Well, this is awkward. Once again personal biases have throttled me for years.
Razib Khan was a colleague on ScienceBlogs. He’s a former student of the geneticist John Postlethwaite, a man I respect a great deal, and who was also on my graduate committee. Razib is a very smart man, and the times we have met he was pleasant and interesting. And for those reasons I’ve been reluctant to repudiate his racist views. Mea culpa, I confess, I am guilty of overlooking a great evil because it was incompatible with a casual friendship, and sometimes I’m a bit tired of burning all my ‘friends’ to the ground in the course of the past decade. At the rate I’m going, no one is going to come to my funeral.
As most of you already know, EO Wilson died recently, and one person has asked me why I didn’t mention it here on the blog. That’s also awkward. There’s a lot I liked about Wilson — funny, isn’t it, that people are complicated and have multiple parts to their self — but there were also things about him that deeply bothered me. I couldn’t just say, “good guy, he’ll be missed” because there was more to it than that. I read his book Sociobiology when it first came out (good grief, I have that very same volume with that paper cover, now I feel old) and loved the entomology, but was bothered by the bits where he tried to interpret human behavior in the light of ants. There were other little things over the years, but by the time of his death, Wilson had become revered and a saint of science, so again, it was hard to write an honest opinion of him, so I chickened out and just didn’t.
The wisdom of my caution was confirmed when Scientific American published an opinion piece titled “The Complicated Legacy of EO Wilson” by Monica McLemore. Uh-oh. As you can guess from the title, she wasn’t just going to buy into the idea that Wilson was a saint, and felt as I did that he was messy mix of good and bad, like most people. And then the usual suspects roared at her and yelled at SciAm and howled in protest. Jerry Coyne hated the article, of course. Michael Shermer made a big stink and complained on Quillette. It was too woke! Even if I had thought the SciAm article was out of line (I don’t), I would have been reluctant to side with those assholes. So I again stayed silent.
Sometimes you get tired of the battles, you know?
Now the conflict has flared up again. Razib Khan (remember him?) wrote an open letter to SciAm to argue that the article was “indecent. It was muddled and uninformed at best, disrespectful and misleading at worst”, and protested that, oh no, how dare you accuse EO Wilson of scientific racism, which was really weird coming from a guy who writes for VDARE and praises Steve Sailer. Maybe it was because relative to his usual associates, Wilson wasn’t racist. He was trying to whitewash Wilson as hard as he could, which is what I really find disrespectful. It’s really betraying his scientific legacy to pretend that his ideas never fueled scientific racism, or that he had no racist views of his own. Khan got a lot of high powered signatories to his letter, but then recently a couple of them, including Hopi Hoekstra (a former student of Coyne’s) had second thoughts and withdrew her name…and now that has got the whitewashers angry at her. How dare you think Wilson’s legacy was complicated? How dare you think Wilson ever contributed to a racist ideology?
Here’s a comment on Khan’s substack from David Sepkoski, a historian of science.
How about the fact that Wilson was a big supporter of Philippe Rushton, and argued that Rushton was being persecuted for promoting studies that showed Blacks are inferior to Whites? How does that fit your narrative?
Specifically, Rushton (if you don’t know who he was, just google him) was trying to get a paper published arguing that r/k selection differences apply to human “races,” ultimately trying to prove that Blacks care less for their offspring and have more babies. This was not a subtle argument. Wilson championed the paper, and after it was (correctly) rejected for publication, commiserated with Rushton by observing that he (Wilson) would like to be outspoken like Rushton (a Canadian), but would be “attacked” if he did.
And Wilson wrote a letter of support for Rushton when Rushton’s university was attempting to discipline him for, among other things, publishing a paper that argued that IQ is inversely correlated with penis size (again attributing these differences to “racial” populations).
I knew Wilson and I don’t think he was intentionally racist. But science–and biology, particularly–has a lot to answer for in the way it has turned a blind eye to enabling racism, sexism, and other forms of bias. This kind of sneering dismissal doesn’t help the cause of reckoning with bias in our society, nor does it “set the record straight.”
I agree that the essay in question could have had more detail and nuance, but the basic points it raises are worth engaging with, not dismissing. Nobody is immune from examination, and the constant stream of outrage every time someone critiques Wilson is disingenuous. Wilson campaigned for and engineered a lot of this outrage, from the moment the critiques of Sociobiology appeared, privately referring to his colleague Dick Lewontin as a “psychopath,” dismissing all criticism of his ideas as “Marxist,” and generally acting as if it was impossible to criticize his ideas on anything other than biased, ideological grounds.
Anticipating that the immediate response to this will be “what’s your evidence,” I can tell you that I have copies of the letters in question that I obtained at several openly accessible archives. I have an established track record as a historian of biology and am not making this shit up. Dismiss me if you want, but don’t pretend that nobody’s offered any substance.
He also posted a follow-up to some criticisms:
Well, in my view Rushton WAS a racist lunatic–his ideas are a matter of public record and you can make up your own mind. I’m not going to be posting archival documents on discussion boards, but I’m in the process of drafting an essay about Wilson and the larger issue of systemic racism in science that I hope to place in a magazine or journal soon (apparently not Sci Am, though! one thing I agree with in this substack essay is that Sci Am owes it to readers to allow for a back-and-forth, and I don’t like their stated policy). If there’s sufficient interest I’ll come back here with a link to anything that eventually gets published. I’m not trying to be coy–I’ve been working on a book on this topic but it’s still far from complete, and I now see the need to get something shorter out sooner without basically just dumping my research materials on the internet!
One thing you raise that I’ll comment on, though, is the issue of a political agenda among Wilson’s critics. That’s indisputable. What troubles me, though, is the insistence by Wilson and his defenders that he (and they) have no politics or ideology. That’s patently ridiculous, since everyone has a politics and it’s impossible to separate that from everything else we do.
In Wilson’s case (and Dawkins’, and Pinker’s, and Sam Harris’, so on) that politics seems to be the same kind of fairly straightforward neoliberalism that has driven centrist politics from the 1980s onward, and which–while sometimes socially progressive–emphasizes “individual responsibility” at the expense of certain kinds of progressive social welfare programs. I’m not interested in debating the merits of that neoliberalism (which you can find influences of in everyone from Thatcher and Reagan to the Clintons and even Obama), but rather in pointing out that this IS an ideology (or a politics), and it influences views of science just as much as Lewontin’s Marxism, etc.
And here, Wilson’s discussions of ants are totally germane, as the author of the Sci Am essay proposes (though perhaps again without enough specificity), since Wilson frequently interpreted ant behavior though analogy to human social organization, and then turned around and used that interpreted analogy as a basis for understanding human social evolution and organization. It is in the circularity of that argument that Wilson’s politics enter his science (among other places).
Yes. Exactly, although I disagree that SciAm needs to allow for back-and-forth with goddamned racists. I shouldn’t have been shy about saying so earlier.
No one will be coming to my funeral anyway.