogalekar:

[The author of the op-ed] not only maligned and completely misrepresented Wilson but did not say a word about his decades-long, heroic effort to preserve the planet and our relationship with it; it was clear that she had little acquaintance with Wilson’s words since she did not cite any. It’s also worth noting the gaping moral blindness in her article which completely misses the most moral thing Wilson did – spend decades advocating for saving our planet and averting a catastrophe of extinction, climate change and divisiveness – and instead focuses completely on his non-existent immorality. This is a pattern that is consistently found among those urging “social justice” or “equity” or whatever else: somehow they seem to spend all their time talking about fictional, imagined immorality while missing the real, flesh-and-bones morality that is often the basis of someone’s entire life’s work.

In the end, the simple fact is that McLemore didn’t care about any of this. She didn’t care because she had a political agenda and the facts did not matter to her, even facts as basic as the definition of the normal distribution in statistics. For her, Wilson was some obscure white male scientist who was venerated, and that was reason enough for a supposed “takedown”. And the editor of Scientific American supported and lauded this ignorant, ideology-driven tirade.

He applauds Scott for severing ties with the magazine, and urges us to do likewise:

To my few friends and colleagues who still write for the magazine and whose opinions I continue to respect, I really wish to ask: Why? Is writing for a magazine which has sacrificed facts and the liberal voice of real science at the altar of political ideology and make believe still worth it? What would it take for you to say no more?

Well, I won’t work with them either, but they’ve never asked me, so I have nothing to lose!


UPDATE: Greg Mayer sent me a link to a 2014 interview of Ed Wilson in today’s Harvard Gazette. In there you can find Wilson saying this:

I stepped into a minefield by finishing this big book, “Sociobiology,” with a chapter saying how it could be applied to people. I tried to be cautious. I should have been more politically careful, by saying this does not imply racism, it does not imply sexism, I’m not trying to defend capitalism, so don’t drop the world on top of me. If I’d added that in the book, then I might have gotten off a little easier.

. . . But I really was upset at being called a racist, promoting racism and sexism. I was accused of trying to reintroduce a retrograde, outmoded, dangerous philosophy. There was nothing in “Sociobiology” to suggest such a thing. The words had to be taken out of context and tweaked.

. . . When I was writing “Sociobiology,” if I had to do it over again, I would have written a solid piece in that infamous final chapter and said that it really tells us nothing about the best political system or correct ideology.

Guest post: A scholarly critique of the 1619 Project finds many omissions and distortions

January 3, 2022 • 9:30 am

A friend of mine who’s followed the New York Times‘s 1619 Project sent me a link to an article that you can access by clicking on the screenshot below. It’s in the Catalyst Journal, and my friend adds “don’t confuse it with Catalyst Magazine, which is pure woo!!” First, though, be aware that Catalyst seems to be largely socialist and anti-capitalist, but you shouldn’t dismiss anything they say simply because of that. Here’s its mission as stated on its website:

Discussion of capitalism is not off the table any longer. Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy launches with the aim of doing everything it can to promote and deepen this conversation. Our focus is, as our title suggests, to develop a theory and strategy with capitalism as its target — both in the North and in the Global South. It is an ambitious agenda, but this is a time for thinking big.

Catalyst is a peer-reviewed journal sustained by the support of over 7,500 individual subscribers and our institutional readers.

This explains the remarks on capitalism included at the end of this critique by historian James Oakes. (Note: it’s long: 47 pages as I’ve printed it out, but if you’re interested in the 1619 Project, its implications, its benefits, or its dangers, you should read it.). Click on the screenshot or go here; both afford free access.

And if you’re worried about Oakes’s credibility, below are his credentials from Bookreporter. You can also go to his Wikipedia bio, where you can see his impressive list of books relevant to the issues of slavery and race. One simply can’t dismiss his critique on the grounds of his credentials!

My friend’s take on Oakes’s piece was sufficiently eloquent and thoughtful that I asked him/her—not a pronoun but a disguise!—if I could use it to introduce the article, and he/she agreed. It’s between the two lines below. At the bottom I give a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

The beating heart of wokeness is racial guilt––sincerely felt by remorseful white liberals, but amplified by BLM advocates seeking to convince the liberals that they and all of their ancestors have always been “supremacists” and nothing else. Although repentance and reparations are called for, the demand is made without an expectation that the original sin will thereby be purged. Whiteness itself is construed as an indelible sign of racism.

