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According to Biologist Nathan Lents, It’s “Racist” to Invite Condemnation of Racism

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

Nathan Lents

I’ve wondered about the Science review of Michael Behe’s new book, Darwin Devolves. It has three named authors, Lents, Swamidass, and Lenski. Who contributed what?

Well, here’s what may be a telling window on the mind of the lead author, biologist Nathan Lents of New York’s John Jay College. Not content with ripping Dr. Behe, Professor Lents now seeks to assassinate my character. How? With accusations of “racism.” Try to follow his logic if you can.

Lents and Logic

Yesterday I wrote a post at Evolution News noting a visit that our colleague John West made to Washington University in St. Louis. There, African pygmies were displayed in the 1904 World’s Fair as a zoo exhibit to “prove Darwin’s theory of the missing link,” as the St. Louis Republic explained at the time. In the basement of the university’s Cupples Hall, Africans were also subjected to what sound like Mengele-esque experiments, including testing their tolerance for pain.

Dr. West uncovered this shocking background of historical racism and pseudo-biology through archival research for his new documentary, Human Zooswhich you can see now on YouTube.

It happens that I know a biologist who teaches at Washington University. Coincidentally, he is Professor Joshua Swamidass, one of Professor Lents’s co-authors on the review of Darwin Devolves. Swamidass has written eloquently about St. Louis and the tragic surviving legacy of racism that burdens the city’s African-American community. He has argued in the past that the phenomenon of human zoos was driven not by evolutionary theorizing in the Darwinian mold but by polygenism, a different pseudoscientific theory that human races have separate origins. At the same time, Swamidass has been honestly critical of a number of claims made in the name of Darwinian theory (such as its use by some to promote atheism).

Seeking Your Comments

So I tweeted that it would be valuable to have his comments on the specific history of his own institution, Washington University, and his city, which I know he cares about. The organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair believed their human zoos, featuring the “little black children of the African jungles,” would “shed light on the theory evolved by Darwin as regards the evolution of the human race.” The link with Darwinian evolutionary theory was made clear by the head of the Fair’s Anthropology Department. You can read it all in the pages of the local newspaper, dated July 10, 1904.

I thought Swamidass’s reflections from this historical ground zero would be worth reading. Sure, John West can visit Washington University, but Josh Swamidass actually works there! What could be more logical than to consider what happened on his campus not much more than a century ago, not because he’s responsible for it, needless to say, but because as I said, “It should serve as a call to humility on the part of evolution proponents.” I also know that Swamidass would like to find common ground with intelligent design proponents.

I tweeted: “Professor Swamidass, you’ve sought common ground. How about a statement on your own university’s and your city’s past, the history of exhibiting Africans to ‘prove Darwin’s theory of the missing link’?”

Non Sequitur

The response from his co-author, Nathan Lents, was to scream “racism” at me. Professor Lents contributed a post at the often contentious discussion site Peaceful Science, “This is some racist Bull$h!t from the DI.” He says I “pin some of the sins of white supremacy” on Swamidass. When did I ever say such an absurd thing? On Twitter, he responded that what I had written was “explicitly racist.”

Professor Lents deserves a prize for advancing the frontiers of Orwellian Newspeak. Get this: It’s “racist” to invite thoughtful reflections on past pseudoscientific racism at a university, from a scientist at that university who seeks common ground with you, and worse, if the historical racism was perpetrated in the name of evolutionary science. I suppose in the present climate, I should not be bewildered by this madness.

It’s good to see that, also writing at Peaceful Science, Dr. Swamidass understood my meaning. He writes, “[Klinghoffer] mentions common ground and knows that I have spoken about racism before. Perhaps he wants me to speak positively about West’s work as a place of common ground.” I wasn’t looking for an endorsement, but yes, I did think there was common ground here, and that he was likely to share my concerns about the way Darwinism was used to justify what happened at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Trivializing Racism

John West has spent considerable time screening the documentary before appreciative audiences of various races, including African-Americans in Chicago, Detroit, and Texas. See herehereherehere, and here. They too understood the point, and many expressed gratitude for the film’s disclosing a forgotten chapter from history. Obviously, as someone not of African background, it would be fatuous of me to try to speak for African-Americans. But anyone can see that throwing around charges of “racism” like this trivializes a shameful and ongoing legacy that needs to be treated with sobriety and condemned, whenever appropriate, in a serious and adult manner.

I hesitated even to respond to Lents, whose clownishness is likely an embarrassment to Josh Swamidass and Richard Lenski. But then I thought, if someone called you a Nazi — I mean, someone who is not a nobody, but a university professor who writes in Science, the journal of scientific record in the United States — would you just let that go? I would not. These are serious and grotesque accusations. Being smeared with such vile things, by a slightly prominent person, requires a response. Now I’ve given it.

Photo: Basement of Cupples Hall, Washington University, by John West.