New book on race by Nicholas Wade: Professor Ceiling Cat says paws down

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.




  1. Sastra
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    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.”

    Yeah, this immediately made me think of Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, a book which looks very closely at the major cultural shift in the last 500 years, explains why it can’t be genetics, and then looks at numerous other explanatory factors.

    If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that Better Angels was written as a rebuttal to Wade. Hell, Pinker can respond just by reprinting some of his earlier articles and adding in the phrase “… contrary to the claims in A Troublesome Inheritance” here and there.

    • Rick
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Professor Coyne, for the brief review. I had been thinking about taking a look at that book, but your review has discouraged me. I mean that in a positive way. One can only read so much, and good, incisive reviews are so helpful for future readers. They are especially helpful when they are done by trustworthy reviewers.

      I’m a fan of Pinker’s writing, too. Currently, I’m on the last chapter of “Better Angels”. So far, I have found his book to be a highly interesting and engaging read, both stylish and informative. I also thought about Pinker’s book while reading Professor Coyne’s review because Pinker’s book is, as you (Sastra) note, a cultural history, though it is strongly grounded in ideas of human nature and evolution. Interestingly, Pinker had the following to say about Wade’s book on Twitter: “Disagree w much of Wade (goes beyond data, gets some wrong) but he explodes race-is-only-a-social-construction myth.”

      His tweet is kind of surprising because it could be taken as meaning that he prefers the explosion of the myth to poor interpretation of data. I’m sure that he doesn’t prefer that. His tweets regularly have links to articles and stories that have to do in some way with the durability of the blank slate and with his effort to criticize it. Still, his tweet is a little surprising.

      Coyne’s review makes Pinker’s point sound overstated (i.e., nothing has been exploded). I’m not sure who is right here, but perhaps I’m just mixing up audiences. I trust that Coyne is right about what scientists know, but I think that Pinker is right about popular views.

      • Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:05 am | Permalink

        I think Steve and I are pretty much agreed about this book. In fact, I can’t see anything that I disagree with in his tweet, which looks like a short precis of what I said. . “Exploded” is not too strong a word given the comments of people on this and other post that imply that race really is a social construct. What we’re seeing is the taboo in action!

        I’m pretty sure that with the words “going beyond the data,” Steve is referring to the thesis that societal differences and transformations are due to genetic evolution.

        • Rick
          Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

          I agree with your point that “exploded” is not too strong a word, particularly for the reason that you give.

          I guess that I saw a difference between Pinker’s “exploded” and your “this has been known for a long time”. As well, Pinker’s tweet suggests that the idea of criticizing race as a social construct is right despite problems interpreting data. It’s not hard to see a problem with that view. Your review is more direct: “It is an irresponsible book that makes insupportable claims.”

          Nevertheless, thanks for the explanation. I think that I see what you mean. My point about different audiences is muddled, and I see now that Pinker and you speak similarly. People tend to believe, as Pinker says, that race is a social construct because, as you say, they don’t know the science. You add comments (because you use more space) about the problems in Wade’s book with, to use Pinker’s phrase, going beyond the data and using scientific data irresponsibly.

        • Posted May 16, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

          In other words, the first half of Wade’s book (like his largely ignored reporting over the last 13 years in the New York Times) is hugely valuable for exploding the conventional wisdom that race is a social construct; but the second part of the book, which Wade clearly labels “speculation,” is speculation.

        • Posted May 16, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          From Chapter 1 of Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance:”

          “Since much of the material that follows may be new or unfamiliar to the general reader, a guide to its evidentiary status may be helpful. Chapters 4 and 5, which explore the genetics of race, are probably the most securely based. Although they put the reader on the forefront of current research, and frontier science is always less secure than that in the textbooks, the findings reported here draw from a large body of research by leading experts in the field and seem unlikely to be revised in any serious way. Readers can probably take the facts in these chapters as reasonably solid and the interpretations as being in general well supported.

