Sunday, February 27, 2022

The Illiberal Philosopher Behind Putin's Invasion of Ukraine: Alexander Dugin


                             Bernard-Henri Levy Debates Aleksandr Dugin in Amsterdam, 2019

                                                                      Aleksandr Dugin

"The Russian Renaissance can only begin in Kiev."  "Only after restoring the Greater Russia that is the Eurasian Union, can we become a credible global player.  Now these processes slowed down very much.  The Ukrainian maidan was the response of the West to the advance of the Russian integration."  (Maidan--the central square in Kyiv--is the name for the protest demonstrations against the pro-Russian illiberal government of Ukraine in 2013, which eventually led to the establishment of a pro-Western liberal government in 2014.)

That was the Russian political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin speaking in 2014.  He was supporting Putin's annexation of Crimea, but he was criticizing Putin for not conquering all of the Ukraine as a step towards establishing a Eurasian Empire based on a fascist Traditionalism that could challenge the global power of American Liberal Modernity.  

Recently, Dugin wrote an article saying that the aim of the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine was the "liberation" of the whole of Ukraine, which will bring "a completely different page in world history, . . . a multipolar world and a total change in the entire global world order."  What he means by this is that while after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it appeared that the world order would be "unipolar"--with the United States as the one hegemonic superpower--now we can move to a "multipolar world," in which a Eurasian Russian Empire can challenge the power of the U.S. and stop the global spread of Liberal Modernity. 

Dugin and other Right-Wing Traditionalists--like Steve Bannon--see the expansion of Russia as part of a global strategy to destroy the liberal democratic values of modernity promoted by the United States.  Ultimately, these ideas of the fascist Traditionalists are rooted in the illiberal nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger.  

Previously, I have written posts (herehere, and here) on the intellectual tradition of illiberal traditionalism--from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Nazism, and finally to the American Alt-Right and European New Right today.  For some time, I have wanted to write about how Dugin and Russian Eurasianism fit into that line of thought, which culminates in the global strategy of political leaders like Putin (and Trump) for pushing back against the international spread of American liberal democratic principles.

My thinking about Dugin's Eurasianism and fascist Traditionalism has been shaped by my reading of studies by Marlene Laruelle (2019a, 2019b), Charles Clover (2016), and Mark Sedgwick (2004), and by my reading of some of Dugin's writings--particularly, The Fourth Political Theory (2012).  For understanding Dugin's entanglements in Steve Bannon's global far-right circle, I have learned a lot from Benjamin Teitelbaum's War for Eternity (2020).  A recent article in the Washington Post offers a brief summary of Dugin's geopolitical Euroasianism and indicates how Putin has been following Dugin's plan exactly.


Dugin was born in Moscow in 1962.  At the age of 18, he joined an anti-communist dissident group--the "Yuzhinsky group"--that engaged in various kinds of occult spirituality as a form of psychic rebellion against the soulless life of a communist totalitarian society.  Dugin expressed his rebellion by embracing fascist and Nazi ideas.  He discovered the writings of Julius Evola (1896-1974), an Italian fascist, who had adopted the ideas of the Traditionalist School initiated by the Frenchman Rene Guenon (1886-1951), an occultist mystic. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, he looked for ways to create an ideological fusion of fascism, communism, and Russian nationalism that would challenge the global hegemony of the United States and the values of liberal modernity that the U.S. promoted--individualism, materialism, secularism, democracy, and human rights.  In the 1990s, he formed first the National Bolshevik Party and then the Eurasia Party as ways to promote his eclectic ideology that would support Russian global power projected against American liberalism.  In doing this, he glorified Tsarist, Leninist, and Stalinist Russia.

Dugin is clearer about what he is against than what he is for.  He is clearly against the liberal modernity promoted by the United States.  But what he is for is often confusing and incoherent.  Generally, his thinking combines four elements.  First, and perhaps most fundamentally, he draws from the Traditionalism of Guenon and Evola.  Second, he adopts fascist and Nazi ideas from the 1920s and 1930s.  Third, he appropriates ideas from the European New Right of the past thirty years.  And, finally, he tries to integrate all of this into a Russian Eurasianism.

Traditionalism is a revolt against the modern world as it began in the sixteenth century and then was deepened in the liberal Enlightenment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Prior to modernity, it is claimed, there was a divine order based on a universal religious tradition of spirituality that was diversely expressed in all of the organized traditional religions.  The modern world has lost this spiritual tradition, because it has been corrupted by the soulless secularism, materialism, and individualism of modern liberalism.  But once this corruption reaches bottom, the human longing for transcendent meaning will bring a cultural revolution that will renew the ancient Tradition.

