E.O. Wilson on academic in-fighting

January 02, 2022 #science #academia #focus

Some excerpts from this interesting interview, recorded in 2009. Speaks a lot to the current zeitgeist.


AD: Well, extreme leftism does seem to have become embedded in academia.

EOW: Yes, it has been. In fact, I’m glad you mentioned that. I’ve often said that the only place certain subjects are completely taboo is the university. In other words, you simply don’t bring up race anymore. You don’t bring up gender differences anymore except very gingerly in a roundabout way. And so, here at Harvard, we got rid of President [Larry] Summers, based on his slip about gender differences in physics abilities. I don’t want overstate it, but it is true that far-leftist ideology has been pretty well embedded.


AD: It must have been extremely frustrating to witness, again and again, blatant misrepresentations of your work by colleagues who ought to have known better.

EOW: It was blatantly unethical. Basically, they were seized by a kind of moral imperative. They believed what they said. Or at least they believed their assumptions about the blank slate.

AD: And they were rewarded for it. Clearly, people like Gould and Lewontin were rewarded for what they did to you and your work.

EOW: That’s why I have a certain cynical feeling towards Gould. Gould was going around attacking racists wherever he found them, especially in the early part of his career. He was the great anti-racism crusader. He acted as though other scientists were all racists or incipient racists. He almost implied that he was the champion who would step out of science as a scientist and fight racism everywhere. He had a technique. I knew him when he was a graduate student following me around. He used to be very polite and solicitous. I watched him develop into a very different kind of person.

He had a technique he repeated. He would examine some 19th century figure—one of his favorites was Louis Agassiz at Harvard, a heroic figure, a founder of the National Academy of Sciences, a man favored by Lincoln and Grant. Then Gould would “discover” a horror—that Agassiz was a racist or that he believed in the inferiority of blacks—and he would eviscerate him. But he would not note this was an almost universal misunderstanding or belief in 19th-century American society. But that was okay. Louis Agassiz’s reputation could hold up. But then Gould had a way of saying “this deeply racist sentiment has not disappeared at all in modern biology. We find it among some modern biologists.” That gave him the launching point to start attacking human genetics.


AD: Imagine for a moment that you are watching a younger version of yourself struggle with a younger version of Gould and Lewontin. How would you advise that younger version of you?

EOW: I think I would tell him to ignore it. Pay attention, I mean, and respond if there is some really scurrilous thing being said. But, as much as possible, ignore it, and keep working, and you’ll win in the end. I know it isn’t easy during fights. I always said to myself, “Don’t get into a pissing contest with a skunk.” If you ask me what I most resent about that period looking back now, I think the answer is the amount of time I wasted. I spent countless hours talking with journalists who were writing stories about all this. They’d come to me and say, “Well, Professor Lewontin just said so-and-so, Professor Gould just said so-and-so.” Or, “I’ve read in the latest thing that they’ve said this. What do you say to that?” I felt that I couldn’t sit by and let them declare me to be a racist and a proto-Nazi. I couldn’t just say, “No comment.” So, I wasted enormous amounts of energy and time I could have used for something much more valuable. So, my advice would be, this too shall pass. Ignore it as much as you can. Conduct yourself with dignity and with courtesy and let it pass.

You can sense E.O. Wilson's heavy regret at spending time defending himself when he could have used it more productively. Though E.O. Wilson was not talking about it, what’s twitter if not a pissing contest?

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