In a world that is being ripped apart by polarized views and fake news, scientific discourse might be the last bastion of constructive disagreement based on respect for objective knowledge. But even this is being tested, as the response to  Holly Dunsworth’s recent TVOL article titled It is Unethical to Teach Evolution Without Confronting Racism and Sexism  attests. Some praise her ethical sensibilities, while others accuse her of being a leftist authoritarian. In this interview, Holly and I take a deep dive into the issues and stress the need to avoid excesses on both sides of the debate. The most important ground to defend is the middle ground. 

Links referred to in the interview: 
Of related interest: 

Published On: November 28, 2018

Holly Dunsworth

Holly Dunsworth

Holly Dunsworth is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Rhode Island where she teaches courses on human origins, evolution, and variation. She performs paleontological work at the early Miocene sites on Rusinga Island, Kenya where some of the most ancient fossil apes are preserved. She also studies living primates, particularly when it comes to their energy use, reproduction, and life history.

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • Mike Alexander says:

    I have a request for an article. It is known that the average IQ levels of different population groups can be significantly different. It is also known that IQ is high heritable. It is also known that group differences in IQ do not necessarily imply they reflect genetic differences. For many people the last seems to contradict the first two.

    I have never seen a simple cogent explanation for why this is not so. I have always chalked it up to a lurking variable effect, but could not write such an explanation myself (I’m a Chem E). When I encountered articles on IQ and race on Vox like a year ago, they acknowledged the first two points and asserted the third, but did not explain it further). Such a blanket assertion comes across like an argument from authority. It would ne useful, I think, to have a short paragraph explanation for why IQ can be highly heritable, IQ can be very different between two visually distinctive groups*, and yet one cannot infer that the difference reflects a genetic difference. Such a paragraph could be inserted into articles that address this issue, (like the ones I saw on Vox) so people can understand how these things work. Evolutionary biologists would be well suited to crafted such a paragraph I should think.

    This would also be a good tool to deal with the legacy of the ugly use of evolution and genetics in racial superiority theories of a century ago. That is, to show how they got their logic wrong.

    *race is a cultural construct based on a few visual cue and so not necessarily correlated with genetic factors relevant to invisible attributes like IQ.

  • So, David, I’ve begun to listen to your podcasts.

    Go figure.

  • Rick O'Gorman says:

    Oh boy, that was a painful interview. I went into it hoping there was going to be a good discussion around whether we need to cover the misuse of evolutionary theory when we teach evolution but concluded that the interviewee doesn’t know evolution well enough. I was particularly struck by her citing of recent work she has done from which she concludes that women don’t grow as big as men because they hit a higher peak of estrogen, and earlier. Thus, we should apparently readily conclude that the dimorphism in humans is simply a side effect of women having oestrogen for other reasons (reproductive). Certainly, there are lots of examples of trade-offs in biology. Usually they are structural. Birds have hollow bones because flying works better if you are lighter (yes, hollow bones may precede flight in bird evolution, but that doesn’t remove the trade-off here of weight and efficient flying). But it is a reasonable question to ask, why would oestrogen have a role in working as a brake on growth? In particular, why at lower levels would it act as a spur and then at a higher level act as a brake? That suggests that it is acting as a cue. If you are female, at a certain age, oestrogen ramps up related to sexual development, and as part of that, a brake is applied to growth. it is perfectly possible for oestrogen to both spur reproductive development and also act as a brake on physical development. That does suggest that the brake is applied in women to keep them small rather than that men are growing bigger, but to leave it as just a side effect, without any evidence that she thought it could be more than that, was very disappointing. David started to pick up on it but then, in a conciliatory move, shifted to finding common ground instead.

    Similarly, the argument that biological differences have no relation to any social policy is astounding. Indeed, a key recognition of physical differences between men and women prompted the NIH (I believe) in the US to insist that drug trials can’t just be run on men. If some sex differences are due to genetics (and even if they aren’t), don’t we want to adopt how we do things to ensure fair and equal opportunities? If men and women tend (on average) to have different communication styles, and work favours one over the other, isn’t that a problem? Her summary of the Google Memo made me wonder whether she read it. The memo, to my reading, was primarily criticising how Google went about getting enough women to work at Google, not saying that women should only do some things and not others. It said quotas won’t work if the job isn’t attractive. It said Google needed to look at how men and women work and respond to any differences. It said that how could they attract more women if they didn’t facilitate more part time work, because women tend to want to work part-time more so they can also raise kids. In the UK, this has been reinforced by law, so women can request to move from full-time to part-time (indeed, both men and women can, but unsurprisingly more women take it up). You might disagree with removing quotas, but surely can’t disagree that they are no good to encourage more people unless there are mechanisms to support them. Either way, her summary was a distortion.

  • Rick O'Gorman says:

    Mike: Imagine you have two environments, A and B. And you have a population of individuals. They have a trait, and there is a genetic relationship between the expression of the trait and underlying genes. However, the environment also affects the trait. Thus, in environment A, you will find a genetic relationship and in environment B, but the difference you find between A and B is not genetic. So IQ can well be (and is) partly genetic (i.e., highly heritable). Indeed if everyone in environment A experiences it equally, you could find 100% genetic causation (very theoretically!). You could have clones of those individuals and put them in environment B. And find a 100% genetic relationship (i.e., heritability of 1). Yet it is reasonable that the environments also affect IQ (after all, it does not have a 1.0 heritability in any measure) and so the difference is not genetic I this example (they are, after all, clones so the genes can’t drive any difference). This all gets complicated for people when there are additional differences that correlate with the environments but don’t necessarily have anything to do with the trait of interest (e.g, IQ).

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