Did Edward O. Wilson — Harvard professor, iconic biologist, champion of global biodiversity — promote racist ideas? For years, some scientists have suggested the very question is rooted in smear campaigns and misreadings of Wilson's work. Other scholars have argued that racism and sexism are apparent in Wilson's writing on human evolution.
Since Wilson's death in late December 2021, at the age of 92, the question has been subject to renewed debate, after an opinion piece in Scientific American describing Wilson's "dangerous ideas" set off a backlash from some scientists.
Now, two separate pairs of researchers, drawing from Wilson's papers at the Library of Congress, have published details of correspondence in which Wilson privately supports a psychologist known for his racist work. "It doesn't surprise me at all," said Joseph Graves, Jr., an evolutionary biologist at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University who has written extensively about scientific racism, and who reviewed some of the new archival work before it was published. What's important about the new research, he added, "was coming up with the smoking gun."
Not everyone agrees the new evidence is so definitive, but the revelations promise to prolong the reckoning over Wilson's legacy — and to add to an ongoing discussion about how racism and sexism may have shaped entire fields of study.
Wilson may be best known for his widely praised research on ants, and for his push to protect biodiversity. But the scientist's work on human evolution has been contested since 1975, when he published "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis," a sweeping study of the evolution of social behavior in animals. The book's final chapter, which aims to "consider man in the free spirit of natural history, as though we were zoologists from another planet," touches on the evolutionary origins of language, territoriality, and other behaviors. In the chapter, Wilson wonders whether there could be marked genetic differences between socioeconomic classes. (He concludes there's little evidence that's the case.) And he speculates that some of the differences between human cultures could be rooted in genetic differences, calling for "a discipline of anthropological genetics" to explore the question further.
Wilson was touching on questions that remain deeply polarizing: To what extent are certain features of human societies, like xenophobia, altruism, or inequality, dictated by our genes? And can some of the complex variation among human groups, from IQ scores to incarceration rates, be explained by genetic differences, rather than by environmental and social forces? Many racist projects — from the eugenics movement to Nazism to present-day White nationalism — have argued that racial differences have deep genetic roots. Such pseudoscientific ideas continue to fuel popular racist canards, such as the idea that Black people have genes predisposing them to violence.
Today, there's a broad consensus among experts in human evolution that that race is a social construct, not a biological category, and that it is extraordinarily difficult to link specific genes to complex human behaviors. And some researchers and advocates warn that, absent better data, explorations of those questions often just reproduce old stereotypes — or offer thin cover for bigoted ideas.
After the publication of "Sociobiology," Wilson was subject to fierce criticism, including from some of his Harvard colleagues, who argued he had gotten out ahead of the scientific evidence — and that his conclusions about the way biology shapes human behavior veered into dangerous territory.
Wilson pushed back against those charges, arguing that his work had been misunderstood and, in some cases, distorted. ("To keep the record straight, I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behavior," he wrote in 1981, stressing his belief in "a single human nature.") Despite the criticisms, "Sociobiology" was enormously influential: The book helped launch the field of evolutionary psychology, and it had a profound influence on the study of animal behavior and biological anthropology.
Less than a week after Wilson died, Monica McLemore, a health researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, published the op-ed in Scientific American describing Wilson's work as problematic, and calling on scientists to reckon with his legacy. In response, the science blogger Razib Khan wrote an open letter challenging the way McLemore's piece characterized Wilson's work, including "baseless accusations of racism." Dozens of prominent scientists signed the letter.
The open letter pitted a group of mostly White scientists against a Black colleague who had raised concerns about racism. McLemore, who has received threats and hate mail since her piece was published, questioned the judgment of the researchers who signed it. "That reputable scientists would be sloppy enough to sign a letter that would bring that kind of hate to my stance in this current moment — to me the naivete is huge," she told Undark in a recent Zoom conversation. (Khan did not reply to requests for comment.)
Some of the letter's initial signatories retracted their names after learning of Khan's past connections with figures associated with white nationalism, including alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer and publisher Ron Unz.
Soon after, Wilson's own connections to the right-wing fringe upended the conversation again.
One pair of researchers who surfaced those connections, Howard University evolutionary biologist Stacy Farina and her husband, Matthew Gibbons, began reading sections of "Sociobiology" while stuck at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. They were taken aback by what they found.
"I had read some chapters of 'Sociobiology' as a grad student," said Farina. "And there's a lot of really great science in there. It's a very interesting book. And I had no idea that the last chapter had any of that stuff in it." Part of her motivation for digging into Wilson's work, she continued, was a sense of gaps in her own training. "I am frustrated with the lack of education about these issues in evolutionary biology."
Later, during a Library of Congress workshop for Howard faculty, Farina asked if the Library had archival material on Wilson. Sure enough, the institution holds his personal papers — including boxes of documents related to the sociobiology wars. When she and Gibbons perused the collection, they were drawn to four folders labeled with the name of J. Philippe Rushton, a Canadian psychologist who, starting in the 1980s, published studies arguing that substantial genetic differences existed between racial groups.
"Population differences exist in personality and sexual behavior such that, in terms of restraint, Orientals > whites > blacks," begins one 1987 Rushton paper published in the Journal of Research in Personality. His work would eventually be dogged by accusations of statistical flaws and ethics violations, and key papers were retracted.
In 2002, Rushton took the helm of the Pioneer Fund, an organization founded in the 1930s to promote eugenics, the idea that humanity can be improved by manipulating which people reproduce. He led the nonprofit until his death in 2012.
On weekends, Farina and Gibbons began returning to the Library of Congress. It was a "nice little escape during the pandemic," said Gibbons, who works as a business development specialist for a public health organization. "Head out in the morning, go to an early session, grab some lunch, and sort of freak out over what the morning session revealed, race the clock and try to document as much as we could before they kicked us out at the end."