The fascism and Nazism of the first half of the twentieth centuries were revolts against liberal modernity that attempted to restore the ancient traditions of a collective human existence rooted in the national identity of the Aryans and other blood-and-soil peoples.

The third element of Dugin's thinking comes from the European New Right--from those thinkers in Western Europe who reject the cosmopolitan liberalism represented by the United States.  These thinkers want to turn Europeans away from an Americanized Europe and towards a European Europe, in which each European country breaks away from American hegemony and from the European Union and affirms the traditional cultural identity and moral values of each nation as expressing its white Christian heritage. 

The final element is Dugin's vision of Russia as the leader of the Eurasian continent stretching from Dublin and Berlin to Vladivostok and Beijing.  Russia lies at the center of the Eurasian continent.  At the other pole of geopolitics is the Atlanticist Anglo-American world--Great Britain and its North American colonies--that has led the movement for liberal modernity.  This would set us a global battle between a rootless Atlantic world of Modernity and a rooted Eurasian world of Tradition.  

Notably, Dugin identifies the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 (the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) as "the peak of the strategic success of Eurasianists."  Dugin laments the break-up of this alliance between Germany and Russia in 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, as tragically failed opportunity for the illiberal Eurasianists to unite against the liberal Atlanticists.

Notice the historical logic of this.  If Hitler had maintained his alliance with Stalin, illiberal Nazi Germany could have conquered most of Western Europe, while the illiberal Soviet Union took control of Eastern Eurasia.  This could have checked the power of the Anglo-American Atlanticists (the U.S. and Great Britain) and prevented the hegemony of the U.S. after the war in creating the liberal international order.

In recent years, Dugin has found philosophic support for this bipolar vision of Liberal Modernity versus Illiberal Tradition in Martin Heidegger.  Dugin has translated seven of Heidegger's works, and he has written two books about Heidegger.  Dugin shows Heidegger's influence by using Heideggerian concepts like Dasein to explain geopolitics.

Against the background of Dugin's philosophic vision of geopolitics, one can understand why Putin invaded Ukraine.  During the previous Ukrainian crisis of 2014, Dugin wrote:

"Our revolution will not stop in Western Ukraine.  It must go further in Europe. . . . Europe faces a Revolution in both cases: if we, Russians, win, and if we stop somewhere under NATO pressure.  If we win, we will begin the expansion of liberation [from American liberal] ideology into Europe.  It is the goal of Eurasianism--Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.  A Great Eurasian Continental Europe.  And we will build it.  This means the European Revolution will be a Eurasian Revolution.  This is our last horizon."

Apparently, Putin decided to invade Ukraine with the thought that now was the time to start the Eurasian Revolution against American Liberal Modernity.  If so, he might have been following Dugin's advice.

I should say, however, that there is scholarly debate over whether Dugin has really had this kind of influence over Putin.  Marlene Laruelle thinks that Dugin's influence with Putin has been greatly exaggerated, because Putin has never publicly spoken about Dugin.  Clover and Teitelbaum, however, lay out the evidence that Dugin has been working with Putin behind the scenes.  I do not have enough knowledge to decide this debate.  But it does seem to me that if Putin has not been directly listening to Dugin's advice, Putin has been taking advice from people passing on Dugin's ideas.

Even if Dugin had no influence at all on Putin's decision, it's worth studying Dugin's thought as a philosophic explanation and defense of Putin's expansionist foreign policy.


We must wonder why Putin decided to invade Ukraine now--at the beginning of Joe Biden's second year of his presidency--rather than sometime during Donald Trump's four years in office.  Dugin's writing suggests an answer:  as long as Trump was president, Putin did not need to go to war to build his illiberal Eurasian Empire, but the election of Biden changed that, because it threatened to renew America's leadership of the liberal world order.

On November 8, 2016, election day in the United States, Dugin wrote an essay on "Clinton Is War, Trump Is Freedom".  He wrote: "Hillary Clinton is the path of globalism, the unipolar world, and the continuation of U.S. hegemony."  She represented the old world order of American liberal dominance of the global system that is coming to an end.  But since she would go to war to defend that liberal world order, the illiberal regimes like Russia would be drawn into her wars.

On the other hand, Dugin wrote: "Donald Trump is the America we almost lost"--the America described by populist nationalists like Patrick Buchanan that wanted to withdraw from liberal globalism.  This America could be great again, but it would not be a global power enforcing the liberal international order.  This would be a multipolar order in which illiberal autocracies like Russia and China could advance their illiberal values.  So if Trump is elected, Dugin declared, "the world will be a different place tomorrow."