          “The discussion of the roots of human social behavior in chapter 3 also rests on substantial research, in this case mostly studies of human and animal behavior. But the genetic underpinnings of human social behavior are for the most part still unknown. There is therefore considerable room for disagreement as to exactly which social behaviors may be genetically defined. Moreover, the whole field of research into human social behavior is both young and overshadowed by the paradigm still influential among social scientists that all human behavior is purely cultural.

          “Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution. Because the existence of race has long been ignored or denied by many researchers, there is a dearth of factual information as to how race impinges on human society. The conclusions presented in these chapters fall far short of proof. However plausible (or otherwise) they may seem, many are speculative. There is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear. And speculation is the customary way to begin the exploration of uncharted territory because it stimulates a search for the evidence that will support or refute it.

          “The reader may also wish to keep in mind that this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.”

  2. Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    A roundup of the reviews of Nicholas Wade’s book are here:

    • M'thew
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

      Noteworthy: the positive reviews are only given as “Author Title-as link”. The mixed and negative reviews are given as more extensive text, highlighting the problems Occam’s Razor sees in said review. The comments on the roundup show a similar bias.

      Not much use, methinks, if you do not try to deal with the weak points in the positive reviews and the valid counterarguments in the mixed/negative reviews.

      • Craig
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think it’s intended to be; it’s a digest specifically for partisans of the scientific-racist view.

  3. Ken Pidcock
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    The idea that human populations are genetically identical, and “races” are purely social constructs, reflecting nothing about genetic differences, is simply wrong.

    People may be descended from races, but they do not belong to races, inasmuch as reproductive isolation is how race is defined.

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

      I’m sorry but you are absolutely wrong there. Biologists have always used “race” to mean “morphologically” (or “genetically”) distinguishable populations. Reproductive isolation is not part of that concept, just some identifiable differences. Reproductive isolation characterizes different SPECIES, not different races.

      Trust me; I wrote a book on speciation.

      • Posted May 17, 2014 at 2:08 am | Permalink

        Exactly. Separate species is not separate races. We can interbreed. More than that–we want to interbreed.

    • John Harshman
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      No, that isn’t so. Hey, there can even be some gene flow between different species, much less races or subspecies. Generally, subspecies are defined if there’s visible geographic variation in which most individuals at most locations can be reliably assigned to one group or another. Geographic separation certainly helps, though. Without it, there may be smooth clines in characters so that subspecies become arbitrarily assigned labels. As with humans.

      • Frank
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

        Given the misconceptions out there, it is important to recognize that, while indigenous humans vary genetically across the globe (how could they not do so, with such low levels of gene flow in the past?), there is inevitably a large degree of arbitrariness in defining discrete races (that is why anthropologists have defined anywhere from 3 to 30 races).

        In my experience, the problem is not that too many people incorrectly view races as “social constructs” (that may be a problem among some ideologically driven academics). Rather, it is that too many people believe races are “more real” than they actually are. Racists never seem to bother about precisely defining the “white” race – which somehow lumps Turks and Lapplanders.

        In the sense of actual genetic and phenotypic differences that vary geographically in a nearly continuous fashion, races are certainly real. In the sense that many people unfortunately use the word “race”, to indicate a relatively small number of discrete and easily identifiable groups, they are not real.

        • eric
          Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:19 am | Permalink

          What you point out is a social/communication problem that scientists must navigate here. We’ve got both ends of the political spectrum (racists and social contstructivists) seeking to misrerpresent the actual findings of genetics for their social goals. Good science communication can lead most of these horses to the healthy water (i.e. best scientific understanding of race), but ultimately cannot make them drink it.

          • John K.
            Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:19 am | Permalink

            It gets tricky when scientists use the word “race” in way that is very different from the way the Klu Klux Klan uses it. People just hear the sound or read the word and pin the most common meaning on it, and the important nuances can get lost.

            If there was a zombie outbreak, it would make sense not to go around in tattered clothing and moaning “braaains” whenever you entered a room lest you be mistaken for the undead. By the same token it is not a bad idea to differentiate yourself from racists when you find yourself using language racists like to use. One can argue that those who were mistaken need to pay closer attention, but why burden yourself with the heavy chance of being misunderstood if it can be avoided? It is indeed an unfair minefield imposed on the well meaning scientist, but culture is what it is and there is no alternative to navigating it when communicating to people in it. Prof. Ceiling Cat manages it with the simple use of scare quotes, so clearly it can be done.

