Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Was Edward O. Wilson a Racist? Monica McLemore's Fraudulent Claim

I was shocked to see that Scientific American has published an article by Monica McLemore (a professor at the University of California-San Francisco) identifying Edward O. Wilson as a racist scientist.  I was shocked by this because there is no evidence to back up her claim, and one doesn't expect Scientific American to publish fraudulent research.  I was also shocked to see that Arts and Letters Daily has a prominent link to this article.  Scientific American should issue a public retraction of this article and apologize for publishing it without checking it for accuracy.

Here is how she begins her article:

"With the death of biologist E. O. Wilson on Sunday, I find myself again reflecting on the complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas and how these ideas came to define our understanding of the world."

"After a long clinical career as a registered nurse, I became a laboratory-trained scientist as researchers mapped the first draft of the human genome. It was during this time that I intimately familiarized myself with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior."

"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. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public."

Notice that she does not cite or quote any passages in his published writing where Wilson endorsed racism.  I have emailed McLemore asking that she give me some citations of Wilson's writing showing racism, but she has not yet responded.

She does cite Wilson's Sociobiology.  But that's strange because Wilson never says anything in that book favoring racism.  In the whole book, the word "race" appears only once; and that's in a quotation from Garrett Hardin identifying racism as a form of tribalism (565).  But since Wilson is warning against the dangers of tribalism, there's no way to see this as his endorsement of racism.

Wilson does have one paragraph on the slave society of Jamaica as an example of "societies that contain obvious inefficiencies and even pathological flaws" (549).  Wilson quotes from Orlando Patterson (a famous black sociologist at Harvard) as describing Jamaican slave society as showing "the astonishing neglect and distortion of almost every one of the basic prerequisites of normal human living."  Where's the racism here?

In On Human Nature, Wilson wrote: "it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races.  Such entities do not in fact exist" (48).  He also identified "nationalism and racism" as "the culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism" (92).  Where's the racism here?

In Consilience, Wilson identified "racialist fascism" as "totalitarian ideology" (34).  He also described Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead as having "led a crusade against what they perceived (correctly) to be the eugenics and racism implicit in Social Darwinism" (184).  Where's the racism here?

Monica McLemore says that Wilson's racism was implicit in his contributing to "the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture."  In fact, however, Wilson was famous for promoting the idea of "gene-culture coevolution" (in Consilience and other writings), which rejects "the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture."  Where's the racism here?

If I have overlooked some passage somewhere in Wilson's writings where he endorses racism, I am sure that McLemore will point me to it.  But if she can't do this, she should be ashamed of herself.

A few hours after I first published this post, I received an email response from McLemore.  She did not cite or quote any evidence of Wilson's racism, which I will take as indicating that she doesn't have any evidence for her claim.

I have written a series of posts on Wilson, the most recent one just two weeks ago.


mamift said...

The idea that EO Wilson was racist is bunk; but at the same time I think you're taking the article in question too seriously. The article itself is clearly an opinion piece, why would you expect the author to back up her claims with specific references?

Larry Arnhart said...

I assume that when Scientific American publishes an article, the label "opinion" is not the same as "fiction" or "parody."

Roger Sweeny said...

An Open Letter signed by many big names, A rebuttal to “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson”, was sent to Scientific American, complaining about the piece. Scientific American refused to publish it or respond.