Thursday, February 17, 2022

E. O. Wilson and J. Philippe Rushton: Scientific Racists? Or Can the Science of Race Affirm Human Freedom and Equality of Rights?

In January of 1989, I was in San Francisco for the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  I attended a "Symposium on Evolutionary Theory, Economics, and Political Science," which had been organized by Roger Masters.  That caught my attention because I was spending a sabbatical year at Stanford University working on a project for applying evolutionary theory to political philosophy, and the writing of Masters had influenced my thinking.  At that symposium, J. Philippe Rushton, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, presented a paper on "Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits (With Reference to Oriental-White-Black Difference)."  

He argued that the three major races--Orientals (Mongoloids or Asians), Whites (Caucasoids or Europeans), and Blacks (Negroids or Africans)--consistently differed in "Life History Strategy."  Blacks have the fastest strategy: they live fast and die young.  Orientals have the slowest strategy: they live slow and invest in the future.  Whites are intermediate between these two poles.  On average, Orientals are slower to mature, less fertile, less sexually active, less aggressive, and have larger brains and higher IQ scores.  At the opposite pole, on average, Blacks are fast to mature, more fertile, sexually promiscuous, very aggressive, and have smaller brains and lower IQ scores.  Whites fall in the middle, but closer to Orientals than to Blacks.  This three-way pattern of racial differences arises from evolutionary and genetic causes rather than purely cultural causes.  Blacks evolved to be adapted to the tropical climate of sub-Saharan Africa.  Whites evolved to be adapted to the cooler climates of Europe.  Orientals evolved for the coldest Arctic lands. 

Even as he argued that these race differences are genetically based, Rushton insisted that this was not an argument for genetic determinism.  There were two reasons for this.  First, since there is enormous variability within each race, and since the distribution of traits shows a great overlap between the races, one cannot generalize from a group average to any particular individual.  Second, he stressed that only about 50% of the variance is genetic, and about 50% is due to the environment; and even the genetic effects are necessarily mediated by neuroendocrine and psychosocial mechanisms, which allows the individual and society to exercise some control over this.

In the technical terms of the evolutionary science of life histories, Rushton explained, Orientals are more "K strategists," Blacks are more "r strategists," and Whites are intermediate between these two.  He was employing a theory of "r and K selection" developed by Edward O. Wilson and others (MacArthur and Wilson 1967; Wilson 1975, 99-103).

In the equations used by population ecologists to describe the growth of populations of organisms, r represents the slope of the line showing exponential growth, while K represents the carrying capacity of a habitat for a certain kind of organism.  Organisms identified as r strategists typically live in unstable, unpredictable environments, where the best reproductive strategy is to produce lots of offspring rapidly, while expending little parental investment in any one offspring.  The idea is to flood the habitat with progeny so that, while many of them will die, at least a few will survive to reproduce.  Organisms that are r selected tend to be small, short-lived, fertile at an early age, fast maturing, with a strong sex drive, little care for offspring, and less intelligent (smaller brains).  Typical examples of r strategists are oysters, salmon, frogs, and insects.

K strategists, on the other hand, occupy more stable environments, in which the best reproductive strategy is to live close to the carrying capacity of their habitat by producing only a few offspring and investing a lot of parental care in each offspring.  Organisms that are K selected tend to be large, long-lived, fertile at a later age, slow maturing, with a weak sex drive, with extensive parental caregiving, and more intelligent (larger brains).  Examples of K selected organisms are elephants, the great apes, and humans.  Indeed, humans are the most K selected species of all.

While many biologists have used r/K selection theory to explain differences between species, Ruston's novel idea was to use the theory to explain differences between races or subspecies within the human species.  While humans are the most K selected species, Ruston argued, some human races were a little less K selected and more r selected than other races.  Orientals are more K selected than Whites, and Whites are more K selected than Blacks.

As I listened to Ruston speak, I noticed that there were many newspaper reporters in the room, and I thought: This guy is going to stir up a big public controversy.  And, indeed, as soon as the Q&A began, the reporters began asking hostile questions.  I learned that Rushton had sent out press releases a week before describing his paper.  He wanted publicity--bad publicity!--and he got it.  Over the next few days, newspapers around the United States and Canada published stories about the firestorm he had created by presenting a scientific theory of racial differences that seemed blatantly racist.  I thought to myself that this guy must be so narcissistic--so obsessed with being the center of attention--that he will pronounce the most offensive ideas about racial differences to create the notoriety that comes from being regarded as the most outrageous kind of racist.

What I remember most about Rushton's speech was his obsession with the size of black men's penises.  One of the primary data points for his theory was his claim that black men's penises were bigger than white men's and much bigger than Asian men's.  You can see why Rushton began to appear on American television talk shows by Geraldo Rivera and Phil Donahue to defend his ideas about racial differences.

Rushton's 1989 AAAS paper was eventually published in 1992, and it can be found online.  Later, he elaborated his reasoning in a big book--Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective (1997).  He also published a special abridged edition of this book (2000), which can also be found online.

I was recently reminded of Rushton when I read some essays at the New York Review of Books (here) and Science for the People (here) showing that Edward O. Wilson had an extensive correspondence with Rushton--who died in 2012--that showed Wilson's support for Rushton's scientific theory of race differences.  A few weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing Monica McLemore for identifying Wilson as a racist without providing any evidence for this in Wilson's published writing.  At that time, I had no knowledge of Wilson's correspondence with Rushton, which suggests that in his private correspondence Wilson was willing to express his sympathy for the scientific racism of people like Rushton.  Wilson's correspondence is found in his papers at the Library of Congress.  An index to the papers can be found online.  I have not examined the papers.  But I will assume that these two essays accurately quote from the correspondence with Rushton.

Some of the scientists who at first defended Wilson from McLemore's charge of racism--such as Jerry Coyne--have said that this evidence of Wilson's support for Rushton forces them to reconsider whether Wilson really was a scientific racist.

From what I see in the correspondence and in Wilson's published writing on race differences, I draw two conclusions.  First, Wilson's correspondence showed bad judgment in supporting Rushton, because Rushton presented his theory of race differences in such a way that it could be easily interpreted as confirming scientific racism.  This became very clear in later years when Rushton allied himself with Jared Taylor's online journal American Renaissance, which promotes Taylor's argument for promoting the "white identity" of America and restricting non-white immigration.

My second conclusion is that Wilson was not himself a racist, because he saw that the science of race differences was compatible with the Lockean liberal principle of natural human equality of rights, which denies racist xenophobia and white nationalism.

Wilson's correspondence with Rushton began in 1986.  Wilson sponsored the publication of Rushton's paper "Gene-Culture Coevolution of Complex Social Behavior: Human Altruism and Mate Choice" in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS)But there was nothing in this paper about race differences.

In 1987, Rushton asked Wilson to sponsor another paper for publication in PNAS.  But this time, the paper was on race differences; and for that reason, Wilson had to decline to sponsor it.  Wilson explained to Rushton: "You have my support in many ways, but for me to sponsor an article on racial differences in the PNAS would be counterproductive for both of us."  He told a story about being attacked as a racist and then remarked: "I have a couple of colleagues here, Gould and Lewontin, who would use any excuse to raise the charge again.  So I'm the wrong person to sponsor the article, although I'd be glad to referee it for another, less vulnerable member of the National Academy."  Wilson's feeling of vulnerability in being exposed to the charge of racism must explain why Wilson's support for Rushton was restricted to private correspondence and never expressed in any public statement.

After Rushton's presentation at the AAAS convention on January 19, 1989, he found himself under attack.  The Premier of Ontario called for his dismissal from his faculty post at the University of Western Ontario.  The Ontario Provincial Police announced that he was under criminal investigation.  At his university, there were student protests against him.  Then, on July 1, he received a report from the Promotion and Tenure Committee of his department that rated his performance for 1988-1989 as "Unsatisfactory."  The report said that members of the committee were "of the unanimous opinion that your work on the genetic basis of race differences is substantially flawed and that your published record indicates serious scholarly deficiencies."  Rushton appealed this decision.  He cited his numerous publications as evidence that his research record was good.