            Fortunately the science is always poor in the types of Sophisticated Arguments for racism such as the “The Bell Curve” or ” A Troublesome Inheritance”, making them relatively easy to pick out from legitimate methods of inquiry.

    • Aaron S.
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:36 am | Permalink

      Here’s a good past column on this website explaining why you’re wrong. Are there human races?

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      While Ken Pidcock is definitely wrong, the whole issue of of infraspecific classification is a muddle.

      In modern systematics, supraspecific taxa have to be monophyletic, that much is simple.

      At the species level it is a bit more complicated. There are different species concepts such as the biological one which is about reproductive isolation, but they all have their weaknesses. (In the case of the BSC, what do you do with fossil species or with asexual ones?) But still you can state your species concept up front and then figure out empirically whether under those criteria two individuals are part of the same species or not.

      Within species, however, it gets very subjective simply because if there were an obvious cut-off biologists would elevate the distinction to species-level. For classification there are potentially subspecies, varieties, subvarieties, races, forms and perhaps a few more categories that I currently can’t remember, and few agreed-on criteria for saying what is what. Yes, subspecies are more geographically structured than varieties, but so is the use of the word race; I am sure that the “subspecies” in some birds or plants are genetically no more different from each other than Inuit and Bantu.

      In summary, anybody who thinks that concepts like race, variety or subspecies mean anything concrete or remotely comparable in substance to species or clade misunderstands what is going on in biological reality. We shouldn’t take anything that happens below the level of speciation too seriously.

      • Matt G
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

        Here’s one test: if we took a random human genome, how reliably could we assign a racial group?

        • Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

          Not really the point because the claim of the race realism proponents is about behavior. Obviously there are marked genetic differences between humans, but some of them might be racial but are irrelevant to racist claims (skin pigmentation) and others have a massive influence but are orthogonal to “race” (whether you have a Y chromosome).

          So, if we described the work ethic or the degree of rationality of a random human, how reliably could we assign a “racial group”? Yeah, right.

  4. Rebecca
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    I thought the social construct theory was more about how the human brain takes a spectrum and turns it into ROYGBIV, and then throws in some arbitrary rules and cultural baggage, like the South’s old ‘one drop’ rule that counted someone whose ancestors mostly came from Europe as ‘black’ if she had a single African ancestor.

    I’m reminded of an analogy a friend posted. If you come across a woman who can’t breathe because there is an elephant on her chest, it is folly to assume she’s having a heart attack, even if heart attacks can cause trouble breathing. Maybe she has heart problems, maybe she doesn’t, but there’s no way to tell as long as there’s a far more immediate cause of her symptoms.

  5. Scott P.
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    ” The idea that human populations are genetically identical, and “races” are purely social constructs, reflecting nothing about genetic differences, is simply wrong. ”

    This is completely false. I don’t see how any analysis of genetic differences will produce a ‘black’ race that combines Africans, Sinhalese and Australian Aborigines, nor that will justify the ‘one drop’ rule.

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:47 am | Permalink

      Once again, I’ll have to say that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Nobody, much less me, said that there is a “black race.” Population genetic analysis divides humans into about five “big” clusters, one of which, as I recall is subSaharan Africans, but of course there are subclusters within that one, which is why I said “there is not a fixed number of races”.

      By the way, nobody clusters Australian aboriginals with sub-Saharan Africans. They are not genetically similar.

      What we have are clusters within clusters and the designations of clusters is more or less arbitrary, like colors within a rainbow. What is not at issue is that human populations are genetically differentiated and that one can fairly accurately identify an individual’s geographic origin from his/her genes (that’s what the genome organization 23 and Me does all the time).

      And who justified the “one drop” rule, for crying out loud? Not I.

      I have just replied politely and accurately to an intemperate and misguided comment, and now I will ask you to go away and post on other websites. Your comment bespeaks a complete lack of understanding of the genetic realities. I could guess what motivates such an ignorant statement, but I’ll avoid speculation.

