A strange thing is happening to the venerable magazine Scientific American. It has decided to kick its science-loving readers in the teeth and embrace a modern equivalent of Lysenkoism—the doctrine that required Soviet biologists to ignore evolution and the genetics of plants.
The great biologist Edward O. Wilson died on December 26. Few readers of Scientific American could be unaware of Wilson’s towering contributions to biology and conservation, or of his rare gifts as a synthesizer and writer. They surely didn’t expect that the oeuvre of this globally renowned scientist would be labeled by Scientific American, just three days after his death, as “built on racist ideas.”
Why would the editor of the magazine, Laura Helmuth, take it into her head to insult almost everything her readers believe in? The sad truth is that she, like some editors of more important scientific journals, has been infected by a taste-destroying, judgment-paralyzing malady: the virus of progressive wokeness.
The article she ran, by a junior academic at UC San Francisco, Monica McLemore (who holds a Ph.D. in nursing science), asserts that Wilson’s “racist ideas” come from his book Sociobiology, which supported “the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.”
The assertion reflects the foundation on which woke theory is built: everyone is the same, with no genetic differences between sexes or races. By rejecting genetics, adherents can dismiss the notion that people might have different innate talents and earn different rewards. The theory instead attributes any deviation from equality, whether in occupations or income, to discrimination. At one blow, the hope of a merit-rewarding society is destroyed, to be replaced by a distribution of wealth according to wokeist rules.
Woke theory provides the platform for putting opponents on the defensive, grabbing more spoils for practitioners of identity politics, and smearing as racist anyone who dares dispute the premise of the whole racket—that people have no genetic differences. Since no one wants to be called a racist, the intimidation works perfectly and is spreading an ever-widening circle of fear in campuses, corporations, and media.
The premise is, of course, entirely false. A handful of genetic differences exist between the sexes, but they have profound consequences. A multitude of genetic differences exist between the races, but they have trivial consequences, like effects on skin or hair color. None justifies the fundamental idea of racism, that one race is superior to another. If you say there are obviously genetic differences between races but no race is superior, wokeists will ignore that central distinction and call you a scientific racist.
It’s high time for academics to take a stand on the matter instead of cowering under their desks. Without genetic differences, all humans would be clones, like some vast colony of bacteria. Because of the ceaseless process of evolution, populations in different regions of the world have accumulated their own genetic differences over time, and these regionally varying populations, all minor variations on the human theme, are what we call races. The results are evident to anyone who has noticed that babies resemble their parents, not people of other races. As for the insistence that gender is just a social construct, it’s on the same plane of absurdity as the campaign to abolish the word “woman.”
The denial of genetics is a truly surprising modern reprise of Lysenkoism. Wokeists, too, both deny the role of genetics in biology and aggressively seek to punish or ostracize their critics. Some 3,000 Soviet biologists were dismissed, imprisoned, or killed because they refused to abandon the theory of evolution for the nonsense Trofim Lysenko was peddling. Our academics are evidently made of more pliant stuff.
One reason is that in today’s academic world, scholars are deeply dependent on the support of others to gain government grants or get their papers accepted by journals. Even one negative vote in the peer-review committee can be fatal to careers. Because of this intense interdependence, academics can’t afford any accusation of racism, however unmerited. Unfortunately, this means that it’s all too easy to bully people into silence. A handful of activists have succeeded in terrifying campuses across the nation with their odious brand of obscurantism.
Is it unfair to blame Helmuth for failing to stand up to the neo-Lysenkoists when so many others have thrown in the towel? No, for two reasons. First, she owns the attack on Wilson. She not only ran it but also refused to publish a letter of protest organized by the genetics blogger Razib Khan and signed by many leading biologists. The reason she gave was that for the magazine to rebut one of its own articles would be “self-referential.” The excuse is risible and in any case contrived; the magazine rebutted one of its own articles only recently.
Second, the liberal order on which a democratic society depends rests ultimately on reason, not ideology. Science is the guardian and embodiment of rationality. If editors, the gatekeepers of the scientific forum, do not defend science against the power-hungry nihilism of identity politics, who will? Even the editors of such important scientific journals as Science and Nature flirt too heavily with neo-Lysenkoist paradigms. They, and Helmuth, should bear in mind that when you mix science and politics, the result is politics.
Science editors who seek to appease woke readers or staffers should think carefully about the source of their authority. Science is respected because it pursues objective truth and ignores ideology. As soon as a drop of politics contaminates the scientific pool, science loses credibility. This is a serious problem for the academic world, which has let neo-Lysenkoists burrow into its citadels and ivory towers and proclaim their anti-Darwinian nonsense.
