On the American Society of Naturalists’ de-naming of its awards

On Valentine’s Day of this year, the American Society of Naturalists announced that it was removing individuals’ names from its awards. Since some of us were concerned about what might lie behind this, I wrote to the Society’s Secretary, Professor Joel McGlothlin, asking for clarification.

Our worst fears were confirmed. We have witnessed an act of preemptive cowardice by the ASN Executive Council, much of value has been lost, and a valuable educational opportunity has been wasted. However, the changes will not take effect until this year’s awards are made. In the meantime, I would strongly urge all members of the Society who read this, and in particular all awardees, to contact the Society through the Secretary, Professor Joel McGlothlin, at joelmcg@vt.edu, and make their views known.

The awards affected are the Sewall Wright Award, the E.O. Wilson Naturalist Award, the Jasper Loftus-Hills Young Investigator Award, the Ruth Patrick Student Poster Award, the Julia Platt Postdoc Presentation Award, and the Ed Ricketts Student Presentation Award.

Of these, Sewall Wright and E.O. Wilson need no introduction from me. Jasper Loftus-Hills was an Australian biologist of exceptional promise, killed by a hit and run driver when he was conducting fieldwork, just three years after receiving his PhD. Among numerous other achievements, Ruth Patrick established the Department of Limnology at the National Academy of Sciences, and did pioneering work on freshwater biodiversity and how it is impacted by pollution. Julia Platt was the first to establish the neural crest origin of the cranium, was not able (this was in the 1890s) to obtain a PhD or an academic position in the U.S., went into politics and used her political role to establish one of the earliest marine conservation areas. Ed Ricketts pioneered the study of intertidal ecology, and collaborated with the novelist John Steinbeck. These are the people whose names the American Society of Naturalists no longer wishes to see prominently attached to their awards.

I asked Professor Joel McGlothlin, Secretary of ASN, the following questions:

  • Who suggested this change?
  • What are the reasons for the change?
  • Did any of the names attached to awards seem to you problematic? If so, which ones, and in what way?
  • How long has the change been under consideration?
  • What debate or discussion took place?
  • What experts were consulted?
  • Why are no reasons given on the website?
  • When does the change come into effect?
  • Were the membership consulted? Were current holders of the relevant named awards consulted?
  • Were Loftus-Hills' family notified in advance of the announcement? If so, when and how?
  • Will the Society be giving back the Loftus-Hills' endowment money? If not, how do you justify keeping it?

His full reply is given below. Here I summarise the main points of his personal reply in the order given. He starts by saying that the decision should be seen in the context of broader discussion of specific names, such as the decision of the Society for the Study of Evolution to rename the Fisher prize, because of Fisher’s role in eugenics, and of the Society of Systematic Biologists to remove the name of Ernst Mayr from their only named award, because, he says, of “the question of whether having named awards could have the effect of excluding some members.”

As I had suspected, the motivation behind the changes derived from recent discoveries of the close relationship around 1990 between E. O. Wilson and the evolutionary psychologist J. Philippe Rushton. When it became clear that the Society would have to decide whether or not to rename the E. O. Wilson Award, council members suggested that all awards be renamed (i.e., de-named), on the grounds that doing so “puts the focus on the accomplishments of the awardee rather than on the prestige of the eponymous scientist.”

Since award names are not written into ASN’s constitution, the Council itself decided that this was an appropriate matter for the Council itself to decide, without any kind of systematic survey of the membership. McGothlin further remarks, “We also knew that it would be able to reach a consensus among Society members.” I am not sure what this means, or how they could have known that.

The changes come into effect this year, but previous recipients of an award will be free to use its old name or the new, as they prefer.

The Society is “in the process of corresponding with relevant parties about the name changes where appropriate,” but regarding the Loftus-Hills prize, there has been no attempt to contact the family because they don’t know the address.

Finally, the individuals whose names are removed from the awards will have remembrances (unspecified) on the website.

There are so many problems here that it is difficult to know where to start. So I’ll begin with relatively minor matters, and work up towards those that lie at the heart of the matter.

Loftus-Hills is not a common name, but a quick web search brought up two professionally active people, one in New York and one in Chippenham, both of whom hail, like the commemorated researcher, from Australia. Perhaps the ANS Council was ashamed to contact them. It is not clear who the other relevant individuals are with whom ANS is corresponding about the other changes, let alone why they are being approached at this stage, rather than before the key decision was taken.

The Council claims consensus, but I suspect that this applies merely to their own echo chamber. Other members, including honorary life members and previous awardees, did not learn of the matter until the decision was announced on the Society website. For what it is worth, the one awardee whom I know personally has not written to the council, and is unlikely to do so, but that is out of despair and disgust.

As for the claim that the removal of names “puts the focus on the accomplishments of the awardee rather than on the prestige of the eponymous scientist,” can anyone take this seriously? Would it add lustre to the accomplishments of this year’s Nobel Prize winner in physics if instead they were named “Physicist of the Year”? Perhaps Fields Prize mathematicians would prefer to be known instead as “people who did very good work in mathematics before they turned 40”? And are we really expected to believe that it would put added focus on the work of holders of named Chairs in universities if those Chairs were made anonymous?

This brings us to the question of how we should regard E. O. Wilson, the question that clearly lies at the heart of the matter. Wilson is perhaps best known to the general public for his work on applying evolutionary principles to social organisations, but his other accomplishments ranged from understanding the dynamics of insect societies to the theory of island biogeography. This theory plays a key role in strategies for preserving biodiversity, a lifelong preoccupation. He was a two time Pulitzer Prize winner, an honorary member of 30 different learned societies, and a recipient of the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize, awarded to those who work is comparable in stature to that of Nobel Prize winners, but in areas that the Nobel Prizes do not cover. (There is a Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, but none in biology as such.)

