How BLM taking over academia and what Carl Linnaeus guilty of

The campaign against racism is spreading in the scientific community as well

The campaign against racism under the slogan Black Lives Matter is trying to move from destroying monuments to the great slaveholders of the past to rewriting the history of science. In scientific circles, serious battles are running high, and many names familiar to us from school or university textbooks are being revised. Realnoe Vremya asked biologist Ivan Starikov, who is currently working on a dissertation in Heidelberg, and previously completed a master's degree at the Aix-Marseille University and interned at the National Institute of Agronomic Research in France, about which scientists are being proposed to be thrown “off the ship of politically correct modernity”. He wrote a column for us about it.

Herpetologist or activist?

On Friday, famous Science magazine, where there are not only scientific articles, published a journalistic material, which is about a wave of renaming of awards, buildings and everything related to the names of scientists involved in racism in one way or another. A story of a black woman named Earyn McGee, named a herpetologist, and her experiences with the term 'noosing' (the term means catching lizards with a noose), which she hears from white male colleagues, as it reminds her of lynchings a century ago, is a theme that resonates through the text. She persuades them to change it to 'lassoing'.

Earyn McGee. Photo:

This, as I understand it, is the main point of her activism, she calls herself 'lassoist', in the Science article and Wikipedia article, she is presented as a herpetologist and activist. Everything is obvious with activism, but as for herpetology, I could hardly find her only a half-page methodical note. Plus, she also has one small message with 19 co-authors about the phage genome and one full-fledged article, but about activism. So it's a little premature to call her a herpetologist.

I will say more, the promotion of figures like McGee in fact rather does a disservice to full-fledged scientists-African-Americans (and representatives of other races).

And about the white man's burden, I remembered this story: a Russian-born teacher in the United States during practice asked one of the students to bring an instrument. He turned out to be an African-American and indignantly refused, accusing the professor of trying to exploit blacks like his ancestors. To which the professor calmly explained that the color of the skin had nothing to do with it, and his ancestors were also slaves — serfs. The student was very surprised that the whites kept other whites in slavery but promised to read about it.

Karl Pearson. Photo:

Throwing the proponents of eugenics off the ship of history

Among those whose names are proposed to be replaced, there are various figures of different significance.

Among the world-famous classics of science there is Karl Pearson. He is the author of the statistical criterion Chi-square, which establishes patterns, figuring out how one phenomenon depends on another.

The name of Pearson is known today by about everyone who had at least some mathematics in high school (or in a good school). He is reproached that he belonged to the eugenics society and derived his criterion by studying migration to Britain. And the phrase 'Pearson's chi-squared test' (which for any engineer or researcher is probably closer than the periodic table) is suggested to be renamed so as to forget about its author.

There is also Francis Galton (geologist, anthropologist, statistician), whose fault is much more serious: he created eugenics as a discipline.

It's really complicated. There was negative eugenics, which created theories (and sometimes practices) about how to limit the reproduction of “undesirable” people. And there was a positive one, aimed at promoting the reproduction of people whose qualities were considered useful for society. It is clear that now all this sounds strange and certainly unethical, but it is impossible to erase this phenomenon from the history of science: while research in this area was going on, important phenomena and patterns were discovered (in particular, the Pearson's chi-squared test).

Francis Galton. Photo:

The Russian eugenics society, which existed in the 1920s, in contrast to its Western colleagues, rejected negative eugenics and engaged only in positive eugenics. If we approach the question literally, we would have to “ban” many of our biologists of the first half of the 20th century as members of this society, starting with its founder, the outstanding geneticist and molecular biologist academician Koltsov. He was an opponent of Lysenko and an outstanding scientist, and an institute in Moscow is now named after him. Now what? To rename the institute?

Old Linnaeus missed the race

Even Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern classification of living organisms, was included in the list of undesirables. His fault is that, while classifying all living things that came within his field of vision, he did so with regard to man, dividing him into four varieties according to geography, temperament, and — oh, horror — skin color and anthropological data.

Without noting the superiority of one variety of people over others! In some publications, he still singled out the fifth race, which included troglodytes, satyrs and other mythical characters — the level of biology then and now slightly different.

Now he is also called a racist and it is offered, for example, to remove his name from the name of a scientific competition for students. Despite the fact that the word “race” was invented and used by his opponent Buffon. Linnaeus in biology is, roughly speaking, like Mendeleev in chemistry.

From the text of the article, it is unclear what his disciples, the so-called apostles of Linnaeus, who are also put in this row — were really all of them racists and fanatics?

