Slate Magazine Dialogue On: How To Deal With Fringe Academics

Between Judith Shulevitz of Slate, Alex Star, editor of Lingua Franca, and John Tooby, Co-Director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology

The complete version can be found online here. Closing emails to Slate by John Tooby and Steven Pinker are below, followed by copies of Tooby’s responses to Judith and Alex on Slate.

___________________________________________________________Final letter from John Tooby, published in Slate’s Fray, to wrap up loose ends raised in Shulevitz’s final dialogue contribution:

Dear Judith,

You seem determined to persuade yourself or at least others that the members of a large academic organization knew all about the anti-Semitic scholarship of one of its members, and because of their esteem for and commitment to these views, elected him to an administrative post. This is highly implausible to anyone who knows the first thing about modern academia, but let’s assume for the moment that you prevail in your campaign, what then? The claim – if believed – that many of the most respected and expert scientists in the world on these topics endorse MacDonald’s theories would help to give a strong stamp of legitimacy to them (e.g., the past HBES presidents William Hamilton and George Williams, for example, are responsible for most of the major theoretical breakthroughs in evolutionary biology over the last 40 years). It seems scarcely likely that the object of your exercise, in the face of evidence and common sense, is to fight anti-Semitism, since its success would so clearly have the opposite effect. This effort invites the inference that your actual object is not to fight anti-Semitism at all, but rather to inflict damage on the reputation of evolutionary psychology or the larger community of views to which it belongs, with your promotion of and marginal legitimization of anti-Semitic views just one price you are willing to pay in order to indulge your prejudices.

For those who are interested in carefully tracing out the dauntingly complex relationships between biology, brain, mind, and culture, this is all very familiar terrain. In the mid-1970’s, for example, Gould, Lewontin, and a few others injected heavy-handed moralizing, easy denunciation, the attribution of dubious intellectual genealogies, and an ad hominem attack-style into scientific debate in an effort to settle intellectual disputes by other means. One belief they cultivated assiduously was the myth that leading evolutionary scholars were ideologically motivated right-wingers. Due to my empiricist inclinations, I was the only person I knew who actually gathered data on this widely credited claim. The results were what common sense would lead you to expect: Evolutionists included communists, ex-communists, a wide array of non-doctrinaire Marxists, democratic socialists, anarchists, feminists, a Black Panther Party member (recently joined by a second), antiwar activists, many New Republic liberals, some apoliticals, and a neocon – a distribution (for better or worse) indistinguishable from any randomly sampled selection of faculty at leading research universities at the time. In the decades since, a much broader diversity of individuals have become interested, including Robert Wright of Slate, Barbara Ehrenreich, Blair Labourites, the leftist utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, various British neoliberals, a few economic and social conservatives, etc. There is even, extraordinarily enough, now a Creationist behavioral ecologist, who considers natural selection to have been going on for nonhumans since Creation. So, I am not surprised at anything that turns up, from anti-Semitism to Jungians. The one theme that I can see is that the human mind has imaginative and interpretive resources rich enough to imbue virtually any theory or set of facts with an extraordinary diversity of political meanings. Still, the myth of the proto-fascist Darwinists remains useful to many people, and the myth can always be fed by the careful selection of who to highlight, and who to ignore. Note, though, that for evolutionists, one has to dig down to the almost uncited before one finds individuals really useful in this game. By way of comparison, in the humanities, several of the most respected and most cited intellectual leaders have such unsavory connections, not only de Man and Heidegger. By such vacuous, guilt-by-association criteria, the whole membership of the Modern Language Association (not to mention the Yale English Department) could be indicted many times over as complicit in the ugliest atrocities of the last century. I must admit that I can see little in these games but the expression of prejudice, masquerading as moral action.

The most notorious tactic of Gould, Lewontin, and their allies during the early years was their attempt to drag the ideas they opposed under by manufacturing links to various repugnant doctrines. One moral problem with ignoring truth-value in employing such tactics is that these socially constructed links pull in both directions. The key theoretical breakthroughs central to sociobiology (inclusive fitness theory, parental investment theory, and so on) turned out to elegantly explain large sets of observations, and so went on to win the debates within the technical journals in evolutionary biology. Although Lewontin’s and Gould’s opposition to the most significant innovations in evolutionary biology over the last 30 years is nothing more than a quaint intellectual footnote within evolutionary biology, the fruits of their mythologizing live on outside of it. They live on in the spurious legitimacy that they gave to the netherworld of marginal scholarship (of which MacDonald is a typical example) that embraces the doctrines that the “moralists” were putatively fighting. More significantly, they did succeed in tarring the revolution in evolutionary biology in the eyes of nonbiologists, together with any serious attempt to think through the relationship between culture, human nature, and human evolution. This has perpetuated the antiquated status quo, during which social scientists have remained wary of the possibility of scientifically mapping human nature, and have remained almost totally ignorant of modern evolutionary biology. The cumulative harvest of suffering from this will not be small.

Also, while evolutionary psychology might be found to be irremediably flawed, and may ultimately come to nothing, it is at least possible that it will, like sociobiology before it, eventually win the debates in the journals and become firmly established. The tactic of combating it by manufacturing links to repugnant doctrines (even incompatible ones, as in this case) may have the unintended effect of dragging up such doctrines in social acceptability, which is a steep price to pay for debating points.

On to trivia: As for MacDonald’s short comment on the Wilson and Sober article being “perfectly impossible” for me or others to miss, and hence proof positive that HBES knew of and embraced McDonald’s views before they elected him, alas, such impossibilities are the dreary and routine inevitabilities in the life of the busy academic. The fantastic notion that I must have read something because it comments on something else that cites me is another in the series of Kafkaesque mental leaps that have shown up in your columns (like your earlier claim that my having uniformly rejected the few papers of MacDonald’s that have come to me as editor over the years proves the affinity in our thinking). Instead, the real impossibility is going into any productive academic’s office without seeing the desks, chairs, and floor littered with towering stacks of books and papers waiting, often for years, to be glanced at, skimmed, or – for the lucky few – actually read, usually because they pertain to what is being worked on at the moment.

Again, a tiny bit of journalistic spadework would have turned over the fact that the commentary appeared in the very last issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences for 1994, academic journals routinely show up months after their official publication dates, and the election was held by mail ballot early in 1995. So even swallowing the idea that such a comment would have stood out among the thousands of publications in hundreds of other journals of interest in biology, psychology, neuroscience, economics, animal behavior, and anthropology, and instantly been read by the combined membership of HBES, the chronology still does not work out. Another fact that would have been easy to uncover is that the great majority of HBES members, rightly or wrongly, have considered group selection a dead issue for decades, and so are unlikely to have expended much attention on yet another rehash of stale debates. (Indeed, as I said, their opposition to the idea that large groups evolved to act as integrated units – key to MacDonald’s views – makes it spectacularly inaccurate to depict them as MacDonald supporters.)