The New York Times is impressive and invaluable in many ways, but it has become desperately trendy in others. With its recent 1619 Project, the paper has lent its well-deserved prestige to the woke worldview. The Project amounts to a recasting of American history that turns racial domination into an all-explanatory factor––the only significant motive in “the white mind” from the seventeenth century until today. The result is a moralizing simplification of the key issues in our national development.

As the following essay by James Oakes––Distinguished Professor of History and Graduate School Humanities Professor at the Graduate Center, CUNY––reveals, one of those distortions has to do with the work of historians themselves. According toThe 1619 Project, all preceding experts have whitewashed the record. They have minimized the importance of 1619, when the first British slave ship landed in the Colonies, while jingoistically celebrating 1776 instead. And they have misinterpreted the Revolution itself, Abolitionism, the Civil War, and the economic development of the country, which, it is said, was powered above all by slave labor.

As the author of such books as The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War, James Oakes is well situated to assess those claims. You will see that he shows them to be libels of nuanced studies by major American historians––liberals, one and all. And you’ll be left to wonder whether the New York Times, always so insistent on fidelity to facts, will now apologize to its readers and cease recommending its deeply flawed Project to schools and colleges across the country. (Don’t wait up for it.)

JAC: Here are a few quotes from Oakes’s piece:

If the 1619 Project was not actually introducing Americans to an aspect of their history they were never taught in school, why the controversy? If all the Times was doing was restating what we already knew, why the complaints? What was it about the way the Times presented that history that caused so much strife? There were the egregious factual errors, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the ideological and political framework of the project that led its editors to those inaccuracies and distortions. The 1619 Project is, to begin with, written from a black nationalist perspective that systemically erases all evidence that white Americans were ever important allies of the black freedom struggle. Second, it is written with an eye toward justifying reparations, leading to the dubious proposition that all white people are and have always been the beneficiaries of slavery and racism. This second proposition is based in turn on a third, that slavery “fueled” America’s exceptional economic development.

. . . If nearly everything was caused by racism and slavery, it must follow, as night follows day, that the defense of slavery had to be one of the “primary” reasons for the American Revolution. This absurd, insupportable claim is derived from a syllogism rather than source material. The jury is not out on the question, because juries deliberate over evidence. When confronted by the absence of evidence, the Times changed to wording that read that protecting slavery was the primary reason “some” Americans rebelled. That may be true, but there’s more evidence that “some” Americans rebelled so they could begin to undermine slavery. Either way, the effect of that rewording is to destroy the intellectual architecture of the entire project, for if — whatever the individual motives of “some” people — the revolution itself was not driven primarily by the defense of slavery and racism, it follows that slavery and racism cannot explain one of the most important events — if not the most important event — in US history.

. . .The political goal animating the 1619 Project is reparations. “If you read the whole project,” Nikole Hannah-Jones has said, “I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed.”But if the case for reparations rests on distorted history, it can’t be a good case. On the subject of slavery, the distortions of the 1619 Project are numerous, and they are significant. It conflates the wealth of the slaveholders with the wealth of the United States. It asserts without evidence that slavery “fueled” the growth of the Northern economy. It betrays a stunning lack of familiarity with the basic facts of cotton cultivation. It stresses the expansion of the cotton economy but ignores the South’s relative decline in the national economy. Slavery consigned generations of Southerners, black and white, to poverty and economic backwardness. Its legacy is hardship and misery, not widespread wealth.

Most of what the 1619 Project has to say about Southern slavery is contained in an essay by sociologist Matthew Desmond that grossly distorts the history of the slave economy and is riddled with factual errors. . . .

Read the rest for yourself; it’s the most powerful takedown of the 1619 Project I’ve seen, and I thank my friend for calling it to my attention.

Scientific American does an asinine hit job on E. O. Wilson, calling him a racist

December 30, 2021 • 10:45 am

Scientific American has hit rock bottom with this new op-ed that is nothing more than a hit piece on Ed Wilson, basically calling him a racist.

It is written by someone who apparently has no training in evolutionary biology, though she says she “intimately familiarized [herself] with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior.” I usually don’t question someone because of their credentials, but this piece is so stupid, so arrantly ignorant of Wilson’s work, that I can attribute its content only to a combination of ignorance (perhaps deliberate) or a woke desire to take down someone as a racist who wasn’t a racist. Or both.

In fact, the piece below could have been written by any social-justice ideologue, for its real aim is more than smearing Wilson; it;s also to change the nature of science. Read on.

Once again, the magazine evinces a ridiculous wokeness; how could its editor, Laura Helmuth, allow this to be published?  I recommend your reading it; it’s short and also free (click on the screenshot):

I could rant forever about the ignorance of this woman, but will try to refrain. Note the links above that say “discrimination” and “racism”. But nowhere in the article does she give one iota of evidence that Wilson was a racist. Yes, he was a biological determinist—and not a pure biological determinist, for he wrote books about the influence of culture and genetics—but I never heard him say or write anything to indicate that he was biased against members of other groups. (The author, Monica R. McLemore, is black.) Not all people who claim that genes have a role in human behavior are racists, you know. And if you claim that genes don’t have any influence in modern behavior, which was Wilson’s point in writing the last chapter of Sociobiology, then you’re ignorant and wrong. .

If Wilson was a racist, shouldn’t McLemore should have adduced evidence for that? I see none. I see stuff that she considers to be evidence, but it’s not at all convincing.

Here’s her sole evidence that Wilson was “problematic” and that he was a racist:

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public.

I suggest you read the last chapter of Sociobiology: it merely speculates about how human evolution could have influenced many modern human behaviors and traits, including sociality, altruism, aesthetics, and morality. There’s nothing I could find in that chapter suggesting that Wilson is a racist, or that he thinks that differences between races that have promoted racism are determined by genes. The word “race,” in fact, doesn’t even appear in the index.

Yes, Wilson was a biological determinist to some degree about animal and human behavior, but we all should be! After all, why should humans be the sole species whose behavior isn’t affected by their evolution? But to repeat myself:  thinking that differences between people or even groups could have a genetic component is not the same thing as racism, which is based on hierarchies and bigotry. Now, Wilson might have been accused of racism by people like my own Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin (I don’t know about that, though), but they never adduced evidence for that. Nor does McLemore. For reasons best known to herself, she’s just terribly eager to brand a famous scientist as a bigot.

More “evidence”:

Wilson was hardly alone in his problematic beliefs. His predecessors—mathematician Karl Pearson, anthropologist Francis Galton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel and others—also published works and spoke of theories fraught with racist ideas about distributions of health and illness in populations without any attention to the context in which these distributions occur.

We’ve talked about most of these people before, and yes, they had ideas that today would be considered racist, but Darwin was also an abolitionist. And MENDEL, for crying out loud? Find me one piece of Mendel’s writings that suggest that the good friar was a racist! Were green peas considered superior to yellow peas? Here we have McLemore simply making stuff up: throwing Mendel’s discoveries of inheritance into the pot with the other accused “racists.” This is dreadful scholarship, almost humorous in its ignorant assertions.

But wait! There’s more!

Even modern geneticists and genome scientists struggle with inherent racism in the way they gather and analyze data. In his memoir A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, geneticist J. Craig Venter writes, “The complex provenance of ideas means their origin is often open to interpretation.”

I will pass on, as that sentence has nothing to do with racism and proves nothing.

One more bit of “evidence” that Wilson and his “problematic” peers were racist:

First, the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one. Commenting on COVID and vaccine acceptance in an interview with PBS NewsHour, recently retired director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins pointed out, “You know, maybe we underinvested in research on human behavior.”

What this has to do with Wilson, much less Galton, Darwin, Pearson, and Mendel, eludes me. In fact, the paragraph makes almost no sense to me. McLemore, it seems, is a Pecksniff for Racism, trying to find it in everything that exists, including the famous normal distribution itself.

On Twitter, one reader asked McLemore why she didn’t actually quote any of Wilson’s words to show his racism, and she gives the answer of a person who didn’t do her homework, turning a necessity (her laziness or ideological zeal) into a virtue:

McLemore goes on, implying again and again that various factors imply Wilson was racist, but it’s all nonsense:

Second, the application of the scientific method matters: what works for ants and other nonhuman species is not always relevant for health and/or human outcomes.

Yes—but so what?

Lastly, examining nurture versus nature without any attention to externalities, such as opportunities and potential (financial structures, religiosity, community resources and other societal structures), that deeply influence human existence and experiences is both a crude and cruel lens. This dispassionate query will lead to individualistic notions of the value and meaning of human lives while, as a society, our collective fates are inextricably linked.

Externalities, Dr. McLemore, are environments, or “nurture”! Again, we get a paragraph that basically says nothing.

