Old letters from and to EO Wilson were donated to the Library of Congress after his death, and now historians are digging into them. To say that what they reveal about the distinguished environmentalists views on race is disappointing is an understatement. It seems he was frequently and quietly supporting the ideas of horrible racists like Philippe Rushton and others. It seems that the criticism of Wilson’s racism, which had the “scientific” racists up in arms recently was not misplaced. What a way to poison your own legacy!
There is a battery of letters from Wilson endorsing racists and racism. He seemed to think that a black-white difference in IQ was sufficient to justify blaming it on heredity, when defending Rushton.
Wilson’s letter continues, “To be sure, you and Professor Cain have found fault with Professor Rushton’s writings on race, but some noted specialists in human genetics and cognitive psychology have judged them to be sound and significant.” Wilson asks Vanderwolf to consider a poll that “found that a large minority of specialists of human genetics and testing believe in a partial hereditary basis for black-white average IQ differences.” Further, Wilson states that the National Association of Scholars (a right-wing advocacy group) is soon to publish an analysis “concluding that academic freedom is the issue in this case and that Rushton’s academic freedom is threatened.” The National Association of Scholars remains actively involved today in fighting affirmative action in higher education admissions and against the teaching of critical race theory.
Wow. That sounds familiar. Not allowing racists to publish bad science is an attack on academic freedom! The people who oppose these racist ideas are Leftist McCarthyites.
Wilson’s aforementioned July 1990 letter to Professor Vanderwolf, while ultimately inconsequential, calls attention to a message of support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars through their publication Academic Questions. What Wilson does not mention is that Wilson himself solicited support for Rushton from the National Association of Scholars in a letter to its founder Stephen Balch on November 6, 1989 (box 143 folder 10). On December 5, 1989, Wilson writes to Rushton, copying Balch, with the following message: “I am very heartened by the response of the National Association of Scholars (Academic Questions) to your case… Much as they like, your [Rushton’s] critics simply will not be able to convict you of racism, and there will come a day when the more honest among them will rue the day they joined this leftward revival of McCarthyism.”
The only reason Wilson was less vocal about his racism while he was alive was that he was a bit chickenshit about his beliefs, and he was afraid of two fellow Harvard professors.
In Wilson’s September 1987 letter declining to sponsor this paper, he states, “You have my support in many ways, but for me to sponsor an article on racial differences in the PNAS would be counterproductive for both of us.” He recounts an incident of being attacked for his views and continues, “I have a couple of colleagues here, Gould and Lewontin, who would use any excuse to raise the charge again. So I’m the wrong person to sponsor the article, although I’d be glad to referee it for another, less vulnerable member of the National Academy.”
How was he vulnerable?
There is no reason for a tenured Harvard professor to fear the criticisms of other professors — all they could have possibly done was scathingly expose the fallacies in his arguments, and maybe turn the attention of the media against him. If he had any confidence in his racist ideas, he should have been willing to discuss them. You know, that free speech thing. He preferred to keep his endorsements on the down-low, though, perhaps because his understanding of genetics was actually not particularly impressive.
I remember the big battles between Gould/Lewontin and Wilson, though, and to be honest, I thought they were a bit much. I liked Ed Wilson’s support for the environment, I didn’t know how deeply his racism ran, and Gould and Lewontin seemed a bit…mean. But now that I am seeing the inside story, it’s clear that they weren’t mean enough. Dump more buckets of water on Wilson’s head!
While Wilson was cautious to rarely mention race publicly, Davis clearly had no such reservations. Davis was a professor at Harvard Medical School who was an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, particularly when it came to Black students earning admission to Harvard. Wilson’s papers reveal a close relationship with Davis (Box 50, 2 folders, Box 51, 6 folders), finding common ground and supporting each other against criticism leveled by Richard Lewontin.
Davis frequently had Wilson’s back, especially throughout Wilson’s most high-profile controversy: the debate with Lewontin and Gould, who were outspoken and relentless critics of Wilson’s Human Sociobiology. By Wilson’s own account in the previously quoted September 1987 letter to Rushton, the two Harvard colleagues and critics had a chilling effect on his ability to support Rushton’s race science. One might wonder whether Wilson would have been far bolder, like Davis, without constant pressure from scientists like Lewontin and Gould.
This feud is well documented and has been the subject of much discussion about the nature of politics and ideology among scientists. But for Davis and Wilson, the “correct side” of the debate was obvious. In a letter to Davis (box 51, folder 5), Wilson provided some commentary about their “favorite anti-racists of the Left.” Wilson pontificated that arguing for equity among groups of people was ideologically similar to racism, adding the evocative phrase “my way of putting it would be that anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”
AAAAAARGH. What an asshole. I won’t be polite about Wilson in the future.
While EO Wilson has just taken a nose dive in my esteem, I can at least see that two of my heroes, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, have substantially risen in my appreciation.
Wilson should have stuck with ants, and if he was concerned about his posthumous reputation, he should have had all of his papers burned. They’re damning. I guess he was so racist he didn’t realize how racist his letters were!