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Wednesday, February 2, 2022

New Evidence of E. O. Wilson’s Intimacy with Scientific Racism

I knew that if someone did a little digging they would find plenty of evidence of E. O. Wilson's support for race pseudoscience and racist Jean-Phillipe Rushton. And fortunately someone did some digging.

In the just-published article New Evidence of E. O. Wilson's Intimacy with Scientific Racism, authors Stacy Farina and Matthew Gibbons write:

At the request of the Library of Congress, Wilson donated much of the contents of his office—letters, reprints, conference proceedings, etc.—to the national archive. The Wilson Papers comprises hundreds of boxes of documents and numerous digital recordings. We started exploring these holdings in September 2021, out of our broad interest in the Sociobiology debate. We did not intend to investigate scientific racism. However, the four folders labeled “Rushton, John Philippe” caught our attention. And in light of the controversy initiated by the Scientific American op-ed, we hope to share them and provide additional context for understanding Wilson’s legacy and the broader legacy of scientific racism.

The Farina/Gibbons article is full of new information based directly on Wilson's own correspondence:
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.”
Demonstrating that those who promote sociobiology and all other forms of biological reductionism: race pseudoscience, evolutionary psychology, behavioral genetics, biosocial criminology, etc have always responded to criticism of their race speculations with phrases like "leftward revival of McCarthyism."

While reading the article, I was often reminded of the relationship between Steven Pinker and Razib Khan:
Despite Wilson’s self-perceived vulnerability, he stuck his neck out for Rushton on many occasions. He behaved in many ways like a mentor. The relationship between the two men is almost heartwarming, until you start reading Rushton’s overtly racist work.
And they even mentioned Steven Pinker's favorite defense against his long-time support of race pseudoscience promoters, "guilt by association:"

Wilson and Rushton’s relationship is not a story of “guilt by association” or of honest mistakes and unfortunate missteps. It is a story about how racist ideas are woven into the scientific record with the support of powerful allies who operate in secret. While this story is extraordinary, it is not unusual.

I wrote a multi-part series criticizing Steven Pinker's inclusion of a very bad piece of work written by Steve Sailer, into the "Best of Science and Nature Writing" of 2004. Clear evidence that Pinker isn't simply associated with Steve Sailer, he promoted his career, much like E. O. Wilson promoted the career of J. P. Rushton.

Before the Farina/Gibbons article was published, I had searched for a connection between Wilson and race pseudoscience. I found an archived copy of a book published in 1991, A mirror to nature, reflections of science, scientists and society by Peter Knudtsen that contained this passage:

It would also be naive to ignore the fact that there exists a measure of scientific sympathy — for the most part publicly silent — for Rushton’s evolutionary thinking on race. Charles Lumsden sweepingly referred to this group as an “invisible collection of Rushton’s reluctant supporters.” Although it may come as a painful surprise to some in the scientific community, one of them happens to be none other than E. O. Wilson (although, to my knowledge, this significant fact has, at this writing, yet to be reported in the Canadian media). “I think Phil is an honest and capable researcher,” Wilson told me in a cautiously worded statement. “The basic reasoning by Rushton is solid evolutionary reasoning; that is, it is logically sound. If he had seen some apparent geographic variation for a non-human species — a species of sparrow or sparrow hawk, for example — no one would have batted an eye.”

This made it pretty clear that Wilson fully supported Rushton's race science and on top of that, the Canadian media decided to ignore Wilson's complicity. Much like the media today, with rare exceptions, ignores "celebrity intellectual" Steven Pinker's ongoing support of Razib Khan, and his former support of Steve Sailer. 

That's why I started this blog. Because we can't count on the lazy, feckless media to do follow-through on race pseudoscience and its supporters.

Wilson's support for Rushton also underlines the fact that there is no such thing as good sociobiology. Rushton, and Wilson on the sly, simply followed the leading premise of sociobiology to its logical conclusion. The leading premise being: the current human social hierarchy is not the result of a series of historical events and economic conditions, but rather the direct expression of evolution, written in our genes.

Wilson was responsible for the revival of sociobiology. His support for Rushton tells you all you need to know about sociobiology and other forms of biological reductionism.

As Marvin Harris observed about sociobiology in his superb Cultural Materialism, the Struggle for a Science of Culture (available here), in the chapter "Sociobiology and Biological Reductionism":

Each instance of a genuine cultural performance by a macaque or a chimpanzee is worth a journal article. But all the journals in all the libraries of the world would not suffice to render a running account of human cultural activities. 

Cultural evolution is thus responsible for creating an amount of intra-specific behavioral variation in the human species that does not exist in any other species. Moreover, this immense quantity of variation involves functional specialties whose analogues are associated with great phylogenetic distances in the evolu­tion of other bio-forms. The contrast between a paleo-technic foraging band and an industrial superpower is surely not inferior to the contrast between whole phyla - if not kingdoms - in the Linnaean taxonomy. 

It took billions of years for natural selection to create specialized adap­tations for fishing, hunting, agriculture; for aquatic, terrestrial, and aerial locomotion; and for predatory and defensive weaponry, such as teeth, claws, and armor. Equivalent specialties were developed by cul­tural evolution in less than ten thousand years. 

The main focus of human sociobiology ought therefore to be the explanation of why other species have such minuscule and insignificant cultural repertories and why humans alone have such gigantic and important ones. But sociobi­ologists conceive their task to be something else - namely, the identifi­cation of the genetic components in human cultural traits. This repre­sents a fundamental misdirection for human social science and a diversion of resources from the more urgent task of explaining the vast majority of cultural traits that do not have a definite genetic compo­nent.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for Jerry Coyne or Nicholas Christakis to admit they were wrong to defend Wilson against charges of racism.

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