And, indeed, this came true.  On November 10, 2016, two days after the election, Dugin wrote an essay on "Donald Trump's Victory."  Dugin explained how this was a great victory for Putin: "Putin, standing in the vanguard of the struggle for multipolarity, led up to this.  November 8th, 2016 was a most important victory for Russia and him personally.  There is no alternative to the multipolar order, and now we can finally create the architecture of this new world order--not through war, but through peace.  Trump has brought this with him."

Dugin wrote: "Trump's America is traditional and conservative, healthy, and worthy of respect.  This America said a resounding 'no' to globalism and the expansion of liberal ideology."

Consequently, "we should abandon simplistic anti-Americanism, which was completely appropriate when the U.S. was ruled by the globalists."  Now, "European liberals have lost their advisor," and thus liberal values must fade in Europe as long as America is no longer projecting liberal culture around the world.

Dugin observed:  "Some retort that we overestimate Trump.  Yesterday, they scoffed at us when we predicted his victory.  Today, our time has come.  This is a window of opportunity, and it is open.  If we fail to use it now, then we will have only ourselves to blame."

Then, on November 14, 2016, six days after the election, Dugin wrote on "Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire."  Here he explained that "anti-Americanism is over" for Russians who want to promote illiberal autocracy around the world, because not only will Trump turn America away from promoting liberalism abroad, he will also lead a revolution to overthrow liberalism in America.  When Trump promises to "drain the Swamp," we should see that "the Swamp is an ideology--Liberalism."  On the day before the election, the center of the liberal global order was in America.  On the day after the election, that center was gone.

Now, with the election of Trump, we no longer have a global order with two opposing poles--America in the West promoting liberalism and Russia in the East promoting illiberalism.  Now we see the West turning into the East.  "Now they have turned into two eschatological promises: Putin's Greater Russia and America liberating itself under Trump.  The 21st century has finally begun."

This alliance between Putin and Trump was manifest in the alliance between Dugin and Steve Bannon.  In November of 2018, Dugin and Bannon met in Rome.  This meeting was kept secret until Teitelbaum reported it in 2020 in his War for Eternity based on his extensive interviews of Bannon and Dugin.  At the time, Bannon and Dugin had to keep this secret, because the Trump movement was being criticized for its ties to Putin and Russia, and so publishing the story of this meeting would have been an explosive scandal for the Trump administration.

Bannon had been identified as perhaps the mastermind behind Trump's election.  He then joined the White House staff in 2017 as a close political strategist for Trump.  After he was fired in August of 2017, Bannon began to build a global network of far-right thinkers and politicians to advance illiberal populism in Europe and elsewhere.  Bannon had begun collaborating with people like the National Rally leader Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Viktor Orban in Hungary.  He was also organizing schools in Europe to teach future nationalist leaders about political activism and ideology (including Traditionalism).  His meeting with Dugin was part of that project.

Bannon is not the only Alt-Right thinker who has looked to Dugin.  For example, I have written previously about "Bronze Age Pervert," who endorses "Eurasianism" as a form of the European Ethnostate under a military dictatorship favored by the Alt-Right.

Dugin and Bannon met for eight hours of conversation over one day in a hotel room in Rome.  They talked about the philosophical ideology that might bring together Trump's America and Putin's Russia as allies in the fight against Liberal Modernity.  A big part of their conversation was about how Martin Heidegger's philosophy might support this.

Teitelbaum reports Dugin's thoughts about Bannon:

"This American emerged from a wasteland, a society forged to modernism with no connection to its soil, no connection to history, and no sacred roots.  To be American is to be without Tradition, which has made Bannon's rise all the more spectacular.  For there, among the ruins of modernity and materialism--in the midnight kingdom, at the midnight hour--a sudden blast of light.  The Russian sees Bannon's rise to power as the beginning of a successful revolt against the modern world, one foretold by ancient mystics and detailed in the writings of underground twentieth-century spiritualists.  Bannon isn't a person; he's an eschatological sign."

". . . We are Traditionalists, Dugin thinks to himself, and it is our time" (Teitelbaum 2020, 3).

Like Dugin, Bannon had become a Traditionalist from his reading of Guenon and Evola.  But despite this agreement on Traditionalist metaphysics and spirituality, Bannon and Dugin disagreed about some points of geopolitical strategy.  Bannon thought that America and Russia needed to find common ground as part of the Judeo-Christian culture in fighting against China, Turkey, and Iran.  But Dugin thought the spiritual fight against Liberal Modernity should be allied with China, Turkey, and Iran.

