Fresh off that paper about how the liberals are destroying “merit” and science, Jerry Coyne fearlessly rides his hobby horse onto the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, where he complains about a a
grave threat to biology. That threat? Ideology and dogma are strangling research and scientific communication. Scientists are
too cowed to speak their minds. Well, except for Jerry A. Coyne and his coauthor, Luana S. Maroja, who are willing to confront the dogma of the Progressive Left.
It’s somewhat peculiar to read the complaints about a dogmatic stranglehold from these people. Coyne is a well-known, established, and successful scientist — he is a graduate of Harvard, and is now an emeritus professor of the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious institutions of evolution research in the country. Maroja is a full Professor of Biology, and Chair of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Program at Williams College. I don’t see how they can complain that their careers have been “strangled” by the Left.
Coyne and Maroja are the establishment.* Their careers are built on convincingly supporting the dogmas of biology (which is not necessarily a bad thing at all.) They have immense amounts of academic power and influence, and have far more potential to be the strangler, rather than the strangled. Yet somehow they have the idea that science is being politically purged by progressive social justice, which they claim doesn’t care about truth.
That’s a remarkable claim, fundamentally paranoid and conspiratorial, and I’m going to have to see strong evidence to support it. Coyne and Maroja write that they have six specific examples from just their field of evolutionary biology — examples of leftists distorting biology and altering education and devaluing “merit.”
Let’s see it. They’re going to give us six examples of “misstatements spread by ideologues” that they believe are impeding science.
1. Sex in humans is not a discrete and binary distribution of males and females but a spectrum.
Coyne & Maroja claim this is false because there are only two kinds of functional gametes, sperm and eggs, and therefore there can be only two sexes. The claims of gender ideologues can be trivially dismissed because they can’t trot out a third kind of gamete, or can’t name all the other sexes. Furthermore, people aren’t assigned sex at birth, so it is not a sexual construct, but rather, sex is an observation of biological reality.
The Coyne & Maroja argument is nonsense at every level. First, we humans are not our gametes — we are complex multicellular organisms. To argue that gametes are definitive is a gross oversimplification that ignores physiology, behavior, psychology, and culture, all of which are affected by sex. This is an example of extreme reductionism.
It’s also an argument designed to misrepresent and distort the positions of their critics. No one is arguing that there are other kinds of gametes; trans men and women are not claiming to have transformed their gametes to some other form, and the ones I’ve talked with are acutely aware that their gonads do not metamorphose. Trans men may still be capable of pregnancy, trans women will not ovulate, and they do not pretend otherwise. This is the kind of argument that shows that the ones proposing it are totally unaware of the nature of trans culture, they are arguing against a proposition that no one is making.
As for the claim that the definition of sex at birth is simply a biological observation…well, that wrecks their premise, because the sex of a baby is not a question of what kind of gametes they are producing. It’s a superficial examination of morphology. You can have a penis or vagina without any correlated gamete production!
Here’s what I, a biology professor and progressive Leftist, teach in my classes.
Biological sex is the product of a complex cascade of molecular and cellular activity in embryonic development that continues for decades — for the entirety of an individual’s life, in fact — and there are multiple opportunities for variation. These variations can accumulate to produce a continuum of outcomes, so that the broad categories of men and women encompass a vast diversity of human forms and ideas and behaviors.
I would say that claiming that humans are trivially reducible to two simplistic categories is the greater distortion of biological facts and diminishes the evolutionary consequences of the differences within a sexual category.
Do Coyne & Maroja do a better job of explaining and dismissing the second misconception of those progressive leftists? No, they do not.
2. All behavioral and psychological differences between human males and females are due to socialization.
While you might be able to find a few fringe individuals who espouse that view, it’s not at all representative of what academic biologists — or even the majority of informed laypersons — think. This is a common pattern in the Coyne & Maroja review, though, misrepresenting the perspective of the people they critique by inventing a straw man argument. They go on to cite Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, as if it were a fact-based source of data rather than a subjective and dishonest mess of prejudicial assertions. The biologists I know would laugh at this notion that people are blank slates.
Rather than citing an unqualified non-biologist to tell us what biologists think, I’d recommend instead Lewontin’s The Triple Helix, which is far more representative. Lewontin explains that the evolution of individuals is explained by the interplay of genes, organisms, and the environment. Note that genes are part of the equation, a significant part, but that you can’t explain genetics except in the context of their environment.
