A number of years ago I spoke at a symposium on prevention science from an evolutionary perspective. The symposium was organized by Tony Biglan, who was then president of the Society for Prevention Research, which is devoted to the prevention of social, physical, and mental health problems. Like so many branches of the basic and applied human behavioral sciences, prevention science was sophisticated in its own way but had developed largely without reference to evolutionary theory. Tony thought that an explicitly evolutionary perspective could add value to Prevention Science and I was there to help him out.

The symposium was attended by two program officers from federal agencies that fund Prevention Science research. At the wrap-up discussion, one of the officers said that although the talks were very interesting, her advice was to avoid using the word “evolution” in grant proposals submitted to her agency. It’s not that the reviewers would be anti-evolution, only that they would find the use of evolution as a theoretical framework sufficiently strange to jeopardize the chances of funding.

I suspect that both Tony and the program officer were right. Tony was right that Prevention Science needs evolutionary theory and the program officer was right that using the E-word might jeopardize chances of funding over the short term. This sets up an ethical dilemma. What should a Prevention Scientist do?

Take a moment to think about what you would do in this situation. If you’re like me, you might cave to avoid committing professional suicide over the short term, but you would also try to figure out a way to get prevention scientists accustomed to using the E-word over the long term. The idea of Prevention Scientists never adopting evolutionary theory for their field and calling it by its name is not ethically acceptable, insofar as it results in lost lives and increased suffering in people who could have benefitted from an improved Prevention Science.

The E-word wasn’t tainted for Prevention Scientists; it was merely unfamiliar. But the E-word is tainted in other sectors of academic and public life. So are other words such as group selection, sociobiology, and evolutionary psychology. All of these words had face-value definitions when they were first coined (sociobiology is the study of social behavior from a biological perspective, evolutionary psychology is the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective…) but then they acquired a negative valence for one reason or another, leading to an ethical dilemma similar to the one that I have outlined for Prevention Science.

I would like to argue that in all cases, it is important to rescue tainted words by restoring their face value definitions. If they have acquired negative valences, it is important to understand why. Past confusions and injustices need to be resolved and avoided in the future. Rescuing tainted words might be hard work and perhaps their use must be avoided on occasion to avoid excessive short-term costs, but permanently avoiding tainted words and coining new terms with the same face value definitions is not ethically acceptable.

Before considering scientific tainted words, let’s do an ethical warm-up with family names. Suppose that your father is accused of committing a heinous crime. His name has been thoroughly tainted and so has yours by association. What should you do? One option is to try to clear your father’s name. Another is to keep your name even though you will suffer by association. A third option is to change your name to conceal the fact that he is your father.

Let’s say that your father is in fact innocent of the crime. In this case, there is a moral imperative to clear his name. Allowing him to hang and changing your name would be despicable. Now let’s say that your father is in fact guilty of the crime. Falsely clearing his name becomes immoral, keeping your name is morally praiseworthy, and changing your name is a bit cowardly but understandable. This is how our moral intuitions tally costs and benefits to self, others, and society as a whole.

What are the costs of permanently avoiding scientific tainted words? The costs of avoiding the E-word for the field of Prevention Science can be measured in human suffering and loss of life, which is the typical currency of ethical arguments. The costs of avoiding terms such as “group selection”, “sociobiology”, and “evolutionary psychology” in academic discourse are less dire, but they are still tangible. Moreover, if we accept the argument that basic science and scholarship leads to practical applications over the long term, then sowing confusion inside the Ivory Tower can lead to suffering and death down the road.

Regardless of life and death consequences, scientists and scholars have strong norms about adhering to the truth, keeping careful track of the history of ideas, and properly crediting people for their contributions. Transgressions include making stuff up, stealing someone else’s experiment, and claiming that an idea is original when it was previously published by someone else. These transgressions are always considered unethical and sometimes are punished severely, such as the dismissal of Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser on the basis of falsifying data. Other transgressions go unpunished, as for any moral system, and there are worrisome trends such as a general failure to responsibly cite the literature and under-citing research by women. Science and scholarship can become degraded as a cultural system and cease to produce the public good that is intended, just like an economic or political cultural system can become degraded.

Avoiding tainted words and coining new words with the same face-value meanings isn’t quite the same as failing to credit people for their ideas, but it can come close. Suppose that an idea developed by person X is rejected by the scientific community. Later it emerges that person X was right. Rather than properly crediting person X, however, person Y packages the idea under a new name and gets the credit, while person X goes down in history as a benighted fool. How is this ethically different than failing to clear your innocent father’s name or stealing someone’s experiment?

Even apart from who gets credit for what, imagine the irritation of a future historian who is trying to keep track of the history of ideas and discovers through painstaking scholarship that some terms fall into disuse and other equivalent terms come into use just because people weren’t courageous enough to call a spade a spade. Keeping track of the history of ideas is difficult enough without this kind of linguistic noise.

We are already suffering from this kind of noise. Biologists who study social behavior but don’t want to call it sociobiology. Evolutionists who study psychology but don’t want to call it evolutionary psychology. Evolutionists who invoke group selection in every way except using the term.

“Social Darwinism” is perhaps the most important example of a term that became tainted and needs to be rescued. From the very beginning, it was used as a pejorative to brand laissez faire policies that Darwin did not endorse. Ever since, it has given the impression that evolutionary theory is somehow more dangerous than other theoretical frameworks in the formulation of public policy. Not only is this conceptually and historically false, but it has retarded the use of evolutionary theory to understand and improve the human condition for decades.

TVOL has already worked to restore the face value definition of Evolutionary Psychology with its series of articles on the theme “What is Evolutionary Psychology?”. Now it will attempt to do the same for Social Darwinism with its newly launched theme “Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism.” Our aim is to create a wider audience for the careful scholarship that already exists and dispel the shadow that hangs over evolutionary theory in relation to human affairs. It is time to clear Darwin’s good name.

Articles in this series:

Truth and Reconciliation for Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson

The Case for Rescuing Tainted Words by David Sloan Wilson

Social Darwinism: Myth and Reality by Paul Crook

Social Darwinism: A Case of Designed Ventriloquism by Adriana Novoa

When the Strong Outbreed the Weak: An Interview with William Muir by David Sloan Wilson

Was Hitler a Darwinian? No! No! No! by Robert J. Richards and David Sloan Wilson

Was Dewey a Darwinian? Yes! Yes! Yes! An interview with Trevor Pearce by David Sloan Wilson

Why Did Sociology Declare Independence from Biology (And Can They Be Reunited)? An Interview with Russell Schutt by David Sloan Wilson

Toward a New Social Darwinism by David Sloan Wilson and Eric Michael Johnson