They also disagreed about Dugin's anti-Americanism.  Dugin thought that America was the only state created in modernity, and that while both America and communism belong to modernity, Russia has premodern historical roots in Tradition.  He thought that while he had been born into the rootless nothingness of communism, Bannon had been born into the rootless nothingness of America.  Both of them had found their way out of nothingness into Tradition.

Bannon responded by arguing that the modern nothingness was not the real America:

 "That's liberalism.  Liberal modernity.  It's not a people.  That's a set of ideas--dangerous ones--put forward by people from around the world.  When people say that America is an idea, that's what they're talking about, these so-called universal values that can't help but infect everything.  But that is the thing--America isn't an idea.  It is a country, it is a people, with roots, spirit, destiny.  It's the working class and middle class, it's that group of people that have been perennial to us, from the fuckin' Pilgrims and the Puritans on.  And what you are talking about, the liberalism and the globalism that live in America, real American people are victims of that.  We're talking the backbone of American society, the people who give the country its spirit--they're not modernists.  They're not the ones blowing trillions of dollars trying to impose democracy on places that don't want it.  They're not the ones trying to create a world without borders.  They're getting screwed in all of this, by an elite that doesn't care about them and that isn't them" (158).

Bannon insisted that the real Russia and the real America are united in their fight for spiritualism against materialism.  Russia is fighting for the spiritualism of the Eastern Orthodox tradition against the materialism of communism.  America is fighting for the spiritualism of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition against the materialism of liberalism.  (Dugin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church.  Actually, he's an "Old Believer"--one of those who maintain the liturgical and ritual practices of the Russian Orthodox Church as they were before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow between 1652 and 1666.)

In a way, Dugin seemed to agree with Bannon in 2016 when Dugin said (in "Donald Trump: The Swamp and the Fire") that Trump was leading the real America in a conservative revolution fighting against the Swamp of liberalism, and therefore Russian anti-Americanism was no longer necessary.  Trump and Putin could be seen as "two eschatological promises."  As long as Trump was fighting against liberalism in America, Putin could advance the cause of illiberal autocracy across Western Europe and the rest of the world.

But that was all changed by the election of Biden in 2020.  Now, the Swamp of liberalism is back in control of America, and Putin has no alternative but to go to war against a unipolar global order with a hegemonic American liberalism.  This was made clear in Biden's first year when he repeatedly declared that the world order was defined by a battle between the liberal democracy of America and its allies and the illiberal autocracy of Russia and China.

In these circumstances as created by Biden's election, Putin had to invade Ukraine and push up to and perhaps beyond the borders with the NATO countries.  He had to do this to advance the cause of Dugin's illiberal Eurasianism rooted in Traditionalist spiritual values.

Right now, we cannot be sure of the outcome.  But I see evidence just in the first few days of the war that Putin has already lost the war--because of the resoluteness of the Ukrainean people in defending their homeland, the strength of the U.S. and the NATO allies in resisting Putin's invasion, and the superiority of liberal democracy over illiberal autocracy.

Even if Putin occupies most of Ukraine, there will surely be a Ukrainian insurgency that he can never defeat.

Far from being smart, as Trump has said, Putin's invasion is dumb.


Clover, Charles. 2016. Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism.  New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Dugin, Alexander. 2012. The Fourth Political Theory.  London: Arktos Media.

Laruelle, Marlene. 2019a. "Alexander Dugin and Eurasianism." In Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the Threat to Liberal Democracy, edited by Mark Sedgwick, 155-69.  New York: Oxford University Press.

_____.  2019b. Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines, and Political Battlefields. Oxford: Routledge.

Sedgwick, Mark. 2004. Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teitelbaum, Benjamin R. 2020. War for Eternity: Inside Bannon's Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers.  New York: Dey St., HarperCollins Publishers.

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.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Happy Darwin/Lincoln Day!

On February 12, 1809, Charles Darwin was born in England, and Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky.  They had more in common than just the coincidence of their birth.  Almost every February 12th, I have posted an essay on some of the common themes in their lives.  I see at least ten points of similarity between Darwin and Lincoln.

1. Both saw the universe as governed by natural laws, which included the natural laws for the evolution of life.

2. Both were accused of denying the Biblical doctrine of Creation.

3. Both were accused of being atheists or infidels.

4. Both spoke of God as First Cause.

5. Both appealed to the Bible as a source of moral teaching, even as they also appealed to a natural moral sense independent of Biblical religion.

6. Both rooted that natural moral sense in the evolved moral sentiments.

7. Both abhorred slavery as an immoral violation of evolved human nature, and they saw the American Civil War as a crucial turning point for the abolition of slavery.