In my own case, like Lewontin, I have found Wilson’s two decades of work in this unpopular area to be a valuable contribution, despite my many disagreements with him. Because of this sympathetic interest, I was sent the Wilson and Sober article in manuscript, in order to solicit a commentary from me for the journal. Despite a very wired editor, Behavioral and Brain Sciences still does not violate the laws of temporal causality, and so the manuscript that was sent out to solicit commentaries lacked all commentaries, since those were to be written subsequently, in response to the manuscript. Having read it in manuscript, I had no urge to hunt up the published version, much less read endless commentaries on it, then or now. (I should point out that even your link to the Wilson-Sober article on the web omits the commentaries, which just are not available on the web.) So the “perfectly impossible” seems to happen quite effortlessly.

The triviality and sterility of this kind of discussion is emblematic of the waste of time engendered by this guilt-by-association discourse. Much better questions are: What is true? And what can be done to alleviate the crushing burden of human suffering?

Best regards, and signing off,


——————————–Subject: Battling Bad Ideas
From: Steven Pinker
Date: Thu Jan 27 08:13:52

I’m one of the scholars who spoke to Judith Shulevitz about Kevin MacDonald’s books on Judaism, and a visible defender of evolutionary psychology. Presumably I am among those who she believes has a professional duty to respond to his ideas.

Shulevitz’s coverage was balanced in some respects, but unfair in others. She says that “if you’re going to take the unusual step of welcoming all ideas, you can’t proceed to ignore the bad ones.” This is untrue, for two reasons.

The Human Behavior and Evolution Society has never “welcomed” MacDonald’s ideas. Their peer-reviewed journal has never published his theories. MacDonald was elected to a volunteer administrative post in the society several years ago, before anyone knew about his views on Judaism. And if he ever presented his ideas at their annual conference, it was because HBES, like many scientific societies, does not peer-review all conference submissions. I believe that this policy is ill-advised in HBES’s case, but it is not unusual. I have spoken to several current and past officers of the society, who are just as concerned about MacDonald’s preposterous ideas. But it became clear that there is no principled way for the society to denounce or censor him, or to remove him from his elected post, however much its members might disagree with his views. A commitment to free speech entails episodes of acute discomfort, even agony, whether in a scientific society or in a democracy as a whole.

The suggestion that scholars “can’t ignore bad ideas” is a nonstarter. In science there are a thousand bad ideas for every good one. “Doing battle” against all of them is not an option for mere mortals, and doing battle against some of them is a tacit acknowledgment that those have enough merit to exceed the onerous threshold of attention-worthiness. MacDonald’s ideas, as presented in summaries that would serve as a basis for further examination, do not pass that threshold, for many reasons:

1. By stating that Jews promulgate scientific hypotheses because they are Jewish, he is engaging in ad hominem argumentation that is outside the bounds of normal scientific discourse and an obvious waste of time to engage. MacDonald has already announced that I will reject his ideas because I am Jewish, so what’s the point of replying to them? 2. MacDonald’s main axioms – group selection of behavioral adaptations, and behaviorally relevant genetic cohesiveness of ethnic groups — are opposed by powerful bodies of data and theory, which Tooby, Cosmides, and many other evolutionary psychologists have written about in detail. Of course any assumption can be questioned, but there are no signs that MacDonald has taken on the burden of proof of showing that the majority view is wrong. 3. MacDonald’s various theses, even if worthy of scientifically debate individually, collectively add up to a consistently invidious portrayal of Jews, couched in value-laden, disparaging language. It is impossible to avoid the impression that this is not an ordinary scientific hypothesis. 4. The argument, as presented in the summaries, fail two basic tests of scientific credibility: a control group (in this case, other minority ethnic groups), and a comparison with alternative hypotheses (such as Thomas Sowell’s convincing analysis of “middlemen minorities” such as the Jews, presented in his magisterial study of migration, race, conquest, and culture).

Of course I have not plowed through MacDonald’s trilogy and therefore run the complementary risks of being unfair to his arguments, and of not refuting them resoundingly enough to distance them from my own views on evolutionary psychology. But in the marketplace of ideas, a proposal has to have enough initial credibility, and enough signs of adherence to the ground rules of scientific debate, to earn the precious currency of the attention of one’s peers.

Steven Pinker
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences MIT

——————————————————————————–___________________________________________________________Opening Dialogue contributed by John Tooby # 1:

Dear Judith and Alex,

For reasons that will become clear, I’ve spent the last week, midnight to 6 AM, searching through websites devoted to the Holocaust (and its denial), a sleepless, shifting mosaic of photographs, documents, testimony:

Twenty foot layers of human ash – shrunken heads – the industrial use of victims’ hair – piles of shoes, eyeglasses, gold teeth, bodies burned, bodies unburned – heaps of artificial limbs destined for new owners — medical experiments – the “technical achievement” of Auschwitz crematoria that could be run continuously — the voices of death camp survivors whose forms can hardly be told from the corpses — and the other voices, the voices of the officials speaking through surviving documents: “97,000 were processed using three vans, without any faults occurring in the vehicles. … It seems that these lamps are hardly ever turned on, so the users have suggested that they could be done away with. Experience shows, however, that when the back door is closed and it gets dark inside, the load pushes hard against the door… This hampers the locking of the door. It has also been noticed that the noise provoked by the locking of the door is linked to the fear aroused by the darkness.”

However difficult to read, there has perhaps never been more evidence about any set of interrelated historical events than of the Holocaust. Yet thanks to the forum provided by British libel law, David Irving now not only gets to sue scholars like Deborah Lipstadt who criticize him, but he also makes headlines across the world in what the Guardian has called “the most far-reaching court case about the Holocaust since the execution of Adolf Eichmann.” Trains to the camps were ‘well provisioned’ runs one. Gas chambers ‘that never were’ readsanother. Irving is also a humorist, for example making scatological acronyms from “Auschwitz survivors, survivors of the Holocaust and other liars.” In a world where most skim headlines and know little history, Irving has raised doubts in the most public possible way.