      • B&B
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Of course, the recognition now that ‘Negroids’ including southwest Pacific populations (ie. ‘oceanic negroes’) are not holophyletic, demonstrates that traditional racial concepts were falsifiable.

        Though I agree with you that there are no fixed numbers of clusters/races, I also feel that anthropology of radical tradition defames and misrepresents more classical physical anthropology. Not surprisingly, these people tend to believe in paradigm shifts – a pseudo-historical justification for ‘handwavium’.

        In particular, I suspect the recent, online (and curiously synchronous) backlash against modern scientific attitudes to race, all coming from people sharing similar political views, is because certain ‘old school’ theories are being proven to be at least partially true. More true than if people such as Coon had been simply kooky and outdated pseudoscientists akin to phrenologists or something.

    • eric
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:49 am | Permalink

      You and Jerry may be arguing past each other’s points. Yes, there are some current social definitions of race that are simply wrong. A social definition of “black” as a race, sweeping in both Africans and Australian Aborigines, would be an example of a simply wrong definition.

      But I believe Jerry’s point is that genetic analysis supports the notion that there are actual subgroups that can be genetically identified. These genetic subgroups may not always align with how we talk about race today, but they nevertheless exist.

      • gluonspring
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

        Indeed. And, to emphasize, the ability to identify coherent genetic subgroups does not, in itself, tell you anything about whether those subgroups are predictive of any particular trait (longevity, IQ, muscle fiber types, disease susceptibility, etc.). These subgroups might be predictive of some phenotype or they might not. This kind of clustering is generally based on a large number of gene variants, so it’s sort of a measure of aggregate genetic similarity/dissimilarity, and there is no information built into them about phenotypes. That aggregate may completely obscure what is important for a given phenotype. For example, hypothetically it could be the case that a single gene variant has the biggest effect on IQ, but that this gene variant is completely uncorrelated with any of the identified region-of-origin subgroups and is too small a genetic difference to affect the clustering.

        • Carl
          Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Careful, you’re verging on hatethink.

  6. eric
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    First, I am sorry you chose not to write that larger venue review. I think your post here is an excellent review in itself, and even without any citations backing up your arguments (that his arguments are bad), I think it’s more content-rich and on-point than many other book reviews I’ve read.

    Now, on to other matters:

    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 agree, though I do find the idea interesting and at least notionally plausible. We are social animals who live in hierarchies where a few individuals can cause major societal change. *If* there were some allele that gave its inheritors a better chance of becoming President (better speaker, more socially aggressive, or whatever), I could see how the presence of that allele could alter society in major ways even if its frequency was relatively low.

    In fact, I feel comfortable thinking that such alleles already exist; that traits such as extroversion and such may be partially genetic. The problem with Wade’s more speculative idea is the same obvious problem with thinking about genes that might make people good leaders in the real world; even if these genes exist, any impact they have is likely to be swamped by social factors such as circumstances of birth. The impact of any hypothetical good-public-speaker gene is probably negligible compared to the impact of being born rich, or getting an education in rhetoric. You look at a politically successful family such as the Bushes or Kennedys, and I think the vast majority of us would recognize that they are politically successful more due to their money and influence, not because they are genetically superior leaders.

    • Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:41 am | Permalink

      Agreed. There is ample robust evidence for genetic influence on characteristics such as intelligence. This should be uncontroversial to all except the most committed social constructionist or post modernist.
      Wade seems to be going way beyond this though.
      Interestingly, he apparently bases his conclusions on the work of the economist Gregory Clark. Clark has carried out work that shows the persistence of wealth in families (through analysis of surnames)over very long periods. Rather than take this as showing that being born wealthy is in itself very helpful when it comes to staying wealthy Clark concludes that the rich must have a genetic advantage. This is a surprising conclusion (let alone when it comes from an economist).
      Your example of the Bushes and the Kennedies does tend to suggest the absurdity of Clark’s position; particularly the idea that the later Bush (with his comical inarticulacy) got to his position through gentic advantage rather than through the obvious advantages of great wealth, power and and political connections.

