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Ideology as Biology

Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

E. O. Wilson, 1975

Hugh Patrick Brown/Getty Images

E. O. Wilson, 1975

The death of renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson in December occasioned an outpouring of appreciation and commemoration appropriate for the passing of a Great Man of Science. Widely beloved for his contributions to the study of ants, biogeography, and biodiversity conservation, Wilson received laudatory obituaries and reflective essays in scientific journals and major newspapers. More than once, he was described as a “modern-day Darwin.” Yet few of his eulogizers cared to dwell on a central preoccupation of his career: the development of the field of “sociobiology” in the mid-1970s, which he defined as the study of the biological aspects of animal behavior. In the years that followed, Wilson became embroiled in a very public controversy over his application of sociobiology to human evolution and behavior. That dispute is very much alive today—and without reckoning with it no account of Wilson’s legacy can be complete.

In 1975, Wilson published a lengthy treatise on the evolution of social behavior in animals titled Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. While Wilson’s primary focus in the book was on nonhuman animals, in its final chapter he extended sociobiological analysis to humans. Here he 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.”

The publication of Sociobiology triggered an immediate, fierce reaction from liberal-minded scientists and commentators, in the form of campus protests and charges of racism and sexism. In a group letter responding to a review of Sociobiology in these pages, the signatories, including two of Wilson’s departmental colleagues at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, contended that Wilson’s “supposedly objective, scientific approach in reality conceals political assumptions,” drawing a line from the biological determinism that supported the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century to Wilson’s latest work. Other scientists, notably Richard Dawkins and Robert Trivers, staunchly defended Wilson and insisted it was, rather, his critics who were “politically motivated.” (Lewontin was an avowed Marxist, and Gould had socialist leanings.) Wilson himself angrily denounced his critics, both publicly and in private correspondence. Refusing to budge on the hereditarian implications for humans outlined in Sociobiology, he published On Human Nature in 1978 to great acclaim. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979.

The aftermath of Wilson’s work in sociobiology and the controversy surrounding it can best be described as an uneasy truce. Eventually, the antagonists moved on to other issues, and Wilson became one of the chief proponents of biodiversity conservation, for which he is now probably best known. The question of whether Wilson espoused racist ideas was left unresolved. So, too, was the larger question of how genetically determined human behavior is, and whether racial categories are even useful for describing genetic variations. Today, it is less common to call the study of racial or hereditarian differences in human behavior “sociobiology,” but fields ranging from evolutionary psychology to anthropology to molecular genetics have been influenced, often subtly, by Wilson’s framework.

While, in later years, he rarely wrote about race, in interviews and in personal correspondence Wilson continued to defend sociobiology and to characterize his opponents as “ideological,” dismissing allegations of bias. Based on our review of unpublished correspondence from E. O. Wilson’s archive housed in the Library of Congress, and on our research into the history of scientific racism, we aim to provide fresh insight into the history of sociobiology and clarify Wilson’s own position on race.

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The basic question of how influential biological programming—our genes and the evolutionary paths of our distant ancestors—is in defining individual and group differences in behavior and ability remains a vexed one to this day. Hereditarian approaches to the identification of group, or “racial,” differences in intelligence and other behavioral traits drew renewed public attention in the mid-1990s around the publication of Richard Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. At the same time, the race to decode the human genome, eventually accomplished in the early 2000s, created expectations that we were entering an era when complex physical and behavioral traits would be attributable to stretches of genetic code. While authors like Herrnstein and Murray have been shunned for the fairly openly racist social policies they promoted, Wilson has remained a safe authority for such contemporary hereditarian participants in this debate as Steven Pinker, Robert Plomin, and Kathryn Paige Harden. Rather than taking Wilson’s death as an opportunity to interrogate that authority, many of his fellow scientists have chosen a kind of sainthood for him instead of a frank examination.

A notable exception was an essay in Scientific American late last year by Monica McLemore, a professor of reproductive health at UC San Francisco, titled “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson.” McLemore addressed directly the legacy of sociobiology, arguing that Wilson “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.” She called for a racial reckoning in science, highlighting the need to diversify the scientific workforce and develop new methods that could “allow for dated ideas to be debunked and replaced.”

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The essay struck a nerve among the scientific establishment. Prominent scientists denounced the article and even called for the resignation of the editor who had published it. An open letter published on Substack was signed by thirty-five people, including several members of the National Academy of Sciences. The letter defended Wilson’s scientific reputation and personal integrity, faulted McLemore for “perplexing lapses in scholarship,” and concluded with Wilson’s own assertion, in 1981, “‘that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior.’”

