Is there vigilantism in science? Was the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrongly convicted of racism and promoting race science in the court of public opinion? Yes, says his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler.
ABOVE: Bert Hölldobler (left) and Edward O. Wilson (right). Photo by Kathy Horton.
Self-Righteous Vigilantism in Science
The Case of Edward O. Wilson
Correspondence exchanged between the late Harvard evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson and the Canadian psychologist John Philippe Rushton in the 1980s was recently revealed in papers Wilson had donated to the Library of Congress. Selected portions of these letters were quoted in essays written by Stacy Farina and Mathew Gibbons in the magazine Science for the People (February 1, 2022), and by Mark Borrello and David Sepkoski in the New York Review of Books (February 8, 2022). Both essays, although different in perspective and tone, highlight the support Wilson offered to Rushton when he was under attack by academic opponents of Rushton who did not agree with his claims concerning innate cognitive and behavioral differences between “races” in the US American population (along with some of Rushton’s far-reaching idiosyncratic conclusions). Rushton was under investigation by his university for serious misconduct charges that may have threatened his position and asked Ed (among many others), who he knew was once also attacked for his writings, to help him.
I knew Ed Wilson quite well over many decades of collaboration on numerous research projects and books, such as The Ants, The Leafcutter Ants, Journey to the Ants, and The Superorganism. I think Ed reacted to Rushton’s situation as a man who had been traumatized from his own painful experience of being similarly attacked in the mid and late 1970s. For those who did not experience the ideologically heated atmosphere in certain circles at Harvard University after Ed Wilson’s landmark book Sociobiology was published 1975, I need describe some of the events and actions that might explain why Ed later felt he had to fight any ideologically motivated attacks against scientists, regardless of their political orientation. I begin with a personal recollection of one such event.
At an evening debate held at Boston University in 1976, the noted Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin leveled unsubstantiated charges of genetic determinism that leads to racism against Wilson. Melvin Konner, then a graduate student (today a well-known anthropologist, medical doctor, and successful author), asked Lewontin whether he denied that the basic facial expressions of human infants could be considered innately produced. Dick Lewontin reflexively and emphatically replied that there was not a shred of evidence to support this. I was amazed and raised my hand. At this moment, Dick saw me in the audience and before I could finish recounting all the literature providing hard evidence for Mel’s statement, Dick waved his arms and shouted, “OK, OK, you obviously know more about this, so let’s move on.” Unfortunately, that was the point then, and is the point today, as these same unsubstantiated and unfortunate charges have resurfaced and have been picked up on the blogosphere and elsewhere, by people who obviously know little about Ed Wilson.
It was a point that Dick Lewontin himself acknowledged when he showed up at my office the next day, apparently eager to soften what he had said. Although I respected Lewontin as a scientist and colleague at Harvard, I did not appreciate his ideologically driven “sand box Marxism.” When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: “Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.” In fact, it is nonsense to claim that Ed Wilson’s comparative and evolutionary approach to behavior in any way endorses racism. This was a case of a scientist’s views being distorted to suit someone else’s ideological goals. […]
EPISODE # 259
Batya Ungar-Sargon — Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy
Something is wrong with American journalism. Long before “fake news” became the calling card of the Right, Americans had lost faith in their news media. But lately, the feeling that something is off has become impossible to ignore. That’s because the majority of our mainstream news is no longer just liberal; it’s woke. Today’s newsrooms are propagating radical ideas that were fringe as recently as a decade ago, including “antiracism,” intersectionality, open borders, and critical race theory. How did this come to be? It all has to do with who our news media is written by — and who it is written for.
Michael Shermer speaks with Batya Ungar-Sargon about her new book Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy in which she reveals how American journalism underwent a status revolution over the twentieth century — from a blue-collar trade to an elite profession. As a result, journalists shifted their focus away from the working class and toward the concerns of their affluent, highly educated peers.
Ungar-Sargon avers that, in abandoning the working class by creating a culture war around identity, our national media is undermining American democracy.
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The “Doctors” are in
But should you trust them? We have the answers in the current issue of SKEPTIC magazine (27.1), available now in print and digital editions: (Illustration by Ástor Alexander)