McLemore then gives three ways to help us evaluate “problematic” scientists, including turning the enterprise into a Mandela initiative:

First, truth and reconciliation are necessary in the scientific record, including attention to citational practices when using or reporting on problematic work.

. . . Second, diversifying the scientific workforce is crucial not only to asking new types of research questions and unlocking new discoveries but also to conducting better scienceOther scholars have pointed out that feminist standpoint theory is helpful in understanding white empiricism and who is eligible to be a worthy observer of the human condition and our world. We can apply the same approach to scientific research.

. . . Finally, we need new methods. One of the many gifts of the Human Genome Project was the creativity it spawned beyond revealing the secrets of the genome, such as new rules about public availability and use of data.

I really can’t go on, except to add two things. First, McLemore herself is being unscientific in accusing “problematic” Ed Wilson of racism without mentioning one bit of evidence. And MENDEL??? There is no scholarship involved in this piece, and, in the end defaming Wilson seems like merely an excuse for McLemore to vent her ill-considered antiracist views of science on the readers of Scientific American.

Finally, the really problematic people today are not Ed Wilson; they are people like McLemore herself, who simply ignores evidence, makes misleading statements about scientists, and accuses science of being structurally racist in a way for which only she knows the cure. It is people like her who are not only defacing and distorting history, but trying to change the face of science from being a set of tools to investigate nature into a set of ideological practices to achieve Social Justice.

I haven’t yet investigated the Twittersphere, but reader Paul directed me to this thread, which contains many more takes on this article. Almost none of them are good. Here are just a few. Khan, author of the first two tweets, is a geneticist.

I usually don’t express sentiments this extreme on this site, but I have to say that I’m not that far off from Wright here:

If you still subscribe to Scientific American, you’d better have a damn good reason why.  It’s too late to urge editor Laura Helmuth to change the tone of the magazine, for it’s clearly the tone she wants: less science, more wokeness.

Quillette’s most popular article of 2021: A piece by Glenn Loury

December 27, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Quillette sent out an email listing the ten most popular articles of 2021, with ranking judged by page views.  This article, which made #1, which featured in a post I made in February. If you’ve read it, it bears reading again. Or perhaps you missed it. At any rate, it’s by Glenn Loury, a Professor of Economics at Brown University and a black man who can risk writing such an article without being called a racist. But that didn’t stop him from being called an “Uncle Tom”, an “Oreo” (brown on the outside, white on the inside), or “white adjacent.” I think the article is very good in discussing the taboo subjects that must be tackled if we’re to be honest about racial divisiveness and earnest about how to solve it. . My own take is in the first link above.

This a transcript of a talk he gave at Brown University on February 8, and I would have loved to be there to see the audience reaction.  Wait! I just found out, as I should have known, that the lecture is a virtual one, and there’s a YouTube video, which I’ve put below the screenshot. (Click to read, or watch if you want to hear.)

Was the D. C. librarian anti-Semitic?

December 22, 2021 • 12:45 pm

A few days ago I wrote about Kimberlynn Jurkowsky, a librarian in a Washington, D.C. elementary school who was fired for making third-graders re-enact the Holocaust in the school library. These performances included one Jewish kid ordered to play Hitler and then pretend to shoot himself, children pretending to ride trains to the concentration camps, children pretending to dig graves for other children and then  pretend to shoot them, and children pretending to be gassed. The children reported to parents that Jurkowsky, an African-American women, made anti-Semitic remarks during the grotesque theater, told one child that the Nazis killed the Jews because “the Jews ruined Christmas,” and then told the children not to tell anyone what happened.

To me the most likely explanation for this is anti-Semitism. Why else would Jurkowsky tell the children to keep their mouths shut, and make that remark about the “Jews ruining Christmas”? Could it be that I grossly misinterpreted her gesture, and she really was trying to evoke sympathy for the Jews through this charade?  I doubt it, yet some readers thought that.  Here’s part of one comment from a regular reader:

Ok, reading this I got a different impression. I’m going to make a guess that the librarian wasn’t trying to use this role-playing exercise to make a point against the Jews, but against brutal fascist regimes in general, and/or the Nazis in particular. The “anti-Semitic” comment here might have been a ham-fisted way of saying the Germans did it “for a stupid reason.” She didn’t think the school was doing a good enough job at depicting the horrors and wanted to test out her better idea by “tutoring” them. For real.

