The E.O. Wilson controversy: racist, defender of academic freedom, or what?
When one of the most preeminent biologists of the 20th century, Edward O. Wilson, died on 26 December 2021, at age 92, there was an outpouring of testimonials to his influential career as a scientist and his environmental advocacy. But along with that well deserved fanfare also came a pointed attack on his character and legacy in the pages of Scientific American.
The piece, entitled “The complicated legacy of E.O. Wilson,” and authored by Monica R. McLemore, an associate professor in the Family Health Care Nursing Department at the University of California, San Francisco, was well intentioned but sloppy, and ended up unleashing a firestorm of criticism. McLemore suggests that the work of Wilson, and many other scientists, is built on racist and sexist ideas.
The problem is that she provides no documentation to back this up (aside from some vague references to how Wilson’s views about gender might have influenced the way he described his insect colonies). Her article is too breezy, glossing over complex topics — like the history of the “normal distribution” in statistics and how it has been misused — in two sentences, leaving the reader to fill in way too many gaps. She says that we need to understand how scientists contribute to “scientific racism,” but she doesn’t articulate what this means. There is a general lack of context in the article, and her reasoning is hard to follow. Why the current editor of the magazine, Laura Helmuth, described McLemore’s piece as “insightful” is puzzling. It most definitely isn’t.
Predictably, a number of outraged evolutionary scientists posted a joint response to the McLemore article, after said response was rejected by Scientific American. The group includes Jerry Coyne, Hopi Hoekstra, Jonathan Losos, Joan E. Strassmann, Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and David Sloan Wilson — all of whom I know personally and respect.
The problem with their letter is that the effort was spearheaded by a fringe population geneticist named Razib Khan. To give you an idea, here is what Jeremy Yoder has to say about Khan in a thoughtful commentary about this whole affair that appeared in The Molecular Ecologist: