How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 3 2000 9:30 PM

How To Deal With Fringe Academics


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 of Lingua Franca, is moderating. Click here to read his introduction and recap of the brouhaha over MacDonald. 


Dear Judith,

I'm going to deviously duck your tough questions for today, because these issues cut far deeper than one individual and HBES, and they touch on a grand hoodwinking that has been perpetrated by us academics as a group on journalists and the public about the nature of scholarly authority, as well as what it is to be "fringe" as opposed to "respected" and "authoritative."

First some fact-checking and investigative journalism, then on to bigger things:

Fact (): The Human Behavior and Evolution Society is the scholarly association () for anyone who thinks there is a connection between evolution and human behavior (potentially including Gould, Lewontin, Chomsky, the Leakeys, and indeed all non-creationists) and who also pays dues (which eliminates most of the aforementioned). It is not the professional organization of evolutionary psychologists. The Society does comprise an amazingly diverse collection of people from dozens of fields, such as ecology, philosophy, medicine, law, literature, biology, and anthropology, with fiercely conflicting views on the relationship between evolution and behavior). On either your expansive (anyone who implies s/he is, is) or the accepted definition of evolutionary psychologist, evolutionary psychologists are only a small minority on the governing board and the Society's journal's editorial board. So HBES member does not equal evolutionary psychologist, and MacDonald's "claim" for being one is not "backed up" by his being a member of "your association," as you put it.


Fact: Behaviorists were members of the American Psychological Association when Freudians were president, and Freudians were members when behaviorists like Skinner were president. That does not make Freudians behaviorists, or behaviorists Freudians. For future reference, like "Freudian" and "behaviorist," "evolutionary psychologist" describes a commitment to a specific theoretical stance--one, as it turns out, that MacDonald violently disagrees with, and so he cannot qualify as an evolutionary psychologist ().

You are completely right that he "dances right up to the term" and "clearly wants to be understood" to be an evolutionary psychologist, just as subjects of other profiles want to be understood as having made cancer cures from apricot pits, or as having co-written Howard Hughes' autobiography. It was an entirely natural error to make, coming new to the field as you did, but it does serve as an example about why journalists might want to read their proposed copy to the scientists they cover so that major mistakes like this can be flagged and discussed. Ask a native.

So, there were many choices for titles: "Developmental Psychology's Anti-Semite," or "Environmental Science's ... ," Cal State's ... ," Psychology's ... ," "HBES's ..." (which still thoroughly implicates me in his crime, if that appeals to you), "The APA's ..." (most of his publications are in APA journals, none in HBES's), or more appropriately "Group Selection's ... ," or even "Richard Lewontin's ..." The only flat-out 100 percent semi-boneless wrong title is the one that was used and has not yet been corrected: "Evolutionary Psychology's Anti-Semite."

I know this sounds like me beating up on you, and I meant our conversation to go in a more interesting direction, and I promise I'll stop now, but I do remain genuinely baffled at why you won't accept either reference works or knowledgeable native informants on this point, but instead credit MacDonald's (!) self-serving insinuations. (A correction would go a long way here, hint hint--this is the Web, not kiln-baked cuneiform impervious to change.)


Investigative journalism: According to the maniacal bean counters at the Institute for Scientific Information, the total number of times any of MacDonald's books on Judaism have been cited by people other than himself since the first was published seven years ago is two: once by the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and once in MacDonald's own journal on environmental science (). This must be something of a record in terms of pages written per citation garnered. Your notion that this is a cautionary tale showing that ignored ideas necessarily "take root and flourish" does not seem particularly apt to me here. Still, I grant you that the Irving trial (although MacDonald's testimony was something of a fizzle) might have changed this even without Slate's help, particularly with an assist from chat rooms and the Internet mailing lists that you allude to.

And you are on to a far scarier story than you know: The world is overflowing with people who see one ethnic group or another as a threat, and these aggrieved are now, after 70 years' hiatus, being presented with respectable theoretical underpinnings. These are coming not from wicked sociobiologists or demented evolutionary psychologists but over their objections--from well-meaning, communitarian-oriented biologists. The floodgates are opening, and soon we will all be nostalgic for what will seem to us, in comparison, to be MacDonald's enchantingly tame early efforts. It is no accident that David Sloan Wilson's book citing MacDonald favorably received a rave review in the New York Review of Books from Richard Lewontin. Far more ominously, Lewontin weighed in with a ringing endorsement on the very point that (if true) would scientifically legitimize MacDonald-like theories to previously skeptical biologists, anthropologists, etc. (although still not to evolutionary psychologists, who have identified fallacies here beyond Lewontin's ken). This critical claim is, Large groups can be important evolutionary units that accumulate competitive group properties because they cause intergroup differences in reproduction. This claim, now read by thousands, will sound familiar to MacDonald's two or three devoted readers. Lewontin, many may recall, is a leftist Harvard biologist famous for his moralistic policing of the intellectual world and his scathing denunciations of the irresponsibility of sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists, and others of their ilk. As Lewontin says in the NYRB, "it is important not to take too impoverished a view of what constitutes a group. ... Groups may be delimited by any shared property such as food preference, temporal pattern of activity, gender, social class, or e-mail list. Anything that sorts individual organisms will do, including kinship." I'm out of space, 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