I’m not saying there’s not been a rise in antisemitism. There obviously has. But this story doesn’t strike me like that. It would have been different if she’d had the “Jews” rounding up the “Palestinians” for the Death Camps, of course.

Of course I had to examine my conclusions, especially because I know some of these commenters as thoughtful people who shouldn’t be dismissed.  But upon re-examination, and some new information, I stand by my first conclusion: Jurkowski was an unstable woman trying to traumatize children and denigrate Jews out of anti-Semitism.

Some of the reasons are given above, but some readers said the children might have misreported the anti-Semitic comments, or the statement about Jews and Christmas might be misinterpreted. I think the most probable hypothesis is that the children reported correctly. I have no idea about how a statement that “the Jews ruined Christmas” as the librarian’s explanation of why the Nazis killed Jews cannot be plausibly interpreted in any way as sympathetic to Jews.

The woman also has a record for fraud, and was fired from her previous job:

Apparently Jurkowski was suspended from teaching in New Jersey after she was convicted of theft and falsifying documents in a tutoring scam. She also lost her teaching license for three years; and there’s one report that she faced a cruelty to animals charge in 2009. How she managed to get the job in Washington with a record like that baffles me.

Remarkably, her Twitter feed is still up, but appears to have been cleansed of her own tweets and contains mostly retweets.  But the only retweets about Palestine and Israel she made that I could find were these. They surely don’t bolster the idea that Ms. Jurkowski is sympathetic to Jews or Israel:

There are, as Angy Ngo says below, pro-Antifa tweets, and Ngo finds pro-BLM tweets, and pro-Nation of Islam tweets. The Nation of Islam is explicitly anti-Semitic, while BLM is pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.

Now I know all the criticisms that have been leveled at Ngo for not being an objective reporter and for being anti-Antifa.  But I don’t think he’d forge tweets.

I’m just wondering whether, in light of this, and in the complete absence of evidence that Jurkowski had any sympathy for Jews (indeed, she evinces the opposite), people still maintain that her actions were sympathetic to Jews, and that the bizarre Holocaust Exercise she promulgated was designed to make her students (probably mostly black, since she teaches in SW Washington, D.C) more fully feel the horrors of the Holocaust.  To maintain that “She didn’t think the school was doing a good enough job at depicting the horrors and wanted to test out her better idea by ‘tutoring” them. For real.” seems to me a misguided attempt to gild Jurkowski’s acts in the face of all the evidence.

Given all of the above, I’d say that the priors make the best Bayesian inference one of anti-Semitism on Jurkowski’s part. If you have other evidence that she is sympathetic to Jews and wanted to impress on all her students the horrors of the Holocaust, by all means tell me.

Head of Swedish Academy announces that Nobel Prizes will be awarded solely for merit, without gender or ethnicity quotas

December 20, 2021 • 10:00 am
I can’t say I disagree with this announcement, by Goran Hansson, that the Nobel Prizes will continue to be awarded for merit alone and not for fulfilling quotas involving gender and ethnicity. Click on the article from BBC News to see the story, below which we’ll look at another piece on “quotas.”

For some time there have been complaints that there has not been “equity” in Nobel Prizes: that too few women and people of color have won them. These inequities could result from several causes, or a combination of causes, but the one that’s always touted by those who complain is existing structural bias and discrimination. (See this article in Nature for such indictments by two powerful women in science, though it doesn’t mention the Nobels.) The equation of inequities in representation with ongoing bias is a pillar of Ibram Kendi’s ideas on anti-racism.

But there are two other reasons besides structural bias in science.  One is that the dearth of women and people of color reflects past discrimination, so that only now, with biases diminishing towards zero, women and people are color are entering the pipeline to achievement—but haven’t yet reached the stage of professional accomplishment that would garner a Nobel.

The last explanation is a difference in preference coupled with comparative advantage.  It’s well known that, at least in some Western countries, women score as well as men on science achievement tests, and score better than men in reading. That is, women are better overall than men. This means that any lack of achievement of women scientists cannot be due to a comparative lack of scientific ability. Rather, researchers have suggested that women prefer going into the humanities because they are better at it, and want to do what they’re better at (“comparative advantage”). Alternatively it may be that STEM fields simply aren’t as attractive to women as to men. All of these are suggested in the BBC article. (I don’t know any such data on people of color, but of course in the U.S. black and Hispanics score lower than whites and Asians on tests of reading, math, and science.)

But let me quote from the BBC piece:

The head of the academy that awards the Nobel Prizes in science has said it will not introduce gender quotas.

