Our letter to the New York Times criticizing Nicholas Wade’s book on race

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (already up) features a letter signed by 139 population geneticists, including myself. It is, in essence, a group of scientists objecting en masse to Nicholas Wade’s shoddy treatment of race and evolution in his new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. 

The book was about the genetics of ethnic and cultural differences, and while it made a valid point that ethnic groups do show small but significant genetic differences across the globe, there was no evidence for Wade’s main thesis: that differences in behavior among groups, and in the disparate societies they construct, are based on genetic differences. While that might in principle be true, we simply have no evidence for that conclusion, and it was irresponsible of Wade to suggest that such evidence existed.

I was asked to review Wade’s book for a major magazine, but after reading it became so dispirited that I simply didn’t have the stomach to eviscerate it (pardon the pun). But Allen Orr did a good job in the New York Review of Books; and it was telling that even the Times’s own review, by David Dobbs, was pretty critical. (The Times Book Review is infamous for going easy on books by the paper’s own writers, and Wade has written for the paper for donkey’s years.)

At any rate, I’ve put the letter below (link is here), and the list of 139 signatories is here.  I thank the organizers of this venture—which truly was like herding cats—for compiling a list of almost every population and evolutionary geneticist you can think of, and getting nearly all of them to sign. A statement by such a big and influential group of the very people who work on evolutionary genetics—many in humans, some of whose work was cited by Wade—is surely a severe indictment of Wade’s book and scientific acumen.

The letter:

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 2.08.43 PM

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The five  main signatories given above are those who did the heavy lifting, while the rest of us read the letter, made minor suggestions, and signed it.

I’ve been informed that both Science and Nature have written small features about the letter.  The one in Science is called “Geneticists decry book on race and evolution,” and, like the one in Nature, is free.  Some excerpts:

The letter was spearheaded by five population geneticists who had informally discussed the book at conferences, says co-organizer Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley. “There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.” Molly Przeworski of Columbia University, another organizer, says the group “tried to contact population geneticists whose work had been cited by Wade.” They had no trouble getting signatures, racking up 100 within the first week, she says.

The letter organizers and the editors of the Book Review kept the letter under embargo until its publication today and declined to make it available to Wade for an immediate response. [JAC: he has responded; see below.] But in previous ripostes to the book’s critics, most notably in a 19 June Huffington Post article titled“ Five Critics Say You Shouldn’t Read This ‘Dangerous’ Book,” Wade charged that his critics were “indoctrinated in the social-science creed that prohibits any role for evolution in human affairs” and contended that the book’s central argument “has not been challenged by any serious scientist.”

Letter organizers say they hope to demonstrate that the opposite is true. For example, Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania says she signed the letter because “[m]y own research was used as scientific proof of concepts such as there being between three and five races.” Tishkoff says that her work on the genetics of diverse African populations does not support this claim. Adds David Reich of Harvard University: “Our findings do not even provide a hint of support in favor of Wade’s guesswork.”

Yeah, right! All 139 of us, with diverse views on politics and diverse backgrounds, have been “indoctrinated in the social-science creed that prohibits any role for evolution in human affairs.” What kind of person would say something so fatuous, especially because few of us even have anything to do with the social sciences?

Indeed,  Tishkoff and her team has provided one of the best examples of how evolution played a significant role in human affairs. Populations of humans in Africa that are “pastoral” (i.e., raised sheep and cows for dairy products) evolved the ability to keep digesting the milk sugar lactose after it was normally turned off after childhood in non-pastoral populations. (Early humans didn’t drink milk after weaning, so there was no need to make an expensive enzyme to digest it after you no longer drink it.) Her group even showed that this evolution happened about 8,000-10,000 years ago (it’s described in WEIT), identified the mutations keeping the enzyme turned on, and showed that “turned-on” mutation had a significant selective advantage: allowing up to 10% more offspring than those from people lacking the mutation. (That is a big  evolutionary advantage that can cause rapid change.) This is a splendid example of “gene-culture” coevolution, whereby human cultural practices can affect our genetic constitution.

Ergo, Wade’s claim that we’re all of warped by the social sciences to the point where we’d deny the role of evolution in human affairs is simply a stupid claim. This is the last-ditch defense of a man who has no scientific arguments in favor of his hypothesis: when cornered, just question your critics’ objectivity.