By the way, about Mendeleev: since this is happening, you can try to rename something named after the discoverer of the periodic table. Because Dmitry Ivanovich's father worked his way up to the rank of court adviser, which gave him hereditary nobility. Therefore, the Mendeleevs belonged to the class of exploiters.

Carl Linnaeus. Photo:

Hitler's beetle: is it possible to change the names of types?

At the end of the article in Science, a specialist in structural racism claims that the nomenclature serves hierarchies and, they say, our task is to correct history. As for the nomenclature — the names of species of living organisms — it can be changed in terms of English (German, Russian) names. But not Latin ones.

You can't just change the scientific name, this rule has been in effect for two and a half centuries since the time of Linnaeus. It's like renaming a chemical element or a planet.

The most striking example here is small blind predatory beetle Anophthalmus hitleri, which was discovered by an Austrian entomologist, an admirer of known whom. This name remains a monument to its era. After the war, the insect tried to change its name, but the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature opposed it. Hitler's beetle is faded, only half a centimeter long, lives only in caves in Slovenia, it doesn't need eyes. This creature, by the way, can be said to be twice unlucky. Not only is he not handsome, to put it mildly. Due to those who want to cash in on fans who collect everything related to the Fuhrer, the cost of the insect on the black market exceeds a thousand euros, and its number is dangerously reduced.

Nothing can be done about the name of the discoverer, which is put after the Latin name. In the case of Linnaeus, it is simply the letter L. — and so it is clear who it is. In the eyes of radical followers of the BLM, Linnaeus should be purged from science.

Real racists in science

But there were also scientists whose attitude today really makes sense to review — at least honestly analyze the features of their biography.

For example, Science mentions another famous statistician, Ronald Fisher (ask any scientist or mathematician what F-criterion is). The name of the criterion is still left to Fisher, but his stained-glass window has already been removed by the University of Cambridge. The thing is that in his time, Fisher developed recommendations for the sterilisation of patients with mental disabilities and the poor. Voluntary one. However, it can hardly be called ethical in the 1930s, when it was seriously considered in England, not just now. Around the same time, Fisher stated that he had no doubt that the Nazi party “sincerely wishes to benefit the racial fund of Germany, especially by eliminating obvious shortcomings”, and that he would “support such movement”. But after the war, his authority was even enough to justify von Verschuer, known as a colleague and teacher of Dr. Mengele.

Marion Sims. Photo:

Another striking character, Dr. Marion Sims, is mentioned in the Science material. He is known as a nineteenth-century American gynecologist who made a name for himself in operations performed primarily on black female slaves. At first, he worked without anesthesia, because it was not there — and one of the biographers justifies him because of this. But when it became available, Sims used it only for whites, because blacks, thanks to their “healthy aggressiveness”, can tolerate pain and so on. Well, after the Civil war, he said that giving black people the right to vote was a terrible mistake. Why is it surprising that the attitude to him today has been decided to be reconsidered?

The University of South Carolina's women's dorm was named after Sims, it's no longer called that, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

How to find a balance

When talking about the manifestations of a new ethic in the academic environment related to racial issues, it is impossible to ignore the context in which all this is happening. To get into the academic environment, you must first graduate from a decent school, then go to university and get a degree, the university also matters. Let's not forget that higher (and often good secondary) education in the United States is paid, and very expensive. How much chance does a man from a poor black family in a deprived neighbourhood have for all this splendor?

Unfortunately, the Russian-speaking reader often has a tendentious view of American issues, drawing only the most vivid and, in fact, absurd examples of BLM from the news agenda and social networks, even when discussing scientific issues. This point of view I met, for example, in the blog of a colleague of Alexander Panchin, a well-known popularizer of science, with whom I can partially agree in terms of drawing attention to the problem but not in terms of its one-sided coverage.

In this sense the situation in continental Europe is noticeably better: some countries had a colonial past. But the tradition of segregation within the state is much weaker, and slavery in the usual sense was not there at all. During my studies and work here, I didn't notice any manifestations of institutional racism in education and science, let alone the usual one.

So, in summary. The Black Lives Matter movement has also touched the academic environment, and it would be strange if this were not the case. There are also fair attempts to revise names in science in search of justice, and fanaticism from anti-racism fighters at the expense of common sense.

Almost all truly modern science, with the exception of some Humanities, including Russian, is now published in English and in international journals. And it is useful to understand what processes are currently taking place in the global academic environment, including in order not to be on the periphery of the civilised world.

By Ivan Starikov