In their hurry to defend Wilson, the signatories of the letter may not have realized the past involvement of its author, science blogger Razib Khan, with alt-right and white nationalist publications like The Unz Review and the Internet forum VDARE. When some learned of Khan’s background and withdrew their names, it brought a fresh round of outrage on social media and in popular science blogs.

The unwitting alliance between members of the scientific establishment and fringe proponents of race science, the defensive posturing of hereditarian biologists, and the general reluctance to critically engage with Wilson’s legacy and questions of racism in science are perennial features of the decades-long “nature vs. nurture” debate. Wilson’s defenders have frequently alleged that his critics are motivated merely by ideology, and challenge Wilson’s detractors to produce evidence that would demonstrate that sociobiology or hereditarian theories of innate human ability are racist. So, like good historians, we decided to delve into Wilson’s past. We found, independently, what other researchers have recently corroborated—that between 1987 and 1994, Wilson engaged in a lengthy and revealing correspondence with a notorious race scientist named J. Philippe Rushton, in which he more openly associated his own scientific ideas with racialized views of human ability than he ever did publicly.

In April of 1990, Wilson wrote an unusual letter to the Faculty Appeals Committee at Western University in Canada (then known as the University of Western Ontario) on behalf of a colleague who was being investigated for academic misconduct by that university. Psychology professor J. Philippe Rushton was under scrutiny in the wake of a controversial presentation he’d given at the 1989 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, where he presented “a theory of race differences” (Rushton’s own words) that attracted significant negative attention for the university. Wilson’s letter assured the committee that Rushton’s work was sound, and that Rushton’s detractors were motivated by political, rather than scientific, concerns. Wilson alluded to his own experience with politicized debates, stating that he himself understood the “fear of being called racist,” which he admitted previously led him “to avoid the subject of Rushton’s work, out of fear.” But now, Wilson explained, he felt obliged to speak out, to “remind listeners that racism is not the description of racial differences scientifically, but the use of that description to advocate discrimination.”

While he is not well known today, Rushton was during the 1980s a prominent proponent of so-called scientific “race realism”: the position that human race is a genuine, biological category, and that the genetic variation of complex traits like intelligence correlates with racial groups. In 2005, for example, Rushton coauthored an article with psychologist Arthur Jensen—a pioneer in racialized studies of IQ differences—titled “Thirty Years of Research on Race Differences in Cognitive Ability,” in which the authors argued that Black populations have lower average IQ scores than white ones because of inherent genetic differences, and not social factors. Rushton and Jensen explicitly presented their study as an empirical validation of the social policy put forth in The Bell Curve. They also urged the discontinuation of affirmative action programs, rejected claims of racism and discrimination toward Blacks in the US, and argued that “objective standards of merit” will inevitably lead to “racially uneven outcomes” in schooling, hiring, and the legal system. Notably, Rushton and Jensen’s article concludes with a quotation from Wilson’s On Human Nature: “‘An ideology that tacitly appeals to biological equality…encourages decent men to tremble at the prospect of inconvenient findings that may emerge in future scientific research.’”

Even before this 2005 essay, Rushton had established a track record of arguing for racialized genetic differences in human intelligence and had gone to great lengths to claim authority with Wilson’s writings on sociobiology. Wilson’s encouragement of Rushton reveals an aligned worldview. At the time Wilson penned his letter supporting Rushton, the two were in the middle of an enthusiastic correspondence in which Rushton made plain his hereditarian view of racial intelligence, and Wilson not only approved of Rushton’s case but encouraged his persistence in making it.

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Wilson’s correspondence with Rushton had begun in 1978, when Rushton invited him to contribute a chapter on sociobiology to a volume on altruism. While Wilson declined this invitation (he was too busy), the two were back in touch a decade later when Rushton asked Wilson to read a paper he was preparing on reproductive differences among human populations. Specifically, Rushton was arguing that “r/K selection theory” applies to different human races. This model was developed in the 1960s by Wilson and the population biologist Robert MacArthur to characterize distinct evolutionary reproductive strategies among different species of animals. It distinguishes species that produce large numbers of offspring (or those that are “r-selected”) with little subsequent parental investment (for example, many insects) from those that produce few offspring (or are “K-selected”) with greater parental investment (elephants, humans). Rushton’s intent was rather to demonstrate that “behavioral genetics seems to suggest that r/K relationships are heritable” among humans, and that, furthermore, different human “races” have different strategies: specifically, that Black people are r-selected, while whites are K-selected. Moreover, he carefully explained to Wilson that this model accounted for racial disparities in IQ, postulating that Black people are not selected for high intelligence because their selection strategy favors, essentially, quantity over quality.