      • eric
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:59 am | Permalink

        Clark has carried out work that shows the persistence of wealth in families (through analysis of surnames)

        Wow, I can’t believe he missed the obvious fact that he’s tracking a cultural mechanism rather than a genetic one. If wealth persistence goes with surname, that points directly to the cultural tradition of giving a family’s wealth to recognized male heirs.

        • Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

          Apparently he did…
          There is a decent review of his book in the Economist.
          Matt Ridley also refers to him in his review of the Wade book in The Times.

  7. jeremiad1958
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Wade’s central claim is a hypothesis, one that I happen to think is very unlikely to be true. But as a hypothesis, evidence for it would mostly consist of how well it explains some phenomena, and/or how successfully it passes observational tests. Such a test would involve its making a prediction about something that can be observed, which is later confirmed by actually being observed as predicted.

    But in this review, you seem to assume that evidence for such a claim consists instead of “data” which imply it. Throughout , you complain about its meagre “support”, its foundations of “pebbles”, as if there should be such a body of “data”.

    Evidence for a scientific hypothesis really doesn’t look like that at all. Hypotheses are conjectures, they are — and should be — the product of speculation. I would be very surprised if Wade’s speculation did eventually produce the explanatory or predictive goods, but now is hardly the time to complain about their comparative absence. And it’s never appropriate to criticise a scientific hypotheses by saying that “data” don’t imply it. That is to misunderstand the evidential relationship between theory and observation.

  8. DrByrdon
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right.

    Reminds me of a conversation between two professors I was once privy to, where they got onto doctoral oral exam questions intended to make it tough on the candidate:

    Name any event between 1500 and 1800 that cannot be explained by the Rise of the Bourgeoisie.

    Of course, there aren’t any, because the rubric is so broad. As we all know, something that explains everything clarifies nothing.

    • eric
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:07 am | Permalink

      “Name any event between 1500 and 1800 that cannot be explained by the Rise of the Bourgeoisie.”

      Mount Fuji erupts, 1707-1708.

  9. Wildhog
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Pinker tweeted about this book so I was intending to get it. You just saved me a couple bucks.

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    When I took Physical Anthropology in the 90s, we were taught to drop the word, “race” in favour of the Greek word, “demes” because race was loaded and misunderstood. I thought it was stupid at the time, but it can see the intent behind it now.

    • Carl
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink


      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:32 pm | Permalink


  11. jacoxnet
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    I think you and Pinker are misunderstanding what the race-as-a-social-construct advocates say. They aren’t making an assertion about biology. As far as I know, no one is denying that there are distinctions in morphology and genetics between different groups of people who evolved in (recent) history in isolation from one another and that these differences, though aggregate and statistical, are real. But the biologist’s definition of “race” isn’t the same as society’s, and that is the crux of of the social-construct notion. African-Americans, for example, are plainly a “race” in American society, yet the studies I have read suggest that our sub-Saharan ancestry arises from a variety of widely scattered peoples and, in addition, nearly all of us have considerable European and (to a lesser extent) Native American heritage. Sure, a biologist can still plot our morphology or genes on a normal curve and distinguish us (in aggregate) from others, but that would have almost nothing to do with anything important about what the word “race” has really meant in American political and social history.

    If what interests you is history and politics, then it is absolutely true to say that the “black race” in America is a social construct of the ideology of white supremacy.

    • Prof.Pedant
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      “If what interests you is history and politics, then it is absolutely true to say that the “black race” in America is a social construct of the ideology of white supremacy.”

      True that. Which is an example of why we need to be aware of the limits of the accuracy of what we say. The above statement is accurate in a historical or political context, it is nonsensical in a biological context. Neither truth is more accurate than the other, and their accuracy is irreconcilable without understanding the context in which they are uttered.

    • Wildhog
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

      “I think you and Pinker are misunderstanding what the race-as-a-social-construct advocates say. They aren’t making an assertion about biology”

      Some of them certainly are. My g/f, after getting into the graduate program in History, argued with me that race is not a biological reality. I’m currently 9 chapters into Pinker’s “Blank Slate” and recognise all the nonsense his book argues against from my conversations with her.. The book has been quite an eye-opener regarding the strange things go she started to believe after starting the program.