8. Both were moral realists.

9. Both saw human history as moving through a Big History of three evolutionary eras--the foraging era, the agrarian era, and the modern era.

10. Both were classical liberals.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

The COVID-19 Virus Probably Leaked from Shi Zhengli's Lab in Wuhan: Should We Blame Francis Bacon?

                                     A Transmission Electron Micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 Viruses

It has killed almost six million people over the past two years, and it continues to kill more every day.  It has made hundreds of millions of people sick, some severely so.  It has disrupted the life of almost every person on the planet.  The evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (SARS2) that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic has had--and will continue to have--a major effect on the evolutionary history of life on the Earth.  This evolutionary change will continue as the virus evolves, along with the coevolution of the human physiological and behavioral immune systems.   And yet, amazingly, we are still not sure exactly where, when, or how the SARS2 virus originated. 

There is growing evidence, however, that SARS2 emerged and was perhaps created in virologist Shi Zhengli's laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, with research funding from the U.S. government, and that the pandemic began in Wuhan when the virus accidently leaked out of her laboratory.  

I have changed my mind about this.  In the spring and summer of 2020, I suggested--in posts here and here--that the virus probably evolved naturally in bats before it passed into humans (perhaps through an intermediate animal).  But then beginning in May of last year--in posts here and here--I argued that there was plenty of evidence for the virus having evolved artificially in Shi's lab and then accidently leaking out of her lab into Wuhan, when some of her lab workers became infected.

If this is true, it should provoke lots of questions about who we should blame and how we might prevent this from happening again.  But the deepest question, I have suggested, is whether we should blame Francis Bacon and the modern scientific project that he initiated, because Shi's governmentally funded research looks like the sort of publicly sponsored scientific research carried out in Salomon's House in Bacon's New Atlantis.  Bacon promised that modern science and technology could master nature "for the relief of the human estate."  Shi and her colleagues have justified their research with the same promise.  They have promised that their research would allow us to predict and prepare for new infectious viruses, so that we could avoid future pandemics and produce new vaccines to give us immunity to dangerous viruses.  But now it seems likely that this research produced not a vaccine but a plague.  

Should we conclude from this that our support for modern science and technology has been a Faustian bargain with the Devil?  Or should we say that this is a good bargain--as long as we understand that regulating scientific research to avoid unnecessary risks is part of the bargain?

We now have a new book to help us think about these questions--Alina Chan and Matt Ridley's Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19 (New York: HarperCollins, 2021).  In the debate between those who believe the Covid-19 pandemic began with a natural spillover of the SARS2 virus from animals (originally horseshoe bats in southern China) and those who believe it began with an accidental leak of that virus from a lab in Wuhan, Chan and Ridley concede that there is no demonstrative proof for either side.  But as of now, they argue, the greater weight of the evidence is on the side of the accidental lab leak theory.

To support that conclusion, they engage in what the medieval scholastic philosophers would have identified as "disputation."  They imagine opposing attorneys summarizing their arguments before a jury.  In chapters 12 and 13 of their book, Chan and Ridley present the attorney for the natural spillover theory followed by the attorney for the lab leak theory--with the first attorney making 12 arguments and the second making 10 arguments.  I will briefly state those arguments here.


(1)  What we know about the evolution of the 2003 SARS virus indicates that it almost certainly originated through a natural spillover from horseshoe bats to humans.  Shi Zhengli and her colleagues identified the bat coronaviruses that were the precursors of the SARS virus that infected human beings.  These same scientists have argued that the SARS2 virus probably originated in the same way--as a natural spillover from bat coronaviruses.  And although they have not yet found the direct ancestor of the SARS2 virus, they have found bat coronaviruses that are remarkably similar to SARS2.  That should be enough to convince us that the Covid-19 pandemic probably originated from a natural spillover.

(2)  The primary reason that some people believe that the SARS2 virus leaked out of Shi's lab in Wuhan is that the first people infected with the virus were in Wuhan; and the researchers in Shi's lab had been sampling and studying bat coronaviruses from southern China for many years.  But the proximity of the Wuhan lab to the first identified infections is only a coincidence.  We should assume that someone was infected with the virus somewhere in southern China and then the virus was passed to people in Wuhan.

(3)  This natural spillover of infectious viruses to humans from bats has occurred many times--not just with the SARS virus but also the Ebola, MERS, Nipah, and Hendra viruses.  We should assume that SARS2 fits into the same evolutionary pattern.

(4)  The SARS2 virus appears to be the product of recombination: combining parts from many different viruses.  That happens all the time with viruses--they evolve by switching genetic parts in and out of closely related viruses.  We can assume that SARS2 emerged naturally from that evolutionary process of viral recombination.