In this trial, Kevin MacDonald, “a Judaism authority” according to the Guardian, or “an evolutionary psychologist” according to the two of you, has volunteered to testify on behalf of Irving. His theory is developed in elaborate detail in three volumes: that Jews are joined in a two-thousand year old “group evolutionary strategy” to spread their genes and to acquire wealth at the expense of Gentiles, as well as to eugenically breed themselves for competitive traits such as intelligence and ambition. According to MacDonald, anti-Semitism is a rational response by others to this Jewish genetic and cultural project.

Judith, you raise the question, How to fight bad ideas? Choices include denouncing them (as immoral), showing them to be untrue, or ignoring them. European nations, despite the rumor that the Enlightenment originated there, presently provide us with other choices: arresting, fining, imprisoning – to which far less liberal societies and enterprising individuals add: assaulting and murdering.

The first three are consistent with respect for human rights. These options each have different consequences and pitfalls, subtle and obvious, and – what is less appreciated – they are nearly mutually exclusive. Each is an act of social construction, shaping its share of the world, helping to create the social realities that we all have to live with and within. Over the past 30 years, sometimes I have chosen one, sometimes another, never with an easy heart, and never confident that I or others have made the right choice. Judith, you seem so much more confident than I do, not only about what you should do, but about what the rest of us should do. So, I will not be arguing that your choice was wrong — only that it has pitfalls.

In choosing moral denunciation, what have you done? Many things that MacDonald has not been able to do for himself. Through Slate, one of the web’s premier news gateways, you have made the obscure and fringe famous and well-indexed. You have constructed him as the key figure in a scandal or affair – the kind of thing people enjoy reading about. You have publicized his theories, published statements from him and supporters, and become the first major website to provide a link to his own webpage, so that the web-enabled from Kabul to Kiev to Idaho to Gaza, looking for a theoretician for their views, can click on this new discovery. You did this without providing readers with a comparable place to click on to find a critical evaluation of MacDonald’s views. And while this may be unfair to you, to my eye, in order to make the “facts” build into more of a story, there has been a tendency at various journalistic choice points for you to glamorize his professional identity and affiliations in series of questionable or even fallacious characterizations.

This begins even in the title of your first article, Evolutionary psychology’s anti-Semite. Kevin MacDonald is not remotely an evolutionary psychologist, any more than B.F. Skinner was a Freudian psychoanalyst, or Social Text the leading physics journal of our time. With greater accuracy, as we’ll see tomorrow, the headline might have been Dick Lewontin’s Anti-Semite, or many other absurd choices. I and Leda Cosmides, in an act of social construction more than two decades ago coined the term evolutionary psychology. We did this to distinguish a distinct set of factual claims and theoretical positions that several like-minded scholars were converging on from a much larger and more heterogeneous sea of opinions about the relationship between evolution and human behavior. Others, in standard references and elsewhere, subsequently ratified our definition, whether they agreed with the viewpoint or not. In contrast, the theoretical viewpoint expressed in MacDonald’s books stands in the most extreme contradiction to nearly every contentful core claim of evolutionary psychology. MacDonald himself does not even list the term in the index of any of his books. While he may now be calling himself an evolutionary psychologist, this is what journalism — investigative or not — is for: not to take people’s claims about themselves at face value. If you don’t believe him about the nature of Judaism, why believe him in this?

My favored choice is using logic and evidence to winnow errors – an approach which carries its own moral world.

In this world, the statement that something is immoral is entirely worthless, as is the claim that it is untrue — unless you guide readers to the reasons for your conclusion. That is the deep ethic of the scientist and the scholar, and why I will end today with two links. One question that must be addressed, now that it has been raised, is what really happened in the Holocaust. The best single website I have been able to find is the Nizkor Project (Nizkor means We will remember, in Hebrew). Its best subpage takes a central pamphlet of questions and answers written by the leading holocaust deniers, and devastatingly annotates it with additional information in a way that only the web can do. True to the morality of this path, they say: “Nizkor believes that truth has no need for secrecy. We present the material of the Holocaust-deniers unaltered and completely openly, with links back to their web sites so that the reader may examine exactly what they say. And if and when they have a response to our work, we will of course cross-link to it, so that the reader may examine that response.” On an infinitely more trivial note, for those interested in where our debunking of the MacDonald books will appear, click: here.—————

Note 1
1. A combination of men for an evil purpose; an agreement, between two or more persons, to commit a crime in concert, as treason; a plot.
2. A concurrence or general tendency, as of circumstances, to one event, as if by agreement.
3. (Law) An agreement, manifesting itself in words or deeds, by which two or more persons confederate to do an unlawful act, or to use unlawful to do an act which is lawful; confederacy.

From Websters Revised Unabridged Dictionary 1913

Note 2: According to MacDonald, the Jews are everywhere, in all of our intellectual and social movements from the Frankfurt school to Boasian anthropology, shaping them according to Jewish interests.

Note 3: In France, Germany, and several other nations of the EU, it is against the law (!) to dispute the findings of the Nuremberg tribunals, or to make other similar claims about the Holocaust, and the Blair government, it is reported, is considering introducing similar legislation in Britain. British libel law, of course, puts similar tools in the hands of any private individual who dislikes what someone else has said or written about them. Not to be outdone, Canada, like many American universities, has its own pioneering laws abridging speech.

Note 4: Allowing him space, Judith, was inevitable and fair, once you made your initial choice to profile him, and I am not critical of it. But it was only inevitable once you started down this path. It is also true that the Guardian published a link to MacDonald ten days after you did, so Slate’s is not the only link to MacDonald. And certainly his profile would have increased some as a result of the trial. But it is undeniable that your treatment has increased his visibility far beyond what it would otherwise have been.

Note 5: Equally, where Alex saw droves of evolutionary psychologists, I counted only Steve Pinker. Audible to me, if not to Alex, was the roar made by the grinding teeth of those evolutionists who disagree with or even despise evolutionary psychology, as they are casually labelled evolutionary psychologists. It is true that some journalists have mistakenly used evolutionary psychology to mean anyone who has an opinion about the relationship between human evolution and behavior, but this would make Stephen Jay Gould and Dick Lewontin leading evolutionary psychologists, a description I will relish reading someday if this journalistic useage spreads. Of course, the fact that MacDonald disagrees with evolutionary psychology’s claims and principles does not necessarily make him wrong. It just makes him not an evolutionary psychologist.

Note 6: Or more accurately, ignoring errors until they begins to play a significant role in a field or in public life, and then exposing the fallacies.

Note 7:

Note 8: Our response to MacDonald’s books will be found on the web page of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, under the Critical Eye section, as soon as it can be drafted.


Dialogue contributed by John Tooby # 2:

Dear Judith,

I’ve going to deviously duck your tough questions for today, because these issues cut far deeper than one individual and HBES, and they touch on a grand hoodwinking that has been perpetrated by us academics as a group on journalists and the public about the nature of scholarly authority, as well as what it is to be “fringe” as opposed to “respected” and “authoritative.”

