Nicholas Wade, who contributes science pieces for The New York Times, has a new book out called A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Its thesis is not only that human “races” are biological realities, but that differences in the structure of human societies, as well as behavioral differences between ethnic groups, are based largely on genetic differences produced by natural selection. So, for instance, Wade imputes the high achievement to the Jews to selection that operated on “our” (since I’m a cultural Jew) ancestors, the high achievement of Western societies to diffusion of “smart” genes from the upper classes to lower ones, and so on. He gives related “natural selection” arguments for the dysfunctionality of African societies compared to those of Europe, and why Asian populations never produced the technical innovations of the West.
The Daily Caller summarizes the reactions, which have been mixed. The most over-the-top review was that of Charles “Bell Curve” Murray in The Wall Street Journal. Predictably, given the book’s biological determinism, Murray pronounced it “historic”:
So one way or another, “A Troublesome Inheritance” will be historic. Its proper reception would mean enduring fame as the book that marked a turning point in social scientists’ willingness to explore the way the world really works. But there is a depressing alternative: that social scientists will continue to predict planetary movements using Ptolemaic equations, as it were, and that their refusal to come to grips with “A Troublesome Inheritance” will be seen a century from now as proof of this era’s intellectual corruption.
I seriously doubt that. My prediction is that nobody will remember this book a century from now, except, perhaps, as an example of how to justify your preconceptions by using weak data.
At Slate, Andrew Gelman’s review is more mixed. An excerpt, which is pretty incisive:
As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”
Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift … toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.
I have read this book, and I think it’s pretty awful. One part of the book, though—Wade’s discussion of genetically differentiated subgroups, whether or not you want to call them “races”—is not too bad. Although there aren’t a fixed number of “races”, we can identify individual humans’ ancestry very well by using an assemblage of genes, and in some cases even identify the particular European village from which an individual’s grandparents came. The idea that human populations are genetically identical, and “races” are purely social constructs, reflecting nothing about genetic differences, is simply wrong. But as we all know, those genetic differences are not profound—they’re seen by aggregating data from many genes across the genome, and doing a kind of “cluster analysis.” In other words, “races” (or “subgroups” or “populations”) differ statistically, not absolutely. And most of those differences are not in genes whose function we know well, although a few, like some genes involved in skin pigmentation, do show, as expected, more profound differences among populations.
But, except for politically motivated denialists, this has been known for a long time. Wade’s main thesis, and where the book goes wrong, is to insist that differences between human societies, including differences that arose in the last few centuries, are based on genetic differences—produced by natural selection— in the behavior of individuals within those societies. In other words, societal differences largely reflect their differential evolution.
For this Wade offers virtually no evidence, because there is none. We know virtually nothing about the genetic differences (if there are any) in cognition and behavior between human populations. And to explain how natural selection can effect such rapid changes, Wade posits some kind of “multiplier effect,” whereby small differences in gene frequencies can ramify up to huge societal differences. There is virtually no evidence for that, either. It is a mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles.
I won’t go into more detail, because I originally intended to review this book for a large venue but decided not to because I found the book so bad that I became dispirited, and I also lacked the time (and knowledge of alternative sociological explanations) to do it justice. One needs a Pinker or a Diamond to review the book properly.
Wade’s book isn’t bad because of scientific errors (although it has its share of them), but because it offers a comprehensive thesis—one with serious social implications, including the possibility of encouraging xenophobia—without the scientific evidence to support it. In areas like this, one has to be especially careful to tie your arguments to the data, and that Wade fails to do. It is an irresponsible book that makes insupportable claims.
I am not absolutely opposed to all work on genetic differences in behavior between ethnic groups, populations, and sexes. That is a kind of scientific taboo which, as Steve Pinker has noted, has been enforced by social opprobrium based on the possibility of racism or sexism. I think the proper stand is that it’s okay to study those questions that are interesting (but make sure you ask yourself why you find them interesting), and realize that a). we don’t know the outcomes, and b). the fundamental equalities of all groups and all sexes don’t depend on the results of such analyses.
But Wade’s book oversteps the line, for his theories way outstrip his data. The book is neither (as Murray pronounced it) historic nor scientifically sound, and I don’t recommend that readers buy it.