(5)  It is true that for many years Shi and her colleagues have been visiting bat caves in the southern province of Yunnan, and therefore there could have been a spillover from a bat to the scientists.  But a small proportion of people in Yunnan have antibodies to SARS, which indicates occasional natural spillovers.  We can easily imagine that someone became infected with SARS2 and then travelled north through China until the virus reached Wuhan.

(6)  In February of last year, a team of investigators from China and the World Health Organization held a press conference at which they proposed that the SARS2 virus could have been transmitted to Wuhan on some frozen food.  This has been ridiculed as the "Popsicle Theory."  And scientists have generally rejected it as implausible.  But a good lawyer defending the natural spillover theory could rightly concede this without weakening his case.

(7)  From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Shi and her colleagues have been remarkably secretive about their research, as if they were concealing evidence that might support the lab leak theory.  For example, on February 3, 2020, Nature published the first paper on the SARS2 virus by Shi and her colleagues, which reported that they had found in the Wuhan lab's collection a bat coronavirus called RaTG13 that was a 96.2 percent genome match to SARS2.  They did not report, however, that this RaTG13 strain had been collected in 2012 from patients who had become sick in Yunnan Province after visiting a mine cave to clean bat feces in order to mine copper.  Nor did they report that between 2012 and 2015, they had collected from the same cave eight other betacoronaviruses that were SARS-related, and that in 2018 they had obtained almost the full-length genome sequence of RaTG13.  They finally reported all of this on December 3, 2020, in an Addendum to their February Nature article.  Why did they keep all of this secret for almost a year?  Well, their defense lawyer might argue, they were afraid of being blamed for the pandemic, and so they hid any information that might be interpreted as suggesting a lab leak of the Covid virus.  But even if we can rightly criticize their lack of openness, this is no proof of their guilt.

(8)  The SARS2 genomic sequence does not match any known virus reported anywhere prior to the identification of SARS2 in January of 2020.  Even the RaTG13 virus genome is only a 96 percent match, which is still not close enough to be a direct precursor of SARS2.  Proving the lab leak theory would require evidence that scientists had a SARS2 precursor in their labs before the pandemic began.  Until such evidence appears, the lab leak theory is only an unsubstantiated speculation. 

(9)  Many of the early cases of Covid were linked to an animal market in Wuhan.  We now know that although there were no bats or pangolins in that market, other kinds of live mammals were sold there.  A transmission of the virus from these animals to humans is a serious possibility.  Although no animals have been found to have the SARS2 virus, it is possible that wildlife vendors quickly hid their infected animals when they heard about the outbreak.

(10)  One primary reason why the SARS2 virus so easily infects human beings is that it has a furin cleavage site.  Furin is an important protein in human cells, because it cleaves proteins in two so that they can change shape to better perform their functions.  Furin is attracted to the right place in each protein by special sequences of amino acids.  The furin cleavage site in SARS2 has a genetic recipe for four amino acids in a key spot of the spike gene of the virus, which attracts the furin protein to cut the spike protein in just the right way so that it forces the fusion of the virus to a human cell and allows the virus genome to enter the cell.  Other coronaviruses that infect humans attract furin, but they are not in the subgenus of SARS-like (sarbecovirus) viruses.  SARS2 is the only sarbecovirus with a furin cleavage site.  Virologists can experimentally insert furin cleavage sites in the spike genes of coronaviruses.  And so proponents of the lab leak theory have argued that the furin cleavage site in SARS2 must be the product of a lab experiment.  But the lawyer for the natural spillover theory could argue that the furin cleavage site could easily have emerged by recombination or mutation in this part of the spike gene.

(11)  Perhaps the best argument against the lab leak theory is that there is no direct evidence for it.  No one has identified an infected laboratory worker.  No one has reported a laboratory accident in Wuhan.  Even if the Chinese government has tried to suppress any evidence for a lab leak, it's hard to believe that this explains why there has been no whistleblower.

(12)  Finally, we should notice that the proponents of the lab leak theory are personally motivated to do this, because many of them are opponents of genetic engineering and of experiments with virus that might have some risks.  Moreover, there is a natural human resistance to believing that a global catastrophe like a pandemic can arise from random events in nature.  When we suffer from a plague, we want to blame someone; and in the tradition of the Frankenstein story, many of us want to blame the mad scientist.


Now let's hear the response from the attorney for Chan and Ridley.  This attorney would begin by making it clear that he is not trying to argue that the scientists in Wuhan intentionally created the pandemic.  They were not designing a bioweapon.  Their intention was good: they wanted to study potentially dangerous viruses so that they could predict pandemics and find ways to avoid them.  If there was a lab leak, it was accidental.  A scientist was accidentally infected with the SARS2 virus either through contact with bats in the wild or in the laboratory, and then this infection was transmitted to others in Wuhan.