First some fact-checking and investigative journalism, then on to bigger things:

Fact: The Human Behavior and Evolution Society is the scholarly association for anyone who thinks there is a connection between evolution and human behavior (potentially including Gould, Lewontin, Chomsky, the Leakeys and indeed all non-Creationists) and who also pays dues (which eliminates most of the aforementioned). It is not the professional organization of evolutionary psychologists. The Society does a comprise an amazingly diverse collection of people from dozens of fields, such as ecology, philosophy, medicine, law, literature, biology, and anthropology, with fiercely conflicting views on the relationship between evolution and behavior). On either your expansive (anyone who implies s/he is, is) or the accepted definition of evolutionary psychologist, evolutionary psychologists are only a small minority on the Governing Board and the Society’s journal’s Editorial Board. So HBES member ¹ evolutionary psychologist, and MacDonald’s “claim” for being one is not “backed up” by his being a member of “your association” as you put it.

Fact: Behaviorists were members of the American Psychological Association when Freudians were president, and Freudians were members when behaviorists like Skinner were president. That does not make a Freudians behaviorists, or behaviorists Freudians. For future reference, like Freudian and behavioristevolutionary psychologist describes a commitment to a specific theoretical stance – one, as it turns out, that MacDonald violently disagrees with, and so cannot qualify as.

You are completely right that he “dances right up to the term” and “clearly wants to be understood” to be an evolutionary psychologist, just as subjects of other profiles want to be understood as having made cancer cures from apricot pits, or as having co-written Howard Hughes’ autobiography. It was an entirely natural error to make, coming new to the field as you did, but it does serve as a example about why journalists might want to read their proposed copy to the scientists they cover so that major mistakes like this can be flagged and discussed. Ask a native.

So, there were many choices for titles: developmental psychology’s antiSemite, or environmental science’sCal State’spsychology’sHBES’s (which still thoroughly implicates me in his crime, if that appeals to you), the APA’s (most of his publications are in APA journals, none in HBES’s), or more appropriately group selection’s, or even Dick Lewontin’s. The only flat out 100% semiboneless wrong title is the one that was used and has not yet been corrected: Evolutionary psychology’s anti-Semite.

I know this sounds like me beating up on you, and I meant our conversation to go in a more interesting direction, and I promise I’ll stop now, but I do remain genuinely baffled at why you won’t accept either reference works or knowledgeable native informants on this point, but instead credit MacDonald’s (!) self-serving insinuations. (A correction would go a long way here, hint hint – this is the web, not kiln-baked cuneiform impervious to change).

Investigative journalism: According to the manaical bean counters at ISI, the total number of times any of MacDonald’s books on Judaism have been cited by people other than himself since the first was published seven years ago is: twice: once by the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and once in MacDonald’s own journal on environmental science. This must be something of a record in terms of pages written per citation garnered. Your notion that this is a cautionary tale that ignored ideas necessarily “take root and flourish” does not seem particularly apt to me here. Still, I grant you that the Irving trial (although MacDonald’s testimony was something of a fizzle) might have changed this even without Slate’s help, particularly with an assist from chat rooms and the list servers that you allude to.

And you are on to a far scarier story than you know: the world is overflowing with people who see one ethnic group or another as a threat, and these aggrieved are now, after 70 years’ hiatus, being presented with respectable theoretical underpinnings. These are coming not from wicked sociobiologists or demented evolutionary psychologists but over their objections — from well-meaning, communitarian-oriented biologists. The floodgates are opening, and soon we will all be nostalgic for what will seem to us, in comparison, to be MacDonald’s enchantingly tame early efforts. It is no accident that David Sloan Wilson’s book citing MacDonald favorably received a rave review in the NYRB from Dick Lewontin. Far more ominously, Lewontin weighed in with a ringing endorsement on the very point that (if true) would scientifically legitimize MacDonald-like theories to previously skeptical biologists, anthropologists, etc. (although still not to evolutionary psychologists, who have identified fallacies here beyond Lewontin’s ken). This critical claim is, large groups can be important evolutionary units that accumulate competitive group properties because they cause intergroup differences in reproduction. This claim, now read by thousands, will sound familiar to MacDonald’s two or three devoted readers. Lewontin, many may recall, is a leftist Harvard biologist famous for his moralistic policing of the intellectual world, and his scathing denunciations of the irresponsibility of sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and others of their ilk. As Lewontin says in the NYRB, “it is important not to take too impoverished a view of what constitutes a group… Groups may be delimited by any shared property such as food preference, temporal pattern of activity, gender, social class, or e-mail list. Anything that sorts individual organisms will do, including kinship…” I’m out of space, so over to you.



Note 1: O.K., O.K., “facts gradually sliding into interpretation in the service of an argument.” Fact sounds good, but are identities like doctor or evolutionary psychologist the same kind of cut and dried fact as water is wet? If you prefer, call these distinctions basic ethnography of the academic cultures being covered.

Note 2:HBES

Note 3: Some professional organizations certify individuals such as doctors or lawyers to perform undisputed services, like implanting silicon sacks in breasts, for money, and so insist on flashing of credentials or some demonstration of competence (or so they’d have you believe). HBES, like all other noncertifying scholarly organizations, such as those of biologists’, anthropologists’, and philosophers’, is interested only in your money, and conducts no inquiry into the beliefs or competence (whatever that would mean) of potential members. If people are imputing professional or scholarly competence on the basis of membership in professional organizations of this kind, saints preserve us.

Note 4: Judith, if evolutionary psychologist just meant “psychologist” + “evolution” then as an anthropologist I wouldn’t qualify as one, nor would the biologist Randy Thornhill or the anthropologist Craig Palmer, both of whom you identified as evolutionary psychologists in your recent discussion of their work. [Slate Editorial: insert link here to Judith’s CultureBox Rape 101, from two weeks ago] You yourself seem to flip between definitions, as it suits your journalistic needs. The quotations you have found merely have him using “evolutionary biology” in the same sentence as “psychology.” For those interested in reading about what the theoretical commitments characterizing evolutionary psychology might be, try the first two chapters of The Adapted Mind.

Note 5: The Institute for Scientific Information indexes all the references in over ten thousand of the leading journals in the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. By using their tools, you can find out how often a work has been cited, and by who. It is a very good indicator of the impact of a publication, and its waxing or waning over time.

Note 6: In MacDonald’s case, his first book and his last book were each cited once (by someone other than himself), and his middle book on anti-Semitism as a rational response to Jewish actions has never been cited by anyone at all in these journals. Citation by others is the relevant measure, because for mysterious reasons almost all scholars cite themselves as authoritative or interesting. However, the impact of a scholar – however dramatic — on the development of her own thinking is not often a widely valued measure. Of course, the ISI staff are not all-seeing, but limit themselves to publications above a certain threshold of importance. Hence, citations in more marginal journals and newsletters will be missed. As a devotee of arcane publications, I do happen to know of one citation to MacDonald’s first book that they did miss, which raises his count to: 3.

Note 7: [slate editorial: link should take you to D.S Wilson’s letter, cited in the intro]

Note 8: Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson <Barnes and Noble link> [Slate Editorial: for server reasons I couldn’t get Barnes & Noble link to his book, but you should be able to]

Note 9: Review of : Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior by Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson


Dialogue contributed by John Tooby # 3:

Dear Judith,

I too want to shift tone and focus to the bigger questions, since I have considerable sympathy with your positions on everything from Gunter Grass to our misdeeds. (For those for whom my undeniable deviousness remains a burning concern, click here).

I admit to having a bit of fun proposing alternate-universe titles for your piece, but my “Lewontin-bashing” conceals deeply serious points. The first is, ideas – dangerous or not — are defined by their content. If, as you argue, scholars are morally culpable for ideas they legitimize, then surely the people who actually share and advance the views in question are more culpable than those who have a history of intellectually combating them. (Surely also they deserve to be described as such in press accounts.) The fringe idea that Lewontin, MacDonald, and Gould are working to legitimize — that large groups of organisms function as biological competitors – has been central for ideologies that once caused the deaths of tens of millions, and may again in new guise. (For why Gould’s views are alarming, click here.) Silence on this point is the one thing you cannot accuse evolutionary psychologists of: Evolutionary psychology has a consistent record (shared by the far larger community of adaptationist evolutionary scientists to which it belongs) of combating this hydra-headed fallacy. (For those interested in a result specifically from evolutionary psychology that falsifies a broad set of racist views, click here.)

The second is: Academics, editors, journalists, and granting agencies make a regular practice of deploying their powers and sympathies toward ideas not on the basis of their actual content (that requires a kind of close attention that is impractical for busy people), but instead on quick cues: e.g., the reputation for moralizing of the scientists involved, or on lasting but often unfounded impressions about the drift of certain ideas caused by such public moral posturing. Moreover, it is part of the sad fabric of the world that doing what appears moral diverges so often and so sharply from doing what actually is moral that anyone who has, over his lifetime, acquired a widespread reputation for virtue is someone who has routinely been willing to inflict great damage on others because of his hunger for looking good. Specifically, the way scientific issues look up close, both morally and intellectually, and the way they look or can be made to look from a distance are so frequently at odds that this opens up a major niche for fluent and well-credentialed academic arbitrageurs, who can troll for, exploit or manufacture these bad appearances to acquire towering reputations for moral activism and intellectual insight. They inject consistent, major distortions into the public understanding of everything from economics to environmental science to neuroscience – and by “public” I mean to include even professionals in the same discipline who are unfamiliar with the technical niceties of the subspecialties in question – but who still decide on the hiring, promotion, publishing, and funding of those in the targeted subspecialties.

Such figures — Gould and Lewontin are the type specimens — are granted formidable cultural power by gatekeepers (like the editors of NYRB, the New YorkerScientific American) eager to do the right thing, and so these arbitrageurs drown out the voices of the experts in the fields under discussion. However, god is in the details, and up close is where the focus has to be if critical scientific and moral issues are to have some chance of being intelligently and humanely addressed. Worse, because these voices are often the only ones most nonspecialists ever get to hear (I’ve heard that Gould’s books sell far more than all other biologists’ put together), the temptation to cultivate an aura of daring originality — which is key to exciting deep admiration in science — becomes difficult to resist. This is done by advancing and elaborating offbeat, eccentric views (e.g., Gould’s self-description as pioneering “a new and general theory of evolution” or his entertaining claim that neo-Darwinism is “effectively dead, despite its persistence as textbook orthodoxy’) while at the same time keeping from readers the reasons why expert consensus discounts such views.

In short, there is a powerful dynamic guaranteeing that some of our most famous, most trusted, most authoritative scientific voices not only regularly misinform, but misrepresent fringe opinion as central. So the problem, Judith, is not so much fringe on the fringe – now that MacDonald’s views have come to light, they will quickly be debunked. The deeper problem is the fringe at the center, and the genuine human cost that comes from the systematic legitimization of bad ideas. The humane and winning columns of Steve Gould, for example, frequently edge into outright fiction and contain inversions that are laugh-out-loud funny to those in the know. (For those admirable empiricists who want to evaluate such an improbable claim for themselves, read Gould’s persuasive two part attack on evolutionary psychology and adaptationism in the NYRB here and here, and Leda Cosmides’ and my reply here.

Gould is currently the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and so is arguably the nation’s top scientist. Could he really be a fringe scientist? As John Maynard Smith, one of the world’s top five evolutionary biologists said, Gould “is giving non-biologists a largely false picture of the state of evolutionary theory” and “the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” Or as Harvard’s Ernst Mayr, another of the five, says of Gould and his allies: they “quite conspicuously misrepresent the views of [biology’s] leading spokesmen.” For more click here.

I’m out of space but speaking of central figures, I did want to ask you, given your experiences in Paul de Man’s department at Yale, what lessons you draw from the de Man and Heidigger controversies on how to fight bad ideas.



Note 1: [Slate editorial, insert link to Judith’s recent Culturebox – 2 weeks ago]

Note 2:

You are right: in our phone conversations with you, we never did say that MacDonald wasn’t an evolutionary psychologist – but for the same reason we didn’t tell you he wasn’t a sashweight or a poltergeist. It didn’t occur to us that anyone would think he was. This was, I realize now, an act of colossal stupidity on our part. Since the recent explosion in media coverage of our field, everyone with an evolutionary theory of human behavior is now likely to be categorized as an “evolutionary psychologist.”