On April 4, 1990, Wilson wrote to the Appeals Committee at the University of Western Ontario to support Rushton's appeal.  Wilson said that Rushton's data and interpretation were "sound, being adapted in a straightforward way from well documented principles of r-K selection in biology."  He said that many biologists would agree with this, and he explained: "You may wonder why almost none have published their opinions.  The answer is fear of being called racist, which is virtually a death sentence in American academia if taken seriously.  I admit that I myself have tended to avoid the subject of Rushton's work, out of fear."  Rushton won his appeal, and he wrote to Wilson to thank him for his support.

It seems that Wilson did not publicly state his support for Rushton's work out of "fear of being called racist."  Those who wrote the essays for Science for the People and The New York Review of Books assume that he feared being correctly called a racist.  But I think his published writing about race differences suggests that he feared being falsely called a racist.

Wilson's published writing about race is remarkably skimpy.  His most extensive writing on race that I have noticed is in the fourteen pages of his 1953 article on the "subspecies concept" (Wilson and Brown 1953) and four pages in his 1978 On Human Nature (47-51).  

In their NYRB essay, Borrello and Sepkoski say that in 1975, in the last chapter of Sociobiology, Wilson "suggested, among other things, an evolutionary and genetic basis for 'the behavioral qualities that underlie the variations between cultures,' as well as for 'marked racial differences in locomotion, posture, muscular tone, and emotional response that cannot be reasonably explained as the result of training or even conditioning within the womb.'" But the passage they quote does not appear in the 1975 Sociobiology.  It appears in the 1980 abridged edition of Sociobiology (274).  This passage originally appeared in On Human Nature (48-49), but without the phrase "marked racial differences." 

For interpreting Wilson's understanding of race, the best place to begin is his early article on the subspecies concept, because for biologists, the term "race" is equivalent to the term "subspecies."  Within each species, there is heritable phenotypic variation.  Indeed, without such variation within each species, evolution by natural selection would be impossible, because there would be no variation for natural selection to work on.  When this genetic phenotypic variation shows sufficient geographic structuring, so that the geographical origins of individuals can be determined from their genetic and phenotypic characteristics, then biologists can identify these geographic clusters as subspecies or races.  These races can become "incipient species" that eventually might evolve into species.

We are all familiar with the Linnean Latinized binomial taxonomic label for a species that denotes the genus and the species.  For example, the chimpanzee is Pan troglodytes--Pan for the genus, troglodytes for the species.  The other great ape that belongs to this genus is the bonobo--Pan paniscus--which for a long time was assumed to be a subspecies of chimpanzees--the pygmy chimpanzee.  That indicates the fundamental problem in all taxonomy: the boundaries are often so fuzzy that it's hard to distinguish between closely related species and between closely related subspecies, which leads to endless debates among taxonomists as to how to draw the boundaries.

Taxonomists employ a Latinized trinomial label for a subspecies.  The four generally recognized subspecies of chimpanzees have four such labels (Stanford 2018, 184-90).  The central chimpanzee--Pan troglodytes troglodytes--is found across a wide area of central African rain forest.  The western chimpanzee--Pan troglodytes verus--is found in the Tai National Park and surrounding forests in western Africa.  The eastern chimpanzee--Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii--is found in central and eastern Africa, and it's the most studied chimpanzee, including Jane Goodall's chimpanzees in Gombe.  The Nigerian-Camaeroonian chimpanzee--Pan traglodytes ellioti--is found in forested areas across Nigeria and Cameroon, and it has been named only in recent years.  Although it is not generally recognized, primatological taxonomist Colin Groves has argued that there is a fifth subspecies--the southeastern chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes marungensis)--that arises from the variation between the northern and southern populations of P. t. schweinfurthii

Comparisons of genetic variation between humans and great apes have shown that the degree of genetic differentiation among chimpanzee subspecies is about the same as among human races (Fischer et al. 2006).  So we have a choice.  If we deny that human races are real, we must also deny that chimpanzee races are real.  Or if we see that chimpanzee races are real, we must also see that human races are real.