The Science piece also ends with a response issued by Wade, which you can find as a separate pdf file here. I won’t duplicate the whole thing, but you can get a sense of it from its beginning:

This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers. . . I would urge all the geneticists who signed the letter, several of whom I count as friends, to now read my book and judge to what extent, if any, their condemnation was justified.

I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Mr. Wade! Don’t underestimate scientists’ desires to read  popular books about their field, if for no other reason than to see if our work is represented accurately. In my case, I read the damn thing twice to review it—an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat.

The piece in Nature is called “Geneticists say that popular book misrepresents research on human evolution.”  A few excerpts:

. . .  the letter — signed by a who’s who of population genetics and human evolution researchers, and to be published in the 10 August New York Times — represents a rare unified statement from scientists in the field and includes many whose work was cited by Wade. “It’s just a measure of how unified people are in their disdain for what was done with the field,” says Michael Eisen, a geneticist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-drafted the letter.

“Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate explanation of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not,” states the letter, which is a response to a critical review of the book published in the New York Times.

Several signatories explain how Wade misquoted or misrepresented their findings. Here’s just one, from Graham Coop:

For instance, in making the argument that populations outside of Africa experienced more evolutionary adaptations known as ‘selective sweeps’ than Africans did, Wade quotes a 2002 paper by Coop, in which his team wrote: “A plausible explanation is that humans experienced many novel selective pressures as they spread out of Africa into new habitats and cooler climates … Hence there may have been more sustained selective pressure on non-Africans for novel phenotypes.”

But Coop notes that Wade omitted key caveats, including the statement that African populations may have actually experienced more selective sweeps than non-Africans, but which the researchers missed for technical reasons. “While Wade is obviously welcome to choose his quotes and observations, he consistently seems to ignore the caveats and cautions people lay out in their papers when they do not suit his ends,” Coop says.

And Sarah, whose team did the work on lactose tolerance, damns the book in just a few words (I’ve bolded the money quote):

Tishkoff also acknowledges that natural selection has created biological differences that vary with geography. For example, her team discovered mutations that allows some African populations to digest lactose. But she scoffs at the idea, proposed by Wade, that natural selection has shaped cognitive and behavioural differences between populations around the world. “We don’t have any strong candidates for playing a role in behaviour,” she says.

But she and the other letter signers are most riled by what, they feel, is Wade’s contention that his book is an objective account of their research. “He’s claiming to be a spokesperson for the science and, no, he’s not,” she says.

What is the upshot? As far as the science is concerned, all of the signatories, I think, would agree that evolution has indeed played a significant role in human morphology and biochemistry, producing population differences that have adaptive significance. Differences among groups in skin color and lactose tolerance, for instance, are certainly due to natural selection, though for skin color the story is not as clear as it once seemed (some say darker skin evolved to prevent neural tube defects, for instance, rather than UV-induced melanomas). And the marked differences in physical appearance between groups may have resulted from sexual selection, though that’s pure speculation.

What we do know is that most genes don’t show striking frequency differences among groups, and that “races” are delineated by combining information from many genes, each of which shows relatively small differences among populations. (I’ll add once again that there is no unanimity on how many “races” there are, which is really a semantic question. What we know is simply that populations show genetic differences that correlate with their geographic location.) The genetic information we have, however, is sufficient to give us an idea of the evolutionary history of humans: when they left Africa, when they colonized the New World, where (in some cases) a European can find her ancestors. It’s these genetic differences that, combined, are used by firms like 23andMe to tell you about your ancestry.

But what is even more speculative is Wade’s thesis that behavioral differences between groups, and thus the societies they construct, are based on genetic differences produced by natural selection. Perhaps that is true, but we don’t have a scintilla of evidence for it right now. And we know that those societal and cultural differences can change quite rapidly—much faster than can be explained by natural selection. Perhaps we’ve experienced genetic evolution producing inter-group differences in behavior, but we’ve surely had tons of nongenetic cultural evolution. (Take a look at the penchant for “Hello Kitty” in Japan. That is not based on genes.) For Wade to write a whole book resting on this speculative house of cards—the idea that genes and natural selection are everything in explaining culture—is simply bad popular science.