As an author of the r/K model, one would have expected Wilson to have been outraged at Rushton’s proposal, which implied, as many nineteenth-century scientists did, that human “races” constituted different species—a view no reputable biologist, including Wilson, would have publicly defended. But Wilson immediately dashed off a letter to Rushton applauding his application of the r/K model as “one of the most original and interesting [ideas] I’ve ever encountered in psychology,” adding that the work was “courageous.” “In this country the whole issue would be clouded by personal charges of racism to the point that rational discussion would be almost impossible,” he wrote, urging Rushton to “press ahead!”

Thus encouraged, Rushton did exactly that: in an enthusiastic response to Wilson, he shared that he had found evidence documenting “the greater IQ of Mongoloids” (using an antiquated term associated with nineteenth-century scientific-racist classification of Asians). He further requested that Wilson sponsor his article for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (in those days, submissions to this prestigious journal could only be made through sponsorship by a National Academy member).

Wilson’s response to this request was equivocal. While he stressed that “you have my support in many ways,” he explained that sponsoring “an article on racial differences in the PNAS would be counterproductive for both of us.” “You will recall,” Wilson remarked, “that I’ve been called a racist (incorrectly, and unjustly) simply because of genetical arguments in Sociobiology, and on one occasion was physically attacked by a group of leftist brownshirts, the International Committee Against Racism.” (During a speech at the 1978 annual meeting of the AAAS, demonstrators dumped a glass of water over Wilson’s head.) “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 if you locate one as a possible sponsor.”

Rushton’s article was not submitted to PNAS, but rather to the journal Ethology and Sociobiology. This journal was an unabashedly Wilsonian bastion, founded in 1979 by admirers of sociobiology. As promised, Wilson acted as a formal referee for the article, recommending that the paper be accepted with only a minor clarification of a figure, without finding any fault in its misapplication of r/K selection differences to individual human populations. In his comments, Wilson asserted:

This is a brilliant paper, one of the most original and heuristic written on human biology in recent years. It is the first coherent theory of human racial variation in behavior and reproductive physiology. If it were not on racial differences, or if it were on another species, it would be readily accepted as a lead article in Nature or Science. Whether it can even be published in this or some other journal devoted to human sociobiology will be a test of our courage and fidelity to objectivity in science. It is certain to cause a stir, and I predict a great deal of ultimately constructive discussion and new analysis.

Despite Wilson’s glowing endorsement, and the journal’s sympathetic leanings, Rushton’s article was ultimately rejected for publication. According to another referee’s report, “the author either fails to understand r-K selection or is willfully misinterpreting it,” explaining that the model “was developed to explain life history differences between species subject to density dependent versus density independent population regulation,” and “to claim that differences among human cultures therefore fit into the r-K arena is wrong.” In an aside, this reviewer noted that he was “upset by this manuscript, not because I disbelieve the data but because I disbelieve the interpretation,” and reported having previously instructed Rushton about these errors when reviewing a similar manuscript elsewhere.

Indeed, one is bound to ask what, precisely, Wilson found so “important” or “brilliant” about an argument that, in essence, Black people have evolved to breed more and be less intelligent than white? Rushton, unabashed by public criticism, was unafraid to promote ideas that Wilson would not. But Wilson’s desire to see those ideas advanced is repeatedly made clear in his support for his colleague, to the extent that he even overlooked an obvious misapplication of his own theory.

By the following year, Rushton and Wilson’s correspondence had turned to commiseration over Rushton’s increasing professional difficulties. These included, in letters to other colleagues copied to Wilson, several long, self-pitying accounts of Rushton’s treatment by his own university, by the Behavior Genetics Association, and by Canadian media. Rushton’s catalog of grievances included being censured for what he described as questioning “extreme egalitarianism,” and in one particularly revealing passage Rushton complained of having to participate in a discussion on Geraldo Rivera’s show that included several experts and a “black man whose name I forget” whom he referred to derisively as “academics” using scare quotes. In increasingly hyperbolic language, Rushton predicted that the “taboo on race will surely be a major topic of investigation” by future scholars, arguing “There is no parallel like it in history. Not the Inquisition, Not Stalin, Not Hitler.”

