After E.O. Wilson died in the final days of 2021, we have have been treated to detailed remembrances of his accomplishments, his kind and gentle nature, and his immeasurable impact on several fields of science. Among fellow myrmecologists, Wilson indubitably is one of the greats, and for many, he was the greatest. When I once had the fortune of presenting in a conference session that Wilson had attended, that was an honor. I didn’t know him personally, but I have many colleagues, and some friends, who were mentored by him, and benefited from his generosity and good will. Everybody I know who had interacted with him in any substantial way had wonderful things to say about him.
All of the academic circles I run in have been touched heavily by Wilson, over and over, spanning many decades — in entomology, ecology, tropical biology, and particularly among the smallish number of us who study social insects. We are all just one or two degrees of separation from Ed, and when a fellow academic has ascended to such a position of Greatness, how should one respond in the immediate aftermath of their death? One grieves. Many of the remembrances of Ed were written by the people who were closest to him, and I think that is fitting. I was not reading these eulogies as an evaluation of the scientific, social, and cultural impact of his legacy, but instead as memories of friends who valued him. I don’t think it’s quite possible to contextualize the negative impacts of a close colleague so immediately after losing them, and I wouldn’t ask anybody to do so. I wasn’t prepared to do myself shortly after he died and I didn’t even know him personally. The public sphere for ecologists and evolutionary biologists was a wake: a celebration of Wilson’s life.
Most biologists are operating with a lot of priors about Wilson that affect our perspective. I once wrote a post about how my all-time favorite scientific paper was written by Wilson. Operating with these priors makes it difficult to contextualize the critiques and concerns of Wilson’s scholarship. While reading the laudatory remembrances of Wilson, I’ve been trying to process from a dispassionate perspective.
The process of codifying his legacy has accelerated. My narrow academic communities are remembering “Ed Wilson,” but at the same time, history is remembering “E.O. Wilson.” To my closest colleagues, Ed’s academic contributions are about ants, taxonomy, island biogeography, caste theory, animal behavior, natural history, biodiversity, and most recently, half-earth. However, for many scientists in the fields of human genetics, anthropology, and psychology, E.O. Wilson is known as the progenitor of a conceptual foundation for scientific racism.
From my perspective, I haven’t seen many biologists attempting to reconcile these contrasting perspectives. When navigating the whiter parts of the cultural landscape of biology, the general party line has often been that Ed was mostly right about sociobiology, but his ideas had been twisted by racists and there wasn’t anything he could do about that. (For example, one colleague recently told me yesterday that “Genetic differences among people, populations, and meta-populations, some impacting behaviour, is a demonstrable fact (which some still deny), that is what EOW rightly promoted. Racist nonsense attached to it by others is irrelevant.”) As for accusations that Wilson supported scientific racism, that he believed in inherent race-based differences in intelligence, and that he promoted eugenics? Folks would say that things just got out of hand back in the 1970s, people were just trying to build themselves up by merely tearing him down, and if you really pay attention to what he is saying, these are unfair accusations. “Maybe Ed got out over his skis into sociology, but he’s not a bad person and didn’t do anything wrong” has been the gist.
I hadn’t really bought into this narrative, but I also didn’t disagree with it either. I was neutral to this chapter of science history and never put in the work to interrogate this issue deeply. In grad school I read The Insect Societies, and then I read early chapters in Sociobiology, but when it came to Wilson’s work, I spent more time thinking about the taxon cycle, island biogeography, and caste ergonomics, which were all important as I was developing my dissertation. In the advent of Wilson’s death, we have been asked to pay closer attention to harmful aspects of Wilson’s legacy.
Even though it has been several decades since the Sociobiology came on the scene, many biologists are only now starting the process of reckoning with Wilson’s role in propagating harmful misinformation about racial identity and human genetics.
This reckoning has kicked off with a couple recent articles featuring information from Wilson’s archives in the Library of Congress. This includes private correspondence with other scientists, official letters of support to universities on behalf of other academics, and material from when he served as a peer reviewer. (The archives are not yet indexed, and you can’t read them online like we can with Darwin’s correspondence. I am sure that, in due time over the coming years, we will be treated with comprehensive historical treatments of Wilson’s oeuvre and his place in the scientific milieu.)
If you want to know what I’m writing about here, I think you need to read those articles if you haven’t already. The piece in the New York Review of Books that was written by historians of science comes from a very useful perspective. (Even though you need to register for a free account to read the whole thing, which is a minor annoyance, I think it’s worth the trouble.)
On a university campus, you can find stories about Wilson as a hero, or Wilson as accomplice-of-the-devil. The difference is the building you choose to walk into. I don’t think that the truth is somewhere in the middle. That’s an overly simplistic way of viewing his legacy. There is no one-dimensional axis of ethical goodness that we should be using to evaluate how good or bad anybody is. Obviously humans are complicated and multi-dimensional, and nobody is served well by regarding him or his work in such a simplistic manner. Nevertheless, if you look at the obituaries for Wilson, sociobiology is addressed in simplistic fashion: Did Wilson win or lose the argument? More recently, there’s another question out there: Was he racist or was he not racist? Any “yes” or “no” answers to those questions are not that useful, and don’t help us move forward.