Goran Hansson, head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, said they want people to win “because they made the most important discovery”.

Since its inception in 1901, 59 Nobel Prizes have gone to women. [JAC: There have been 975 prizes total. The 59 Prizes to women involve 58 women as Marie Curie won twice.]

Maria Ressa was the only woman honoured this year. Marie Curie was the first woman to get the prize – and remains the only woman to get it twice.

“It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing. And there’s so much more to do,” Mr Hansson told the AFP news agency.

“We have decided we will not have quotas for gender or ethnicity,” he said, adding that the decision was “in line with the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s last will”.

“In the end, we will give the prize to those who are found the most worthy, those who have made the most important contributions,” he said.

I think that’s a fair decision. If they had decided to fulfill quotas, that would mean giving prizes not to those who make the most important contributions, but to help even out a disparity in sexes and races. So, for example, the 2020 Medicine and Physiology prize shared by Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna was an excellent choice (and one that cut out male competitors), for their work was highly important by anyone’s standards. Nobody can say that these women were chosen to achieve gender parity!

We’ll focus on gender, as we have more data on that, and this is the focus of the BBC article and most complaints about disparity in Nobels.  It’s true that women haven’t received half of the Nobel Prizes over time, and this can be explained by all three factors above, but largely because, due to bias or oppression in the past, there simply weren’t that many women in science (or in literature). I think most of us recognize that this gender bias is disappearing rapidly; indeed, universities throughout the West are trying very hard to recruit women professor and students. But there’s still a disparity in STEM participation. This may or may not  change much in the future (though it’s certainly changed during my lifetime!), but whether we’ll ever achieve gender parity in academic representation—or Nobel Prizes—is something I don’t know. All we can do, and must do, is offer everyone equal opportunity to enter the scientific pipeline, and avoid gender or racial discrimination within the pipe.

More from the BBC and Hansson:

And while more women are being recognised now compared to previous decades, Mr Hansson said, that number was increasing “from a very low level”.

“Keep in mind that only about 10% of the professors in natural sciences in western Europe or North America are women, and even lower if you go to East Asia,” he said.

However, the scientist said they would “make sure that we have an increasing portion of women scientists being invited to nominate, and we will continue to make sure we have women on our committees – but we need help, and society needs to help here”.

“We need different attitudes to women going into sciences… so that they get a chance to make these discoveries that are being awarded,” he added.

Again, the last statement implies structural bias against women, but where are the data that there are “different attitudes to women”? There is no consistent data showing discrimination against women in STEM hiring or grant-getting; in fact, one can cite research showing both sides.  In the absence of consistent evidence, all we can do is avoid personal bias and offer equal opportunities. Note that Hansson also mentions the severe dearth of women in the natural sciences in Asia, Europe, and North America.

When Charpentier got her Prize, she hoped the award would encourage women to go into STEM, but she also noted a comparative lack of interest of women in going into STEM.

From the BBC again:

Last year, scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna became the first two women to share the honour when they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the tools to edit DNA.

It was the first time any of the science prizes had been awarded to two women without a male collaborator also listed on the award.

At the time, Prof Charpentier said: “I wish that this will provide a positive message specifically for young girls who would like to follow the path of science… and to show them that women in science can also have an impact with the research they are performing.”

She added that there was “a clear lack of interest in following a scientific path, which is very worrying”.

I’ve given my position many times on this site. I favor some forms of affirmative action in academia for minorities, including women (they’re actually more numerous than men), though settling on how to structure that affirmative action is tricky. The affirmative action I have in mind involves accepting students in colleges and universities, and in hiring faculty.  But these preferences should, I think, stop once someone is hired, and they should certainly not apply to awards and prizes. Thus I think the Nobel Committee’s statement is appropriate, though I’m not sure why they made it. Could it be that public pressure was bearing down on the Academy?

Again, all one can do in the face of the latter is to be sure that everyone is made aware of the excitement of science and then to avoid bias. As the following article states, we need to ensure equal opportunity, not equal outcome, for equal outcomes assumes that all groups have identical preferences or interests.

I love this photo of Doudna and Charpentier. I think this is in Stockholm when they got their prizes, but I can’t be sure. It does show some joint award, though, and the affection between the two women, who weren’t really collaborators but independent researchers.

