New Paper Claims Evolutionary Biology Is ‘Ableist.’ Here’s How It Misrepresented The Data.

A biology paper misrepresented data used to support its claim that the field of evolutionary biology discriminates against disabled people, a Daily Wire analysis has found. 

The paper, “Discussions of the ‘Not So Fit’: How Ableism Limits Diverse Thought and Investigative Potential in Evolutionary Biology,” published in American Naturalist last year, accused the field of evolutionary biology of “ableism.” To demonstrate this, the authors manipulated statistics to give the illusion that the field of evolutionary biology is particularly discriminatory against disabled people by inappropriately comparing rates of disability within evolutionary biology to society generally. 

The paper argues that concepts like “fitness” and “natural selection” —  foundational to the field of evolutionary biology, which studies the diversification and adaptation of life forms over time — are “harmful” and have been “weaponized against marginalized communities in the modern day.” And the authors’ thesis is that evolutionary biology’s use of purportedly “ableist” terms and concepts discourages disabled people from studying the field, and is therefore more discriminatory of the disabled than other areas of study. But instead of sampling from other academic disciplines, the authors claim that “the proportion of disabled evolutionary biologists is far below the population average.”

The authors compared a National Center for Science and Engineering Studies (NCSES) statistic that found 8.1% of disabled doctorate recipients in the life sciences with a CDC statistic that found 26% of the US population was disabled. But upon closer inspection, this 26% CDC statistic was determined through self-reporting, based on a six-question set, and included participants 65 and over who have considerably higher rates of age-related disabilities.

A more representative sample would have been to compare evolutionary biology with other academic fields of study. In fact, the same NCSES data set (Table 28) used by the authors included the comparable data of other disciplines and revealed there was little difference between the number of disabled doctorate degree recipients in the life sciences (8.1%) with psychology/social sciences (9.8%), education (8.9%), math/computer science (7.2%), and humanities/arts (11.1%). 

Image provided by NCSES 2020

In addition, the authors cited another study by Rushworth et al comparing the 10.8% disability rate in evolution societies to the 26% CDC statistic, but did not mention that the Rushworth study itself acknowledged a “more conservative national estimate” of 12.8% from a more recent US Census.

Evolutionary biology is an intellectually challenging undertaking that often requires a field component to research, so one might expect to find fewer people with cognitive or mobility disabilities pursuing it, but the data shows there is very little disparity between it and other academic fields of study. 

The publication’s former editor-in-chief, Dan Bolnick, said that this particular paper was a “special issue” that “invited papers at the intersection of humanities and sciences,” and that it was reviewed by a “special team” that included humanities researchers that did not comprise their “usual board.”  

Jerry Coyne, a prolific evolutionary biologist and author of the bestselling book, “Why Evolution Is True,” hosts a website by the same name where he recently reviewed the paper. 

“First, it’s one of the more ludicrous examples of science policing I’ve seen,” opined Coyne, who said he supports accommodations for disabled people to have the same opportunities as others. “Second, it shows how the American Society of Naturalists, which publishes the journal, has gone down the same woke road as the other ecology and evolution societies.”

The paper makes several suggestions to rectify evolutionary biology’s ableist past, which mostly include changes to terminology they deem offensive and providing a chart with alternative language that should be used.

“According to the authors, the field is rife with words like ‘mutant/wild type,’ ‘fitness optimum,’ ‘mutations’ (we should say ‘base pair change’), and ‘optimization,’” said Coyne. “The paper ends with a demand — not a request — that we purge evolutionary biology of ableist language.”

Perhaps most concerning is their call for an overhaul of foundational concepts in evolutionary biology, such as “fitness.” Within the context of evolutionary biology, fitness refers to measures of reproductive success, not the condition of an individual organism being physically fit.

“The authors’ discussion is muddled because they use ‘fitness’ as equivalent to ‘able-bodied,’ implying that ‘lower fitness’ is somehow a slur on the disabled,” said Coyne. “In our field, the term was not used to denigrate the disabled, but simply to express the relative number of copies of a given gene variant in the next generation compared to alternative variants of the same gene.” 

“The authors also disparage the use of the term ‘survival of the fittest’ because, they argue, it not only disparages handicapped people, but has led to social darwinism, a philosophy embraced by capitalists,” he added.

In addition to ableism, the authors accuse the field of evolutionary biology of eugenics, racism, white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism. The paper also is peppered with humanities terms like “unconscious bias” and “lived experience,” and in the acknowledgments section the authors apologized for representing “white settlers’ perspectives on these issues.”

“American Naturalist would be better off if it stuck to its original mission — presenting good science — and stayed away from politics, ideology, and social engineering,” said Coyne.

The world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins shared Coyne’s sentiments regarding the formerly prestigious publication on Twitter. 

“American Naturalist used to be a great journal,” tweeted Dawkins, with a link to Coyne’s review. “Very sad. How could they sink so low?”

Elon Musk took the opportunity to chime in, “The woke mind virus is penetrating the firewalls of some of the world’s smartest meat computers at a prodigious rate!”

The lead author of the paper, Haley Branch, a botany student at the University of British Columbia, responded to the criticism on Thursday.

“I did not expect the onslaught of disrespectful messages,” said Branch. “We did not expect the main takeaway to be language policing.”

Branch, who hopes her research can further “climate justice,” revealed in a 2020 social media post that she didn’t think of herself or “identify” as disabled until “very recently.” In fact, she used to be a ballet dancer and practiced 30 hours a week, that is, until she discovered she had Ehler-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue abnormality that causes flexible joints. In 2020, she formed a support group for disabled graduate students and aspires to make academia more “equitable” for them.

“It took until #diagnosis for me to identify, but that was because of lack of allies, support, and ableism,” said Branch. “I’m sad that medical #ableism prevented me from finding my community earlier.”

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