Background: Luana Maroja, a biology professor from Williams College, wrote a letter to Brian O’Meara, the past president of the Society of Systematic Biologists about his SSB Presidential talk at the June 2023 Evolution meeting (slides can be found here: https://brianomeara.info/evol2023.html; Evolution 2023 talks are going online here: https://www.youtube.com/@evolutionmeetings5042). She decided to publish the letter on the Panda’s Thumb site because she is concerned about some of the directions that evolution societies are taking and wants to highlight that reasonable people might have views different from those expressed in O’Meara’s talk. Luana hopes her letter will start a general discussion.
Luana Maroja writes:
I attended your Presidential talk at the Evolution meeting. I am the person who asked you about selective abortion and embryo selection by polygenic score (“PGS”). I have a few comments, which, I hope, will add a different viewpoint to this discussion.
In the past, most presidential addresses I attended were motivational – designed to demonstrate and enhance the listeners’ love for evolutionary knowledge and research. Your talk started this way, too. But this motivational part was quickly replaced by what seemed to me an attempt to taint Ernst Mayr, setting the stage for a new vote in which his name would finally be removed, replaced by a nameless prize. Unfortunately, I disagree on several grounds with this idea as well as with other points you made during the talk. First, I want to mention your emphasis on “sexual harassment” (keep in mind I am a woman who grew up in South America experiencing lots of serious harassment). You seemed to ignore, or not know about, some reasons to oppose hiring a “safe evolution” consultant. The feel of largely performative surveillance in the meeting (which thankfully seems to have decreased since 2019 – the projections of “Safe Evolution” on the wall are now gone!) can actually chill interactions between colleagues, especially interactions between older men and younger women. Such interactions are often of great benefit to biologists beginning their careers, but older male biologists might now want to avoid them out of fear. I wrote about this issue here and will not repeat myself – but please read it to see other reasons why people like me might be opposed to hiring consultants.
Further, I think that you seriously misrepresented the views of Ernst Mayr. I and many others who wish to remain anonymous—such is the climate of today’s academia!—left your talk feeling that you are preparing the Society for a new vote to remove the name from the prize. For several reasons, some of us are opposed to removing evolutionary history from prizes. When I began my studies in biology, named prizes were a big motivation for me to learn the interesting history of our discipline. Starting with Will Provine’s biography Sewall Wright, I became an avid student of the history of evolutionary biology. I believe history should be learned as it really happened, even if today we might not fully agree with all the actions of people from the past. Erasing names of awards also erases the motivation to learn this rich and amazing history, depriving graduate students of knowing about the accomplishments of those influential in our field. Finally, it is essential that students know why a prize is named after a biologist – it is always due to their contributions to the field and never due to any bad actions. What is being honored are scientific contributions, not the character of human beings.
What is even more distressing is that you seemed to be deliberately attempting to find bad things about Mayr and his career to justify expunging his name from awards. For example, you equated “positive eugenics” (an incentive for those with financial/educational capacity to reproduce more) with “negative eugenics” (castration—or worse—of those considered “inferior”). To me, these actions are as different from each other as a parent’s increasing a child’s allowance versus corporal punishment (e.g., positive vs negative reinforcement in training). Immediately after stating that “positive eugenics = negative eugenics”), you quoted from a letter in which Mayr asked the National Academy of Sciences to repudiate the arguments of William Shockley (that is, to reject negative eugenics, i.e., sterilizing people with IQs below 100). In his letter, Mayr explains that he is envisioning a future in which humans are so numerous that governments will have to impose restrictions on reproduction (you will need a license to reproduce!). In this letter, Mayr rightly states that reproduction is important and influences the gene pool (any biologist knows that), but that non-biologists will not understand the importance of reproduction and we should therefore stop using racist arguments. But read in its full context, Mayr’s letter is not arguing in favor of eugenics—at least not the kind of eugenics we all repudiate.
