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Setting the record straight: open letter on E.O. Wilson's legacy
Response to Scientific American's "The Complicated Legacy..."
A personal note
When E. O. Wilson died at the age of 92 last month, I mourned because his death was the destruction of a library. Many younger biologists who focus on mastering new statistical and computational methods lack the organismic knowledge that older generations accrued. Knowledge-loss is real, no matter how fondly we cling to our modern expectations of eternal progress. And then there is the loss to history, as Wilson had so much back and forth with other giants, from James Watson to Richard Lewontin. Older academics of his stature and vigor often alone retain insights and anecdotes that will disappear forever with their passing (for a vivid reminder of this truth, read this Alice Dreger interview of Wilson from 2009).
This was why Scientific American’s publication of The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson frankly left me aghast. Even my deep cynicism about our age’s slackening standards did not prepare me for that op-ed. It seemed to have little to do with Wilson, and everything to do with opportunistically shoehorning particular views about social justice into the practice of hard science. Wilson was involved in many scientific debates and cultural issues, but since the fading of the 1970’s “sociobiology wars,” his prominence as a controversialist had become a footnote to his advocacy for conservation and his role in debates over the utility of the “inclusive-fitness” framework.
My immediate reaction was that the op-ed was indecent. It was muddled and uninformed at best, disrespectful and misleading at worst. Along with many others, I expressed this view on social media and began to hear from yet more who weren’t speaking publicly. I heard through the grapevine that multiple Scientific American staffers were embarrassed by the piece and I was encouraged to submit a rebuttal. After a quick flurry of emails and direct messages, a few of us agreed this shouldn’t be allowed to stand without a rebuttal.
Other scientists of some stature shared our disgust, but disagreed; they argued against dignifying something so unworthy with a response. It would give Scientific American undeserved oxygen and attention. Engagement with a publication that to many seems to have lost its way risked being more reward than rebuke. To be candid, I felt their approach, probably perfectly standard in past decades, was wholly out of step with today’s dispensation, when attacks on science are legion, genuine fear of the social-media mob is rampant in academia and whole careers are “canceled” on a specious basis. Ignored long enough, the lie becomes canon.
It wasn’t difficult to find signatories to the rebuttal, and we could have collected hundreds. I stopped seeking names after a few dozen, because the message is abundantly clear when you see who signed. Dr. David C. Queller is one of the most prominent critics of Wilson’s late foray against Hamiltonianism. Dr. David Sloan Wilson and Dr. Jerry Coyne both signed without hesitation. In other circumstances, they have had some very pointed disagreements, but on this they concurred (Wilson, notably, was emphatic that we shouldn’t engage in “Great Man” hagiography on the podcast I recorded with him). Some of those who signed, no doubt share many political and social views with the author of the Scientific American piece. It’s not my place to speak for them, but some made clear their sincere political goals are not served by association with sloppy smear jobs.
Wilson was not without faults, as I highlighted in the podcast I recorded with David Sloan Wilson and Charles C. Mann. Many scientists I know and respect have expressed skepticism and dismissal of some of Wilson’s enthusiasms. Great scientists of the past are not gods any more than great scientists still among us, but humans, with all the complexity that entails.
Differences of opinion are nothing new in science. Sadly, baseless accusations of racism aren’t either. Wilson negotiated plenty of each throughout his long career. A single 1981 instance where he defended himself and his science in the magazine Nature provides a striking contrast to today’s case. In response to a letter published in a previous issue suggesting his work gives cover to racists, Wilson penned his own calm, patient response, addressing the accusations with facts. Nature ran both letters.
Today, after sitting on our rebuttal to Scientific American’s prominent reappraisal of Wilson for eight days (curious given that the original article was rushed out within three days of his death) editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth wrote to officially reject it. Scientific American avoids, she explained, “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.”
Most of us can vividly recall a time when both journalism and science were robust enough to welcome, indeed require, the healthy airing of debates on important issues. Today, in contrast, contributors to a publication once dedicated to the diffusion of scientific ideas are deemed so sensitive their opinions cannot be directly discussed or debated. Not only that; their unvetted, ad hominem attacks are automatically newsworthy, based, one gathers, on the logic behind Helmuth describing her opinion section as for “authors such as Monica McLemore who are presenting their own experiences and analysis.”
I don’t want to live in a world where my interlocutors and I are so fragile that our ideas must “stand on [their] own” because we are presenting “[our] own experiences.” I want discussion. I want debate. I want to deserve the robust, roiling world of ideas that could forge and nourish a truth-seeking mind like E.O. Wilson’s.
R.I.P. E.O. Wilson. But hopefully not the very values on which his prolific career depended.
A rebuttal to “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson”
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.