I’m afraid I looked deeper into the late Lewis Wolpert’s views, and I found a lot of cringeworthy stuff.
There is something that has been bothering me for the past week. Some of you may know that Lewis Wolpert, the great developmental biologist, died recently. This is a great loss for all of us, but it’s also a personal loss for me, because he was one of those authors who first introduced me to the wonderful questions of cell and tissue patterning, way back when I were a useless young lad. I’m not unusual in that, either — if you were interested in developmental biology at any time in the last 50 years, you were familiar with Wolpert’s work. There was a time when I was a forgettable undergraduate at the University of Washington, when I got to tinker in the labs of Johnny Palka and Margrit Schubiger, and of course I had to read lots of Wolpert to get caught up on the background.
I still use the Wolpert text when teaching developmental biology. So he was a powerful influence on me.
This week, in remembrance, I was re-reading some old papers, and listening to some of his old broadcasts, and looking up some of his interviews and talks on YouTube, and was brought up short. There were things I disagreed with strongly. Let’s be real here: Lewis Wolpert was a great thinker, a good scientist, and had far more prestige and influence on science than I ever will; he probably knew a lot more than I ever will, too. I was listening to him, saying to myself that that’s certainly an obsolete and crude way of looking at things, and yet to criticise one of the great old men of my field, especially right after he died, was presumptuous.
But it gnawed at me.
Really, it has bothered me all week. I thought what he said was a product of archaic views and a kind of typological thinking that has been rampant in developmental biology, and biology in general, for a few centuries, but yikes, calling out the late great Lewis Wolpert seems arrogant. OK, it is arrogant.
But then, in this one recording from 2013, he’s quite clear on what his critics should do.
[clip of Wolpert saying he’d be very grateful for any criticisms]
It’s too late now, but I’d have been happy to say to his face in respectful conversation exactly what I’m going to say now.
First, though, he says a lot I agree with…like the questions he wants to ask.
[clip of Wolpert saying he wants to understand the biological differences between men and women]
That’s a good thing to ask. There is no denying there are obvious differences, so how and why they came to be are important to ask. And I really like these general ideas about biology.
[clip of Wolpert describing us as a society of cells, and arguing that genes are boring]
Good for Wolpert! That’s a challenging statement in these years when molecular biology is taking over. But then the talk takes an ominous turn.
[clip quoting Hawking that “women are a mystery”]
That, I’m afraid, is patronising nonsense. Women are no more a mystery than any other human being; men are mysterious too. Our individual motives and desires are often poorly expressed and hard to understand, even to ourselves — to call women “a mystery” is to set them apart, to assume that men are transparent and easily understood, and that is a lie. I’m a man, and I hardly understand myself. To assume, as this implies, that women ought to be able to comprehend everything I desire and wish of the world around me is a condescending idea. To assume that women are incomprehensible is demeaning.
But then, uh-oh, we get some unthinking dogma. You see, the differences between men and women are the product of the Y chromosome. I cringed through this whole next bit, because it’s just grade-school level oversimplified biology. I expected better of Wolpert.
[clip of Wolpert ascribing everything to the Y chromosome and testes and testosterone]
I will remind you that earlier Wolpert said that genes are boring, they do nothing. Except for the Y chromosome, apparently — those genes are active agents that create sex.
Overall, though, consider the perspective and language used here. Embryos are actively determined to become male by the action of Y chromosomes, and testosterone, and testes. Female differentiation is passive, the default, a consequence of the absence of an agent. The way he’s describing it speaks of a deep cultural bias. Differentiation of female characteristics is also an active process — note how he sets aside the issue of other genes that play a role as secondary, not the main thing. But here’s the deal: there is a host of genes, many on the autosomes and even the X chromosome, that play a role in the differentiation of the male. It’s not simply “Hey, Y chromosome, it does it all” because it doesn’t.
Let’s see how deeply this bias goes.