To buttress your assertion that eugenics has current support in SSB today, you construct a narrative using nonexistent associations between the SSB and eugenic episodes happening elsewhere. For example, you mentioned sterilization (voluntary or otherwise) in Puerto Rico in the 1970s (if I recall correctly). Yet you showed no connection between this and actions of the SSB; rather, you used the example to bolster the case that eugenics was alive and well in the Society. The same can be said about the quote from a judge in 2001. Once again, there is no connection to SSB, but you used the example to imply that SSB scientists were somehow behind this. I am baffled why you make these connections, and can only guess that somehow you’re trying to indict the Society for things it simply did not do. And I don’t understand why you did that.
You also assume that people who published in the Annals of Eugenics (the co-authoring analyses you presented) were all in favor of eugenics. Yet, if you go back through some issues of Annals of Eugenics in the 1950s you will find that in addition to actual eugenics, there were also non-eugenic papers about matters like statistical genetic and human quantitative genetics—papers lacking any eugenic undertones. The journal was a venue for publishing general genetics research, and it is clear from its content that a lot of what went in there was not actually eugenics. So, your claim appears to be based on the flawed assumption that publishing in a journal with the name “eugenics” implies that the author must be an “eugenicist”. I see no reason to do this unless somehow you want to tar the society for things it did not do, and even that is something I cannot understand.
Finally, you cite a few modern papers to support your argument about modern eugenics (you gave full quotations but no names, though it did not take me long to find that the author is Michael Lynch). Yet, discussions about what civilization should do to prevent and eliminate detrimental mutations leading to disease are important, and now, with embryo and PGS screenings, these actions (via selective abortion or selection of embryos for implantation) are already taking place. You must realize that the main support for eugenics today (whether the name is used or not) takes the form of abortion of “genetically defective” embryos and the new form of embryo selection via PGS, which will soon be available for educational attainment and height, in addition to disease avoidance; indeed, western societies today favor many forms of eugenics. This is why I asked the question I did at the end. “Do you think aborting Down syndrome fetuses or selecting embryos based on polygenic scores is a form of eugenics?” To which you responded something along the lines “No, if it is the mother’s choice it is ok”. Notice that “mother’s choice” is also exactly what is behind “positive eugenics”. My own views on this issue are still evolving, I think that some forms of embryo abortion and selection are ok and others problematic (even when done by parents). For these reasons as well as others, I welcome discussions in this area without stigmatization of ideas, like those put forth by Michael Lynch.
(Nick Matzke adds: For background on the 2022 attempt to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award, please see David Hills on the SSB vote on the Ernst Mayr Award, June 13, 2022, and the links therein. As the Ernst Mayr Award is specified in the SSB constitution, changing it required a 2/3 vote of the membership. The vote was 63.4% (according to an SSB email) or 63.2% (91/(91+53); the numbers presented in O’Meara’s presentation; there were also 14 abstentions. In other words, it was a very near thing, with most of the membership not voting; and I gather SSB membership has been as high as 3000 but has declined to about 650. Hopefully this is mostly a pandemic effect, but I’m not sure it helps when there are attempts to cancel famous personalities in the field without a serious scholarly debate informed by thorough and balanced consideration of people and issues within their historical context.)
(Also Nick Matzke: For previous comments on the SSB Ernst Mayr Award, please see the below.)
For more on related issues, please see my old 2012 post: Continuous geographic structure is real, "discrete races" aren't
- David Hillis on the proposal to de-name the Ernst Mayr Award at the Society for Systematic Biology -- by David Hillis
- Open Letter to the SSB Council -- by David Hillis
- "As a graduate student myself, I must say that this proposal is outrageous, it deeply offends me." -- Comment from Ph.D. student Mario Cupello
- "[G]iven that the move to remove Ernst Mayr's name from the award is ostensibly being done in service for individuals for which I share many demographic qualities, I thought it worth providing my voice."-- Comment from Ph.D. student Jackie Childers
- Ernst Mayr versus racism -- by Nick Matzke
- David Hills on the SSB vote on the Ernst Mayr Award -- by David Hillis
And my 2021 posts about attempts to can Thomas Henry "Darwin's Bulldog" Huxley (also this post; Huxley was denamed at Western Washington University, but saved at Imperial College London) and J.B.S. Haldane (also saved at Imperial College London).