When Edward O. Wilson said the wrong thing...

MONDAY, DECEMBER 27, 2021

...it was major professors gone wild: Edward O. Wilson died yesterday at the age of 92. His stature is captured in the headline in the Washington Post:

Edward O. Wilson, Harvard naturalist often cited as heir to Darwin, dies at 92

Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard naturalist whose mapping of social behavior in ants led him to study social behavior in all organisms and who became one of the greatest naturalists of his generation, died Dec. 26 in Burlington, Mass. He was 92.

The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation announced his death but did not provide a cause.

Often cited as Charles Darwin’s greatest 20th-century heir, Dr. Wilson was an eloquent and immensely influential environmentalist and was the first to determine that ants communicate mainly through the exchange of chemical substances now known as pheromones.

He discovered hundreds of new species by putting his hands in the dirt as a field biologist, synthesized evolving thinking in science and coined new terms, such as biodiversity and biophilia, to explain it. Of his many accomplishments in evolutionary biology, his biggest contribution was probably in the new scientific field of sociobiology, in which he addressed the biological basis of social behavior in animals, including humans.

This "heir to Darwin" had "addressed the biological basis of social behavior in animals." Even in us humans!

Apparently, some of us human didn't like that much. Later, Patricia Sullivan takes us back to 1975, when Wilson published his famous book, Sociobiology.

Uh-oh! Familiar conduct emerged:

SULLIVAN: The controversy came from the last chapter, on humankind. Dr. Wilson proposed that human behavior is genetically based, that humans inherit a propensity to acquire behavior and social structures, including a division of labor between the sexes, parental-child bonding, heightened altruism toward closest kin, incest avoidance, suspicion of strangers, tribalism, male dominance and territorial aggression over limited resources.

He later noted in “Naturalist,” his 1994 autobiography, that his was “an exceptionally strong hereditarian position for the 1970s.”

The response was furious, starting at his own school, where colleagues accused him of genetic determinism and tied the theory to Nazi eugenics, racism, sexism, sterilization and restrictions on immigration. Demonstrators disrupted the campus, calling his theory an apologia for the status quo.

The fact that sociobiology made the cover of Time magazine or that Dr. Wilson debated the proposition on the “Today” show and Dick Cavett’s talk show did not impress them. The protests culminated with a takeover of the stage at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, where one demonstrator was said to have drenched him with a pitcher of ice water, declaring, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

"Decades later, scientists now acknowledge that genes play some still undefined role in human nature," Sullivan writes.  But at that time, Wilson's last chapter had made him a Nazi! Some genius drenched him with ice water, then said he was all wet!

But did that actually happen? Sullivan provides no link, and she cites no source. Indeed, she only says that the drenching is "said to have" occurred.

When we googled around, we found a New York Times review of Wilson's 1994 book, Naturalist. Helen Fisher described the incident and even named some names, apparently citing Wilson's book:

FISHER (10/16/94): How did Edward O. Wilson, one of the foremost scientists of the century, so enrage his colleagues? ...[I]n his 1975 book "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," Mr. Wilson had organized data about hundreds of animals and had discussed the biological underpinnings of their social behaviors. In his conclusion, he contended that many human behaviors, including altruism, hypocrisy and tribalism, also have biological underpinnings—they are part of our animal nature.

With this, Mr. Wilson revived the longest-running controversy in science, nature vs. nurture. Fifteen scholars in the Boston area, including two of Mr. Wilson's colleagues at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin, formed the Sociobiology Study Group. In November 1975 they denounced sociobiology in letter to The New York Review of Books, linking it to racism and Nazi ideology. Three years later Mr. Wilson was assaulted during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Demonstrators affiliated with the International Committee Against Racism carried anti-sociobiology placards (at least one displaying a swastika), seized the dais and dumped a pitcher of ice water on Mr. Wilson's head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!" The episode "may be the only occasion in recent American history," Mr. Wilson writes, "on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea." 

We're assuming that the ice water drenching incident actually happened. We're more struck by the two major names who rose to confront his Nazism.

We humans! Even at the highest levels, our brains are wired to produce such reactions, disconsolate experts insist, speaking to us from the future.


25 comments:

  1. "In his conclusion, he contended that many human behaviors, including altruism, hypocrisy and tribalism, also have biological underpinnings—they are part of our animal nature."

    This is a quote from nytimes, and therefore most likely a lie, but, if there's any truth to it, it reminds us of evolutionary psychology. We aren't familiar with the term "sociobiology", but it's probably the same thing.

    Evolutionary psychology is indeed a controversial subject, dear Bob. And, in fact, saying that 'behaviors have biological underpinnings' seems quite extreme: impulses have biological underpinnings, but not behaviors.

    Of course none of it has anything to do with Nazism, except that your liberal cult is quite totalitarian.

    ReplyDelete
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    1. What mao means by evolutionary is just "It's okay for me to encourage a being a chauvinist pig to women because I'm made of science." At least that what it means on the internet these days.

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  2. Original thinkers evoke rage. The history of science is filled with this.