Wade is fighting back with the only tool he has—ad hominem arguments. But it won’t work, for we simply don’t have the data supporting his thesis.He’ll look very foolish if he, a journalist, continues to claim that he is representing the data correctly, while 139 population geneticists are all wrong. It is Wade’s lack of supporting data that got all of us heated up enough to go public with our criticisms.

Wade should be deeply embarrassed, but, as we know, people are loath to admit that they’re wrong—or that they’ve simply made stuff up to support their pet theory. In his recalcitrance and his propensity for making up stories, Wade resembles a theologian more than a science journalist.

 

h/t: Graham and Molly for keeping me updated.

 

 

72 Comments

  1. George
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I assume that there could have been many more signatories but the writers thought 139 was enough.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 12, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      Two too many, really.

  2. Gordon Hill
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    I love it when scientists get in a scrum… Although not a scientist, I quit using the term after reading Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race by Ashley Montagu some fifty years ago.

    Question: How valid is race, as a valid identifier, within our species?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      “How valid is race…?” I am personally not sure, but I am suspicious of those who claim there are no races while all can plainly see there are some phenotypic differences.

      • Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        How many colours are there in a rainbow?

        /@

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:21 am | Permalink

          +1

        • Posted August 30, 2014 at 10:33 am | Permalink

          Yes many colors, indeed. But each particular “range” (yellow, blue, red) elicits different responses in different eyes/animals. All psychological studies on the effect of different colors on human mind, on animal behaviour, etc. would be just garbage. If they have different effects, you MUST conclude that they have practical value in the real life to predict things. They are REAL.
          This rainbow metaphor is just another fallacy among the many used by nurturists.

      • AdamK
        Posted August 9, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

        How does the presence of phenotypic differences support a hypothesis that there is such a thing as “race”?

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted August 12, 2014 at 5:44 am | Permalink

          ‘Race’ is another way of saying ‘superficially obvious geographic variation’. It does not imply the existence of discrete, countable entities called ‘races’.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 12, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

            “‘Race’ is another way of saying ‘superficially obvious geographic variation’.”

            Exactly, and such variance can be helpful to describe in itself. Say you’re constructing a plant key, but the race(s) of a species in New England look noticeably different from those on the Piedmont–you need to include that information. It can also lead to interesting questions as to why.

            I expect we’ll have to start limiting to term to non-human spp, though.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted August 9, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        I guess my question could be restated as to whether different phenotypes can be classified objectively into distinct groups.

        Some botanists have identified certain indigenous varieties of a species, maize comes to mind, into categories of race, noting that it takes many generations without cross pollination to establish a distinct race. Since each maize generations last one year and maize is relatively immobile, the races become distinct quickly whereas humans move about, cross pollinating, complicating the development of specific races today, as opposed to a few millenia ago.

        Not making an assertion, just asking the question as an interested spectator.

  3. Shane
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    It’s so interesting that “key caveats” are so important now. That never seems to be the case with, say, climate science work. It’s also interesting to compare this response to a science writers work (extrapolation from the literature on genetics and race) to English major Chris Mooney’s fantasization of social psychology.
    Very illuminating. Thank you!

    • Ricardo Toledano
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

      Well, I’m not sure how it works with population genetics but in all the in Mechanical Engineering conferences I went people are very quick to point what is the limitations of their methods, what can be done around these limitation (or even if something can be done) and when asked the majority of authors would answer you where to go from what they worked.

      Of course CFD, although I work with code in a private company and not in academia, is not really discussed in the shallowness climate science has been in the past years, I’m sure that if you study the field thoroughly and go asking people about the limitations of their model they’ll answer you. After I also deal with the Navier-Stokes equations they probably use in many of their models.

  4. Christine
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

    “What is the upshot? As far as the science is concerned, all of the signatories, I think, would agree that evolution has indeed played not a significant role in human morphology and biochermistry,”
    Shouldn’t that be ‘has indeed played a significant role in morphology and biochemistry’ or have I missunderstood something.

  5. Raymond Freeman-Lynd
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Also in that section – biochemistry, not biochermistry.

  6. Matt G
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    When the very people whose work you cite tell you that you have misrepresented their findings, you are in deep trouble. It makes it look like you think you understand their work better than they do. If that isn’t egnorance, I don’t know what is. You’re in a hole, Wade – stop digging.

