How To Deal With Fringe Academics

How To Deal With Fringe Academics

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 8 2000 3:30 AM

How To Deal With Fringe Academics


Dear John and Judith,


At this point in the dialogue, I agree we should turn to some other examples of fringe scholarship, preferably taken from outside the field of evolutionary biology.

For the record, I don't see much sense in comparing MacDonald to Lewontin and Gould simply because all these gentlemen show some interest in "group selection." Perhaps evolutionary change takes place at the level of the group; perhaps it doesn't. Either way, the more interesting question is how, when, and why we ought to understand a particular human behavior to be an evolutionary adaptation. In these terms, MacDonald gives what appears to be a highly adaptationist account of Jewish ritual as a (group) evolutionary strategy, just as others have recently given a highly adaptationist account of rape as an (individual) evolutionary strategy. Whatever their intellectual virtues or vices, neither Lewontin nor Gould is especially apt to discuss human behaviors as complex as religious ritual in terms of evolutionary strategies.

The problem still remains, however, of how to separate "fringe" scholarship from acceptable scholarship. There seems to be a clash of two admirable imperatives here. On the one hand, scholars believe that truth is the enemy of dogma; the best answers may be unpopular or uncomfortable answers, and finding them requires a principled refusal to rule out any hypotheses in advance. On the other hand, scholars believe that ideas have consequences; the effort to understand nature and society isn't just an edifying game, and one must carefully consider the implications of lending legitimacy to one provisional idea or another.

Judith, your argument seems to take the second imperative more seriously than the first. Shouldn't the sorting of good ideas from bad ideas be allowed to take place through the regular mechanisms of scholarly inquiry? Isn't the failure of his colleagues to cite his work on Judaism the most deafening and persuasive refutation MacDonald could possibly receive? Do we want to hold all intellectual interventions to the highest standards of moral accountability, as if advancing an idea were the equivalent of raising a knife? Must anyone who wishes to make use of de Man or Heidegger's work first come to a definite view of how their onetime fascist sympathies affected their ideas, and then make that view known to the public, before going on to cite them?

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