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  3. This blog is not giving an accurate summary of any of this.

    First, your environment affects your genes. It's not either/or anymore. This blog seems to think you need to pick a side.

    Second, Wilson did in fact voice support for eugenics as long as it was done in the future by some government that had reached scientific enlightenment. That's not Nazi eugenics but it is liberal eugenics.

    Finally, if you really want to see bad bio-politics, look up Herbert Spencer, someone much more comfortable with winner-take-all philosophy that he argued was what Darwinism implies.

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    1. Hear hear

      Somerby doesn't know anything about any of this. Many of the debates were among academics and I doubt Somerby knows how to conduct a search of academic literature.

      His search for a literal dousing with icewater should have produced the following result, easy to find with google:

      "Three years later Mr. Wilson was assaulted during a speech at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Demonstrators affiliated with the International Committee Against Racism carried anti-sociobiology placards (at least one displaying a swastika), seized the dais and dumped a pitcher of ice water on Mr. Wilson's head, chanting, "Wilson, you're all wet!" The episode "may be the only occasion in recent American history," Mr. Wilson writes, "on which a scientist was physically attacked, however mildly, simply for the expression of an idea."

      https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/12/06/specials/wilson-naturalist.html

      Wilson generalized way beyond his data, speculating about nature to defend the status quo, including racist and sexist viewpoints. It is right to be upset about that when scientists abuse their position as experts on something like ant behavior to speculate about subjects that have large consequences for women and racial minorities, to name a few. Academics understand this about Wilson while still appreciating his work on ant behavior. People like Somerby misuse his speculation to support their own biases. He isn't being criticized for being an "original thinker" but for having insufficient evidence to support his suggestions.

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  4. According to this writeup, it was members of the "Committee Against Racism" who dumped the water. https://archive.scienceforthepeople.org/vol-10/v10n2/aaas-sociobiology-on-the-run/

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  5. Steven Pinker also supports his views. And Jordan Peterson. And every American Nazi and White Supremacist who ever came across his ideas.

    It is possible to be a sociobiologist without also supporting racism and sexism. An evolutionary perspective is held by most psychologists, for example, and it is the dominant paradigm in the life sciences, but that doesn't mean that Wilson's speculations are supported or were justified in his own time period.

    As noted above, the interplay between genetics and environment makes the nature/nurture argument obsolete and simplistic (as it always was, except now there is evidence of the complexity of how phenotypes emerge from genotypes). That's why it is suspect when someone jumps on Wilson's bandwagon so eagerly, as Somerby seems to be doing, we hope out of ignorance, but probably not.

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  6. Somerby wonders if the water incident was true.

    I wonder about this: “The response was furious, starting at his own school, where colleagues accused him of genetic determinism and tied the theory to Nazi eugenics, racism, sexism, sterilization and restrictions on immigration.”

    Somerby of course reduces this to his absurd “Wilson's last chapter had made him a Nazi! “

    It isn’t clear that Wilson’s colleagues ever actually called him a Nazi, but that won’t stop Somerby from insinuating that they did to make them seem ridiculous.

    And it also seems, upon careful reading, that it was not his colleagues who doused him with water, but an unconnected group.

    But who needs to be concerned about such details when you’re trying to jam this into your pre-conceived narrative?

    ReplyDelete
  7. "DNC fan club on Twitter" refers to who? Not liberals as a group and not Democrats either. None of us have dismissed the covid deaths of anti-vaxxers or considered them a good thing. None of us refer to the gene pool as the cause of Republican stupidity and we don't go around using terms such as "white trash America".

    You are coming across as a version of Mao, a troll who seeks to portray the left as idiots in order to generate sympathy for the right. I don't know who you are, but you are too over the top to be real.

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  8. Here's a DNC delegate, Charlotte Clymer, shrugging off virus deaths in a red state:
    https://twitchy.com/samj-3930/2020/05/04/this-is-cruel-charlotte-clymer-blasted-by-her-own-followers-for-heartless-racist-tweet-about-uptick-in-new-covid-cases-in-ga/

    Here's Reddit celebrating what they hope are at least hundreds of deaths:
    https://np.reddit.com/r/PoliticalHumor/comments/lzw8vo/the_sheep_are_thinning_the_herd_again/

    Sorry to cause you cognitive dissonance. If Republicans are bad then Democrats must be good right? I see your confusion.


    ReplyDelete
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    1. One person says something stupid and you blame an entire group? (reddit is not a person)

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  9. That “Sympathy For Trump” price seems to be shaping up as a challenge even for Bob. Sometimes these things turn up as promised, sometimes not….

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  10. When a researcher says something wrong, there should be a reaction to it. That is what peer review is all about. When all theories are considered equally valid regardless of supporting evidence, you have chaos not knowledge. Somerby seems to think that calling out nonsense among scientists is a bad thing. That suggests that Somerby has no idea what science is.

