Doused and Denounced

A cold civil war has been brewing within academe, a war between “biologians” and “culturists.” Many modern biologists, genomic scientists, and physical anthropologists are biologians.  They think evolutionary adaptations are partly responsible for some racial disparities.   On the other hand, most historians, social scientists, public leaders, and mainstream journalists are culturists.  They minimize the importance of biology and evolution and say that history and culture explain the variations in the distribution of human characteristics.

One of the landmark events in this academic civil war occurred in 1975, when E. O. Wilson, a biology professor at Harvard, published Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.  Professor Wilson presented a mountain of evidence to establish that biology influenced many forms of social behavior in the animal kingdom.  Then, in the last chapter of the book, Professor Wilson maintained that this was also true for human beings.

Among biologists, the initial reaction to Sociobiology was overwhelmingly favorable.  The response of many historians and social scientists, however, was quite critical.  This was not surprising, for most historians and social scientists regard human nature as relatively unaffected by our evolutionary past, as something that is shaped by social forces.  Some scholars, especially those with Marxist beliefs, have emphasized the special importance of economic forces that are extraneous to human biology.

As it happened, a Marxist group at Harvard, Science for the People, responded to Sociobiology with printed leaflets and teach-ins that were harshly critical of Professor Wilson.  For a few days a protester in Harvard Square used a bullhorn to demand that the university fire Professor Wilson, and on one occasion two students invaded the professor’s class on evolutionary biology to shout slogans and deliver anti-sociobiology monologues.  To make matters worse, Professor Wilson received little support from his colleagues on the Harvard faculty, and to avoid embarrassment he stayed away from department meetings for an entire year.

Professor Wilson considered offers to move to other universities, but he decided to stay at Harvard.  “The pressure was tolerable,” he has written, “since I was a senior professor with tenure . . . and could not bear to leave Harvard’s ant collection, the world’s largest and best.”

The opposition reached something of a climax in 1979, when Professor Wilson was scheduled to speak at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.    As he sat at a table near the lectern, a young man from the audience grabbed the microphone and harangued the assembled scholars.  A young woman then poured a pitcher of water over Professor Wilson’s head and demonstrators chanted, “Wilson, you’re all wet,” and “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide. We charge you with genocide.”

Despite the vilification he received in the 1970s, things eventually turned out well for Professor Wilson.  By the turn of the twenty-first century, he was widely celebrated as the pioneering founder of two new academic fields, the evolutionary biology of humans and evolutionary psychology.  He was the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning books, and he received many academic awards.  When Harvard University Press published a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Sociobiology in 2000, it was evident that Professor Wilson’s theory appealed to many of the best minds in science.  By then listed 416 titles under “sociobiology” and 1, 218 under “human evolution.”

Nevertheless, as I have recently learned the hard way, many historians know little or nothing about sociobiology, evolutionary biology, or evolutionary psychology.

Some months ago, the American Historical Review (AHR) invited me to write a review of a new book, Making the Unequal Metropolis, by Ansley T. Erickson, an Assistant Professor of history and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  I began the review by stating that Professor Erickson deserved “high praise for the depth of her research,” but I “demur[red]” when it came to her argument.  I then summarized one of Professor Erickson’s main points –– that the Supreme Court erred in the 1990s and in 2007 when the Court turned away from court-ordered metropolitan busing for racial balance that an earlier Supreme Court had ordered in decisions handed down between 1968 and 1973.  I explained why I did not agree with Professor Erickson and then, in the final sentence of my review, I wrote, “Like most historians and social scientists, Professor Erickson says nothing about sociobiology.”   This sentence was a declarative statement of fact, but one that contained the implication that Professor Erickson’s book would have been better if it had been informed by an acquaintance with recent science and scholarship on evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology.

The Interim Editor of the AHR, Professor Robert A. Schneider, has acknowledged that he “linger[ed] over that last sentence.”   One of his assistants wrote and asked me, “Could you explain what you mean by sociobiology?  What indeed, today, is sociobiology?”  “’Sociobiololgy,’” I answered, “is an approach that focuses on the way biology influences social behavior.  The pioneering work in this field is Sociobiology: The New Synthesis . . . by the naturalist and biologist E. O. Wilson.  This field focuses on the way biology (including genetic adaptations to evolution in different environments) affects the social behavior of humans and other living beings.”

My answer seemed to satisfy the Interim Editor.  There were no more questions, and the AHR published my review of Professor Erickson’s book in its issue for February 2017.   I was surprised, however, by one thing.  The controversy over sociobiology had been widely publicized in the 1970s, with some journalists calling the controversy the academic debate of the decade.  I was taken aback when I discovered that the Interim Editor and his staff apparently knew nothing of this controversy.

After the AHR published my review, a small group of historians exchanged e-mails and text messages and then wrote letters of complaint to the AHR.  The general theme, mentioned in all the published letters, took exception to my mentioning “sociobiology.”  It is “a term that has no standing in our field or any of the social sciences,” one writer declared.  Others dismissed “sociobiology” as merely a “theory,” as a doctrine of “white racial supremacy,” as a “twenty-first century version of scientific racism.”  These statements are false.

One complainant admitted that he had “no idea” what “sociobiology” meant.  So he read some of my essays and discovered that I had written that “people of different continental ancestries differ statistically in the distribution of some important aptitudes”; that “different groups had developed different aptitudes that were suited to their respective environments.”  True.  I have written that, and I stand by that statement.  I think it is a mistake to think that each of the major population groups has the same distribution of predispositions, proclivities, and aptitudes, regardless of whether the group evolved in cold climates or the tropics, regardless of whether their long line of ancestors were hunter-gatherers, settled farmers, merchants, or bankers.  If Charles Darwin established anything, it is that natural selection gives an edge in the struggle for survival to those who have adapted to their particular environments.  I think most historians would do better if, instead of propounding the false idea that racial differences are only skin deep, they recognized the reality of natural selection while also noting that there is a great range of aptitudes within each group and that each individual person should be treated decently, whatever his or her capabilities.

Of course history has taught us to be skeptical of racial theories.  But that is not an excuse for my critics’ insistence that sociobiology is so far beyond the pale that it should not be mentioned in the pages of the American Historical Review.  This amounts to a denial of science.  It is an example of what anthropologist Gregory Cochran had in mind when he wrote that a person would have to be an “idiot” if he or she thought “the optimum mental phenotype . . . [is] the same in tropical hunger-gathers, arctic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic peasants, and medieval moneylenders. . . .  Natural selection must have generated significant differences between populations; differences whose consequences we see every day, and that have been copiously documented by psychometricians.”

 In my review of Professor Erickson’s book, however, all I did was mention that Professor Erickson (“like most other historians and social scientists”) did not say anything about sociobiology.

My critics also complained about the company I keep.  One found fault with me for granting “a personal interview to a website called, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has classified as a ‘white nationalist hate website.’”  This critic also took exception to my having published essays in what she called “the shadier corners of the Internet.”  But this critic did not identify the publications or mention any specifics about what I wrote or said.

The Interim Editor of the  AHR acknowledged that I had “a fairly long and solid publication record . . . in credible scholarly venues [seven books and many articles and reviews in academic publications].”  But the Interim Editor also said he would have pulled my review of Ansley Erickson’s book if he had known about some of my recent publications — presumably the opinion essays I wrote for and and a talk I gave to the H. L. Mencken Club.  The Interim Editor did not mention any particular statements or comments that he found offensive.  But he implied that my association with these groups was enough to “discredit [me] as a legitimate scholar.”  This took me by surprise, for these organizations are headed by distinguished men — Peter Brimelow, Jared Taylor, and Paul Gottfried.


This incident may have begun as an instance of hyper-sensitive academics defending a like-minded friend from slight criticism.  But some of my critics’ comments, and especially the comments of the Interim Editor of the AHR, amount to an effort to censure discourse.  The Interim Editor is warning historians to beware, lest they be defenestrated for even mentioning the connection between evolution and race.

Writing in the AHR a decade ago, historian Michelle Brattain observed, “Historians have come to the consensus that race is a social construction, but . . . many people outside the humanities have not.”   Professor Brattain then recommended that historians try to discredit sociobiology by “problematizing” or “historicizing” both race and science.

Nevertheless, sociobiology has remained in vogue.  As historian Marshall Poe noted in 2009, DNA researchers are no longer “talking about skin, hair, or eye color.”  They are “talking about intelligence, temperament, and a host of other traits.”  They are saying, “The races . . . are differently abled in ways that really matter.”  Rank-and-file professionals and many ordinary citizens are recognizing this.  We are living at a time when doctors can be censured, even fired, if they do not take race into account when prescribing certain drugs.  Nowadays pulmonary and other medical devices have different settings for people of different continental ancestries; and more and more people are getting in touch with and 23 and me.

The trend is so strong that even some historians have broken away from the standard social science model — the belief that human behavior is shaped by history and culture, but not by evolution and heredity.  A case in point was Carl Degler (1921–2014), a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at Stanford and at different times the President of the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the Southern Historical Association.  In an important book of 1991, In Search of Human Nature, Degler reviewed a large body of scientific research and showed that in the debate over the relative importance of nature and nurture, the pendulum has shifted from stressing the importance of nurture in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s to emphasizing the importance of nature and evolution in recent decades.

Nevertheless, many historians — probably most members of the guild — still believe that race is entirely or primarily a social construct.   They persist in dismissing sociobiology.  One example was evident in 1992, when Professor Dorothy Ross reviewed Carl Degler’s book for the American Historical Review.  Professor Ross began by noting that Degler was “a partisan of sociobiology” and was trying “to convince historians and social scientists to abandon their long dismissal of biological explanations of human behavior.”  She then proceeded to employ “historicism” to discredit Degler.   She said Degler was mistaken because he had made “the error of . . . failing to ground his own theory in history.”  Had Degler historicized the rise, decline, and revival of Darwinism, Professsor Ross wrote, he would have recognized that Darwinism came into vogue in America as a rationale for inequality during the Age of Big Business; that it fell from fashion during the more egalitarian era when Progressivism and the New Deal held sway; and that the revival of Darwinism has occurred in an allegedly conservative era that has stretched from President Eisenhower to President Reagan and beyond.

When he was writing In Search of Human Nature, Degler had anticipated and answered this criticism.  He did so by repeatedly noting that many of the scientists who emphasized the role of biology in human behavior were “personally liberal, rather than conservative, in political outlook.”  Degler did not think sociobiologists were trying to “to preserve and strengthen the dominant political and economic interests.”  He thought they were seeking (and in fact had discovered) the truth.  And he thought this outweighed the possibility that somehow sociobiology would take the United States back toward the unfair racial discrimination that prevailed in the years before the Civil Rights Movement.


Times change.  In 1992 Carl Degler was unfairly criticized for not “historicizing” and “problematizing” sociobiology.  Nowadays, the pressure from radical students and professors is stronger, and I have been condemned for mentioning sociobiology in a book review!

What is going on?  It’s complicated.  But this much is clear.  When it comes to resisting the unwarranted demands of academic liberals and radicals, ignorance and pusillanimity have recently prevailed on many college campuses and also, I think, in the editorial office of the American Historical Review.

In retrospect the 1980s and 90s seem like a halcyon era, a time when social problems could be discussed realistically.  Those were decades when major commercial presses published three landmark books that candidly departed from the familiar liberal line: Peter Brimelow’s book on immigration, Alien Nation (1995); Jared Taylor’s book on race relations, Paved with Good Intentions (1992); and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s book on intelligence, The Bell Curve (1994).  It was also a time when this writer could find a university press that would publish my account of school desegregation, The Burden of Brown (1984), with its emphasis on the vagaries of federal judges and the misbehavior of Black students.  It was a time when the American Bar Association chose that book for its major book award for 1985, the Silver Gavel Award.

Those books would be feted these days. Charles Murray is still publishing best-sellers, but he cannot speak at a college campus without precipitating an uproar.  Peter Brimelow and Jared Taylor are still writing, but mostly at their own webzines.  And now I have been banished from the American Historical Review, where I had previously published on ten different occasions.  Six months ago the Interim Editor was not familiar with the word sociobiology.  But after he received a few letters complaining about my use of the word, he effectively decreed that, if scholars wish to discuss racial matters in the AHR, they should not suggest that evolution may be responsible for some well documented disparities.

Why has this come to pass?  One of the long-term effects of World War II and the triumph of the Civil Rights Movement was to give rise to what is sometimes called “tolerance education.”  And that has led to indoctrination that favors immigrants and non-whites while casting aspersions on Whites and on Darwinism.  Not in biology classes but in the social sciences and humanities.  Students have been told that the different races of humanity have the same distribution of aptitudes.  And students who question this message have come to understand that, if they are to get ahead in many fields, they must adhere to politically correct explanations of ethnic and racial disparities.  They must affirm that Mother Nature is not responsible for these disparities — that group inequalities are due to discrimination or privilege, or in some cases to the accidents of history and culture.  But never to natural selection.

We are living in a new Dark Age where scholars are expected to stay away from sociobiology, not because E. O. Wilson and Carl Degler were mistaken but because modern egalitarians are facing a challenge similar to the one that evolution once posed for Christian fundamentalists.  At first, most Christians denounced Darwin’s theory of evolution as, in the words of William Jennings Bryan, jeopardizing “the doctrine of brotherhood,” undermining “the sympathetic activities of a civilized society,” and “paralyzing the hope of reform.”   And now sociobiology is under attack by social justice warriors who are concerned about the implications that racial genetics may have for racial policies.

I do not wish to minimize the complexity of this situation.  There may be good reasons for public leaders to avoid discussion of sociobiology.  A recently released tape recording of a 1971 conversation reveals that President Richard Nixon and his advisor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, understood the implications of evolution but nevertheless insisted that it was not their responsibility to disseminate this knowledge.

But the obligations of scientists and scholars differ from those of politicians.  Academics should pursue the truth.  They should not conspire to suppress it — not by “historicizing,” not by “problematizing,” not at all.  Whatever the implications for social policy may be, it will never do for scholars, for reasons of expedience, to lie to the world as Galileo once lied when his mind held the truth.

Raymond Wolters is the Thomas Muncy Keith Professor of History, Emeritus, at theUniversity of Delaware.

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