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      This has to be the worst thing to happen to someone’s professional work! If I were the author, I’d be so embarrassed that I’d want never to leave my house again! I like to think something like this wouldn’t happen to me because of my great internal shame! I really do feel bad for the guy – he’s hiding his embarrassment in ad hominems

    • Stogumber
      Posted August 12, 2014 at 3:26 am | Permalink

      Matt G,

      That’s an error. You will often find in science that a scientist doesn’t see the (necessary or possible) implications of his findings, and that later scientists will see this better.
      Take for example empiricl astronomer Tycho Brahe, who sincerely believed that his data fitted into the frame of Ptolemaean astronomy – whereas Kepler detected that those data gave an empirical proof (and correction) to the speculations of Copernicus.

      As the geneticists here, Brahe had no particular proof in favor of the conventional (Ptolemaean) theory, he simply wanted to conform to his community. But no later scientist – nor a publicist like Wade – is obliged to respect the social sensitivities of the authors he quotes, not even to their conformism.

      • Matt G
        Posted August 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

        Is today Apples to Oranges day and nobody told me? The example of Brahe is not only an anecdote, it is inapplicable to this discussion. In Brahe’s case, he misinterpreted his data, biased as he was by his desire to see his data fit a particular model. In the case of Wade, a large number of independent scientists are accusing Wade, a non-scientist, of misrepresenting their data and grossly overinterpreting the available data to fit his thesis. They are not saying his thesis is wrong, but that it is not supported by the evidence currently available. Brahe made an honest mistake; Wade – at best – has been blinkered by some ideology, and at worst, behaved unethically by misrepresenting others. Ironically, the example you give undermines the point you want to make. You suggest the 139 scientists are the conformists, and not Wade. Why? You suggest the 139 scientists are mistaken about their own work, and not the non-scientist Wade about his own work. Why?

  7. Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Wade’s dismissive comments invoking social science were made prior to the release of this current letter and refer to five criticisms published on the Huffington Post prior to June 19th.

    His current response is even more feeble: you couldn’t really mean it because you probably didn’t read it.

    Wade has to squarely face his critics or become a pariah to scientists. It would be hard to be a science journalist after that.

    Eh, who am I kidding? He’s not going to engage constructively.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps next he will say: ‘oh, I must have touched a nerve!’

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      He’s taking it personally. It’s almost like saying, “the only reason people signed that letter is because they don’t like me”. I’d imagine that it must’ve been difficult for his friends to sign it (as he says some of the signatories were his friends).

  8. Keith
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Wade’s reaction to critiques of his thesis are consistent with what Carol Tavris described in the video of her recent TAM talk, and in her excellent book “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Wade cannot seem to get out of the trench he continues to excavate. There really is something fascinating (disturbing?) about human psychology that prevents us from owning our errors. Institutionalized, this quirk likely explains denialist movements across all sorts of ideologies.

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Your brain gives you chemical punishments when something doesn’t jive with your ideas. Plus, you would feel embarrassed & if more dysfunctional, ashamed. It’s probably much more pleasing to go with excuses that shield you from all that stuff.

  9. Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on CancerEvo and commented:
    On why you should be an expert in a topic on which you want to write a book about.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Or at least have the people who know what they’re talking about on your side. Could this be the beginning of the end of Wade’s science writing career? Maybe the Discovery Institute (or some other right wing “think” tank) has a position available for him.

      • Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Matt, you would think that they would share a draft with a scientist friend or two to avoid this.

  10. michaelfugate
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Isn’t this always the case:
    1) Claim the critics haven’t read my book, paper, essay, etc.
    2) Oh they read it? Then claim they misunderstand my book, paper, essay, etc.
    3) Oh they demonstrate understanding? Then claim worldview or political differences, revenge, etc.
    4) Never admit you don’t know what you are talking about and are projecting your faults on your critics….

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      The evolution of tap-dancing.

      • Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Nice.

        (Would you believe I’ve never seen that video?)

  11. Posted August 9, 2014 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    I met Graham Coop recently when he came to Oxford, I got to talk to him about my research and he gave me some excellent feedback and ideas.

    Date: Sat, 9 Aug 2014 15:34:31 +0000 To: t_aid@hotmail.com

  12. Les
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    What I love about Jerry and this site:
    he is fair and points out what previous journalism Wade has done well and fairly puts a work in perspective, even while pointing out its fatal flaws.

