Call for Dialogue

The following is a call for dialogue sent to the Wisconsin Evolution community on Jan. 11, 2022.

At the time of its founding, our Institute was named in honor of James F. Crow, who was regarded as an exceptional evolutionary geneticist, a beloved colleague, and a renowned teacher and mentor. At a recent Crow Institute Director’s Lecture, Professor Joseph Graves pointed out that there are excerpts from Crow’s less well known writings on race that do not reflect the social consciousness and prioritization of diversity that the Crow Institute strives to embody today.

The Evolution Coordinating Committee (ECC) and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee recognize that these writings raise important concerns for our institute. Rather than determining a final response or action from the top down, we believe it is important to broaden dialogue on this topic and gather input from across our community. We recognize that this is bound to be a very difficult subject that is likely to generate diverse reactions, including being deeply offended. The range of reactions may partly reflect the widely differing levels of prior familiarity with Professor Crow:  some of us have a deep appreciation for his career and/or considered him a dear friend, whereas many others are only beginning to learn about Professor Crow through this controversy.

Below, we will first highlight some of the written excerpts in question. We will then propose ways to advance community dialogue on this topic, so that all community members may have a voice in determining how our Institute should ultimately address this issue.

In 1969, Professor Crow wrote a review [1] of a highly controversial study by Arthur Jensen [2], who had claimed that “racial variations in intelligence cannot be accounted for by differences in environment but must be attributed partially to genetic differences.” Crow’s review was collegial and constructive in tone, and was prefaced with the suggestion that he “agrees for the most part with Jensen’s analysis”, but Crow went on to state that, regarding race and IQ, “the evidence on this question is not at all conclusive.”  Crow was the target of campus protests by the campus Committee Against Racism over this review. It is worth noting that Arthur Jensen has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “arguably the father of modern academic racism.” [3]  His work was politically influential and may have helped justify disinvestment in programs aimed at educational equality during the Nixon administration [4]. Hence, while Crow did not endorse the racial conclusions of Jensen, his academic engagement with this work may have helped lend scientific legitimacy to Jensen’s unjustified conclusions regarding race, genetics, and intellect in the public eye.

Writing much later in 2002 [5], while in his mid-80’s, Professor Crow’s thoughts on this topic appear to have shifted farther from modern views. He writes: “The evidence indicating that some diseases disproportionately afflict specific ethnic and racial groups does not ordinarily provoke controversy. Far more contentious is the evidence that some skills and behavioral properties are differentially distributed among different racial groups. There is strong evidence that such racial differences are partly genetic, but the evidence is more indirect and has not been convincing to everyone. To any sports observer it is obvious that among Olympic jumpers and sprinters, African Americans are far more numerous than their frequency in the population would predict.” Later in the same paper, he claims: “In some important professions, such as physics and engineering, Asian Americans are overrepresented and African Americans are underrepresented. We presumably get better research because of this.” These remarks appear to reflect an (even-then) outdated understanding of the scientific consensus on racial differences in ability. They also fail to appreciate the multifaceted benefits of diversity for the scientific enterprise, and have the potential to discourage current and future minority scientists.

Professor Crow was widely regarded as an exceptionally well-meaning individual, and we do not wish to discard inspiring aspects of his career. He was progressive in his support for women scientists and devoted considerable time to social causes ranging from communicating the health consequences of radiation exposure to advising the NAACP [6]. We also recognize that Crow’s career spanned much different eras than the one we now live in. Our goal in this statement is not to convict (or acquit) Crow of any specific fault or prejudice, but to come to terms with an apparent conflict between published statements by our namesake and our Institute’s values with respect to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), as illustrated by our official statement on these vitally important subjects [7].

More specifically, the leadership of the institute wishes to state unambiguously that:

(1) There is still no convincing evidence for any genetic differences in cognitive abilities between racial groups [8]. Human races are defined socially, and they do not partition human variation in a biologically meaningful way [9,10].

(2) Science would absolutely be better off if more Black, Indigenous, People of Color, and members of other under-represented groups were equitably and fairly represented, included, and supported in all facets of science. We need the best talent from all groups to reach our collective potential, and research progress is greatly enhanced by the ideas offered by scientists with diverse backgrounds and perspectives [11].

We believe the whole UW evolution community –– undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, staff, faculty, and emerita –– should have a voice in any further response to this issue. Even within our committees, a diversity of views exist. Some consider the quoted statements to merit serious reckoning, wonder what our Institute gains by keeping the Crow name, and perhaps question whether we should ever name things after famous scientists (who tend to come from historically dominant groups). Others consider these writings to be specific offenses that should not overshadow a much broader legacy, and question whether we can even celebrate Darwin (in light of his much starker writings on race) if we cannot honor Crow.

To gather feedback from the whole community, we would like to invite all members of our local evolution community to attend a town hall discussion on how our community can best respond to this issue. This hybrid in-person and online event will occur on Monday, January 24th, from 3-5pm, tentatively in room 1360 of the Genetics/Biotechnology Building. To help us plan for the number of attendees, we ask that all who plan to attend in person or online to RSVP.

After this event, we will distribute a survey to inform us on how community members of each career stage view the writings in question, including what they believe should be done in response.

We hope that, regardless of the outcome, consideration of Crow’s writings and their historical context will enlighten us collectively and put our Institute in a stronger position and better able to advance our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.

The J. F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution ECC and its DEI Committee

1. Crow, J., 1969. Genetic theories and influences: Comments on the value of diversity. Harvard Educational Review, 39, 301-309.
2. Jensen, A. R., 1969. How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 39, 1-123.
4. Serpico, D. (2021). The Cyclical Return of the IQ Controversy: Revisiting the Lessons of the Resolution on Genetics, Race and Intelligence. Journal of the History of Biology, 54, pages 199–228.
5. Crow, J. F. (2002). Unequal by nature: A geneticist’s perspective on human differences. Daedalus, 131, 81-88.
6. Abrahamson, S. (2012). James F. Crow: his life in public service. Genetics, 190, 1-4.
8. Turkheimer, E., K. P. Harden, and R. E. Nesbitt (2017) There’s still no good reason to believe black-white IQ differences are due to genes.
9. Fuentes, A., Ackermann, R. R., Athreya, S., Bolnick, D., Lasisi, T., Lee, S.-H., McLean, S.-A., & Nelson, R. (2019). AAPA statement on race and racism. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 169, 400-402.
10. Graves, J. L., & Goodman, A. (2021). Racism, not race: Answers to frequently asked questions. Columbia Publishers, New York.
11. Hofstra, B., Kulkarni, V. V., Galvez, S. M. N., He, B., Jurafsky, D., McFarland, D. A. 2020. The diversity–innovation paradox in science. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 11, 9284-9291.