It’s a little surprising that they ignore this common view, since Lewontin was Coyne’s mentor at Harvard.
So what would this deranged Leftist teach in his biology classes?
There are clear average differences between men and women, but the attempt to tease them apart into purely biological and purely cultural differences is a futile exercise, often ideologically motivated. Biology and culture are inseparable, and what makes you you is a complex pattern of interaction between the two.
3. Evolutionary psychology, the study of the evolutionary roots of human behavior, is a bogus field based on false assumptions.
Great. On this one, he cites me directly as the purveyor of this supposedly misguided claim. I wrote, “The fundamental premises of evo psych [evolutionary psychology] are false,” which is accurate, I did say that. I also said a lot more, explaining what those faulty premises are…but Coyne & Maroja omit that, for some unexplainable reason. Instead, they come up with an anodyne definition of evolutionary psychology:
our brains and how they work–which yield our behaviors, preferences, and thoughts–sometimes reflect natural selection that acted on our ancestors.
One problem here is that I agree with that sentence, so once again, they have invented dissent where none exists and have hidden away the problem with evolutionary psychology. The idea that genes and evolution have shaped our behavior is accepted and not at all problematic, but Coyne & Maroja assert that opponents of evolutionary psychology deny the role of evolution on behavior.
Bluntly, that is an outright lie.
They think they can get away with it because they’ve obscured what premises of evolutionary psychology I consider false. It’s a quote mine.
Where I consider evolutionary psychologists to fail is in methodology and poor theory — they take the unjustified shortcut of assuming any modern behavior is the product of genetic traits that were locked in place in the Pleistocene, and are always the product of selection, and that therefore any hypothetical selective scenario they invent is valid and worth publishing as science. They seem to be entirely oblivious to alternative modes of evolution, treating natural selection as the only significant force, ignoring the facts of drift and migration. They are masters of the just-so story, building hypotheticals about ancient human ways of life and ‘testing’ them with surveys of middle-class students enrolled in Psych 101 courses.
I do not deny that human biology and behavior are the product of evolution, but rather that evolution is more complex than evolutionary psychologists imagine it to be, and that the tools of psychology are sadly inadequate to address the problem.
What I teach in the classroom:
Every species is the product of a long history of evolutionary forces, and those forces involve more than just a cartoonish idea of endlessly optimizing selection. You’ve learned about nearly-neutral theory, about lineage analysis, about the mathematics of comparing traits (they would have gotten all that in even my introductory classes), and that accurately determining the evolutionary trajectory of a population requires detailed measurement and observation and rigorous mathematical analysis. Please do apply what you’ve learned to behavior and psychology, but do it better than the evolutionary psychologists have.
4. We should avoid studying genetic differences in behavior between individuals.
Oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. In this section, Coyne & Maroja plunge into the world of the genetic basis of IQ scores and educational attainment and are saying that we should study genetic differences in the minds of people. The problem with that, and the reason we should discourage that kind of research, is that it inevitably leads to garbage science. Weak correlations will get used to prop up all kinds of biases. That’s why this topic is so popular among right-wing zealots and racists. They say,
This kind of study (genome-wide association studies, or GWAS) has, for example, turned up nearly 4,000 areas of the genome associated with educational attainment. Fascinatingly, many of these genes are active mainly in the brain. Using GWAS studies, it’s now possible to make fairly accurate predictions about a person’s appearance, behavior, academic achievement, and health simply by analyzing the DNA of an individual and calculating their individual “polygenic scores” based on large samples of their population.
No, you can’t do that.
GWAS are basically fishing expeditions — you search for correlations between genetic markers and social or behavioral phenomena. It might be useful when coupled to specific, prior hypotheses, but much of it is grinding through thousands of statistical correlations and grabbing any that rise above a chosen chance criterion. It can be hopelessly noisy. Look at the result of GWAS of “educational attainment” (already, a uselessly broad category): 4000 “areas” (not genes, just broad chunks of chromosomes) are somehow associated with learning, and we can at best say that many are active in the brain. Almost everything is active in the brain! Almost everything is active in the pancreas! Sorting out what is relevant is the problem, and we’re nowhere near achieving that.
