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
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.