      • jacoxnet
        Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        “My g/f, after getting into the graduate program in History, argued with me that race is not a biological reality.”

        Does anyone actually believe that there are no such things as human races (populations) that can be distinguished through biology (morphology and genes)? That seems silly. Could she have been making the subtler point that biological differences have little or nothing to do with the socially constructed categories of race that have been enormously consequential in recorded history.

        • wildhog
          Posted May 14, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

          “Does anyone actually believe that there are no such things as human races (populations) that can be distinguished through biology (morphology and genes)? That seems silly.”

          Seems silly to me too. And that was just one of many weird things she started to believe. I had no idea how all the nonsense fit together until I started Pinker’s book.

    • anon
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      “Sure, a biologist can still plot our morphology or genes on a normal curve and distinguish us (in aggregate) from others, but that would have almost nothing to do with anything important about what the word “race” has really meant in American political and social history.”

      There has been at least one study done on Americans of different ancestry, and it showed that African -Americans form their own cluster, and are thus distinguishable form white Americans.

      You say that the mixed ancestry of African-Americans renders African-Americans as a race meaningless. In the study i cited above, the researches had no trouble with the African-Americans. The Hispanics, on the other hand, did give the researchers trouble: no Hispanic cluster formed.

      In regards to African-American admixture, Wade says that African-Americans are, on average, 22% Caucasian.

      In Wade’s book, he talks a little about MAO-A 2R variant. He said that 0.1% of white Americans had it and that 5% of African-Americans had it. I think that that’s an interesting difference in the genotype that would have a huge effect phenotypically.

      So overall, i don’t think that african-americans are a social construct. I anticipate that more findings of the MAO-A kind will be made in the future.

  12. Lyndon
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    In general in agreement.

    I will defend the social constructionist position, or at least my claims of what is important in the social constructionist claims. As pointed out above, it is pretty hard not to take the everyday and historical notion of “race” and not see the institutions and connotations that lumps “black people” into a category and institutional arrangement that treats sub-Saharan African lineages alongside that of aboriginal Australians. These categorizations were not based on some evolutionary or DNA analysis, but was more on the lines that our race (say anything of white skin regardless of DNA linkage) is better than that race (say both Africans and Australian aboriginals, “those are obviously the same”). Those connotations and beliefs are being destroyed and changed, because they were either bad theories or unnecessary and nonreflected social constructions. But the idea that genetic differences abound and group together, and are responsible for differences in, say, skin color and body morphologies, is not doubtable. Claims about differences in general behaviors (especially complex and socially mediated ones) and how those behaviors also align with those other genetic differences are dubious at this point in time, as is pointed out.

    There is a lot to be gained by understanding DNA and evolutionary linkages between groups, but there was far more gained by destroying institutional processes and categorizations that were based on ignorant conceptions of “race.” Now, obviously the two do blend in with each other, say peoples’ of a tribe that in general share some traits encouraged some of our past conceptions of race, that those people were “more alike” for some reason. But what we drew and the linkages we made between the two was grossly misguided, and we can probably see that as both bad scientific theorizing and also as bad claims arising out of desired policy justifications (slavery, racism, etc.). The process of going from that there are standardized DNA differences to what that means for differences in lived lives, in cultural and social structures, and how our individual selves arrive from such environments is better analyzed from the social constructionist perspective . . . or so I would claim.

  13. gluonspring
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    Maybe he needs to spend some time here at Spurious Correlations:

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 15, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      Oh that’s beautiful!

  14. Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Dr. Coyne:

    I am glad to see some clarification of your earlier comments on human races, which have been thrown in my face several times as evidence by “race realists”. I hope you will be forceful in rejecting the outrageous claims of these groups. They mostly seek justification to their claims of racial superiority and the incompatibility of racial intermixing. For analogy, it’s a bit like a neurobiologist stumbling into claims of phrenology and idly commenting that, indeed, the size of certain brain regions ARE correlated to behavioral traits. Because these people exist, we must be doubly careful in wording.