  13. Evan Plommer
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Can someone explain to me the difference between Steven Pinker’s claim of innate differences between individuals and what Wade asserts about races?

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

      The clue’s in difference between the words ‘individual’ and ‘race’

      There’s a world of difference in stating some individuals are born with perfect pitch and claiming all black people have rhythm.

      Unless you are a twin or an Imperial Stormtrooper you are innately different from other people.

      • Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

        “We’re all individuals!”

        /@

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:27 am | Permalink

          “I’m not!”

          Sorry, I lack the free will to stop myself from saying that.

          • Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:38 am | Permalink

            It is compelling, even though that’s actually the response to, “Yes, we *are* all different!”

            /@

            • HaggisForBrains
              Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:44 am | Permalink

              Pedant!

      • thh1859
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        But there’s also a world of difference between claiming that ‘all black people have rhythm’ and ‘on average, black people have better rhythm than white people’.

        • Sue
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

          @thh1859: Sure you can claim that “on average, black people have better rhythm than white people”. You can claim the moon is made of green cheese. You can claim whatever you want.

          But if you want anybody to accept your claim as fact you had better be able to substantiate it with properly designed, rigorously conducted, reproducible studies.

          Otherwise it’s your opinion, not science.

          • thh1859
            Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:12 am | Permalink

            Of course.

          • Posted August 30, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

            Sue, look at this:
            http://www.targetmap.com/viewer.aspx?reportId=3073

            Why should the concept of average be limited to physical traits? Why would evolution or some kind of intelligent/equalitarian design decide to protect any cognitive trait from variance, from the law of averages? More than 50% of genes are expressed in the brain.
            That’s a lot of stuff to play with after humans left Africa some 100 000 years ago.

    • Klasse
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Considering that there are innate differences between individuals, and there are genetic differences between populations, wouldn’t it be surprising if they are no innate average differences between populations? The question would be how large the average differences are.

      To my understanding, that’s not the reason why Wade has been critized. Instead it seems it was due to he cherry-picked facts to make his theory – that innate population differences impacted historical events – seem more grounded.

      • Sue
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

        Of course there are significant genetic variations among human individuals.

        But in thinking it would be “surprising” if there weren’t similarly significant genetic differences between populations, you’re making an unfounded assumption.

        • thh1859
          Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:15 am | Permalink

          Science lives on people making “unfounded assumptions” but which sound plausible and then testing them.

  14. Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I wonder if anybody more legitimate is doing research into genetics and corresponding societal differences. I would think it would be incredibly difficult to remove socio-economic factors in any analysis. For instance, the propensity toward religion in poorer populations suggests that belief (in what one’s parents and elders espouse) is economically more valuable in situations of scarcity. Rather than saying there is a ‘religious gene’, I would think that there is the greater likelihood that such a genetic predisposition is more likely to be expressed in certain situations.

    I’m not saying that ‘there are no atheists in foxholes’, a commonly held (and pretty silly) notion, but rather that in societies where there is a great deal depending on the individual’s adherence to the dogma of the group, certain individuals do better by going along to get along.

    Perhaps the survival value in being religious (or perhaps more accurately, compliant) becomes less relevant the more prosperous a society becomes. Are there counter examples?

    Not taking a point of view either way here. Just musing as to some of the issues this sort of inquiry might bring up.

    • Sue
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

      “the propensity toward religion in poorer populations”

      To start with – Are you sure this propensity really exists? I mean, yeah, some of us are pretty sure it does… but are you really sure? Scientifically sure?

      I’m making a point about examining one’s assumptions, not about religion and poverty…

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 9:40 am | Permalink

        At least in the Canadian context, and ~20 years ago, it was true. There’s a book _Unknown Gods_ which discusses the findings – by sociologists. Dunno if it is updated; should be, of course.

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        Yes, that’s why I was requesting any counter-examples. Are there instances where an impoverished population does not embrace some sort of religion? The only examples I can come up with is the Soviet Union and Cuba, but one could argue that The State was the replacement for a deity in these cases and these situations were artificially imposed by totalitarian regimes.

        I suppose this also applies to some other unpleasant historical periods, like Germany during WWII. Or am I falling prey to the arguments (and examples) so frequently made against atheists? “Hitler was an atheist, Stalin was an atheist, so atheists are _bad_ people.” Yeah, right.