(1)  The first point to make is that lab leaks do occur.  Alison Young, a journalist who has tracked lab leaks in the United States for the past 15 years, has written about this in USA Today ("Could an Accident Have Caused Covid-19?," March 22, 2021).  Around the world, in even the most secure labs, there have been accidental releases of SARS, anthrax, smallpox, foot-and-mouth, Marburg virus, and other pathogens.  Luckily, there has been no clearly identified case of a major pandemic caused by a lab leak.  There is only one possible case of a pandemic that began in a lab, although there is disagreement about it among the scientists who have studied it.  In 1977, an Influenza A (H1N1) strain of flu swept over the world, beginning in China.  This strain of flu was genetically identical to an H1NI flu that had been common in the 1950s but then disappeared.  One theory about this is that in some lab somewhere, this flu strain from the 1950s had been thawed out to develop new vaccines, and that the live attenuated virus used as a vaccine recovered its ability to cause the disease.  There's a dispute, however, as to whether this should count as a lab leak (see Chan and Ridley, 148-51).  In any case, as long as lab leaks occur, causing a pandemic is possible.

(2)  Consider also that although it has been over two years since the SARS2 virus was identified, there is still no direct evidence for its natural origin.  By contrast, in the case of the SARS epidemic in 2003, it was quickly determined that the first people who were infected were food handlers.  Scientists visited a live animal market in Shenzhen, Guandong, in southern China.  The SARS virus was isolated from five of the animals.  They also found that some of the animal handlers had antibodies to SARS.  The highest antibody prevalence was found in those who primarily traded civets.  No evidence like this has been found for SARS2.  None of the animals from the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan tested positive for SARS2.  Thousands of animals across China have been tested, and there is no sign of the SARS2 virus in any of them.

(3)  Unlike the SARS virus of 2003, which was seen to evolve during the early months of the outbreak to become better adapted for infecting humans, the SARS2 virus was well adapted for infecting humans from the start of the outbreak.  We have to wonder whether the SARS2 virus had developed its remarkable ability for infecting and transmitting among humans through evolving in a laboratory.

(4)  Why have the Chinese authorities and the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) refused to release the two kinds of data that could refute the lab leak theory?  The WHO investigators have not been permitted to see the hospital records of the early Covid-19 cases or the information about the locations and professions of the first people infected.  If this showed no connection to any laboratory in Wuhan, this would be evidence against the lab leak theory.  Another important kind of data is the WIV's database of fifteen thousand bat samples from southern China.  That database could be found online until it was taken offline in 2019 on September 12 between 2 a.m. and 3 a. m.  Why?  What's the point of building such a database over many years and then not allowing anyone to see it?

(5)  Another big question is: why Wuhan?  Is it just a coincidence that the SARS2 virus emerged first in the one city in the world with the largest collection of bat sarbecoviruses and the most active lab studying these viruses?  Isn't it odd that this city is over 620 miles from the region of China where SARS-like viruses are found naturally?

(6)  It was almost a full year after the beginning of the pandemic before the WIV revealed that it had a collection of SARS-like viruses collected in an abandoned copper mine in Mojiang with many bats, where workers had been sickened with a SARS-like illness in 2012.  This collection had nine viruses very genetically similar to the SARS2 virus.  Why the delay?

(7)  International journalists trying to visit that Mojiang mine have been blocked by police and by people guarding the entrance to the mine.  Why?  Shouldn't this create some suspicion that the SARS2 virus might have originated there, and that the WIV scientists taking samples from the bats there might have taken the virus back to their lab in Wuhan?

(8)   Some of the best evidence that laboratory scientists were probably responsible, even if unintentionally, for the pandemic is the record of their research.  Here's how Chan and Ridley describe that research:

"They did not just bring viruses from caves and mines in southern China to the laboratory for storage; they sequenced their genomes, made infectious clones of them, rescured live viruses from culture, passaged them through a range of laboratory-made cell lines of different animal species and cell types, synthesized and altered their genomes to insert specific sequences, hybridized genomes to combine parts of one virus's spike gene with backbones from another virus, and used these viruses to infect human respiratory tract cells and humanized mice genetically engineered to have human ACE2 in them.  This type of research carries a risk of, unintentionally, generating a more virulent or infectious version of a virus or selecting for bat viruses that are efficient at infecting human tissues and humanized animals" (287).