The letters, Farina said, demonstrate a warm relationship between Wilson and the psychologist. In the correspondence, which dates from the 1980s and '90s, Wilson expressed support for Rushton's work, and lamented a stifling culture that, he suggested, had prevented him from speaking more freely, referring in one note to a "leftward revival of McCarthyism." When Rushton's university seemed poised to sanction him for academic misconduct, Wilson sent letters in his defense. He also sent letters to drum up support for Rushton from colleagues at Harvard and at the conservative National Association of Scholars.
Unbeknownst to Farina and Gibbons, a pair of historians were also exploring the Wilson archive. In 2018, University of Illinois historian of science David Sepkoski began working with Wilson's papers while researching a book on biodiversity. Like Farina and Gibbons, he noticed and gravitated toward the Rushton folders.
Struck by what he was reading, Sepkoski began dropping scanned images of letters into a Dropbox folder he shares with Mark Borrello, a historian of biology at the University of Minnesota. "I'm sure I called you from the archives, and was like, 'You're not gonna believe this,'" Sepkoski told Borrello during a recent Zoom conversation with Undark. The two began sketching out a book project on Wilson.
The correspondence, Sepkoski and Borrello now say, suggests that Wilson was carefully managing his public persona — even as he quietly continued his dispute with his left-wing critics.
Providing comments on one Rushton paper — which applied a famous Wilson theory, meant to examine reproductive differences between different species, to argue that Black and non-Black people pursue different reproductive strategies — Wilson was effusive. "This is a brilliant paper," he wrote, "one of the most original and heuristic written on human biology in recent years."
"Whether it can even be published in this or some other journal devoted to human sociobiology," Wilson wrote later in his comments, "will be a test of our courage and fidelity to objectivity in science."
Earlier this month, spurred by the backlash against McLemore, Farina and Gibbons published their findings in Science for the People Magazine, a left-wing outlet linked to the activist group that prominently opposed Wilson's work in the 1970s.
Days later, Sepkoski and Borrello published their own essay in The New York Review of Books, with more details from the Wilson archives.
The reaction to the letters among the scientific community has been mixed. Some researchers suggested the revelations do not necessitate a substantial reevaluation of Wilson's legacy. Asked about the new letters, sociologist Ullica Segerstrale referred back to her influential 2000 book, "Defenders of the Truth," which covers the dispute between Wilson and his antagonists. In the book, Segerstrale challenges characterizations of Wilson as a racist thinker, and argues that his critics often failed to engage with the actual substance of his work. "I stand by my general analysis in that book regarding the thinking and behavior of both E.O. Wilson and Science for the People," she wrote in an email to Undark.
At the blog Why Evolution is True, biostatistician Gregory Mayer described Farina and Gibbon's findings as "small beer." Wilson, he wrote, appeared to be primarily defending Rushton's academic freedom, not endorsing his ideas. "To do so does not imply an identity of views," Mayer wrote. In a phone interview, he suggested that historians should focus on more pressing historical topics, such as Wilson's role in the development of a key concept in ecology, rather than his correspondence with a discredited Canadian psychologist.
For other scientists, though, the letters felt significant. Writing for Small Pond Science, a science and teaching blog, biologist Terry McGlynn reflected on the letters' impact. "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," he wrote.
But, he continued, "it's indubitable that the party line I have passively received over the decades simply does not comport with reality."
Not everyone found the content of the letters especially surprising. Indeed, close attention to Wilson's work and public statements, some scholars said, already provided ample evidence that he was sympathetic to ideas that most biologists now consider not just morally questionable, but scientifically unfounded.
In 2014, Wilson gave a warm blurb to then-New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade's book "A Troublesome Inheritance." The book argues that Black people may be, on average, more impulsive and less hardworking than White or East Asian people, and that basic differences in human society — why Haiti is poor, for example, and European countries wealthy — are attributable to genetic differences among groups. In reviews, debates, and public statements, experts in human evolution pilloried the book for misrepresenting the science. A notable exception was Wilson, who, in his blurb, praised Wade for exemplifying "the virtues of truth without fear" and celebrating human genetic diversity.
"That's pretty much out in the open," said Princeton University biological anthropologist Agustín Fuentes, who describes "A Troublesome Inheritance" as "awful, racist, horribly unscientific." What has changed, he said, is the scientific community itself. The field, he said, "is really hitting a peak moment of reflection, of engagement with the complexities of racism and sexism, and how it's structured some of the basic ideas."
Indeed, a recent paper in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, authored by faculty, staff, and graduate students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC-Santa Cruz, is titled "Anti-racist interventions to transform ecology, evolution, and conservation biology departments." Recently, biologists have mobilized to change species names that honor Confederate officers and other figures with troubling histories.
"Even just in the last two or three years, it feels like something has shifted," said Ambika Kamath, a behavioral and evolutionary ecologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Among other factors driving that change, she said, is that biologists from more diverse backgrounds are coming into the field.
Kamath is hopeful that the conversation around Wilson will spark broader introspection among her colleagues. The problem, she and some other researchers argue, goes far beyond Wilson. "I don't really care that Wilson had racist ideas, because I know pretty much all of the people that I dealt with, when I was coming up through the science system, had racist ideas," said Graves, who in 1988 became the first Black American to receive a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology. "Wilson was just one of many."
For now, more work from the archives may continue to flesh out a fuller picture of Wilson's life and thought. Speaking last week, McLemore, the author of the Scientific American op-ed on Wilson, said she was still getting hate mail and threats. "All I wanted to do," she said, "was to have a more nuanced discussion about the work."