Ordinary people recognize idiocy when they hear it and are tuning out what academics tell them. A hundred Nobel laureates have signed a letter? Then obviously the opposite position must be true. Professors may deplore the proles for their anti-vaxxer sentiments, their skepticism of global warming, and their refusal to listen to their intellectual betters. But instead of disdaining the intellect of others, the academic profession might instead wonder whether it is itself to blame for condoning absurd wokeist theories that have spurred the rise of Trumpist anti-intellectualism.
Meantime, the far-off German owners of Scientific American might worry a little about their readers fleeing to Quanta, a magazine that manages very successfully to explain frontier science to the general reader without a touch of wokery, just as Scientific American used to do. And given Scientific American’s contempt for Wilson’s life and career, I offer a different appraisal below.
Remembering a Giant
Edward O. Wilson, the eminent biologist, writer, and conservationist, died on December 26.
He was best known to the public for his 1975 book Sociobiology, which extended his longstanding interest in social organisms to humans and human nature. In doing so he incurred attacks from left-leaning academic critics who imputed a political message to his conclusions.
Unusually for a scientist, Wilson was also a lucid and graceful writer. Two of his books, On Human Nature (1979) and The Ants (1991), won Pulitzer prizes for non-fiction.
After a distinguished scientific career Wilson, a prodigious worker, kept writing. He published half a dozen books when in his seventies and eighties, including Anthill (2010), a novel that won favorable notices. He lived to see accepted many of his ideas about the biological nature of human social behavior, though often not under the name of sociobiology. Other researchers following in his footsteps adopted blander terms such as evolutionary psychology or human behavioral ecology.
Tall and courtly, steeped in the customs of the South, Wilson could easily resummon the accent of Alabama, where he grew up. “Just call me Ed,” he would say, nasalizing the “E” and drawing it out to what seemed like three or four syllables. He worked at Harvard because of its unrivalled ant collection, not because he enjoyed its abrasive intellectual climate. “All my life I have placed great store on civility and good manners, practices I find scarce among the often hard-edged, badly socialized scientists with whom I associate,” he wrote in his autobiography, Naturalist.
Along with the civility came an unbounded intellectual courage. Many biologists steer clear of controversial areas, for fear that disputes will make it harder to get their papers published and harm their careers. That was not Wilson’s way. As a boy, he was indoctrinated in the southern ethos that a street fight could end in one of two ways—by prevailing or being knocked unconscious, with no third option. “I never picked a fight. But once started, I never quit, even when losing, until the other boy gave up or an adult mercifully pulled us apart,” he wrote.
In the Harvard biology department in the 1950s and 1960s, molecular biologists were ascendant and looked down on whole-animal biologists like Wilson as incorrigibly antiquated. As the two disciplines struggled for power and academic spoils, Wilson clashed repeatedly with James D. Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix and the molecular biologists’ leader, over the direction the department should take. His adversary became “the Caligula of biology,” Wilson wrote, “given license to say anything that came into his mind and expect to be taken seriously.” Many years later, the two men became reconciled.
As a scientist, Wilson did not go looking for fights, but he never hesitated to follow where his scientific reasoning led him, regardless of the opposition. Blindsided when left-wing colleagues launched a surprise attack on Sociobiology, he was left to fend for himself by his Harvard colleagues, many of whom assured him of their support privately but said nothing to defend him in public. Wilson dusted himself off, considered his critics’ arguments carefully, and four years later repeated what he had said with greater force and details in On Human Nature. The book won a Pulitzer Prize.
Edward Osborne Wilson was born on June 10, 1929, in Birmingham, Alabama. His childhood was stressful. His father, a government accountant, changed jobs frequently, obliging his son to switch high schools 14 times in 11 years before the family finally settled in Mobile. This shifting existence “made Nature my companion of choice, because the outdoors was the one part of my world I perceived to hold rock steady,” Wilson writes in Naturalist.
At the age of seven he lost sight in his right eye through a fishing accident; in the same year, his parents divorced. The vision in his left eye enabled him to see the fine hairs on the bodies of small insects, and around age ten he became fascinated with ants.
He graduated from the University of Alabama in 1949 and two years later moved to Harvard to complete his Ph.D. In an alternate universe, he might have become an obscure expert on the ants of Alabama. But a restless desire to prove himself and to understand the natural world around him set him on a different trajectory.
“Ed, don’t stay on trails when you collect insects,” an adviser told him early in his career. “You should walk in a straight line through the forest. Try to go over any barrier you meet. It’s hard, but that’s the best way to collect.”