There is such a volume of potential correlations that it may well be that most of what GWAS are picking up are accidental correlations by lineage — that is, the parameter is common among certain groups of people not because it plays a role in, for instance, intelligence, but because the people showing that trait are related. The danger is that, for example, you might think you’ve found a gene associated with the success of a certain group, but it’s only a coincidence and is actually irrelevant. Then that chance coincidence gets picked up as evidence of superiority of the tested group, and you’re off to the eugenics races.
It’s simply silly to suggest that we could feed a genome sequence into a computer, and it will then compute the organism. That’s genetic determinism, and it doesn’t work. Twins have strong physical similarities, but do twin pairs all share the same personality? I come from a blue collar family, generations of farmers and laborers, all good people but not really interested in things like college…I have to suspect that if universities had used a DNA sample as an admissions test, I’d be out picking fruit and plucking chickens in Yakima.
Coyne & Maroja are actually almost right in what I’d teach my classes.
We should avoid studying genetic differences in behavior between individuals, unless we have clear causal and functional information and specific hypotheses about the genes we are studying. Vague, sloppy generalizations will be abused!
5. Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning.
Oh god, make it stop. Coyne & Maroja take a bold step in favor of race realism.
To be fair, they take a waffly stance, being ambiguous about how we ought to talk about ethnicities instead, about how many races/ethnicities there are, and how we can use race information to fine-tune medical treatments or even how we can solve crimes by reconstructing perpetrators from their genetic information (see previous section; no, you can’t). He uses these excuses to defend…Bo Winegard?
Indeed, even writing about this subject has led to sanctions on many scientists, who have “found themselves denounced, defamed, protested, petitioned, punched, kicked, stalked, spat on, censored, fired from their jobs and stripped of their honorary titles.” A well-known example is Bo Winegard, an untenured professor in Ohio who was apparently fired for merely suggesting the possibility that there were differences in cognition among ethnic groups. This is why most biologists stay far away from this topic.
“merely suggesting the possibility” is a curiously tepid way to describe a guy who openly describes himself as an “ethno-traditionalist”, “cultural nationalist”, and “racial realist” and who calls Arthur Jensen his “intellectual hero.” He’s a loud and proud racist who thinks white people are superior!
Here’s how I handle this in my classes:
Don’t be a fucking racist goober.
More seriously, in the last two weeks of my genetics course I gave the students a dozen peer-reviewed papers on how geneticists were addressing the issue of race, put them in groups, and had them give presentations on the papers they chose to discuss. Get into the literature, and you’ll discover most modern geneticists have little patience with so-called “scientific racism,” any more than they are interested in discussing “scientific creationism.” There are exceptions, obviously. Usually they’re posting on Quillette or other race-realist forums. Or publishing in Skeptical Inquirer or the Journal of Controversial Ideas.
6. Indigenous “ways of knowing” are equivalent to modern science and should be respected and taught as such.
On Coyne’s blog, he seems to be moderatly obsessed with New Zealand indigenous culture, thinking it compromises science, somehow. Maori culture is a complex mix of ideas.
Matauranga Māori, the indigenous way of knowing in New Zealand, is a mélange of empirical knowledge derived from trial and error (including the navigational ability of their Polynesian ancestors and Māori ways of procuring and growing food) but also includes nonscientific areas such as theology, traditional lore, ideology, morality, and legend.
That sounds like a liberal arts curriculum to me. Teach the history, the cultural practices, the religion and mythology…just as we do in Western societies. You can’t, for instance, teach the history of science without discussing Catholic theology and its contributions; you also can’t avoid discussing the oppressive aspects of a culture without also talking about art and beauty. I don’t see the problem, although I’m not familiar with the Maori.
I do teach at a non-tribal American Indian serving institution, though, and I think their concerns are overblown. The Lakota have a myth that their people emerged from a cave — they can even point to a cave in South Dakota called Maka Oniye as their origin. We teach this in our Indian Studies classes, since it is a lovely story and tells us about how the Lakota think of themselves (it also includes a spider god, Iktomi, which I find quite nice). But we don’t teach it in our biology classes. There are no angry Lakota citizens shaking their fists at us and demanding that we incorporate it into our curriculum. Perhaps Coyne is thinking that these indigenous peoples have the same fanatical certainty that Southern Baptists do. They don’t. They would just appreciate it if you showed a little respect for the people who were displaced by Western colonialism.