[clip of Wolpert saying that males are modified females]
Oh boy. This one has bugged me for decades. Again, the assumption is that “femaleness” is simply an expression of a passive default; that before the Y chromosome switches on testosterone production, the embryo is female, and that if you don’t switch on the Y chromosome genes, you simply continue as female.
I would ask, are women then simply enlarged embryos? Obviously not. There’s as much complexity in developing femaleness as there is in developing maleness. There are active, dynamic processes that begin modifying the sexually indifferent month-old embryo in both the male and female.
But you know what’s important?
[clip of Wolpert saying the male hormone is crucial]
Yes, we know. How about if we recognise that many factors are crucial, and they’re not just the male factors?
[clip of Wolpert saying “let’s have a quick look at evolution”]
Uh-oh. Brace yourselves.
[clip of Wolpert saying evolution made sure that both sexes got pleasure from sex, and “care of young children had to be genetically determined, particularly in the mothers]
Oh god. No. Pleasure is one strategy for making sexual activity likely, but it’s not the only one — look up traumatic insemination if you don’t believe me. If we confine ourselves to only humans, women do not have to receive pleasure to become pregnant, and throughout our history sex has been a burden they are made to bear. Women can get more pleasure from non-reproductive sex, which makes this whole argument fall apart.
It’s astonishing that he would so blithely suggest that care of children is genetically determined — evidence not demonstrated — and worse, that women in particular carry this trait. Is that one of the many positively differentiated factors in female embryonic development that he waved away, or is it possible this is a culturally determined property of humans? Shall we pretend that women who have no desire to bear children don’t exist, or that they are pathological aberrations?
I’m getting a bit peeved with Wolpert at this point. It just gets worse.
[clip of Wolpert reciting Darwin’s negative views of women]
Yikes. So he concedes that Darwin was a conventional Victorian sexist with stereotypes about men and women, a good start — but then he AGREES with Darwin’s stereotyping of women as more tender and less selfish.
You know, it doesn’t matter if you are promoting negative or positive stereotypes — they are still stereotypes. You are reducing a diverse group of people to a uniform set of characteristics. There are selfish women. There are men who care more about relationships than casual sex. There are women who like casual sex — they are not inhibited by a difference in their brains, but by the way society places the burden of the consequences almost entirely on women. But no, we’re going to sweep away all the wonderful variations between individuals to define them by their sex.
This next bit is really embarrassing — Lewis Wolpert is not an anthropologist, and it shows in his casual summary of all of human history.
[Wolpert gives a potted summary of anthropology]
Citation needed, Professor Wolpert. Where did all that come from? Did you read Clan of the Cave Bear or something? Rather than Woman as some kind of primal entity inventing Agriculture and Pottery, perhaps it would be better, in our ignorance of the identity of any individuals involved, to regard agriculture and pottery as the gradually emerging product of complex communities of human beings. Resist the urge to attribute multi-generational outcomes of many individuals cooperating in social groupings to one sex or the other, because of imagined uniform properties of each sex.
It hurts to see such nonsense coming out of a man I still respect for his other accomplishments. There are a couple of tendencies in play here, though.
There’s always this temptation for older, privileged men (who, me?) to condescend to the young’uns and explain how things are SUPPOSED to be, that the beliefs of our generation are true and should be heeded. And yes, like Wolpert here, somehow those beliefs always coincide with and support traditional gender roles.
A lot of very good biology is done by digging deeply into model systems, where variation is suppressed and great effort is made to maintain a constant, predictable environment, in order to minimise the number of variables. This can lead to unfortunately typological thinking. The simplification of “imagine a spherical cow” is often ascribed to physicists, but I guarantee you that biologists are just as prone. Imagine an inbred line of organisms where every locus is homozygous and they all grew up in simple, featureless cages! That’s an imaginary ideal behind a lot of basic biology, even in the developmental biology I love so much, and if you don’t watch out, it can lead to oversimplified, standardised conceptions that ignore the variety present in a group.