Moreover, we now know that Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance in collaboration with Shi Zhengli and others submitted a grant proposal in March of 2018 to the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  A leaked copy of this proposal was published a few months ago by The Intercept.  They proposed to insert cleavage sites into engineered SARS-like viruses: "We will analyze all SARSr-CoV S gene sequences for appropriately conserved proteolytic cleavage sites in S2 and for the presence of potential furin cleavage sites . . . we will introduce appropriate human-specific cleavage sites and evaluate growth potential in Vero [monkey kidney] cells and HAE [human airway epithelial] cultures."  The proposal was rejected.  One of the criticisms coming from a DARPA program manager was that the proposal "did not mention or assess potential risks of Gain of Function (GoF) research and DURC [Dual Use Research of Concern]."

Although this grant proposal was unsuccessful, we know that Daszak and Shi have had other sources of funding that they could have used.  We also know that scientists often write proposals to support research that they have already undertaken, and so it is likely that Daszak and Shi have been inserting furin cleavage sites into SARS-like viruses, which could have created the SARS2 virus.

(9)  Another argument for the lab leak theory is that many of the scientists who rejected the lab leak idea in the spring of 2020 had changed their minds by the spring of 2021 as the evidence for a lab leak piled up.  The critical turning point was a letter signed by eighteen scientists published in Science in the middle of May 2021, which said that the lab leak idea needed to be taken seriously.  For example, Bernard Roizman, a virologist at the University of Chicago, had rejected the lab leak theory in February of 2020.  But in May of 2021, he said: "I'm convinced that what happened is that the virus was brought to a lab, they started to work with it . . . and some sloppy individual brought it out . . . they can't admit they did something so stupid."

(10)  Moreover, we now know that the first reaction of many scientists early in February of 2020 was that the SARS2 virus must have been leaked from a lab, but that this should not be said in public for fear of promoting distrust of scientists.  Some Republican congressmen have recently forced the release of emails exchanged between scientists after a conference call on February 1, 2020, that show that these scientists were privately worrying about a lab leak even though they publicly denied this.  Ridley has written about this on his blog.

Jeremy Farrar organized the call on February 1 with Patrick Vallance, Francis Collins, Anthony Fauci, and a group of virologists.  In the emails after the call, many of the participants indicated that they thought a lab leak was the most likely source of the SARS2 virus.  But then a few days later, many of these people signed their names to public statements and articles rejecting the lab leak theory.  None of them has explained why they changed their minds, but their emails suggest that they thought publicly stating the truth would be too dangerous for science.


In those emails, Ron Fouchier warned that taking seriously the lab-leak theory would "do unnecessary harm to science in general and science in China in particular."  Similarly, Francis Collins warned about "doing great potential harm to science and international harmony."  Anthony Fauci said: "I would not do anything about this right now.  It is a shiny object that will go away in time."

If it were to become generally accepted that the Covid-19 pandemic was caused by a leak from the Wuhan lab, would that force us to reassess the whole Baconian project of modern science and technology?  In Bacon's New Atlantis, the scientific laboratories in Salomon's House are regulated by the scientists themselves, who decide what should be made public and what should be kept secret.  Can scientists be trusted to regulate themselves in deciding whether the likely benefits of their research outweigh the likely risks?  Or should ordinary citizens and politicians demand regulatory restrictions on what the scientists can do?

Even if we end up blaming Bacon's science for causing the Covid-19 pandemic, we must remember that Bacon's science also created the Covid-19 vaccines that have saved millions of lives.  Amazingly, the biotech firm Moderna completed the design of its experimental messenger-RNA (mRNA) vaccine to fight the SARS2 virus by January 13, 2020, only a few days after the sequencing of the SARS2 genome was made public!

We should also notice that Bacon's science seems to be close to developing a new universal coronavirus vaccine that could prevent future SARS-like coronavirus pandemics.  Ralph Baric and his colleagues have developed and tested such a vaccine in mice.  They started with mRNA--like the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines used today--but instead of including the mRNA code for only one virus, they created a hybrid or chimeric mRNA from multiple coronaviruses.  When presented to mice, this chimeric vaccine generates antibodies against multiple spike proteins, which viruses use to enter healthy cells.  This vaccine has the potential to be effective against every variant of the virus (David Martinez et al., "Chimeric Spike mRNA Vaccines Protect against Sarbecovirus Challenge in Mice," Science 373 [2021]: 991-998).

Even as we restrict Bacon's scientists to reduce the risks from accidental laboratory leaks that could cause another pandemic, we need to promote that research of Bacon's scientists that is likely to lead to new vaccines and therapies that protect us from dangerous pathogens.