    For my own part, having been involved in a number of T2DM population association studies, I am convinced that while human heritable diversity is very much a reality, any group on the size of continents is going to be highly heterotypic. Any group that relies on self-reporting of ancestry is also highly unreliable. Look at how haplotypes (which we know really are heritable markers) distribute along race lines.

    Human diversity is dominated by continuous clines, not homotypic continental groups. As you point out, we can find markers that place a grandparent at a specific village in a specific country. Aggregating this level of diversity into categories isn’t based on a proper taxonomic structure… it’s a Victorian essentialist concept. “Black”, to most people, includes African, Australian and Carribean groups of quite ancient divergence. “East Asian” includes groups that are likewise very diverse as a “group of groups”.

    If there were to be proper homotypic human races, I think you would a K of at least 60, if not 200 or more. If “Italian-speaking Swiss” and “Urdu-speaking Eastern Iranian” is the kind of race we are speaking of, sign me up.

  15. B&B
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Wade’s claims seem speculative as do many on the HBD blogs – especially regarding IQ, a subject Wade is reluctant to touch. And on Twitter anonymous HBD people are arguing against people like Kevin Mitchell who are stating there is at present little evidence to support the identification of specific genes with cross-cultural differences in behaviour.

    Which is not at all the same as denying they are possible or probable. Skepticism is not denial, but requesting evidence, and the failure of some HBD people (as well as their more biased critics) to grasp this is revealing.

    Nonetheless consider this claim carefully – ‘the fundamental equalities of all groups and all sexes don’t depend on the results of such analyses.’

    The justifications for axioms can in theory be refuted, and if so, claims like the one above would be claiming a special exception from normal fact-checking. (The persistence of certain religiosly motivated claims, would be a very good analogy.)

    Sentences like that will never really wash with many concerned people, because its transparently an attempt to calm understandable fears about the implications of real possibilities. Though morals are not themselves facts, all honest conclusions (including moral ones) are ultimately drawn from perceived truths. Yet still all objective truths will remain true whether people wish them to be factual or not.

    Theres a reason why the subjects touched upon by HBD bloggers are so taboo. Some questions raise the possibility that passionately held moral convictions – which are truth-apt statements – are irrational.

    • jacoxnet
      Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      It strikes me that the comment about the “fundamental equalities of all groups and all sexes” is a moral and ethical assertion not subject to empirical justification.

      Much of what I’ve read of the so-called HBD crowd is just old-fashioned, so-called, “scientific racism.”

      • B&B
        Posted May 15, 2014 at 7:48 am | Permalink

        The assertion like every moral inference is nonetheless a truth-apt statement, and all such truth-apt statements need a ‘justification’.

        Much as religiously motivated truth-apt statements are subject to a reality check. All requests for special exceptions are appeals for inconsistency.

  16. Posted May 14, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    One book (well, blog post) that seems to explain the differences in societies just as well, also using biology, is a post called the germ theory of democracy.

    The overall thesis seems to be that warmer climates produce more virulent diseases and thus will make people more collectivist (and from that, more conservative). Colder climates have fewer virulent diseases and will correlate with more liberal societies.

  17. Posted May 14, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink


  18. Matt G
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Did Wade get canned at the New York Times recently? Does it have anything to do with this book?

  19. Posted May 14, 2014 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    As always I am late to these discussions – time zone and all that.

    Have not read the book and doubt I will, but I have a questions that somebody here can perhaps help me answer. If I understand it correctly, Wade and other race realism people such as occamsrazormag argue (a) race is a real, important and predictive category and (b) behavior can fundamentally change through selection over as little as 500 years even across a population of millions of people with very different working and living conditions.

    Now forget for a moment about the plausibility of (b) by itself, but don’t these two points directly contradict each other?

    If evolution happens at such high speed, isn’t then the “racial difference” between, say, Caucasians and western Africans unlikely to be predictive of anything whatsoever? Would we then not expect very local adaptation, perhaps even genetic differences between classes of the same society, to be much stronger than race differences? More importantly, wouldn’t it mean that racism – the feeling of being superior to people with slightly different skin pigmentation or facial features – is pretty pointless because in only 500 years of superfast evolution the superiority could be the other way around?

