Posted on February 9, 2022

Ideology as Biology

Mark Borrello and David Sepkoski, New York Review of Books, February 5, 2022

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. {snip} 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.


{snip}Based on our review of unpublished correspondence from E. O. Wilson’s archive housed in the Library of Congress, and on our research into the history of scientific racism, we aim to provide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.


{snip} 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 di”erences 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.

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 diferent 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 o” 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 {snip}


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. {snip}

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. {snip} 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.”


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.” {snip}