In "The Subspecies Concept and Its Taxonomic Application," Wilson and Brown criticize the subspecies concept because of its "subjective and even arbitrary nature" (1953, 100).  This must be so because it's a fuzzy concept with fuzzy boundaries.  In an Addendum to Jerry Coyne's blog post (noted above), Greg Mayer argues that this shows that Wilson was not a racist, because in rejecting the concept of subspecies, he rejected the concept of race.  "Roughly speaking, Wilson didn't believe there were races."  And, indeed, this is what many biologists have said in attacking scientific racism--race is a cultural construction that has no biological reality.

But Wilson does not really deny the biological reality of races or subspecies.  Insofar as the subspecies concept has fuzzy boundaries, it will always be to some extent "subjective and arbitrary," which is evident in the endless debates among taxonomists about how exactly to draw the boundaries.  But then every concept has fuzzy boundaries, more or less, and therefore is to some extent "subjective and arbitrary."  This is easy to see by going to any dictionary and looking at the many different definitions for the same word.  Yes, the subspecies concept is difficult to define, but then every concept is difficult to define.  If dividing between two racial categories allows us to make accurate predictions about each, then those racial categories are real, even when the difference between them is very small and fuzzy.  This is just as true for dividing between species.  The genetic differences on average between humans and chimpanzees is very small.  But no one would say that the distinction between humans and chimpanzees is meaningless.  Similarly, there are more genetic differences within breeds of dog that between the breeds; but no one would say that the differences between a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are meaningless.

When Wilson's 1953 subspecies article was reprinted in his 2006 book Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006, he added prefatory comments on the article, in which he wrote:  "Looking back now, I believe Brown and I overreached in our recommendations on classification.  There are populations that are both isolated, as on islands, and possess enough concordant traits to qualify as objective geographic units, and there are advantages to giving them formal trinomens.  Some of these populations are proving to be distinct species different enough so that even if they were contiguous, no interbreeding would occur, but others deserve denotation as objectively definable subspecies" (354).  So now he clearly recognizes "objectively definable subspecies," which must include human races.

He also observes, however, that human races are difficult to define; and so physical anthropologists in the 1950s "varied wildly in their definition of human races and hence their count of the number of races existing in the human species" (353).  This is still true today.

Rushton identified only three human races--Orientals, Whites, and Blacks.  But he admitted that since the races can and do interbreed, many if not most people are of mixed race.  American Blacks, for example, on average have around 25% European genes (2000, 18, 50, 54, 59, 66-68, 93).  He conceded, therefore, that "to a certain extent all the races blend into each other."  But still most people can be identified with one race or another.  And we can say that a Black is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in sub-Saharan Africa, a White is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in Europe, and an Oriental is anyone most of whose ancestors were born in East Asia (2000, 93).

Rushton cited the work of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues in The History and Geography of Human Genes (1994), who classified humans into races based on genetic polymorphisms (Rushton 2000, 85-89).  A genetic polymorphism is a gene that can be composed of alleles in different forms.  Cavalli-Sforza took polymorphic genes for blood groups, blood proteins, lymphocite antigens, and immunoglobins and calculated the different allele frequencies in populations around the world.  He then used factor analysis to see the genetic similarity of these allele frequencies to calculate the genetic differences between each population and every other population.  He could then calculate a genetic linkage tree that grouped the populations into racial clusters.  Rushton does not tell his reader, however, that instead of finding Rushton's three races, Cavalli-Sforza found ten:

1. Bushmen and Pygmies

2. Sub-Saharan Africans

3. South Asians and North Africans

4. Europeans

5. Northeast Asians

6. Arctic Peoples

7. Native American Indians

8. Southeast Asians

9. Pacific Islanders

10. Australian Aborigines and the Aboriginal New Guineans

These ten races don't fall neatly into the three-leveled pattern of Rushton's theory.

Wilson did not, as far as I know, try to distinguish all the human races.  In On Human Nature, he said: "most scientists have long recognized that it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races.  Such entities do not in fact exist" (48).  This passage has been quoted by those wanting to defend Wilson against the charge of racism by arguing that he denied that race had any biological reality.