    Note again that as a biologist, I consider (b) to be ludicrous anyway. Sure there is some local adaptation – the tolerance of low oxygen levels by Quechua and Aymara living at 4000 m.a.s.l. comes to mind – but their ancestors have lived there for thousands of years.

    • Posted May 16, 2014 at 5:58 am | Permalink

      No, that two statements are not contradicting each other. Given that populations X and Y differ in, say, average IQ, you could do some predictions (with various accuracy) about GDP, crime level etc. However the accuracy of your predictions would be lowered the further you are from the “now” point.

      Strange that people on this blog tend to repeat the exact things I read earlier on HBD blogs, and then they claim that they are correct, while HBDers are wrong (while stating things differing only in verbiage).

      • Posted May 16, 2014 at 7:38 am | Permalink

        What I fail to understand is what this would have to do with race if human evolution went so rapidly. As I wrote, if significant things are supposed to be happening within 500 years then there is no reason why differences between Danes and Swiss should not vastly exceed differences between Danes and Nigerians, for example.

        But well, it is all merely hypothetical anyway because the evidence for these assumptions just isn’t there.

        • Posted May 17, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

          Well, in theory I guess you could have more differences between Swedes and Danes quickly produced through some very rapid process (within 500 years) than between Swedes and Nigerians. But the rate of intermarriage between Swedes and Danes is higher historically than between Swedes and NIgerians, they live in similar cultural and geographical environment etc, so it’s more likely for Swedes and Danes be more similar, right? 🙂

          Yes, it’s all hypothetical. But why not make some hypothesis and then try to falsify them? Maybe we could learn something in the process.

  20. northanger
    Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Regulus in Virgo.

  21. Posted May 14, 2014 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Anthropology Now and commented:
    I read Nicholas Wade’s “Before the Dawn” and enjoyed parts of it. Unfortunately, his chapter on race contained surprising misconceptions about what “race” is and isn’t. It seems that he has expanded that discussion (along with its flaws) into a full-length book. I look forward to seeing further rebuttals to Wade’s conclusions.

  22. Posted May 16, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    As fare as I am concerned, and as I have always said, there is only one race, The Human Race, and it comes in a vast palette of skin tones.

  23. Posted May 16, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Here’s an interesting comment I saw:

    “I was reading some of the reviews for Wade’s previous book “Before the Dawn”, which he wrote in 2006. Interestingly, the reviews he got for his book in 2006 were not unlike his reviews for “A Troublesome Inheritance.” They all followed the pattern of “I liked the first part but am disgusted with the second part of his book.” Telling of how far HBD has come since 2006, the second section of before the dawn was about the reality of race, and everyone hated it back then. Fast forward to 2014 and everyone loves Wade’s first section on the reality of race but detests his second section on race’s role in the rise and fall of nations. By the time Wade writes his next book, critics will love his first section on race’s role in the rise and fall of nations but hate his second section on, perhaps, immigration restriction.”

  24. Loren
    Posted May 21, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    Since there’s discussion of the debate between social constructionists and race realists, I’d like to point out that this isn’t just an intellectual debate. Racism kills just as surely as a deadly virus. So when anti racist students of politics and history claim that race is a social construction, that isn’t so much “sloppy thinking of the soft sciences” as it is “concerned people desperate to stop centuries of murder, rape, and slavery”.

    If you’re mad that their need to change the world has produced disrespect for a particular biological reality, you need to get mad at the people who created such a dangerous and exploitative world. Once people’s lives and safety aren’t dependent to any degree on their race as socially understood, it will be much easier to teach everyone about the genetics of race.

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] – New book on race by Nicholas Wade: Professor Ceiling Cat says paws down from jerry coyne. – “Wade’s discussion of genetically differentiated subgroups, […]

  2. […] “I have read this book…it’s pretty awful.” Jerry Coyne reviews Wade’s thing on race. […]

  3. […] good example of this tendency is evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne who agrees with Wade that races do exist and claims that “except for politically motivated […]

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