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  11. Doesn't it say she is being blasted by followers? That suggests she doesn't speak for anyone but herself. And how is reddit connected in any way to liberals? I don't know any real life liberal who talks like this. I do imagine that Russian trolls work overtime trying to convince gullible people on the internet that liberals want them dead.

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    1. She became a delegate after this, in other words, nobody with any power cares.

      I can tell you imagine a lot of what you believe. That's a difference between us.

      Delete
  12. Coincidentally, "Naturalist" is the next selection for my book club. Unfortuately, I don't have it yet. It's on order.

    Of course, the key to Bob's post isn't whether Wilson's ideas are right or wrong. The point is whether he's allowed to express his ideas without being punished for doing so. Evidently, in today's world, the answer is 'no'. That kind of social censorship is very bad for developing science. BTW it's interesting to note that the people who indulge in this kind of figurative book-burning are not the Trump supporters. They're liberals.

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    1. A week ago, the WI legislature passed a bill touted as banning "critical race theory" in schools but which would actually ban a huge array of speech around culture, race, and sex, its sponsor says. On a party line vote sponsored by Wisconsin Republicans that bans the following terms or words.

      Additional Terms
      Additional terms and concepts below that either wholly violate the above clauses, or which may if
      taught through the framework of any ofthe prohibited activities defined above, partially violate the
      above clauses in what is otherwise broadly defined as “critical race theory”:
      Critical Race Theory (CRT)
      Action Civics
      Social Emotional Learning (SEL)
      Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
      Culturally responsive teaching
      Abolitionist teaching
      Affinity groups
      Anti-racism
      Anti-bias training
      Anti-blackness
      Anti-meritocracy
      Obtuse meritocracy
      Centering or de-centering
      Collective guilt
      Colorism
      Conscious and unconscious bias
      Critical ethnic studies
      Critical pedagogy
      Critical self-awareness
      Critical self-reflection
      Cultural appropriation/misappropriation
      Cultural awareness
      Cultural competence
      Cultural proficiency
      Cultural relevance
      Cultural responsiveness
      Culturally responsive practices
      De-centering whiteness
      Deconstruct knowledges
      Diversity focused
      Diversity training
      Dominant discourses
      Educational justice
      Equitable
      Equity
      Examine “systems"
      Free radical therapy
      Free radical self/collective care
      Hegemony
      Identity deconstruction
      Implicit/Explicit bias
      Inclusivity education
      Institutional bias
      Institutional oppression
      Internalized racial superiority
      Internalized racism
      Internalized white supremacy
      Interrupting racism
      Intersection
      Intersectionality
      Intersectional identities
      Intersectional studies
      Land acknowledgment
      Marginalized identities
      Marginalized/Minoritized/Under-represented communities
      Microaggressions
      Multiculturalism
      Neo-segregation
      Normativity
      Oppressor vs. oppressed
      Patriarchy
      Protect vulnerable identities
      Race essentialism
      Racial healing
      Racialized identity
      Racial justice
      Racial prejudice
      Racial sensitivity training
      Racial supremacy
      Reflective exercises
      Representation and inclusion
      Restorative justice
      Restorative practices
      Social justice
      Spirit murdering
      Structural bias
      Structural inequity
      Structural racism
      Systemic bias
      Systemic oppression
      Systemic racism
      Systems of power and oppression
      Unconscious bias
      White fragility
      White privilege
      White social capital
      White supremacy
      Whiteness
      Woke


      In Florida, Governor DeSantis is pushing a bill that allows parent to sue schools over critical race theory.

      I must say, DeSantis has finally found a way to destroy public education in his state. The predictable and inevitable consequence of his proposed law will be public schools throughout his state wasting tons of money fighting frivolous lawsuits brought by the yahoos and bible thumpers.

      It's a diabolical plan. Kudos to Gov DeSantis.

      Delete
    2. I was watching "Get Back", the new film documentary of the Beatles put together by Peter Jackson. In the introduction to part 1 of the 3-part series we are shown film clips from 1966 where our country's illustrious Ignorati are shown burning Beatles albums and other Beatle memorabilia. Mountains of priceless material going up in flames all over the country. I thought to myself, man I bet those ignorant sonsabitches wish they had that stuff now and could auction it off for small fortunes on Ebay. Haha.

      It's the same fucking rightwing christofascist republican core that we're always going to be plagued with, like David here.

      David is Jewish by birth, he claims, but an atheist by choice. And he votes religiously for those who wish to turn my country into a Whie Christian Theocracy. Go figure.

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    3. "the original tale of Bambi, adapted by Disney in 1942, has much darker beginnings as an existential novel about persecution and antisemitism in 1920s Austria...In 1935, the book was banned by the Nazis"

      Delete
    4. "Mountains of priceless material going up in flames all over the country."

      Priceless, dear dembot? Oh dear. Cheap vinyl records are priceless to you? Talk about ignorati...

      Oh, and by the way, dear dembot: what about burning US flags? That is, of course, laudable, admirable performance, nicht wahr?

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    5. Mao,
      You're still okay with trying to overthrow the Capitol if black peoples votes count in an election, yes?

      Delete