        By the way, I think the book that Keith is referring to is Reginald Wayne Bibby, who, according to Wikipedia is, ” a Canadian sociologist. He holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the Department of Sociology at the University of Lethbridge.”

        According to the description in Amazon.ca:

        “Following on Bibby’s ground breaking book, Fragmented Gods (1987), Unknown Gods continues to chart the problems of organized religion. It paints a fairly bleak picture of what will happen to the country’s churches by approximately 2015. At the same time, the book gives considerable attention to developments in the culture, maintaining that pervasive interest in mystery and meaning, along with religious memory, provides religious groups with a great opportunity to connect with Canadians. A market model is used to suggest why the churches are failing, and what might be done.”

        It looks like Bibby is more concerned with the drop in church attendance in Canada. I’d say that Canada, being a relatively prosperous and well educated country, has the luxury of not having to have religion, but then again, I’m indulging in those same assumptions.

        • Posted August 12, 2014 at 9:16 am | Permalink

          Thanks for doing the lookup – that’s correct. And I’d love to know (scientifically) if his prediction was correct. He predicted a rough three way split amongst the young: (1) fundamentalists (2) new agers (3) non-religious.

          What’s missing? The moderate traditional religious (United, Anglican, etc.).

  15. Diane G.
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    What a wonderfully lucid, forthright, and succinct letter–esp. for one written “by committee!”

    As an aside, reading through the list of signatories and noting the derivations of their names really speaks to the universality and ethno/gender-blindness of science as a human endeavor.

  16. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Learning about how Wade has erroneously stated what the scientists are saying, and about the response of the same scientists, reminds one of this famous scene from Annie Hall.

    • Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      Yes! Have always loved that scene and indeed, wished life were like that. In this case, it is.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted August 12, 2014 at 5:49 am | Permalink

      139 Marshall McLuhans step out from behind a pillar…

  17. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    people are loath to admit that they’re wrong—or that they’ve simply made stuff up to support their pet theory.

    It is a book – his sunk cost would be about a year, I suppose – and his latest one setting him up for the next. He will likely huff and puff until the book sales drop.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 9, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      And of course controversy – like sex – sells.

  18. Iuri
    Posted August 9, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Of course the list of geneticists who signed the letter is very extense and respectable. Nevertheless, isn’t Dick Lewontin’s name a sad omission? He has intensely debated those issues during his carrer. Do you know if he was contacted, Jerry?

    • Paul
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      I think they contacted only active researchers and professors. Hopefully, they did not want to bother the esteemed founders of the discipline such as Lewontin or Cavalli-Sforza (to cite only these two). They already did more than enough about these debates in times much more challenging concerning race and racism.
      It would be worth asking the authors though.

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 6:42 am | Permalink

        I have no idea; I’m just a signatory. I suspect they contacted people who are still active in the field; Lewontin, for instance, has been retired for a very long time.

  19. Klasse
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    “For Wade to write a whole book resting on this speculative house of cards—the idea that genes and natural selection are everything in explaining culture”

    I haven’t read the book, but did he really do this? I would be very surprised if not chance and history are important drivers.

    • Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      I’ll walk that back a bit–he didn’t say they are everything, but he claimed that genetic differences are IN THE MAIN responsible for differences in behavior and societal structure among cultures. I’m sure (it’s been a while since I’ve read the book) that he will admit nongenetic cultural evolution, but his thesis is that the main differences we see among cultures are based on genetic differences. To effect this, he posits a Wilsonian “multiplier effect,” whereby sall genetic changes can somehow ramify into big changes in behavior and social structure. Of course, he provides no mechanism for this, but simply conjures it out of thin air. But yes, the thesis he wants to make is about the hegemony of genes which has been ignored by all of those liberal do-gooder “blank slate” types.

      • Klasse
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        Okay, thank you for the clarification.

      • Chuck
        Posted August 18, 2014 at 5:25 am | Permalink

        I take it that you couldn’t find the quote. Try, for example:

        “To assert that evolution has played some role in human history does not mean that that role is necessarily prominent, let alone decisive. Culture is a mighty force, and people are not slaves to innate propensities, which in any case only prompt the mind in a certain direction. But if all individuals in a society have similar propensities, however slight, toward greater or less social trust, say, or greater or lesser conformity, then the society will tend to act in that direction and to differ from societies that lack such propensities.”

