Posted on June 25, 2023

The Ideological Subversion of Biology

Jerry A. Coyne and Luana S. Maroja, Skeptical Inquirer, July 2023

Biology faces a grave threat from “progressive” politics that are changing the way our work is done, delimiting areas of biology that are taboo and will not be funded by the government or published in scientific journals, stipulating what words biologists must avoid in their writing, and decreeing how biology is taught to students and communicated to other scientists and the public through the technical and popular press. We wrote this article not to argue that biology is dead, but to show how ideology is poisoning it. The science that has brought us so much progress and understanding—from the structure of DNA to the green revolution and the design of COVID-19 vaccines—is endangered by political dogma strangling our essential tradition of open research and scientific communication. And because much of what we discuss occurs within academic science, where many scientists are too cowed to speak their minds, the public is largely unfamiliar with these issues. Sadly, by the time they become apparent to everyone, it might be too late.


Here we give six examples of how our own field—evolutionary and organismal biology—has been impeded or misrepresented by ideology. {snip}


1. Sex in humans is not a discrete and binary distribution of males and females but a spectrum. {snip}


2. All behavioral and psychological differences between human males and females are due to socialization. {snip}


3. Evolutionary psychology, the study of the evolutionary roots of human behavior, is a bogus field based on false assumptions. The biologist P.Z. Myers joined several other critics of this field (once called sociobiology) when he asserted that: “The fundamental premises of evo psych [evolutionary psychology] are false.” Even social psychologists, who almost universally accept evolution itself, are far less enthusiastic about the idea that evolution explains important aspects of human psychology, social attitudes, and preferences.

But Myers’s widely accepted view is misguided, for the fundamental premise of evolutionary psychology is simply this: our brains and how they work—which yield our behaviors, preferences, and thoughts—sometimes reflect natural selection that acted on our ancestors. Nobody denies this for our bodies—palimpsests of once-adaptive traits that are no longer useful (wisdom teeth, tailbones, and transitory coats of hair in embryos)—but opponents of evolutionary psychology deny it for our behaviors. But there is no scientific reason for such duality. Why on earth should our bodies reflect millions of years of evolution while our behaviors, thoughts, and psychology, molded by the very same forces, are somehow immune to our past? The only way this could be true is if human behaviors lacked genetic variation, a sine qua non for evolution. Yet research has shown that our behaviors are among the most genetically variable human traits!

And so the “sociobiology wars” of the seventies, launched by E.O. Wilson’s eponymous book, continue under a new name, but the subject remains human exceptionalism—the view that we’re somehow nearly free of the evolutionary forces that molded behavior in other species. It’s true that the early days of evolutionary psychology included some “soft” research that proposed dubious and untestable adaptive hypotheses for our behavior, but now the field has reached an explanatory maturity that has to be taken seriously.


4. We should avoid studying genetic differences in behavior between individuals. The default assumption of many people, especially those adhering to blank slate-ism, is that the genetic differences between people in traits such as educational achievement, IQ, and similar traits shouldn’t be studied. In some cases, the very existence of genetic differences is denied despite strong supporting evidence from various lines of research, such as twin studies. Such work is thought to inevitably produce ranking of people, a promotion of bigotry, and an unfair sorting of individuals onto different educational tracks. And yet even within a single ethnic group (e.g., the American descendants of Europeans), variation in virtually every trait, be it physical or behavioral, has an appreciable genetic component. This goes for traits such as height, blood pressure, the tendency to smoke or drink, neuroticism, and cognitive abilities and educational attainment. For the last two traits, more than half the variation among individuals is based on variation in their genes. It’s important to realize, though, that these measures reflect variation within a population and say nothing about the basis of differences between populations or ethnic groups.

This kind of study has become more useful since science developed techniques to sequence the DNA of an individual’s entire genome. With that information, and sequencing many individuals, you can correlate each variable DNA position (i.e., single nucleotide bases) with various traits of individuals, determining which bits of the DNA are correlated with variation in a selected trait. This kind of study (genome-wide association studies, or GWAS) has, for example, turned up nearly 4,000 areas of the genome associated with educational attainment. Fascinatingly, many of these genes are active mainly in the brain. Using GWAS studies, it’s now possible to make fairly accurate predictions about a person’s appearance, behavior, academic achievement, and health simply by analyzing the DNA of an individual and calculating their individual “polygenic scores” based on large samples of their population. This can even be done on fetal DNA.

GWAS analysis offers many possibilities for helpful intervention, especially by monitoring individuals for health conditions they’re genetically liable to develop. The usefulness of GWAS scores for educational achievement, however, is far more controversial. Although genetic differences play a role in many aspects of what we consider “intelligence,” right now it’s easier to equalize people’s prospects via social and educational reforms than by using polygenic scores.

Yet understanding genetic variation underlying educational outcomes might one day be useful. For instance, if we discover genetic variants that respond particularly well to educational or social interventions, it might be possible to target these individuals early on. These genetic studies could help identify environmental effects as well: If two people with identical polygenic scores wind up with very different lives, how did their environments differ? This is why doing such research, despite the controversy, is still worthwhile.

