Saturday, January 22, 2022

Debating E.O. Wilson's Legacy

Biologist E.O. Wilson died on December 26. Many of his obituaries had a somewhat guarded tone, because while he was an eminent scientist his career was controversial. On the one hand he was a noted environmentalist and helped introduce the concept of biodiversity into the environmental lexicon. On the other, his 1975 book Sociobiology waded into questions of how much about human societies, sex differences, and so on is genetic, applying the methods he honed studying ant societies to those of humans. Late in life he added a new focus for controversy when he publicly renounced kin selection as the source of altruism in animals in favor of group selection, a model that has become in some hands a justification for militarism. 

The question of how much human behavior is genetic is of course an old one, and it has always been political. Defenders of aristocracy long defended the superiority of noble blood lines; one of the founders of modern liberalism, John Locke, advanced the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that we in fact inherit nothing. Locke had no evidence for his view, he was simply proposing on the philosophical plane arguments that helped his support his views on politics. Anyway it is not just recent "woke" people who get upset over the political implications of research on human genetics, and it has long been the case that the Left wanted to deny inheritance while the Right talked it up.

Wilson's story took a turn last week when Scientific American ran an essay about him by Monica McLemore, subtitled "We must reckon with his and other scientists’ racist ideas if we want an equitable future." 

His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms.

E.O. Wilson never supported any "dichotomy," false or otherwise, but he certainly believed that some differences between humans are rooted in genetics. Others did use his work to make simplistic arguments about heredity, but I'm not sure that's his fault. Honestly I found this essay mostly just kind of lame, without any of the fire I expected from others' reaction to it. One passage that made some scientists howl was this one:

First, 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. The fact that we don’t adequately take into account differences between experimental and reference group determinants of risk and resilience, particularly in the health sciences, has been a hallmark of inadequate scientific methods based on theoretical underpinnings of a superior subject and an inferior one.

A "normal distribution" is just a kind of curve in the dataset that in fact describes a huge number of natural and human phenomenon; it has nothing to do with the question of human diversity and whether different groups will respond differently to different drugs or whatever. But I get what McLemore was trying to say, and I think it is true that many Big Picture scientific studies sweep a lot of diversity under the rug. As my readers know, I regularly complain about this when it relates to anthropology. Anyway a bunch of scientists were incensed by McLemore's article, mainly because it calls Wilson "racist" without offering any evidence that he believed in meaningful differences between human races. In fact he explicitly denied believing any such thing on multiple occasions. A long list of biologists wrote a rebuttal letter to Scientific American, which refused to print it. So it has been posted online.

The argument over Wilson interests me because much of it hinges on the definition of "racist." To Wilson, and that whole side of science, asking questions about the genetic roots of human behavior is important and interesting, so we should do it. That's what sciences is for. That's what science is. Besides, they often throw in, so far science says nothing material about behavioral differences between races anyway. (It does, of course, have a lot to say about differences between the sexes.)

The scientists who signed the letter believe that science, done properly, cannot possibly be racist. Its goal is to discover the truth about the world, whatever its moral and political implications. It is up to us to adjust our morality and politics to fit reality, and it is emphatically not the job of scientists to alter their findings to fit our morals or our politics. 

To their opponents, all talk about human genetic traits is inherently dangerous. The very idea of approaching questions of genetic difference without ideological preconceptions disturbs them. To them, anyone without a strong ideological preconception against racism is suspect; anyone who thinks there could be a neutral approach to questions of the differences between races is a racist. For many of them, the notion that the truth should be our highest goal is just plain wrong. Our highest goal should be justice, and anyone who disagrees needs to be called out.

Under this definition, Wilson was a racist because he studied human genetic differences without a strong and loudly proclaimed commitment to racial justice. He thus, whatever his intentions, became a tool of racists, and anything that serves racism is itself racist. To a lot of scientists, and many other liberals, this is the most dangerous possible kind of thinking: to them, allowing our politics to dictate what we believe about reality is the definition of totalitarianism. 

Wherever science intersects with morality and politics, there will be conflict. Certain scientists will be shocked that anyone attacks their scientific work on political grounds, but of course they should know better. Topics like human genetic differences, human-induced climate change, welfare economics, and so on are inherently political, and it is foolish to think they could ever be discussed without political consequences. Complaining about wokeness, as many contemporary scientists like to do, hardly scratches the surface of this dynamic, especially when the topic has been controversial for centuries. The letter written on behalf of Wilson makes no attempt to address any of this, and its authors come across as baffled that anyone could see any problem with Wilson's work. Honestly their piece did not impress me any more than McLemore's did.

I believe in the truth, and I don't think it was racist of E.O. Wilson to pursue it. Maybe Wilson's defenders are right to pitch a fit when the word "racist" is applied to him; maybe such charges have to be answered. But if they don't understand where their opponents are coming from, they are unlikely to make much headway against them.

No comments: