E.O. Wilson and the birth of cancel culture
Would the Huxley-Wilberforce debate even be allowed today?
E.O. Wilson, who died on Boxing Day, was a giant in the field of biology. He was also a significant figure in the history of what became known as political correctness and later cancel culture, being one of its first victims. And the campaign against him worked. When we say ‘we won’t see his like again’, it is almost certainly true, not just because of Wilson’s rare genius but because of the atmosphere created by growing ideological conformity.
Wilson had argued in his hugely influential 1975 work Sociobiology that some universal human attributes, including our moral sense, may be shaped by natural selection. Wilson was a specialist in ants – and famously when asked about Marxism, said ‘good ideology, wrong species’ – and his great book looked at how evolution influenced the behaviour of social species but also mammals, including humans.
In this he was following in the footsteps of the greatest of them all, and Tom Wolfe even called him ‘Darwin’s natural heir’. Certainly, Wilson’s book helped create a whole field, later called evolutionary psychology, in which everything from violence to altruism could in part be explained through evolution (even if non-genetic factors plays a huge role, too). In particular Sociobiology rejected the ‘blank slate’, the idea that our personalities and characteristics stem entirely from culture, our upbringing and the societal forces around us.
That we are shaped by our genes seems true to the point of obviousness, and part of the wisdom of the ages; in Ireland the old phrase ‘s/he didn’t lick it off a stone’ reflects the well-established belief that character traits, good and bad, are inherited.
And yet Wilson ‘became a target of vilification and harassment’, in Steven Pinker’s words. A widely-circulated article by a group of academics accused Wilson, a Democrat voter and a political moderate, of promoting theories that ‘led to the establishment of gas chambers in Nazi Germany’. One campaign group declared that ‘Sociobiology, by encouraging biological and genetic explanations for racism, war and genocide, exonerates and protects the groups and individuals who have carried out and benefited from these monstrous crimes. Proclaiming fascist-like behavior as part of the “human biogram,” it can only regard anti-fascist behavior as an “exception” which confirms a universal human nature. What an insult to tens of millions of people!’
Wilson survived and thrived, as giants do, but those of smaller stature would have noted the warning.
The campaign against Wilson was led by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, two evolutionary biologists whose ideas became very popular over the coming decades, and which just happened to reflect progressive cultural prejudices. Lewontin, who also died this year, was a ‘committed Marxist’ and as the New York Times reported, ‘sprinkled his attacks on Sociobiology with quotations from Marx and Engels’ and later ‘helped write a book, '”The Dialectical Biologist,'” that attempted to identify a subtler and more Marxist vision of science than the “reductionist” one that Mr. Lewontin says has prevailed in the West ever since Descartes.’ That is not to say that a Marxist cannot be a good scientist, only that his definition of what constitutes fascism might be somewhat different to the average person’s.
Gould’s Mismeasure of Man was hugely influential but he was compared by one critic to Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet scientist who rejected Mendelian genetics as reactionary. This might be a bit unfair, since Lysenko’s ideological prejudice ended up actually costing countless lives, while false beliefs in western academia can often avoid bumping up against solid reality.
The authorities and wider Soviet establishment preferred Lysenko’s progressive idea that organisms might inherit characteristics acquired by their parents, and that genes did not exist. For Lysensko, science and politics could never be separated, for the aim of science was to create a more just society. As he once said, ‘In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result, you will obtain it… I need only such as people as will obtain the results I need.’ #Trusttheexperts #Ifuckinglovescience etc.
The Soviets, and their imitators in China, disliked the conservative implications of genetics and preferred a vision in which social conditions alone would raise humans up. Mao was even more enamoured of the tabula rasa and wrote that ‘A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.’ This beautiful, hopeful vision of mankind would cause tens of millions of deaths.
Yet this idea has remained most persistent in the West, and for similar reasons they once worked in the East – intimidation. The practice of using boycotts, sit-ins and smear campaigns was one pioneered by westerns radicals on US campuses from the late 1960s, with Wilson one of their early victims. Small in number, many of these activists were avowed Communist sympathisers, and mixed radical sexual politics with a fondness for denouncing sessions and toxic internal politics. Their ideology was often inconsistent, but running throughout was a hostility to any biological explanation for human society, which was tantamount to Nazism. In order to defeat this terrifying spectre of fascism re-emerging, they believed in using the threat of violence and character assassination to get their way. Pretty successfully.
Various academics have since suffered similar campaigns. In the same period, psychologist Paul Ekman provoked protests when he suggested that ‘smiles, frowns, sneers, grimaces, and other facial expressions’ were universal and so most likely genetic. Another anthropologist, Alan Lomax, denounced Ekman at the American Anthropological Association meeting and said he shouldn’t be allowed to speak because his ideas were fascist.
Harvard’s Richard Herrnstein was called a racist for arguing, in 1971, that ‘since differences in intelligence are partly inherited, and since intelligent people tend to marry other intelligent people, when a society becomes more just it will also become more stratified along genetic lines’. He wasn’t even talking about race, but he received death threats and his lecture halls were filled with chanting mobs. Herrnstein and another academic, Arthur Jensen, were forced to not only cancel lectures but also hire guards, after they had touched on the field of IQ research.
Then there was the case of Napoleon Chagnon, the renowned anthropologist who spent years studying the Yanomamö, a tribe in the Amazon rainforest, and whose 1968 book The Fierce People had sold a million copies. Many anthropologists were upset by his claim that their behaviour was partly explained by evolution, and for the less than Rousseauian way he portrayed the tribe, painting a world in which men fought over women, of violence in the home, drug use and a lack of care for the environment. Chagnon was accused of fabricating his data and, worse still, stirring up inter-tribal violence himself and even deliberately spreading measles; the campaign hugely harmed his career.
The student radicals behind these campaigns were deliberately and consciously anti-liberal, and went against long-established liberal ideas of what the university meant, and of the need for inquiry. Herrnstein’s thesis that meritocracy leads to IQ stratification can either be proved correct or incorrect, but whether it strikes people as morally wrong, or problematic or controversial, should be irrelevant to whether it should be published. Sadly, we’ve evolved a moral sense that finds such dangerous ideas difficult to digest, and only a relatively small minority of people are ‘rational’ (which is partly why, as universities have expanded, they have become more intolerant).
The radicals of the late 60s have arguably won, then. Today there is the strange situation where, on the one hand, the blank slate has been thoroughly disproven, thanks to vast increases in our knowledge of genetics, but the subject is couched in esoteric language for fear of controversy. There is absolutely no doubt that evolution plays a huge role in individual human outcomes, and Wilson’s 1978 comment ‘the question of interest is no longer whether human social behaviour is genetically determined; it is to what extent’ is certainly truer now than it was then. It is ‘decisive’, as he put it.
In the meantime, there has been a vast expansion in the teaching of whole disciplines which rely on what Jonathan Gottschall called the ‘liberationist paradigm’, the study of human society explained without any reference to biology. One of the most cited scholars in academia today is Judith Butler, ‘for whom “woman” is not a class of people but a performance that constructs “gendered” reality.’ There are now parallel realities, but turn on any Radio 4 discussion about almost any social issue and it’s clear which paradigm western elites believe in. (In line with the great tradition in which everyone who disagrees with you is literally Hitler, Butler was most recently in the Guardian comparing gender-critical feminists with fascists.)
In another sphere, and keeping their heads down, there are scientists busy working on the latest research showing that, not only is intelligence measurable and highly-heritable, but so are personality traits and even ultra-unsayable things like a tendency towards altruism or criminality. Similarly, the evidence for the sexually dimorphic nature of human beings, with average interests, personality traits and a tendency towards violence or sexual promiscuity, has piled up, all of it a product of evolution.
Yet the liberationist paradigm has never been stronger, with institutions from government departments to banks falling in line behind a vision of human biology that totally ignores evolution. Even Lysenko didn’t claim that there was no such thing as biological sex – Soviet science wasn’t that ideological.
Darwin’s heir has gone, but it’s questionable whether an idea as upsetting as the theory of evolution would be tolerated in a modern academy. Would a book that openly contradicted society’s scientific comfort zone even get a publisher? Would the Huxley-Wilberforce debate even be allowed in a society composed of ‘menstruators’ and ‘people with men parts’? We are, as Wilson put it, a species with ‘paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology’, and nowhere else do these stone age feelings come out so fiercely as when it comes to people’s cherished beliefs.