Most people wouldn’t object to knowing their genetic liability to develop diseases, but that doesn’t extend to work on behavior and cognition. The resistance to those studies rests on a blank-slate view of human nature that rejects any genetic determinism and argues that we can almost fully overcome any genetic influences on behavior. Genetic studies of anything beyond physical traits and disease are, it’s claimed, linked with eugenics and similar acts of bigotry in the past.

In fact, the fear and avoidance of behavior-genetic research is so strong that even the National Institutes of Health defines races solely as social constructs and has limited researchers’ access to public, taxpayer-funded databases containing information about the genetic constitution, health, education, occupation, and income of anonymous individuals. This restriction apparently applies even to studies that don’t involve differences between races, and so it appears to be the U.S. government’s attempt to stifle research on behavioral genetics in general—especially behaviors related to academic and social success.

5. “Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning.” This is the elephant in the room: the claim that there is no empirical value in studying differences between races, ethnic groups, or populations. Such work is the biggest taboo in biology, claimed to be inherently racist and harmful. But the assertion heading this paragraph, a direct quote from the editors of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is wrong.

Before we handle this hot potato, we emphasize that we prefer the words ethnicity or even geographic populations to race, because the last term, due to its historical association with racism, has simply become too polarizing. Further, old racial designations such as whiteblack, and Asian came with the erroneous view that races are easily distinguished by a few traits, are geographically delimited, and have substantial genetic differences. In fact, the human species today comprises geographically continuous groups that have only small to modest differences in the frequencies of genetic variants, and there are groups within groups: potentially an unlimited number of “races.” Still, human populations do show genetic differences from place to place, and those small differences, summed over thousands of genes, add up to substantial and often diagnostic differences between populations.

Even the old and outmoded view of race is not devoid of biological meaning. A group of researchers compared a broad sample of genes in over 3,600 individuals who self-identified as either African American, white, East Asian, or Hispanic. DNA analysis showed that these groups fell into genetic clusters, and there was a 99.84 percent match between which cluster someone fell into and their self-designated racial classification. This surely shows that even the old concept of race is not “without biological meaning.” But that’s not surprising because, given restricted movement in the past, human populations evolved largely in geographic isolation from one another—apart from “Hispanic,” a recently admixed population never considered a race. As any evolutionary biologist knows, geographically isolated populations become genetically differentiated over time, and this is why we can use genes to make good guesses about where populations come from.

More recent work, taking advantage of our ability to easily sequence whole genomes, confirms a high concordance between self-identified race and genetic groupings. One study of twenty-three ethnic groups found that they fell into seven broad “race/ethnicity” clusters, each associated with a different area of the world. On a finer scale, genetic analysis of Europeans show that, remarkably, a map of their genetic constitutions coincides almost perfectly with the map of Europe itself. In fact, the DNA of most Europeans can narrow down their birthplace to within roughly 500 miles.


On a broader scale, genetic analysis of worldwide populations has allowed us to not only trace the history of human expansions out of Africa (there were several), but to assign dates to when H. sapiens colonized different areas of the world. This has been made easier with recent techniques for sequencing human “fossil DNA.” On top of that, we have fossil DNA from groups such as Denisovans and Neanderthals, which, in conjunction with modern data, tells us these now-extinct groups bred in the past with the ancestors of “modern” Homo sapiens, producing at least some fertile offspring (most of us have some Neanderthal DNA in our genomes). Although archaeology and carbon dating have helped reconstruct the history of our species, these have largely been supplanted by sequencing the DNA of living and ancient humans.

Further, there’s medical value in genetic studies of populations. A fair number of genetic diseases, for example, are associated (though not absolutely) with ethnicity: maladies such as Tay-Sachs disease, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, and hereditary haemochromatosis. These associations make both diagnosis and prenatal counseling more efficient, for one can use ethnicity to focus on possible medical issues. The incidence of ailments such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes also differs among ethnic groups, but these diseases have both genetic and environmental causes, so treating them requires considering diet and lifestyle. Still, genetic analysis of individuals and groups could help with even these complex ailments. GWAS analysis based on ethnic-specific studies, for instance, might give estimates of the risk of various illnesses by testing infants or even fetuses. If you know you’re at risk, then monitoring your lifestyle can reduce the chance of getting seriously ill when you’re older.

Fortunately, GWAS data for different ethnic groups are beginning to be collected, and medical researchers already recognize that studies of different ethnicities are essential to both understanding disease and reducing health disparities. This is because genetic results from one group may not generalize to results from other groups. A recent GWAS analysis of dementia, for instance, discovered that some regions of the genome increase the risk in African Americans but not white Americans. This implies that some genes able to predict future dementia will differ between these groups and that possible interventions or cures might differ as well.

Finally, there are forensic reasons for associating genetics with ethnicity. These involve predicting what a perpetrator or victim might look like (e.g., facial features or the color of eyes, skin, and hair) from a sample of blood, tissue, or semen or, when using ancient DNA, predicting how ancient people might have looked. We know now, for instance, that some Neanderthals had pale skin and red hair and that dark skin and blue eyes might have been common in European Homo sapiens a few thousand years ago.