The only experience I’ve had with our Indian students that comes even close is that, several years ago, some visitors commented on the fact that we had a display of mounted owls at the entrance to our atrium, which was mildly offensive to Native Americans who regarded owls as symbols of death. So we moved them. It’s not hard to respect people’s beliefs, and it does no harm to the science.
No one teaches that cultural preferences are equivalent to what we teach in physics, chemistry, and biology.
Coyne & Maroja are also indignant about the idea of repatriation — that Native Americans are demanding the return of bones from museum collections. They don’t seem to appreciate that these remains were stolen, looted from grave sites, or even taken directly from murdered or executed Indians. I guess it’s true that we progressive lefties consider consent important, and that it even trumps Science.
I would just ask how they would feel about the Jewish skull collection that was to be displayed at the Reich University of Strasbourg after WWII (fortunately, a plan that was aborted by the Reich’s defeat). The bones were returned to their families, where possible, and re-interred. The situation is directly analogous to what Native Americans experienced, except that imperialist forces haven’t yet been defeated. Why is one case an example of basic human decency, while a horrible anti-scientific crime in the other?
How would I teach this? I don’t. I suspect Coyne & Maroja don’t, either, and that neither have had to accommodate Maori traditions, so it’s a silly thing for us to be concerned about. If I did teach something in the appropriate field, I would probably steal the words of Jennifer Raff, who studies paleogenomics.
Actually, repatriation laws have really enabled a lot of the work I and some of my colleagues do. A lot of my work in North America is on ancestral remains that have been returned to tribes. As part of that process, some tribal representatives have come to me and said, “We are interested in studying the DNA before we rebury our ancestors.” A lot of these remains have been languishing in storerooms, and as part of NAGPRA they’ve been cataloged and looked at and new things have emerged as a result. Human remains from Shuká Káa [formerly On Your Knees] Cave in Alaska, for example, were excavated with the cooperation of local tribes and showed people living in the area today are related to an individual who died 10,300 years ago.
It’s not anti-science to take the beliefs of the people you work with into account. It’s the racism and colonialism and sexism and pseudoscience that are anti-science. Raff is pointing out that respecting the people of the cultures she studies literally benefits the science.
I’ll have to stop here — this is already over twice the length of the response Skeptical Inquirer was going to allow me, so I don’t think there’s any point in trying to submit it to them. I do have to say a bit about Coyne & Maroja’s conclusion, because that’s where they let all the fascist paranoia hang out.
Progressive ideology is growing stronger and intruding further into all areas of science. And because it’s “progressive,” and because most scientists are liberals, few of us dare oppose these restrictions on our freedom.
What restrictions on our freedom? I can say what I think, Coyne & Maroja can say what we think, and the only cost is that we each think the other is an asshole. I can live with that. So can the Emeritus Professor and the Chair of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. Of course, Coyne is only going to be able to publish this nonsense in not-very-distinguished journals. That’s fair, though, since his work clearly lacks merit.
And mainly what he’s going to do is complain about a nonexistent existential threat to all of science because it is infested with those dang liberals.
Unless there is a change in the Zeitgeist, and unless scientists finally find the courage to speak up against the toxic effects of ideology on their field, in a few decades science will be very different from what it is now. Indeed, it’s doubtful that we’d recognize it as science at all.
OK, now I’m inspired! I will continue to speak up against the toxic effects of conservative ideology on my field. You know, the ideology that would deny the existence of trans individuals; that advocates for genetic determinism; that thinks a sloppy science like evolutionary psychology that defies standard theory and practice is worthwhile; that promotes outmoded and dangerous ideas about IQ and the genetic basis of all behavior; that wants to return to an early 20th century version of race pseudoscience; and that thinks indigenous people who express their cultural beliefs ought to be silenced. Fine. I’ll declare that the Coyne & Maroja vision of science is broken and ultimately damaging. They represent old dogmas and tired ideas.
I do hope science is someday very different from the bad science that racists and sexists want to promote, and that the big change is that women and gay and trans people can work in science without old cranky scientists claiming that their existence does irreparable harm to the field.
Also, someday I hope staid old conservative skeptic organizations learn to recognize a moral panic when they see one and refuse to fuel it with more hysterical paranoia of the sort we see in the Coyne & Maroja article.
*By the way, so am I — I’m an old white heterosexual cis man. Isn’t it interesting how two people who belong to the same privileged demographic can have such radically different views?