There are those who think that there should be no affirmative action in any aspect of science—that hiring, promotion, funding, and awards in STEM be solely on the basis of merit. One of these is Lawrence Krauss, who wrote the following piece in a recent Quillette (click on screenshot to read):


Now Lawrence is talking about disparities between men and women in funding by NSERC in Canada and other countries, not in hiring or awards, but the principle he sets forth is one I agree with:

The standard of “fair access” that NSERC planners set out here implies a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between mandating equality of opportunity—which is desirable—and mandating equality of outcome. The latter would lead to overt identity-based discrimination against members of groups whose applications, in some cases, would otherwise be successful under a purely merit-based approach. That a major research-funding agency is promoting such a misunderstanding in regard to policy formulation is an issue of some concern.

Where I differ from Krauss is that I favor equality of opportunity above the college-admissions or academic-hiring level, but also some tweaking of outcomes (a bit of equity) to bump up minorities at both levels. Once people are hired, again, the affirmative action should stop. (It goes without saying that I don’t think grossly unqualified people should be admitted to college or hired for professor jobs, as that does nobody any favors.)

Krauss notes that the funding disparity between men and women in Canada (and Australia) is immediately imputed to systemic sexist bias at the present time, but gives data showing that the difference is explained completely by different career stages of grant applicants. At early stages, funding is roughly equal between men and women, but at senior stages men get more funding. But that’s solely because there are simply more men at senior stages of their careers. Here are the data of grants given in Australia and what Krauss says about them:

A bar chart included in a previous Nature article on this subject shows the total value of grants awarded to men and women in 2019, categorized by seniority quintile. In the first (most junior) quintile, women actually were awarded more grant money than men got. In the second quintile, men had a slight edge. This edge grew substantially in the third and fourth quintiles, leading up to a massive difference in the fifth (i.e., most senior) quintile, which shows the most senior male scientists being awarded $81 million, compared to just $21 million for the most senior female scientists. This means that, of the money going to senior scientists, women got just over 20 percent.

The caption: “Male (red) vs. Female (green) Investigator Grant recipients in 2019, by applicant seniority.”

Krauss’s analysis:

The latest Nature article concludes with a quote from Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician and advocate for women in science at Northwestern University. She describes the data as a wake-up call to funders, who now should “address the issues.” But the Nature analysis glides over one of the more obvious issues lying in plain sight: As the 2019 article showed, there tends to be fewer senior women (just 17 in 2019) applying for grants, as compared to senior men (75). In 2021, the numbers were similar: According to Nature, “at the most senior level … there were about four times more male than female applicants”—an 80/20 male-female applicant split that corresponds almost exactly to the $81 million/$21 million split in awarded 2021 grants.

This pattern has an obvious explanation: There are simply more men than women in the senior ranks of Australia’s health and medical researchers—a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone, since most scientific fields were, until just a few decades ago, almost entirely dominated by men. Thankfully, this era is over, and Australia’s medical schools achieved gender parity in admissions a long time ago. Thus, one might expect that the funding of male and female medical researchers at the junior level would be roughly even, while being progressively more skewed toward men among older generations—which is exactly what the data reported by Nature shows to be the case.

While this is the kind of data regularly adduced to show structural sexism in STEM, the explanation is not nearly as insidious.

Finally, Krauss makes a more general statement that goes beyond funding:

We have gone down this road before, when strict quotas were placed on Jewish scientists within my own academic sphere, physics, as a means of excluding Jews (including very nearly, future Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman) from US graduate schools. Today, we properly regard such policies as shameful, both for discriminating against individual human beings and for misdirecting society’s scientific resources. Medical science is a life-and-death endeavor, and decisions about how that science should be funded must be based on the quality of research proposals, not the skin color or sex of those submitting them.

The comparison with Jews isn’t really apposite, however, as Jews were discriminated against: the quotas were the maximum number of Jews allowed to be admitted.  The minority group, in other words, was discriminated against. What Krauss is attacking here are quotas against the majority group that favor minority groups. (I suppose you could see this as a “male quota”).

And I still favor preferential admission and hiring of minorities (but not grossly preferential, is as happening in California) as a form of reparations for past discrimination and, as Charpentier noted, to provide some role models. Again, we should accept only qualified applicants, and any deficit in training can be addressed with mentoring or tutoring.

All applicants for jobs or admissions, however, should exceed some bar decided as “qualified for the slot”. What that means is above my pay grade, but surely far more qualified people apply to America’s best colleges than get into them.

I know the arguments against affirmative action, but I won’t try to counter them now.

h/t: Anna