Rushton also provided Wilson with a detailed narrative of his contributions to racial science as evidence of the “mistreatment” he was suffering. This document (which, in Wilson’s files, contains a handwritten note by Wilson indicating that he read it) highlighted Rushton’s comparison of litter size among racial groups (the frequency of multiple births), a study that claimed that “Negroids” had smaller average brains than “Mongoloids” and “Caucasoids,” and a paper suggesting that “racial differences in sexual behavior” made Blacks more susceptible to AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

In a response to Rushton, Wilson wrote that he was “appalled by the treatment you’ve received,” and called the controversy over open discussion of racial differences in ability “the chief dilemma of American intellectual life.” Wilson also reported that he had become involved with the National Association of Scholars, “to discuss how this dilemma might be resolved.” This hard-right advocacy group was established in 1987 by a coalition of conservative intellectuals with the stated purpose of preserving “Western intellectual heritage” and defending conservative faculty from liberal critiques (most recently, its members have led a crusade against the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools). While Wilson told Rushton that the issue he had raised with the NAS was “how to permit IQ and racial variation studies without exacerbating genuine racism,” he went on to propose a vision of society in which “we could speak more easily in terms of what different individuals (and groups) offer to each other.” Here he cited “common knowledge” of “negatively correlated personality and intellectual gifts” (i.e., the assumption that highly intelligent people are less pleasant and vice-versa). Wilson’s conception of “racism” seems to explicitly ignore a major component of its standard definition, namely hereditarian theories of racial differences in intelligence. Wilson’s condescension in claiming that while natural selection could explain intelligence, intelligence doesn’t make one happy, reeks of the kind of temporizing paternalism invoked during the days of slavery and Jim Crow.

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In the end, Rushton avoided sanction at Western University, and he eventually published his r/K selection theory in his 1995 book Race, Evolution, and Behavior with a minor independent press. In later years, Rushton left academia to lead the nonprofit Pioneer Fund, an organization founded in 1937 to promote eugenics that the Southern Poverty Law Center currently categorizes as a hate group. Rushton died in 2012 after directing the Pioneer Fund for a decade, but in more recent years several of Rushton’s earlier articles have been retracted by journals for serious errors or misconduct. Among these were two articles published in Psychological Reports in 1990 and 1991, during the period when Rushton was actively engaged in correspondence with Wilson, “following a review that found that the research was unethical, scientifically flawed, and based on racist ideas and agenda.”

In 2020, Rushton’s former department at Western University issued a statement declaring that “much of his research was racist, and attempted to find differences in intelligence between racialized groups and to explain them as caused by genetic differences between races,” noting that “[in] addition to ethical concerns about the nature and funding of his research, Rushton’s work is deeply flawed from a scientific standpoint.” Nonetheless, Wilson never publicly or—to our knowledge—privately disavowed Rushton or repudiated the race realism that Rushton promoted, despite being offered abundant opportunities to do so. In fact, in a 2009 interview with the historian Alice Dreger, Wilson objected that “certain subjects” (he singled out race and gender) are “completely taboo” in academic discussions. In this interview, besides complaining at length about the persistence of criticism by the “radical Left” and making highly personal attacks on Gould and Lewontin, Wilson defended the reputation of Richard Herrnstein, whom he portrayed as a fellow victim of leftist persecution.

Wilson may not have won the battle over sociobiology, but neither did he lose it. In many ways, sociobiology helped to normalize and lend legitimacy to the investigation of genetic and hereditary differences across human groups that continues to form the basis of research in human behavioral genetics and genomics. In a more sinister vein, it has influenced the ideologies of white nationalists and proponents of race realism.

All this is not to say that Wilson was, himself, a white nationalist. Nor is it grounds to “cancel” him or dismiss his prolific contributions to science. But he is not an infallible authority. Preserving a naively hagiographic picture of his career obscures the extent to which racist and sexist bias remains a glaring vulnerability of the science that has been built on his theories; indeed, such bias can motivate and blind scientists to deeply flawed interpretations of data. Racism in science, today, rarely announces itself with a white hood. Rather, it persists in tacit and unspoken assumptions, and hides behind claims of the inherent objectivity of scientific research. 

Far from being exceptional, Wilson’s attraction to proponents of extremist views is an all-too-common feature of scientific controversies around heated political topics. It is natural, when one feels defensive and unfairly attacked, to gravitate toward those who affirm one’s correctness, goodness, or courage. In refusing to accept criticism, Wilson backed himself into a far-right corner. Intentionally or not, many of his current defenders may be doing the same thing.

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