The problem arises, of course, from accusations of racism. I am not thinking here of ignorant critiques, such as that in the grotesque Scientific American article, “The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson,” which sees racism in all studies of inheritance and even regards the expression “normal distribution” as showing bias against exceptions (!), but also recently published scholarly work (see, e.g., here) on the relationship between Wilson and J. Philippe Rushton. Rushton was no marginal character, but a 1988 Guggenheim fellow. However, he moved over the course of his career from studies of kinship and altruism to generalisations about the degree of parental altruism in different groups to scientifically untenable claims about race as a determinant of intelligence. Until at least 1990, Wilson strongly supported Rushton’s right to explore racial differences, but here we must be careful to distinguish between Wilson’s words and Rushton’s, and to avoid assigning guilt by association. I would also like to know much more about how the relationship between the two men developed after 1990.

On my own non-expert reading of the story, it does seem that in 1990 Wilson went beyond simply supporting Rushton’s claim to discuss his work on racial differences on its merits, and crossed the line into helping him support unsound racist claims. However, before proposing any action on the basis of such a conclusion, I would at the least seek the opinions of those who had closely studied the matter.

We would then have had the opportunity for an important debate. There are cases like that of Samuel Colston, a Bristol philanthropist whose money came from the slave trade, whose statue was at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement thrown into Bristol Harbour, and not before time. There are other cases, such as that of T. H. Huxley, where accusations of racism are not only unhistorical but unjust. Wilson, it seems, lies somewhere in between. I would like to learn more about his relationship with Rushton, especially as Rushton moved further from the academically defensible after 1990. We would then need to weigh this association carefully against Wilson’s magnificent accomplishments, remembering that all of us are flawed and complex human beings, but also that by the time under discussion, racism was already scientifically discredited, and that it remained, and remains, a present evil.

None of this happened. No expert opinions were sought. No new evidence was sought on this fascinating piece of contemporary history. No E. O. Wilson Award recipients, who might have had a great deal to stay on the matter, were invited to take part in the debate because there was no debate. Instead, in an unprecedented display of moral cowardice, the Society has made sure that no such debate takes place.

The changes will not come into effect until this year’s awards are made. In the meantime, I would once again strongly urge all members of the Society who read this, and in particular all awardees, to contact the Society through Professor McGlothlin at joelmcg@vt.edu .

I thank numerous colleagues for discussions, including among others Glenn Branch, Joe Felsenstein, and Nick Matzke.

Matt Young will be the principal moderator of the comment thread.

Below is the full text of Joel McGlothlin’s reply to my questions:

Apologies for my delayed response. I have tried to answer your questions to the best of my ability. You are welcome to share my answers, but I do ask that you post the text below in its unabridged form if you do so [I would have done this in any case – P.B.].

Thank you for your questions about our recent award policy change at ASN. Although I am currently serving as Secretary of ASN and consulted with some of the other Council members when preparing this response, the following represents my own take on the situation and not an official statement from the Society.

It’s important to remember that this change happened as part of a broader discussion across a number of scientific societies. Our sister societies, SSE and SSB, have both either renamed awards or considered it in recent years. In 2020, SSE renamed the Fisher Prize, a change that occurred specifically because of Fisher’s role in the eugenics movement. In 2021, SSB introduced a resolution to remove names from all awards, which functionally would only apply to the Mayr Award, their only named award. This had less to do with Mayr himself than the question of whether having named awards could have the effect of excluding some members.

That being said, the recent discussion of named awards in ASN Council became more urgent after the revelations about E. O. Wilson’s correspondence with J. Philippe Rushton. Shortly after the first article about this correspondence was published, we began discussing a potential change to ASN’s E. O. Wilson Naturalist Award. Several members of Council suggested that we should rename all awards, not just the Wilson Award. We met by Zoom and a consensus emerged in the discussion that this would be the right course of action. The reason for the change we gave in our statement reflects the consensus of Council. Simply put, removing names puts the focus on the accomplishments of the awardee rather than on the prestige of the eponymous scientist.

Individual Council members did speak to various members of the Society, some of whom are currently serving on committees (including award committees), and followed discussion surrounding the potential renaming on social media, but the final decision was made by Council. Award names are not written into ASN’s constitution, so this was a change that could be made by Council as the elected representatives of the membership, and we all agreed that it was appropriate to do so. We also knew that it would be able to reach a consensus among Society members. Indeed, we have received a wide range of feedback about the change, but happily, a majority of this has been positive.

The changes are in effect as of this year’s awards, the winners of which have not yet been announced. We will be updating the website soon to reflect the awards’ new names and to include some more information about the change. Previous recipients of the awards are free to use the older name or the current name.

We are currently in the process of corresponding with relevant parties about the name changes where appropriate. You asked specifically about the award named for Jasper Loftus-Hills. We have not contacted members of Loftus-Hills’ family because we do not have any information that would allow us to contact them. We would be happy to speak with any family members about the change. ASN established the Jasper J. Loftus-Hills Prize in 1984 in memory of Loftus-Hills, who had died tragically in 1974. To the best of our knowledge, the establishment of the award was not tied to a gift to the Society from the Loftus-Hills family or from another individual. After the first year, the award was changed to the Young Investigators’ Prize and was not renamed for Loftus-Hills until 2011, when the original name was rediscovered by then managing editor Patricia Morse.

As indicated in our announcement, ASN does not intend to relegate the individuals who previously provided names to our awards—including Loftus-Hills—to the dustbin of history. After Council decides on new names for the awards, the website will be updated to include remembrances of those who previously gave their names to awards. In some cases, we hope to significantly expand what is currently on the website.