Also, I agree with you that just because we invented the term, we don’t own it. The wonderfully democratic thing about language is that everyone ultimately gets a vote – and journalists far more than the academics they describe, because of their larger audiences. The reference work meaning might easily be lost. Each use of a label (like evolutionary psychologist or the word I really want to discuss, fringe) by any individual is an act of social construction, often motivated. Natalie Angier of the New York Times, for example, has rules of use for evolutionary psychologist that run something like the following: if it is a man saying something she doesn’t like, she identifies him as an evolutionary psychologist (or an evo psycho to use her particularly lovely and neutral sounding neologism). In contrast, she gives women (or a man saying something she does like) a different professional affiliation. So many ideas and positions that originated with evolutionary psychologists show up in her stories and recent book as critiques of “evo psychos”, and a very interesting and unsettled debate over human sexuality that completely cross-cuts categories gets reported as a debate between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. Similarly, Angier presents the field as nearly devoid of women – something like Donna Brazile’s view of blacks in the Republican Party — despite the central and indispensable role that women have played in its formation and development. I am sure her book will win many awards.

In any case, if this broader use becomes widely adopted over the narrower one, an important and useful distinction will be lost, and we’ll have to perpetrate a new act of social construction on an unsuspecting world.

Note 3:

Gould invokes many levels of selection, but is especially notable for advancing his own peculiar theory of how large groups function as biological competitors — species level selection. In Gould’s view, most evolutionary change takes place when closely related biological lineages compete, with one surviving and spreading through the others’ ranges while the others go extinct. He gets to this by taking Ernst Mayr’s widely accepted neo-Darwinian theory of speciation – speciation occurs through a drop in gene flow between populations – and supercharging it with talk about how genetic revolutions and radical re-organizations can happen suddenly rather than gradually in populations or incipient species: the “return of the hopeful monster” as he calls one of his essays. Gould is a relentless critic of gradualist orthodoxy – i.e., that substantial adaptive change usually takes long periods of time, and one might think of him as an advocate of a new more Hegelian genetics. Of course, there is not much difference between an incipient species and a “race”, and in Gould’s world of sudden genetic revolutions, there is not necessarily any difference at all: one moment a race, the next a new species. So, in Gould’s world, populations commonly undergo sudden and significantly differentiating evolutionary changes, with one eventually emerging victorious as the forebears of a new species destined to inherit the world from those being extinguished (one shrinks from saying “the inferior” but Gould does intimate that competitive ability between sibling species is often the deciding force). One way such an event can be defeated is through too much interbreeding – if the group that has undergone the hopeful evolutionary changes breeds too much with other populations, their distinctiveness is diluted, and they become reabsorbed into the general ruck. Now, while free of all moral content, Gould’s theory bears a striking resemblance to Nazi race theory – with its themes of competition between genetically distinct groups, victory or extinction, the threat of losing distinctive identity through the pollution of mixing with other breeds, the replacement of other populations as they expand their territory, etc. It lacks only the specific claim that “Aryans” are superior and have made the revolutionary leap in the evolutionary ladder. That gives it a potential appeal to many ethnicities, not just Germans, and some of Gould’s ideas have indeed seeped into Le Pen-like European thinking, if not beyond.

Gould is famous for his anti-racist moral posture, but one lesson from this is that the content of ideas is what matters, not the moral reputation of their champions. Gould’s position on race is, as he puts it, that “human equality is a contingent fact of human history.” According to Gould, there is no reason the races couldn’t have turned out to be unequal. I confess to thinking there are powerful deductive reasons why human “races” must be fundamentally equal – but these are adaptationist reasons, and Gould and Lewontin discount adaptationist thinking.

Of course, what really matters is: are Gould’s ideas true? Do they apply to humans?

Evolutionary biologists overwhelmingly believe that almost all important adaptive change happens by gene substitution occuring within species, not selection among species. As it turns out, there is not enough information density, by many orders of magnitude, in the slow multiplication and selection of species to build or maintain the highly functional machinery that is the most distinctive component of organisms, including humans. So Gould’s theory could not be a major explanation for organic design. Nevertheless, most biologists, including me, think that it is barely possible that species selection could have played a role in a few – out of billions – of phenomena.

There is also a great deal of evidence that Mayr’s theory of how speciation takes place (allopatric speciation) is by far the most common pattern, but Gould’s linkage of speciation events to sudden genetic revolutions is tenuous at best. Basic probability theory makes it unlikely that a group of favorable mutations will occur “suddenly”, and then cease appearing for the remainder of the species’ history. Favorable mutations are random, and probability theory also makes it highly unlikely that favorable mutations will be disproportionately concentrated in any one population (such as Prussia). To restrict interbreeding is to cut off one’s population from the slow influx of spreading, favorable mutations being harvested across the species range. While some weak patterns in the history of life could be interpreted as supporting Gould’s view in the case of short-lived, physically isolated, highly fecund life forms such as beetles, Gould’s theories are highly unlikely to apply to a long-lived, slow-reproducing species like humans.

Note 4:

The fact that humans reproduce sexually as opposed to asexually (and are slow reproducers with an open population structure) constrains the design of genetic systems in a way that ensures that the genetic basis of any complex adaptation (such as the eye, the heart, or a cognitive mechanism) will be essentially universal and species-typical. A complex adaptation is like any other intricate machine, whose parts must all be present and fit together precisely if it is to work. Each new human being is put together sexually: a randomly selected half of the mother’s set of genes is recombined with a randomly selected half of the father’s set of genes. If the suite of genes coding for a complex adaptation were in one parent but not the other, the offspring would receive only some of that adaptation’s component parts, and it would fail to develop properly. The only way to prevent the destructive scrambling of our complex adaptations every generation is for all of the genes necessary for coding for each complex adaptation to be universal or near-universal, and hence reliably supplied by each parent. In other words, functional aspects of the architecture (e.g., complex adaptations) will tend to be universal at the genetic level, even though their expression may be limited to a particular sex or age, or be contingent on the presence of an eliciting cue in the environment. Humans are free to vary genetically in their superficial, nonfunctional traits, and they do. But they are constrained by natural selection to share a universal genetic design for their complex, evolved functional architecture. The claim that the human cognitive architecture must be universal at the genetic level is not a pious liberal falsehood – it is a profoundly important fact, derivable from adaptationist principles.

For the full argument, see Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. 1990. On the universality of human nature and the uniqueness of the individual: The role of genetics and adaptation. Journal of Personality. 58(1): 17-67.

Note 5:

Bill Hamilton of Oxford, originator of the concept of inclusive fitness and other theories fundamental to modern evolutionary biology, winner of the Kyoto and Crafoord Prizes, and first president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, gave a toast at a banquet at an evolutionary biology conference several years ago. From the podium, with dancing eyes, he lifted his glass and announced that he was going to toast Gould – and the audience of hundreds fell dead silent, holding their breath in expectation of a joke to follow. They were not disappointed: Hamilton said that despite the confused and incoherent nature of Gould’s publications on evolutionary biology, we should celebrate him anyway, because of the harvest of bright children – future biologists – that his essays would bring into the field. The audience dissolved in laughter and cheers.