If we’re trying to understand how Wilson’s legacy impacts us today, what should we be asking? I have a few suggestions:
What did Wilson actually say about human genetics, race, and intelligence?
When Wilson was proposing eugenics to improve our species, how did he approach concerns about racial and cultural aspects of the issue?
When proponents of scientific racism were using Wilson’s ideas about sociobiology to advance their destructive philosophies, how did Wilson publicly and privately respond?
I’ve spent the past couple weeks reading up and reflecting on these questions. It’s indubitable that the party line I have passively received over the decades simply does not comport with reality. It’s hard to know what Wilson was about if you read historical criticism of his work, because passions were really high and some things were really over the top. But if you want to know what Wilson thought, then it’s quite simple to look at what Wilson was saying, who he was saying it to, what he has been advocating over the past 40 years. The answers to these questions have been in the public record for decades. It’s all right there.
While the private correspondence in Wilson’s archives does provide revelations (for example, his thoughts about about anti-racism), the only people who are surprised are those who haven’t been paying attention, because the historical record is clear on Wilson’s advocacy for scientific racism. Nobody was hiding the fact that Wilson was an active supporter of Rushton, Herrnstein, and Murray. But yet there is a lot of surprise at these new articles, and that’s because as a community we have been ignorant. Some of have been passively ignorant, others have been willfully ignorant. It’s important to recognize that a whole bunch of us have always known what Wilson’s deal was with scientific racism — especially many scientists of color who are being marginalized by racism and have never bought into the whitewashed narrative.
Why is it that the long-standing facts about Wilson’s erroneous positions on race and genetics are making headlines and shocking people right now? I think we need to ask one another: What is the role of white supremacy in whitewashing this aspect of Wilson’s legacy? How should we take responsibility and make amends?
This is not so much about Wilson, it’s about all of us in the scientific community: As evolutionary geneticist Dr. C. Brandon Ogbunu has told us, “The cheap way out is to blame individuals, rather than reflect on the ecology that created, supported and amplified those behaviors.”
Why does this matter? I think these perspectives are what matters most:
It would be naive to think that Wilson’s misinformed approach to human evolution can be wholly isolated from other aspects of his work. What effect does it have on student training when an influential mentor of junior scientists thinks that “anti-racism is the last refuge of scoundrels?”
Wilson’s last major project was to advocate for “Half-Earth” to protect biodiversity. The idea is that we should fully depopulate half of the planet so that we can protect biodiversity. Just pause for a moment and think about how this plan would play out across the world. Who might we expect to bear the brunt of large-scale forced global relocations? While this Half-Earth plan is supposed to come off as aspirational, it springs from a colonial mindset that inevitably would place the burden on the Global South. Considering how Wilson’s work had strong influences on biodiversity conservation, especially in the last couple decades of the 20th century, it might be prudent to consider how his history of deprioritizing concerns about ethnic disparities has ended up affecting the design and implementation of conservation efforts by NGOs and federal agencies. Is it possible that some part of our current environmental justice challenges in the implementation of conservation projects are rooted in how Wilson thought about, or didn’t think about, racial inequities?
You’ve noticed that I’m asking a lot of questions in this post, but I’m not giving a lot of answers. That’s because I want you to think about this, do more reading, talk about this with people coming from different perspectives, and update your understanding as you see fit. In STEM disciplines, many scholars are investing time and effort to promote and equity and justice, to broaden representation and governance. This work involves learning what we are doing wrong, acknowledging those errors, and then making changes to fix things. When it comes to sociobiology and scientific racism, what have we been getting wrong and what’s the best way to move forward?
How can one celebrate the tremendous accomplishments of E.O. Wilson as a figure of scientific history, and honor the legacy of Ed Wilson as a kind and caring person, while also recognizing that his tremendous errors regarding human genetics and biological determinism have been harmful? I don’t think I have enough distance to think about this clearly to provide a good answer to that question. I think the last paragraph in the Borrello and Sepkoski article points us in the right direction:
“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.”
It is a truism that white people often act like they are victims when they are accused of being racist, but don’t seem to be as concerned about being a part of systemic racism. I think that’s kind of like what’s going on here: some folks are just so darn upset that E.O. Wilson is accused of being a racist, but aren’t as concerned that sociobiology was embued with systemic racism and the effects permeate to this day.
Academia was systemically racist in the 1970s, and it’s still systemically racist in the 2020s. Progress won’t come from labeling any historical figure as “racist,” but it will come from coming to terms with how our entire academic ecosystem has upheld racist systems. If we collectively choose to give Wilson a pass on his sustained campaign of support for scientific racism, then how can we possibly move forward?
Hagiography does no favors for the legacy of E.O. Wilson, because thick layers of praise just obscure the surface which is all the more impressive when seen in detail. When we interpret Wilson as a regular human being rather than a scientific saint, his accomplishments and his character are all the more remarkable. Wilson’s greatest flaws are, as Borello and Sepkoski post out, entirely pedestrian and unremarkable. It doesn’t do any harm to Wilson’s friends and colleagues to recognize the unfortunate aspects of his legacy, but it is important to help us move forward to make science more just and equitable.