How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 4 2000 9:00 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 John,

I wish we could dial this down a bit, as they say back West at Microsoft. You feel that your job here is to defend your profession against cavalier treatment by journalists like me. But that's not our mandate, as I understand it, nor will it result in anything useful to our readers. We're here to talk about how to deal with fringe scholars, i.e., Kevin MacDonald and his ilk, and we haven't really done that yet, nor have you refuted him, as I hoped you'd do.

Don't worry—I'm not sidestepping your accusations, at least not the one I think it's important to respond to. That's the "Is Kevin MacDonald an evolutionary psychologist?" question. First, I think you're being even more devious than you say. You're trying to define the MacDonald problem away. Your syllogism is: It is I who gets to say what an evolutionary psychologist is; I say Kevin MacDonald is not an evolutionary psychologist; therefore I am not responsible for Kevin MacDonald. This just doesn't work. Even if you invented the term, John, that does not make your definition the only one, or even the right one. Definition is not something that occurs by fiat, particularly in a community of intellectuals. Even Freud didn't get to say what Freudianism is, nor Darwin Darwinism--though God knows they tried.

This question goes to the heart of our effort to sketch out an accurate ethnography of your academic culture, as you put it. How clear or fuzzy are the boundaries of the myriad social and natural sciences devoted to evolutionary thought? Is there really no debate about where to draw the lines between evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology? I'm not saying your lines are wrong, obviously--you're more likely to be right about them than others are, although some of your colleagues would strongly disagree with you. I'm saying the matter is much more contested than you are admitting here.


Here's an example of the problem. As it happens, I asked the natives. I called you, and your wife, and lots of other people with an interest in this field. Most of the natives didn't call back. You did, though, and you and Leda Cosmides generously shared hours of your time talking to me. At no time during any of our conversations--or my conversations with anyone else--was the statement made that Kevin MacDonald is not an evolutionary psychologist. You said Kevin MacDonald was muddle-headed and wrong, and you explained why, I thought brilliantly. But you didn't cast him out of the field. In fact, Leda told me that Kevin MacDonald's work (on child development, not Jews) was solicited for the anthology you asked us to read in your last post, The Adapted Mind (by the third editor on the book, not by you or Leda). This, it appears, is the defining text of the entire endeavor. MacDonald's contribution was found to be sub-par and rejected, but even so, why would he have been asked if his work weren't considered relevant? Is it that his work was legitimate evolutionary psychology then but isn't now? Why not say that, then, and explain why?

That's one reason I'm not going to issue a correction. Was the headline, Evolutionary Psychology's Anti-Semite, crude and inelegant? Absolutely. Was it hyperbolic, the way three-word headlines are? Yes. Was it wrong? No. You weren't disavowing his professional affiliation then, even if you are now. He was his colleagues' problem then, and in my opinion he remains his colleagues' problem. That's how he's your anti-Semite.

Wait a minute, you say. How am I my colleague's keeper if I don't think he's my colleague? For the purposes of argument, let's grant your premise that Kevin MacDonald isn't an evolutionary psychologist. If he's not but calls himself one and uses evolutionary and psychological terminology to make arguments that you find offensive and you suspect the rest of the world would, too, does that relieve you of the obligation to comment? As I understand it, it is the job of intellectuals to speak out about things that matter to them--which is why I wrote the piece, and why I criticized you for not having spoken out once the Hartung review appeared. It seems to me that what you're saying in response is, I'm not an intellectual, I'm just a specialist in my field, and since I say he's not in my field, I don't have to say anything else. Do you really want to go down that path?

Let me be clear: You have always and unequivocally disavowed MacDonald's ideas in your conversations with me. You think he's wrong, but you deemed it the better part of wisdom to keep silent about him. I think that's wrong, or at least wrong-headed. Once you knew what he was working on, your and your peers' total silence could all too easily be interpreted by the rest of the world as tacit agreement.

I'd like to turn now to the more interesting part of your post, which is the story that is far scarier than, supposedly, I know. Personally, I wish you'd stop the Lewontin-bashing, an activity aimed at your peers, not at Slate readers, and only tangentially relevant to what we're talking about here, and tell us exactly why you disagree with a) MacDonald and b) the ideas of "well-meaning, communitarian-oriented biologists" upon whose work you say he draws. At which point, it might be more useful for me to bow out, and for David Sloan Wilson, perhaps, if he would agree to, to step in.




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