A straight line to distant peaks became the pattern of his life. He spent his early year collecting and studying ants, discovering many of the pheromones, or airborne hormones, with which ants signal one another.
Having secured a firm grounding in practical biology, he became interested in evolutionary theory. With Robert MacArthur, he developed the theory of island biogeography, a method for predicting how many species would colonize a new habitat. He and MacArthur gathered data for the theory by completely sterilizing several small Florida keys and monitoring the species that returned.
Most scholars cultivate a small patch of knowledge, which they can dominate and defend against trespassers. Wilson had the opposite urge. He was always curious to know how a field he had mastered might fit into some wider scheme of things. The result was a series of distinctive syntheses, each more encompassing than the last.
He began with The Insect Societies, published in 1971, which surveyed the evolution of social behavior among ants, wasps, bees, and termites. Social behavior poses a serious challenge to evolutionary theory, one fully recognized by Darwin, because it requires individuals to put the group’s interests ahead of their own. A solution to this problem, the theory of kin selection, had been proposed in 1964 by William D. Hamilton, then a little-known biologist. Wilson built on Hamilton’s idea in extending his survey of insect sociality to the few other groups in which it has evolved. The result was Sociobiology, published in 1975.
Sociobiology would have been accepted as another bold synthesis were it not for its last chapter, on humans. Wilson treated them the same way as all other social species, writing that human behaviors like warfare and morality had a genetic basis because they had been favored by natural selection.
Within a few months, the book came under vitriolic political attack in The New York Review of Books. In an essay, “Against ‘Sociobiology,’” a collective of Marxist and left-leaning academics, headed by Wilson’s Harvard colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould, assailed the political message they imputed to the book. In saying human behavior had a genetic basis, Wilson implied that it was immutable, his critics said—and therefore that all past and present ills of society, from slavery to the Holocaust to the entrenchment of privileges based on class, race, or sex, were justifiable. “Wilson joins the long parade of biologist determinists whose work has served to buttress the institutions of their society by exonerating them from responsibility for social problems,” the collective wrote.
Outlandish as the criticism was, it reverberated within the left-leaning halls of academe so strongly that Wilson feared for a time that his research career might be over.
He expanded and reinforced what he had said about the mind’s genetic history in his book On Human Nature, published in 1978, and then turned to a comprehensive survey of his favorite insect in The Ants, which was published in 1980 and won him his second Pulitzer. Concerned at the pace of destruction of the world’s rain forests, he turned to the subject of biodiversity, on which he wrote several books and became a tireless spokesman.
His next work of synthesis, Consilience, published in 1998, received less attention because it dealt with a more abstract subject: the unity of knowledge. But beneath this bland facade, Consilience laid out a bold annexationist program in which Wilson predicted that biology would eventually take over and explain the major categories of human culture, such as economics, religion, aesthetics, and morality.
All these activities are built on various kinds of human behavior, the rules of which have been shaped by evolution, Wilson argued. Written at a time when most social scientists believed that culture, not genes, was the basis of human behavior, Wilson’s thesis did not receive universal approval. His foresight has become evident only in recent years as a new school of primatologists and philosophers seeks the basis of morality in evolution, and adherents of the emerging discipline of neuroeconomics look to explain economic behavior in terms of neuroscience.
Plunging into yet another controversy, Wilson challenged the prevailing doctrine in evolutionary biology that natural selection operates only on individuals and their genes. Natural selection can also favor groups of individuals, Wilson argued in an article in 2007 written with the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson (no relation). The idea had been favored by Darwin to explain why so many human behaviors—from morality to risking one’s life in battle—promote the good of the group at the individual’s expense. But the guild of evolutionary biologists had turned firmly against the idea, and the two Wilsons found themselves on the minority side in a still-unresolved battle.
In an equally bold foray against the mainstream of evolutionary biology, in 2010 Wilson published with the mathematical biologist Martin Nowak a rejection of W. D. Hamilton’s kin-selection theory, the leading explanation for the evolution of social behavior, which he had championed 35 years earlier. Wilson now argued that the theory was redundant to explanations based just on natural selection.
E. O. Wilson was an outstanding biologist whose scientific skills, combined with literary ability and the driving character traits of persistence and curiosity, led him far beyond his chosen field of ants. In bringing his knowledge to bear on human nature, in learning to defy orthodoxies and ideologues, he succeeded in setting foot on those distant peaks he had perceived at the outset of his career.
Top: Trofim Lysenko (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)