Others, such as George Williams, express themselves slightly more obliquely, but any examination of what they write about Gould’s ideas quickly communicates the same general evaluation.

Bill Hamilton, John Maynard Smith, Ernst Mayr, and George Williams are all recipients of the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for biology.___________________________________________________________Dialogue contributed by John Tooby # 4:

Dear Judith, Alex,

While we agree on MacDonald, I think Heidegger and de Man pose questions of the most painful kind. Heidegger, an authority on his own philosophy, saw deep connections between his ideas and Nazism as their expression. Even after the war and the exposure of the death camps (for which he expressed no regret), Heidegger reaffirmed, as he put it, the ‘inner truth and greatness of this movement’. De Man – who stepped in after the entire staff of the Le Soir quit rather than serve the Nazis – published scores of pro-Nazi pieces, and called for the expulsion of the Jews from Europe (a history, Judith, that you reduce to “a book review” and view as “quite mild by the standards of his time”). “We are entering a mystical era” he rhapsodized to his Belgian countrymen of the Nazi conquest of Europe. It is hard not to see in key aspects of de Man’s later thought, such as indeterminacy and “terminal uncertainty”, an imperative to relativize driven by these events. Whatever the virtues of de Man’s and Heidegger’s views, the century-long tradition of anti-rationalism and anti-liberalism that they reflect and nourish has an extremely dark history, despite (because of?) the moralizing self-congratulation of many of the people who advance them. Obviously, questions of truth and social construction demand determined exploration. Still, assaults on the value and existence of reliable methods for distinguishing truth from error, or on the moral bases of freedom of speech and other human rights warrant close scrutiny — whether one agrees with them or not — because of their shattering past and potential consequences. The crude deny holocausts through questioning palpable facts – the sophisticated do it with a philosophy. Not only was there a searingly determinate reality at Dachau, but also at Kolyma, Nanking, Greenwood, Dresden, Hiroshima, Rwanda, Cambodia, the Belgian Congo, the Middle Passage, and in the Laogai [See note 2]. And in the creation of every vaccine, the design of every bridge and building, the interpretation of particle collisions, the sequencing of the genome, and even the mapping of our evolved mind and brain, there is the same ethical imperative to close in on a determinate reality. As in journalism and editorial gate-keeping. We are all in this together.

This brings us to Alex’s concise and exact diagnosis of the conflict between judging ideas on the basis of possible truth or feared consequences. As I would put it, the motivation to express moral outrage and the motivation to discover what is true are both parts of human nature – “reliably developing design features of our species-typical computational architecture”, in my hideous and alienating native patois.

Within each of us, as well as among us, these impulses often war. In different subcommunities these impulses, with their distinct vices and virtues, lead to different mixes of attitudes, norms, and institutional forms governing their proper role and expression. But for clarity, lets falsely pretend there is a pure “culture of truth-seeking”, and a pure “culture of moralizing,” each with its own ethic and sensibility.

Within the culture of truth-seeking, my opinion and yours that MacDonald’s or Irving’s views are untrue is utterly worthless, as is our opinion that they are likely to cause suffering. The only thing that should count is logic and evidence.

Furthermore, to show something to be false is the most effective possible response to a bad idea – far better than calling it immoral.

So, to claim that positions are false but that the reasons are not worth discussing, to denounce positions as immoral, or to consider them contaminated by the low status or prior actions or intentions or politics of their defenders — all are irrelevant. Worse, since you have not applied the best possible response, such tactics imply that you could not win a fair fight, and so there must be hidden truth in what you are trying to silence [See note 3]. So, within this culture, denouncing – despite being easy — is worse than silence, refutation is best but takes time, and ignoring has virtues that are easy to miss [See note 4].

The recent exciting discovery from the humanities that they were shocked! shocked! (or was it pleased?) to find human nature going on among scientists is very much to the point here. Given all the vices scientists as humans are prone to, how can they form institutions and norms in which the truth value of an idea has some remote possibility of playing a role in its spread? The incessantly debated answer, since Bacon, has been to support norms and professional institutions in which resort to tactics irrelevant to truth determination is frowned on, so that scientific evaluation is separate from (other forms of) moral action. Precisely because calling someone a communist, or an anti-Semite, or reactionary, or fringe is such an easy way to get your audience to tune out your opponent in a way that is unconnected to reasoned evaluation, better scientists resist the intrusion of the culture of moralizing into their forums, regardless of their personal moral convictions about an issue. The AAAS (which also does not peer-review everything – who has time?) has problems similar to HBES’s, and also defends the ethic of free debate (as does, radiantly, Nizkor). When a paper was presented on the genetic inferiority of those of African ancestry, Walter Massey, the African-American president stepped forward to affirm that the AAAS would never muzzle scholars because of the content of their ideas. Embarrassments like de Man or MacDonald will continue to happen – and HBES, like the AAAS, and even the fraternity of Nobel Laureates (from Hamsun to Menchu to Shockley), will continue to attract its portion. (For those specifically interested in MacDonald’s past and present relationship to HBES, his one – not four – positions, and HBES’s response, see note 5.

Since I understand this is my last installment, I would like to correct your notion, Judith, that my own preferred choice is silence and inaction. Within minutes of your phoning me, and so being exposed for the first time to passages from MacDonald’s books, I was scrambling to get copies, to read them for myself. As you know, but your readers may not, I was shortly thereafter contacted by Deborah Lipstadt’s defense team with a request for assistance, and dropped everything to help. And it is I, and not you, who will be investing the month or two that it will take to write a careful refutation (to be found here.) of MacDonald’s labrynthine arguments. But I am still uncertain whether spending this time will be the right choice, because it has its costs. For example, one project I will not be working on during this time is the evolutionary genetics of cancer (each small piece of knowledge helps). Who can know what the best choice is?



Note 1:
Obviously, many careful, gifted and humane scholars were attracted to de Man’s and Heidegger’s work, and ideas are not contaminating, nor do they carry guilt by association. But I think there are complex and interesting connections between de Man’s and Heidegger’s social actions and the intellectual temperment evident in their works. Here is the mature de Man:

It is always possible to face up to any experience (to excuse any guilt), because the experience always exists simultaneously as fictional discourse and as empirical event and it is never possible to decide which one of the two possibilities is the right one. The indecision makes it possible to excuse the bleakest of crimes because, as a fiction, it escapes from the constraints of guilt or innocence.” – from Allegories of Reading (1979)

For those who think that Heidegger or de Man were ignorant of the general direction of the Nazi program despite Mein Kampf, the Nuremberg laws, and Kristalnacht (or that Hitler did not know! according to David Irving’s imaginative claims) here is Hitler’s public pronouncement of his plans for the Jews in a 1920’s magazine interview:

“Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows – at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example – as many as traffic allows.

Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.”

Note 2:
Each of these atrocities has its constituency of deniers, both subtle and crude, academic and journalist, and far larger battalions who exercise their evasions wantonly and their outrage selectively and expediently, to discredit those they dislike. One cannot even get Gore and Clinton to ask for the removal of symbols of the Confederacy from the flags of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Georgia, much less the Republicans for the South Carolina flag.

Note 3:
As you guessed, Judith, not only do I oppose abridgements of freedom of speech — like France’s on the Holocaust — on principle and everywhere, but such tactics propagate what they purportedly combat. Persecution creates the compelling and glamorous drama of the person with ideas too dangerous to let speak – Banned in Boston! — rather than the overfamiliar and sleep-inducing tale that some souls still remain willfully ignorant. (The penalty in France for “contestation des crimes contre l’humanité” is imprisonment for between 30 days and two years and/or fines of 2,000 to 300,000 francs.)

Denouncing also subverts refutation – since it implies that the real motive for the refutation is not honest evaluation, but the pre-rational defence of a foregone conclusion. The fact that I have spoken out on MacDonald will make my subsequent critique that much less valuable, as does my history of contributing to the Simon Wiesenthal effort to obtain justice for the victims of Nazism.

Note 4:
Although my choice in this case is to work on refuting MacDonald’s theories, I simply have no criticism whatsoever to make of others who have never paid attention to MacDonald’s work, or if they have, regard his work as not worth responding to. Judith, I think you give “ignoring” altogether too short a shrift with your claim that “vigorous discussion” is always better. There are literally millions of erroneous views and thousands of noxious doctrines, and to invest the time and effort to speak out in an informed, knowledgeable way on any one issue necessarily requires neglecting – “being silent” or “ignoring” all or almost all of the others. Hence the judgement to speak on one issue means that you think that it is the most pressing of all possible issues – and the best possible use of your time. I am not the least inclined to second guess others on these judgements, and regard with horror your implication that, to qualify as ethical, scientists ought to be trolling newsgroups to sniff out the spread of erroneous or noxious doctrines, to dispute with their expertise. This idea, if actually implemented, would cause all productive activity in every cancer lab, the CDC, and all other scientific institutions to cease, as the number of bad or malign ideas swamps the number of scientists that exist to rebut them. Ignoring bad ideas happens naturally because the researchers that do happen to encounter them know not to waste others’ time by passing them along, leading to a slow but natural death of 99.9% of bad ideas. Attention needs to go to the many bad ideas that are widely accepted and deeply entrenched in the minds of scholars: the fringe at the center is the real problem.

Occasionally, individuals take bad scholarship directly to the public, like MacDonald did in the Irving trial. This is the kind of cue that may lead to a reassessment of whether ignoring is best.

Note 5:
In 1995, before his views of Judaism were widely known to the membership, MacDonald volunteered to perform certain duties, and so he was duly elected to the position of Secretary-Archivist. This carries with it membership on the executive board, to which he acts as recording secretary, as well as being the fall-back newsletter editor when no one else volunteers. This position has a six year term, so the next election will be in 2001. The society has not had the opportunity to vote on him one way or another since 1995, and in any case until this month I suspect that few members knew about this side-line. Thus, this one position, secretary-archivist, has been spun up to “secretary, archivist, newsletter editor, and executive board member of HBES” as if there were four separate votes and embraces of his views by the Society’s membership.

For this to have constituted endorsement of MacDonald’s ideas about Judaism by the membership (much less four separate endorsements), the membership would have had to know about them prior to the election, which they did not. These volumes are obscure, only began to come out around the time of the election (the first review was published after the election), and were not preceded by other publications on the same topic. Nor has MacDonald been published in the society’s journal, on this or any other topic.

I hope that future press accounts will make clear that MacDonald’s role as Secretary-Archivist cannot be construed as an endorsement of his ideas by the society any more than Yale University’s hiring of Paul de Man was an endorsement of his wartime activities: both were unknown at the time the relevant decision was made.

Also, by our constitution, officers (including me) are precluded from presenting themselves as speaking for the society on political or social issues. So I am not speaking as president, just as MacDonald was not speaking as a representative of HBES at the Irving trial.

As for what will happen, unlike the US Constitution, so far as I know, HBES has no mechanisms for impeachment, so the likeliest possibility is that MacDonald will serve out his remaining year. We’ll see at the next business meeting this summer. I suspect also that the membership would be sharply divided about what it means for freedom of scholarship to remove officers purely on the basis of the content of their publications after election, regardless of how the members feel about such content. Re-election is a different matter.

An earlier instance of what many, including me, perceived to be anti-Semitism led to the closing down of an HBES newsgroup, discussions of societal dissolution, and drafting by me of a refutation that was only abandoned when the publisher of the journal involved announced that it would not accept anything more on the topic.

Note 6:
Our response to MacDonald’s books will be found on the web page of the 
Center for Evolutionary Psychology, under the Critical Eye section, as soon as it can be drafted.

Since Judith and Alex have taken one of my objections to constitute all of them, I should state that the problems with MacDonald’s books are far more numerous than their dependence on biologically unrealistic types of group selection.

Nevertheless, the lax concepts of group selection endorsed by Dick Lewontin in the NYRB are not distant from the ideas MacDonald is proposing, and, if accepted, are by themselves sufficient to intellectually re-animate the central tenets of European social Darwinism, not to mention Gould’s even scarier version, regardless of the fate of MacDonald’s work. While these may not be “central to Lewontin’s thinking”, they reach far more people, and with far more imputed authority, than MacDonald ever will. Moreover, MacDonald doesn’t believe that religious rituals and other cultural details are innate evolved adaptations; simply that they are expressions of a general propensity for groups to act as selfish biological units, something entirely compassed within what Lewontin accepts and endorses in his article. And species’ selection and bursts of evolutionary change that rapidly differentiate populations truly are central to Gould’s thinking. Criteria for disapproving of MacDonald would have to be carefully drawn indeed to avoid picking up Lewontin, at least, on this issue.

Of course, “liable to cause human suffering” is not an argument that a position is not true.

Finally, people might want to know who David Sloan Wilson is. David is an exceptionally creative evolutionary biologist who has fought a lonely battle for decades, with bravery and intelligence, to rid the field of dogma about the primacy of individual selection over group selection. While I have many disagreements with him, he has made important contributions on a number of fronts.