But the central question about genetics in the culture wars involves behavioral characteristics of different populations and ethnic groups, with differences in intelligence being the subject deemed most taboo. {snip} Indeed, even writing about this subject has led to sanctions on many scientists, who have “found themselves denounced, defamed, protested, petitioned, punched, kicked, stalked, spat on, censored, fired from their jobs and stripped of their honorary titles.” A well-known example is Bo Winegard, an untenured professor in Ohio who was apparently fired for merely suggesting the possibility that there were differences in cognition among ethnic groups. This is why most biologists stay far away from this topic.


6. Indigenous “ways of knowing” are equivalent to modern science and should be respected and taught as such. Because indigenous peoples such as New Zealand’s Māori and the New World’s Native Americans were the victims of colonialism, their traditional knowledge is often lauded as an alternative version of modern science—a “way of knowing” developed independently from what’s called “colonialist science” but seen by many as of equal value. In fact, the New Zealand government requires indigenous ways of knowing to be given equal status to modern science in the classroom—and to other subjects in all secondary school education. South Africa is also experiencing a decolonization of biology. An article in the prestigious journal Nature calls for decolonizing pharmacology in that country, concentrating on local herbal remedies to “anchor the curriculum in local experience.” While this adds a home-grown flavor to learning, dropping an anchor in local experience can only divert the student from an education in modern pharmacology.

Matauranga Māori, the indigenous way of knowing in New Zealand, is a mélange of empirical knowledge derived from trial and error (including the navigational ability of their Polynesian ancestors and Māori ways of procuring and growing food) but also includes nonscientific areas such as theology, traditional lore, ideology, morality, and legend. Yet all these are considered worthy of teaching as coequal to the methods and results of modern science. Māori scholars, for example, have advanced the improbable claim that Polynesians—the ancestors of the Māori—were the first to discover Antarctica in the seventh centuryThis claim is surely false, probably based on faulty translation of an oral legend. In fact, Antarctica was first seen by the Russians in 1820. Nevertheless, New Zealand’s Royal Society, the nation’s most prestigious scientific organization, gave a $660,000 grant to the Māori to explore this bogus narrative. There’s also been a revival of the traditional herbal and spiritual remedies of Matauranga Māori, which incorporate chanting as a means of healing. While local remedies may occasionally be helpful, they are almost never tested using the gold standard for medicine: randomized controlled trials.

Indigenous ways of knowing usually include some practical knowledge, which includes observations about the local environment and useful practices developed over time, including, in the case of Matauranga Māori, ancient methods of navigating and the best way to catch eels. But practical knowledge is not the same as the systematic, objective investigation of nature—free from assumptions about gods and spirits—that constitute modern science. Conflating indigenous ways of knowing with modern science will confuse students not only about what constitutes knowledge but also about the nature of science itself. It is true that modern science arose in Western Europe in the seventeenth century, a time when women were denied education and most of the population was white. This situation, due to bias, severely restricted people’s opportunities but provides no reason to discredit science itself—the best way of generating accepted knowledge about the universe—as “Western” or colonialist. (“Western” has become a total misnomer and insults the many people in other countries who practice the same brand of science.)

A related issue that pits indigenous culture against modern science is forensic anthropology: the study of ancient societies using human remains and artifacts. In North America, for instance, human remains, depending on where they’re found, can be claimed by Native Americans as their own, withheld from scientific study because they’re seen as ancient members of modern indigenous groups. Indeed, federal law mandates the return of bones and other artifacts to the indigenous groups who claim them. The remains must be reburied without scientific study, even if there’s no clear genealogical connection between the human bones and the Native Americans linked to where the remains were found. In the case of Kennewick Man, the indigenous “scientific” claims included a Native American leader rejecting the truth that his ancestors arrived via the Bering Strait from Asia on these grounds: “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land from the beginning of time,” says Mr. Minthorn. “We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent.”

One victim of this mindset is physical anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss of San Jose State, who studies 500–3,000 year old bones from California. For simply studying those remains, Weiss was demoted by her university and banned from studying her department’s collection of bones. But it’s even worse: she’s not allowed to study X-rays of the remains or even show a photograph of the boxes in which they are kept. Many other universities, such as Berkeley, are also sending back or reburying artifacts and old bones. The result: valuable human history and anthropology remain off limits because remains and artifacts are considered sacred. Clearly, the best solution would defer burial until after scientific study or DNA collection. The present policy simply prevents us from learning about our past.

The promotion of these other ways of knowing comes from a desire to valorize oppressed groups by holding up much of their culture as having the same epistemic authority as science, a view that philosopher Molly McGrath called “the authority of the sacred victim.” {snip}


Nearly all the ideologically driven distortions of biology come from one mindset: radical egalitarianism. This is the view that the sexes, different ethnic groups, and, to some extent, individuals in a population are genetically nearly identical in behavior and psychology (though not in appearance) and that most behavioral differences are due to socialization and other environmental effects. {snip} Nevertheless, because the biological data contradict the fashionable blank-slate ideology, its advocates are forced to render their program immune to data, which they do by twisting the facts of biology to conform to their beliefs.