By association

A flock of birds silhouetted against a gray sky
(Flickr: Eugene Zemlyanskiy)

Update, February 1, 2022: Less than a week after I published this post, Stacy Farina — an evolutionary biologist at Howard University — and her husband Matthew Gibbons published an extensive look through E. O. Wilson’s correspondence with, and active support for, J. Philippe Rushton, one of the most outspoken race scientists of recent decades. If you’re finding this post for the first time, I’d ask you to start by reading what Farina and Gibbons found in Wilson’s archived papers. It is much uglier than I knew when I wrote this, and it really forces a re-evaluation of the ways in which I’d given Wilson the benefit of the doubt — the correspondence reveals he was quite committed to advancing the goals of race science.

I grew up in the Mennonite Church, a sort of next-level Protestant Christian tradition. (In cartoonish brief: Ulrich Zwingli rebelled against the Roman Catholic Church; the spiritual ancestors of Mennonites rebelled against Zwingli.) Mennonites practice adult baptism, holding that only an informed adult can meaningfully choose to follow their beliefs. One thing that people know about Mennonites, if they know anything, is that this doctrine means Mennonites take church membership — who’s an active part of a congregation, who isn’t on the rolls — very seriously.

In “old order” congregations, and the theologically-adjacent Amish church, this manifests as “shunning”, in which a baptized church member who stops adhering to the church’s beliefs is cut out of the social life of the congregation. The degree of that cutting off varies with tradition. It can mean complete separation from fellow congregationalists and family, even to the point of refusing to communicate; it can mean that the “shunned” person simply can’t join in church ceremonies. In the branch of the tradition I grew up in, it meant my family’s pastor — who, to 11-year-old me, was like a beloved uncle who was also the Metatron — drove from rural central Pennsylvania to Chicago to let a daughter of the church know that she’d lost her membership when she moved in with her girlfriend. I still haven’t forgiven him for that.

All of this is to say that I know a little bit about social sanctions. I think about that every time I see my fellow evolutionary biologists grapple with how to approach people who believe our scientific work supports their vision of genetically determined racial supremacy.

I am writing, alas, about Razib Khan. Khan has had a rocky relationship with our field, to say the least. I first came across him as a fellow member of the “science blogosphere” back in the days before Twitter and Facebook ate that loose network of variably-professional websites. Khan’s forté, as I knew it at the time, was breaking down classic population genetics papers at exhaustive length. He was always very interested in genetic differentiation among human populations, and the genetic basis of human traits, in a way that didn’t quite read as problematic. I had a perfectly friendly meeting with him during a visit to UC Davis in (I think it was) 2012, where he was working on a PhD in cat domestication genetics. But as time went by, small weirdnesses in tone and focus built up, and (to me) things slowly became clearer.

Khan was one of the few people with any real established population genetics expertise to publicly defend journalist Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Troublesome argued that cultural and economic disparities among human racial groupings arise from genetic differences, prompting widespread objections from evolutionary geneticists and anthropologists that culminated in a a joint statement by 139 scientists cited in the book, to clarify that Wade was fundamentally misinterpreting their work. In the face of that outcry from the genetics community, Khan was the go-to source for “race realists” in search of counterarguments.

Not long after this, he was floated for consideration as an opinion contributor at the New York Times — and then unceremoniously dropped when it was discovered he had an online pre-history of objectively racist writing with websites we would now call “alt-right”. These included VDARE, a white nationalist forum, and Taki’s Magazine, an outlet founded by an outspoken racist and antisemite. A 2017 profile at Undark made Khan a case study in evolutionary biology’s lingering inability to kick free of its ties to eugenics and race science, and by this point he was largely off my social media radar. To the extent that I’ve been aware of him since, I knew he’d set up shop in the “intellectual dark web” of conservative-shading-to-fascist punditry, and that, apparently, he still hasn’t finished that PhD. As far as I know, he has never acknowledged that any of his public writing on genetics is morally suspect and unsupported by evidence; he’s simply found audiences who like it for the very reasons that it’s wrong.

All of this that matters is very much already public record. Nevertheless, it’s apparently necessary to provide a recap as context for the distress provoked last week, when multiple prominent evolutionary biologists tweeted their thanks to Razib Khan for leading a joint statement in defense of E.O. Wilson.

Wilson’s death this past December prompted an outpouring of eulogies and fond remembrances. He was a giant in ecology and evolution, a passionate advocate for natural history and conservation, and by all accounts warm and generous in interpersonal interactions. His scientific legacy, however, is not unmixed. It includes his founding of sociobiology, a subfield characterized by commitments to biological determinism that provided intellectual shelter for overtly racist and sexist ideas about human society. It also includes his enthusiastic endorsement — in a blurb on the dust jacket — for A Troublesome Inheritance.