I do wonder what Wolpert would make of transgender men and women, and asexual and non-binary people, because their existence breaks down his idea of a simple sorting and dichotomising of humanity on the basis of a single genetic attribute. I went looking for his ideas on trans people with a sense of dread — he was a prominent and popular older British person, which usually means they’re going to give a terrible answer. Unsurprisingly, he did disappoint me. In the book he was writing, “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman?: The Evolution of Sex and Gender”, which was the topic of his talk, he he rather dismissively treated “transsexualism” as an aberration which he did not have to discuss.
“Transsexuality can be caused by hormones and chromosomal abnormalities.” He goes further and tries to reduce it to a variation in the sensitivity of testosterone receptors. It was clearly a subject of little interest to him.
This is not a good look for him. The entire book is an embarrassment, an effort to rationalise prejudices about sex and gender roles; he even claims
“Women actually have a evolutionary preference for the colour pink, because recognition of this shade helped them to gather ripe berries and fruit more efficiently.”
It’s what I feared. The evolutionary psychologists had got to him. That claim is, of course, absolute nonsense for a multitude of reasons — I could probably do a whole video on just that one argument, and other people already have. Yet he credulously accepts it, because it supports his unthinking acceptance of cultural differences between men and women as somehow justified by biology.
Looking deeper into Wolpert’s views was an exercise in disillusionment. Here’s another interview that had me goggling sadly in disbelief.
[Wolpert says, Philosophy has contributed zero to science.]
But…but…science IS philosophy. Wolpert’s reputation rests not on experiment — he admits himself that he wasn’t very good at the hands-on science — but in theory and the synthesis of ideas. He WAS a philosopher, in the sense that he thought very carefully about most aspects of the world and proposed interesting hypotheticals that could be tested by others. He is best known for his ideas about morphogens and pattern formation, stuff that he did not test himself, but made perfect logical sense in his brain, and which were only later confirmed by experimental molecular genetics.
His interviewer does a good job of pushing back, pointing out that every time he mentioned a philosopher of science who did make a contribution to science, Wolpert simply moved the goalposts and said that person wasn’t actually a philosopher.
He also wrote this bizarre example of naive scientism.
“I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology — from medicine to industry.”
I confess to agreeing that science is the best way to understand the world, but the claim that there is only one correct explanation is only valid if we have complete and perfect knowledge of every factor influencing the observations. We don’t. We never do. All scientific explanations are approximations that strive to most accurately model the knowledge we do have.
As for his claim that “science is value-free”, I would merely point to his book, “Why Can’t a Man Be More Like a Woman?”, which is profoundly value-laden — the values of an elderly, well-off British gentleman of a certain class — and that the only way to claim it is merely explaining the world as it is, is if one is completely oblivious to one’s own biases. That’s disappointing. One of the key principles of a philosophical approach to science is that one must be conscious of one’s own philosophical presuppositions. Scientists who are even slightly informed about the philosophy of science have known this since Francis Bacon, and it was expressed most pithily by Richard Feynman.
“Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”
I would also point out that a famous quote by Francis Bacon is that “Knowledge is power”, and that science is a path to knowledge. You can’t pretend that knowledge and power are lacking in ethical implications.
Well, unless, that is, you’ve dismissed all of philosophy out of hand.
As I was digging into Wolpert’s history, I was asking myself, “is this Cancel Culture?” After all, I’m finding things to criticise about a notable figure in science, one who I’ve said greatly influenced me. Is this going to be interpreted as a little guy trying to tear down a Great Man? If it is, so be it, and hooray for cancel culture, because reflecting on the good and bad of a person’s life is what we must do to be honest to their nature. As Wolpert himself said, science explains the world as it is; he also welcomed blunt criticism.
[repeat first clip of Wolpert]
Do I still respect Wolpert and Wolpert’s contributions to developmental biology? I most certainly do. I’ll continue to use his textbook in my classes. Do I think that, on some issues, Wolpert was a monumental ass? Yep. We are all flawed human beings, with no exceptions.
I guess that is Cancel Culture, the recognition that there are no gods, no masters, no perfect human beings, and that our understanding of our selves requires that we recognise the totality of our identities.