Removing James F. Crow

In 2012 I posted an obituary here of James F. (Jim) Crow, Professor in the Department of Genetics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who had been a mentor of mine and of many other population geneticists. Subsequently UW/Madison established the JF Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution. Subsequently it has been pointed out that he had a connection to eugenics, and there is now serious consideration of removing his name from the eponymous Institute. The debate is within the UW/M community, and outside opinions have not been solicited, and are possibly not welcome. I am told that the matter will most likely be decided on January 24th.

Jim was a major influence on me, and I think I also have some insight into his thinking on eugenics. So it seems appropriate for me to put some thoughts here, to make them available to those who want to know who Jim was and what his views were.

Jim (James F.) Crow was my undergraduate supervisor, to whom I am immensely grateful. In 1961 he encouraged me to hang out in his lab, where I met many population geneticists including Motoo Kimura. He supervised my Honors Thesis in 1964, which later became my first sole-authored paper. When I was thinking about graduate school he asked whether I would consider becoming his graduate student. I said that he had influenced me greatly, but I wanted to experience other influences, so I should go elsewhere. He said there was an interesting young population geneticist Dick Lewontin, and he then arranged for me to spend the summer of 1963 as a student programmer in Dick Lewontin’s lab (then at the University of Rochester). That ultimately resulted in me getting my Ph.D. with Dick at the University of Chicago. For that and more, I am grateful. Jim played similar roles with many other theoretical population geneticists and has many people who consider themselves in his debt.

Jim considered his own mentor to be H.J. Muller. In the period after World War II, Muller (the greatest classical geneticist, who proved that radiation could cause mutations) felt that in spite of the catastrophe of Nazi eugenics, that there could be a “good” eugenics, so that humans could direct their own genetic change. Jim tended to agree with Muller about that. Their concern was with matters such as the spread of deleterious mutations, Muller’s chief concern.

From its early days, the focus of eugenics had been largely on class rather than race, making sure that the working class did not out-reproduce their rulers. Eugenicists were hereditarians, who tended to explain differences between humans as likely being genetic (biologists more generally often have that tendency to forget about cultural and social influences on people in their eagerness to point to the importance of biology). Eugenicists actually did not talk much about “race” but their hereditarian attitude implied biological-determinist views on that.

Jim was involved with the quantitative genetics theory used in animal and plant breeding. He knew that differences could be either environmental or genetic, and that one could not always tell. He came from a Quaker family and was politically quite liberal, and of course supported the civil rights movement, but he did want to keep the door open for there to be a “good” eugenics. Student organizations at the University of Wisconsin had to have faculty advisors listed. One year, I heard, the NAACP chapter on campus had asked Jim Crow to be their advisor, which he agreed to. I think they and Jim just thought it was a good joke. When the race-and-IQ controversies flared up in 1969 after Arthur Jensen’s article, I think Jim was ambivalent. He did not want to totally rule out explaining differences between groups of humans genetically. He neither defended nor attacked Jensen. When the issue came up of having the Genetics Society of America pass a resolution dissociating itself from Jensen he was not among those of us who felt it was important to pass a firmly-stated resolution. Ultimately the GSA passed a resolution so carefully nuanced that it had no impact on the public perception of geneticists.

So should the Crow Institute be renamed? Abolished? Defunded? Condemned? Forgotten? Apologized for? Wept about? Held up as a Horrible Example?

I think Jim had a large positive effect on the development and understanding of evolutionary theory, both in his theoretical work, his excellent teaching, his clear writing, and his mentorship of many people. I think there is very good reason to commemorate him. But people are complex, and Jim was no exception. We all have a tendency to erect heroes and forget that they can have flaws. We have to guard against idealizing the people we remember.

The most serious issue is not who gets what named after them, but how we are to discuss the history of population genetics, including discussing the contributions of individuals to the field. Will the methodology simply be to look for something unacceptable that a contributor has said, declare that “of course, we must not judge people by today’s standards”, and then proceed to do precisely that, judge the person by today’s standards? That seems to be what is happening.

I note that in the Institute’s statement about renaming it was said that “some of us have a deep appreciation for his career and/or considered him a dear friend, whereas others are only beginning to learn about Professor Crow through this controversy”. Unless some way is found to honestly discuss the history of population genetics, the people who are “only beginning” will never get any further in their learning of the history of the field. If only ideal people can be remembered, then we will have to spend a lot of time and effort forgetting.

(Edited 1/19 to distinguish more clearly between traditional eugenics and Crow and Muller’s concerns).