Evolution Working Group on hosting Bo Winegard: ‘It was our mistake’

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Evolution Working Group on hosting Bo Winegard: ‘It was our mistake’

CW / Andrew Littlejohn

CW / Andrew Littlejohn

CW / Andrew Littlejohn

CW / Andrew Littlejohn

Jeffrey Kelly | @jeffkellyjr and Andrew Littlejohn | @Andrewlittlej19

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On Oct. 24, Bo Winegard, an assistant professor of psychology at Marietta College, led a seminar entitled “The Evolution of Human Diversity,” during the ALLELE seminar series hosted by the Evolution Working Group (EVOWOG) at The University of Alabama. 

During his seminar, Winegard discussed topics of human diversity that did not align with the Evolution Working Group’s views. 

Winegard’s research, which discusses psychological differences across human populations, has been criticized for resembling the pseudoscience employed by eugenicists. Eugenics is the belief of improving the human species by selectively mating people with specific desirable hereditary traits. Early supporters of eugenics believed people inherited mental illness, criminal tendencies and even poverty, and that these conditions could be bred out of the gene pool.

In the peer-reviewed article from 2017 titled “Human Biological and Psychological Diversity,” Winegard and two of his colleagues discussed the theory that specific population groups differ psychologically and that biological diversity is the rule of life. In the article, they argue that the benefits of discussing population difference outweigh the risks of that research inciting racist social policies. 

Winegard has also written several times for Quillette, a magazine that claims to “respect ideas, even dangerous ones,” on topics such as progressive bias and the decline of the West. 

On Oct. 28, Thomas Tobin, co-chair of EVOWOG, released a statement to The Crimson White apologizing for the event.

In their statement, EVOWOG said once they learned of the direction of his planned talk, they withdrew promotion and advertisement of the event, canceled several meetings, and alternative assignments were created for students who had been offered credit for attending. Ultimately, they decided that canceling the seminar would be counterproductive. 

“We realized from this process that over the past almost 15 years, we have basically allowed one person to suggest someone, and we kind of relied on them to do a bunch of background research,” Tobin said. “Normally we spend a little bit of time in our committee kind of discussing and looking at these people, and because this person was someone who was invited to fill in a gap, we didn’t go through that.”

Winegard gave his talk at 7 p.m. that night, where about 40 students and faculty showed up. Several in the audience, however, were there to address the racist implications of his research.

While The Crimson White was not able to attend the first part of the lecture, we were able to obtain Winegard’s slides, which present “how to conceptualize diversity,” “physical diversity,” “psychological diversity,” “human migrations to different environments” and “moral cautions” as topics of discussion. 

In his final slides on the future of human diversity, Winegard notes that “groups may vary on socially significant traits (on average) such as intelligence, agreeableness, athleticism, cooperativeness [and] criminality,” and attributes a lack of research on these “differences” to “sacred values about group sameness.” 

“Human decency and toleration don’t require silencing the truth they require discussing it openly, honestly and judiciously,” he wrote on the last slide. 

Jack Kappelman, a sophomore majoring in political science, live-tweeted the lecture, likening Winegard’s research to the phrenology of Josiah Nott, a eugenicist for whom Nott Hall on campus is named. 

Charity McCalpin, a junior majoring in anthropology, is the secretary of Young Democratic Socialists. McCalpin said she heard about the event through the anthropology department but also heard about it through several group chats in “more of a negative way.”

McCalpin referenced Winegard’s slide where he talked about “gene-culture coevolution,” the idea that cultures and genes co-evolve based on different niches and the various selective pressures of those environmental niches.

“Where I disagree with him, is applying these specialization of niches to psychology,” she said. He said that people in colder climates, because the differences in brain size, have more propensity for cooperation. He used some very sketchy evidence about Asian people being more independent on cultural collectivism … It’s been postulated many times before for the last probably 50 years of anthropological evidence that race is simply a social construct.”

Bo’s hypothesis about how culture and environment impacted evolution of the human race made many attendees outraged.

“We might disagree on what’s racist,” Winegard said after addressing McAlpin’s comment about his work, to which a student responded, “That’s because you’re racist.” 

“OK, that’s fine,” Winegard said in response. 

Anthony Earl, a junior majoring in political science, questioned Winegard’s claims of objectivity.

“My concerns are more social/political, the idea that science help us find the objective truth,” he said. “Objectivity is a little more elusive than that. My concern is when you explore science without keen eye to ethics or history, or how even that science that you’re trying to do may be informed by your social or economic position, your ideology, then you lose control of it in a way, and it can become dangerous. I think that’s why that one guy made the allusion to Hitler.”

Earl was referring to a student in the crowd who compared Winegard’s research with Hitler’s racist ideology, to which Winegarded responded: Hitler’s regime was not informed by science. 

“That’s definitely not true,” Earl said. “Hitler was certainly informed by science, and a lot of the race scientists were Americans. The Germans admired the American caste system, the racial system that we had.”

After falsely noting that the ideas of ethnic cleansing were not influenced by “sophisticated science” of the time, Winegard expressed a need to return to conversations about racial genetic difference, which has also proven to be false. 

“I think what I’m trying to do here is have reasonable conversation about it, precisely so that those more extreme voices get drowned out by more moderate voices,” Winegard said in response to the question. “That’s what I think. I could be wrong about that and we could have that discussion. But I honestly think that’s true. That it would be better, not worse for society that more people talked about this in a moderate, judicious way.

Tobin said Winegard’s talk demonstrated the failure of the group’s informal system of inviting speakers, and the group is now planning on “implementing a more rigorous vetting process.”

“We’re still figuring out what that will exactly look like, but it will certainly involve multiple people evaluating a speaker, and it may involve having individual departments that have subject matter correspondence with the speaker to sort of give a stamp of approval basically,” he said. “This was definitely a mistake on our part that we are going to make sure doesn’t happen again.”

Tobin said EVOWOG plans to talk to other departments and on-campus groups about what happened, but so far have only issued a statement of apology to The Crimson White and not through any other platform. You can read the statement in full below. 

“On Thursday, October 24, the ALLELE Seminar Series hosted Dr. Bo Winegard, a professor from Marietta College. We, the members of the Evolutionary Working Group (EVOWOG), want to make clear that we do not endorse the views expressed by Dr. Winegard, which are non-scientific. We want to apologize to anyone who attended the talk, as well as anyone in the campus and local community who felt unwelcome because of the subject of the seminar.

“It was our mistake to invite this speaker. To date, the EVOWOG committee has operated with no formal structure or by-laws, and no formal vetting process for inviting speakers. While this system has largely worked in the past 14 years, it clearly failed here. When we learned of the direction of his planned talk on Thursday morning, our immediate options were limited. We withdrew our promotion and advertisement of the event, cancelled several meetings, and alternative assignments were created for students who had been offered credit for attending. Ultimately, we decided that cancelling the seminar would be counterproductive.

“One of the first actions we plan on taking is to formalize this committee, and adopt a clear vetting process for speakers. Anyone within the University community who would like to participate in this committee has always been, and will continue to be, welcome to join. The mission of the ALLELE lecture series is to provide accurate, informative, research-based evolutionary science and outreach to the UA community and the general public. We would love for people to see this mission in action at our next seminar by Dr. Gunter Wagner, a world-renowned evolutionary biologist (November 7, 7:30 pm in 2008 North Lawn Hall).

Sincerely,

The Evolutionary Working Group (EVOWOG)”