But immediately after this passage, Wilson cited some research by psychologist Daniel Freedman that showed evidence for "geographical variation . . . in the genetic basis of social behavior" and "marked racial differences" in Asians, Caucasians, and Native American Indians (Wilson 1978, 48-50; 1980, 274).  Studying American newborn infants, Freedman detected "significant average differences in locomotion, posture, muscular tone of various parts of the body, and emotional response that cannot reasonably be explained as the result of training or even conditioning within the womb."  Chinese-American newborns tend to be more quiescent than Caucasian-American infants, and Navaho infants tend to be even more quiescent than the Chinese infants.  Since this cannot be explained as resulting from cultural learning, this must show genetic differences between Asians, Caucasians, and Native Americans.

Wilson observes:

"Given that humankind is a biological species, it should come as no shock to find that populations are to some extent genetically diverse in the physical and mental properties underlying social behavior.  A discovery of this nature does not vitiate the ideals of Western civilization.  We are not compelled to believe in biological uniformity in order to affirm human freedom and dignity.  The sociologist Marvin Bressler has expressed this idea with precision: 'An ideology that tacitly appeals to biological equality as a condition for human emancipation corrupts the idea of freedom.  Moreover, it encourages decent men to tremble at the prospect of 'inconvenient' findings that may emerge in future scientific research.  This unseemly anti-intellectualism is doubly degrading because it is probably unnecessary.'"

"I will go further and suggest that hope and pride and not despair are the ultimate legacy of genetic diversity, because we are a single species, not two or more, one great breeding system through which genes flow and mix in each generation.  Because of that flux, mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature within which relatively minor hereditary influences recycle through ever changing patterns, between the sexes and across families and entire populations" (50).

Wilson quoted this last paragraph in a letter to Nature in 1981, in which he defended himself against the charge of promoting racism.  "To keep the record straight," he wrote in the letter, "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 behaviour."  But notice that saying that there is no scientific justification for racism is compatible with saying that there is scientific justification for the biological reality of race.  A biological science of racial differences does not justify the racist xenophobia that denigrates or degrades those who belong to a race different from one's own.

Genetic differences in the average propensities and traits of the human races is compatible with the Lockean liberal principle of equal liberty.  Lockean equality means not that all people are identical--in intelligence or in many other respects--but that all people are similar in resisting exploitation by others, so that no human being is good enough to govern any other human being without that person's consent.  Equal liberty requires not equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity in the pursuit of happiness.  In a society of equal liberty, those individuals who are naturally more intelligent or talented than others will reap the benefits of those superior traits, but those superior individuals will have no right to exploit those of lesser abilities.  In such a society, everyone can find valued places for themselves.

I have argued for this in previous posts: hereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here.


Borrello, Mark, and David Sepkoski. 2022. "Ideology as Biology." The New York Review of Books, February 5.

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi, P. Menozzi, and A. Piazza. 1994. The History and Geography of Human Genes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Farina, Stacy, and Matthew Gibbons. 2022. "'The Last Refuge of Scoundrels': New Evidence of E. O. Wilson's Intimacy with Scientific Racism.'"  Science for the People, February 1.

Fischer, Anne, Joshua Pollack, Olaf Thalmann, Birgit Nickel, and Svante Paabo. 2006. "Demographic History and Genetic Differentiation in Apes." Current Biology 16: 1133-1138.

MacArthur, R. H., and E. O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rushton, J. Philippe. 1992. "Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits (With Reference to Oriental-White-Black Differences): The 1989 AAAS Paper." Psychological Reports 71: 811-21.

_____. 1997. Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective. 2nd ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishing.

_____. 2000. Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective. 2nd Special Abridged Edition. Port Huron, MI: Charles Darwin Research Institute.

Stanford, Craig. 2018. The New Chimpanzee: A Twenty-First-Century Portrait of Our Closest Kin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward O., and W. L. Brown. 1953. "The Subspecies Concept and Its Taxonomic Application." Systematic Zoology 2: 97-111.

Wilson, Edward O.  1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

_____. 1978. On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

_____. 1980. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Abridged edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

_____. 1987. "Genes and Racism." Nature 289 (February 19): 627.

_____. 2000. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. 25th anniversary edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

_____. 2006. Nature Revealed: Selected Writings, 1949-2006. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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