How we weigh this thread of Wilson’s intellectual life with the rest of his contributions is an important and delicate matter. Unfortunately, the first prominent attempt to make that assessment after his death, published just days later by Scientific Americanwas anything but delicate — far from reassessing Wilson’s work, it was an unfocused discussion of broad problems of racism and biological determinism in science writ large, taking pot-shots at pillars of biology from Gregor Mendel to the interpretation of the normal distribution along the way. The kindest reading of the piece is that it was written from a scholarly perspective entirely removed from modern evolutionary biology; less charitably, it was so poorly written as to undermine its own thesis.

So it is not surprising that a number of prominent biologists, people who knew and worked with and admired Wilson — including folks I personally respect and admire — decided to make a joint statement against that article. What makes much less sense is that they elected to do so by signing on to a post on Razib Khan’s Substack newsletter.

To put it bluntly: there are multiple co-signers to the post who could email Scientific American and ask for space to respond in print with every expectation of a quick and cheerful agreement to publish. Why choose this venue instead? Why choose, as the face of evolutionary biology’s defense of a beloved, recently departed intellectual leader, this guy whose relationship to the field is, at best, heavily informed by an interest in discredited and harmful ideas and, at worst, wholly motivated by them?

[Update, at 2:50pm Jan 27 — Since posting this whole article, I’ve had it clarified that the plan for the statement was in fact to send it to Scientific American as a response, but it was rejected. Khan then put it on his Substack without consulting all (or any of?) the co-signers. On the one hand, I think this puts the initial decision to sign, as discussed in the previous paragraph, in a slightly different light. On the other hand, I think the basic point in the next paragraph stands: the folks who co-signed didn’t see a problem with Khan leading the public response.]

The short answer is because the folks who co-signed that statement have, in fact, accepted Khan as a member of the community. Some of them appear to have not known the full extent of his commitment to race science; a couple have withdrawn their virtual signatures after seeing the outcry and figuring out the reason. But also, I think it’s fair to say that Khan took advantage of people’s feelings about the SciAm article. Grieving Wilson’s death, and then whiplashed by a ham-fisted critique, people jumped at an opportunity to strike back.

The greatest frustration to me about this series of events — first the SciAm article, then the Substack post — is that they very effectively hijacked the conversation evolutionary biologists could be having in the wake of Wilson’s death. A lot of us need space to mourn a genuine, and to varying degrees personal, loss. And in the fullness of time, we as a field need an assessment, maybe multiple assessments, of the good and the bad in Wilson’s lifetime of work — written with consideration by people who knew the man and his science, who can evaluate his contributions in light of what was known at the time he made them as well as what we have learned since.

We need that assessment because we have, as a field, promised to make it. Over the last two years, the scholarly societies of evolutionary biology in the United States have committed themselves to the work of opposing systematic racism. If evolutionary biology has supported racist social systems, this is a commitment to confront that history, even if it implicates people we hold dear.

This doesn’t mean “cancelling” E.O. Wilson, in the current culture-war parlance. Even if it were desirable, we could no more erase Wilson’s contributions from evolution and ecology than we could Charles Darwin’s. But we can know multiple things about people. I appreciate the power of The Origin of Species, and I love Darwin for his nerdy enthusiasm, his relatable melancholy, even his parenting. I can also acknowledge (often within the same BIOL 322 lecture) that he endorsed racist and sexist tropes as though they were irrefutable facts. People are complicated, the leading lights of our field no less so.

Evolutionary biologists need to wrap our heads around that complication, in our memorializing of E.O. Wilson as much as our accounting of the intellectual history of our field. And I think we can be more clear-headed about who gets to be a part of that conversation. We would not (I think!) argue that there should be a place for a proponent of intelligent design within evolutionary biology’s reckoning with its past — why would we say the same for a proponent of race science?

The white-supremacist alt right is intensely interested in enlisting evolutionary biology in support of its agenda. To the extent that this means they’re looking to co-opt empirical work that contradicts that agenda, we evolutionary biologists need to be much, much smarter about who we accept into our intellectual fellowship. To the extent that the ideas appealing to white supremacists are right there in the work of our field’s most beloved leaders, we need to stay focused on the task of putting our own house in order.

I’ll remind folks here that, as a matter of longstanding policy, the views expressed by individual writers on The Molecular Ecologist do not reflect those of other contributors to the blog, or of the editorial board and staff of Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources. I’ve closed the comments on this post because I expect I’ll be sufficiently occupied with my Twitter mentions and email inbox in the near future.

About Jeremy Yoder

Jeremy B. Yoder is an Associate Professor of Biology at California State University Northridge, studying the evolution and coevolution of interacting species, especially mutualists. He is a collaborator with the Joshua Tree Genome Project and the Queer in STEM study of LGBTQ experiences in scientific careers. He has written for the website of Scientific American, the LA Review of Books, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Awl, and Slate.
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