How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 3 2000 3:30 AM

How To Deal With Fringe Academics


Dear John,


I predict that this will be a short exchange, since we're in agreement about all the big things—that the Holocaust happened, that Judaism is not a "group evolutionary strategy" to take over the world, even, I suspect, although you've only hinted at this position, that it is wrongheaded to criminalize Holocaust denial. We also agree that if we aren't going to outlaw ideas we think are bad, we still have a duty to refute them, if we can. Our disagreements amount to a quibble over strategy and terms: whether it was smart of me to profile MacDonald and whether I accurately employed a phrase coined by you and your wife, Leda Cosmides.

To take these in order: Should I have drawn attention to MacDonald and his theories? The answer to that one is easy: Yes. Vigorous discussion is always preferable to scornful silence. I'll concede that if this guy were just some nut posting on the Internet from his cabin in Montana, it might be silly to waste time on him. But Kevin MacDonald is a full professor at an accredited university. He holds three executive positions in a professional organization you and Leda helped found. He has published three books in a scholarly series. I'm not even the one responsible for bringing him before the public. It is David Irving who named MacDonald as an expert witness in a trial that is the focus of international attention.

The story of MacDonald is actually a cautionary tale about what happens when you ignore ideas you strongly disagree with: They take root and flourish. MacDonald's works have been given respectful consideration on at least one academic Internet discussion group I know of. Some of those scholars may teach his books in their classes, recommend them to their colleagues—anything is possible. For a few days in January before MacDonald flew off to England, he took over another scholarly Internet discussion group, this one devoted to the topic of anti-Semitism. He posted voluminous messages in which he argued that anti-Semitism in postwar Poland was a reasonable response to the fact that the Jews ran the Communist government. To make this point, he had to cite extensively from the works of a historian. The historian himself weighed in to argue—convincingly, I thought—that MacDonald's reading of his work was preposterous, but some people sided with MacDonald anyway, because MacDonald's scientific jargon intrigued and (I thought) confused them.

Which brings me to our second quibble, to my mind the more interesting of the two: whether I was right to identify Kevin MacDonald as an evolutionary psychologist. It is slightly misleading of you to say that he never calls himself that, since he dances right up to the term and clearly wants to be understood as working within the discipline. In his letter responding to my article, he described his theories as grounded in "evolutionary biology and evolutionary social psychology." In the preface of A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, MacDonald describes his approach in the following manner: "The fundamental paradigm derives from evolutionary biology, but there will also be a major role for the theory and data derived from several areas of psychology, including especially the social psychology of group behavior." I think you overstate the case when you say that calling MacDonald an evolutionary psychologist is as off-base as calling Skinner a Freudian. MacDonald associates himself with the field and can back up that claim by being an active member of your association. I haven't looked this up, but I doubt Skinner ever belonged to a psychoanalytic organization founded by Freud.

And here we get to the crux of our discussion--the important and difficult what-is-to-be-done question. Should one censor a MacDonald, censure a MacDonald, kick a MacDonald out of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, or do nothing about a MacDonald? Are you comfortable with this guy as secretary, archivist, newsletter editor, and executive board member of HBES? If not, what do you mean to do about it? If you do something about it, how do you explain that decision to colleagues who feel that MacDonald is an evolutionary psychologist and would presumably argue that he deserves an active role in HBES? (In a letter to Slate, for instance, David Sloan Wilson embraced MacDonald as a respected colleague and argued that his position on the Jews is a) consistent with Wilson's own work and b) practically indistinguishable from Isaac Bashevis Singer's view of Judaism.) But if you do nothing about MacDonald and HBES, how can you blame the outside world for considering him a member of your group?

I'm approaching my word limit, so over to you.



Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate and writes the "Culturebox" column. John Tooby is a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Slate has invited them to discuss the academic fringe in general and Kevin MacDonald in particular. Alex Star, the editor ofLingua Franca, is moderating.

Universities, science labs, and professional bodies have the right to prevent expression of offensive opinions within their chambers. When the organizers of, say, a national convention of psychologists reject a proposed panel on race and IQ, they are acting to uphold the standards of their profession, not to suppress unpopular points of view.

Or are they? Two weeks ago, Slate published a column by Judith Shulevitz that examined the writings of an evolutionary psychologist named Kevin MacDonald. The author of three books on Judaism as a "group evolutionary strategy," on Jan. 31 MacDonald testified on behalf of Holocaust denier David Irving in the libel case that Irving has brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt in Britain. He is also a professor of psychology at California State University in Long Beach and an elected officer of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES), an academic society devoted to the field of evolutionary psychology. (Click here for the defense MacDonald posted in "The Fray," Slate's reader-feedback forum, and here for Shulevitz's reply.)

In Shulevitz's view, MacDonald's interpretation of Judaism is ugly and tendentious, and yet MacDonald nonetheless enjoys the prestige that comes from helping to run a respected scholarly organization. She argued in a subsequent column that other members of the society have a responsibility to combat his opinions; even if they can't strip him of an elected post, they can do their best to stop him from using their organization to advance his own agenda.

Evolutionary psychologists and other scientists have responded in droves. (See these postings by MacDonald reviewer John Hartung, group selection theorist David Sloan Wilson, John Horgan, and Steven Pinker.) Some have suggested that MacDonald's work deserves to be taken seriously, that there may well be something to it. Others have noted that the HBES does not subject conference papers to peer review; if some dubious or even offensive words are spoken, well, that's the price you pay for intellectual vitality. Still others have argued a public purge or denouncement of MacDonald's work would only give attention to his repugnant views.

For this "Dialogue," Slate has asked John Tooby, an eminent evolutionary psychologist and the president of the HBES, to discuss these issues with Judith Shulevitz. Could MacDonald's work survive a peer review conducted by other HBES members? If it could, what does that say about the discipline of evolutionary psychology? If it couldn't, should HBES nonetheless allow him to use its good name?

—Alex Star