        But perhaps I missed the passage which you were referring to.

      • Posted August 19, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

        But I’d say this thesis is reasonable. Imagine a society in which introverts are 55%, and society in where they are 45%. This is small difference, but the first kind of scoiety will most likely produce culture friendlier to introverts, which then will change to environment in which people grow, so they may become forced to be more introvert than they would behave in other environment; this in turn produces even mor eintrovert-friendly culture and so on.

        This is NOT the thesis that differences are based on genes, at least I have not understood Wade’s book that way.

        Frankly, as Chuck already answered below, I think your anti-racist detector was set on too high sensitivity.

  20. Sue
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book so I cannot comment on it directly. I suppose I ought to read it. I’m not a professional scientist but I’m able to detect weak reasoning which may be serving a non-scientific agenda. That type of critique is something any educated skeptical reader could do.

    On the other hand I don’t know if I have the stomach for it… *sigh*

  21. Matt C
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    Race exists. You can order a simple DNA test for $80 which will easily determine your exact ancestry. Race also matters for bone marrow – try telling a doctor that you refuse a race-matched bone marrow transplant because “that’s racist” and watch how quickly you die. Race affects skin colour, hair form, alcohol metabolism, and lactose tolerance, as well as a host of other traits such as brain size, testosterone levels, and bone density.

    Is everyone here saying that somehow our brains did not evolve at all after 50,000 years of divergent biological evolution?

    It’s amazing to me that over a decade after Lewontin’s taxonomy work has been deemed a fallacy that people still claim that race doesn’t exist. Naturally, it is more difficult to prove that average racial characteristics result in the development of different societies but the fact that there have been precisely zero sub-Saharan African societies in human civilization on par with Eurasian or Middle Eastern societies should be proof enough.

    What proof does anyone here have that sub-Saharan African peoples can produce functional first world societies? Please present such evidence.

    Either race – race is real, race is genetic, and for $80 you can determine your race by a simple DNA test. More evidence will come out in the years to come, so you had best be prepared to deal with that.

    • Peter
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Where did you learn that? James Watson’s books, perhaps?

      • Posted August 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

        Peter: Why don’t you try to answer to Matt C arguments. Your only “argument” is a reference to James Watson. So, I will do the same: you are wrong because you have been reading Lewontin, Stephen Gould, Margaret Mead.
        Congratulations for rising so much the scientific level of this debate.

  22. Bosse
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Why hasn’t H. Allen Orr signed the letter?

  23. Posted August 18, 2014 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Well, but isn’t Wade’s claim that critics have not bothered to read the book substantiated by the fact, that the signed letter claims that Wade think IQ differences between populations result from genetical differences, while Wade’s in his book wrote words amounting to the exact opposite? I mean, if Wade wrote “IQ differences are likely not due to genes” and you condemn him for writing “IQ difference are likely due to genes”, I guess he has right to suspect you read something else from his book.

    At the same time, as I understand, there are two speculative hypothesis now:
    1) That there are no behavioural differences due to gene between populations, which means in fact that environments either had exactly the same pressures on human behaviours, or there was not enough time for selection to act, or selections were contradicting each other

    2) There are small differences in behaviour due to genes.

    There is no proof for any of those speculation, but I think 2) is more plausible, while 1) is unlikely. Why you think the opposite? My reasoning is that 1) can exist simply due to chance, that separate population can develop differences in frequency of ome genes, which then contribute to small differences in means even when environments were exactly the same. After all, we are not speaking about some fundamental differences in psychology, but about small statisticall differences, which according to Wade are only then enlarged by culture in sort of feedback loop.

    After all, directed selection by human can completely change psychology of animal breed within something like 20-50 generations (substantial changes already were visible by 20th population). That means something like 500-1000 years for humans; Why then it’s not likely that small differences in environments could not create small changes psychology within a period of 2000-3000 years?


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Dr. Jerry Coyne, a signer of the letter, has posted the letter and much more background and context on his website here. […]

  2. […] basis. At least one signatory, Jerry Coyne (author of the excellent Why Evolution Is True) says of Wade’s book, “I read the damn thing twice to review it—an experience I wouldn’t want to […]

  3. […] Our letter to the New York Times criticizing Nicholas Wade’s book on race […]

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