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Book Review: A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
(Nicholas Wade)

Whether this book is good or bad depends largely on what you expect it to be. If you expect it to be a cautious attempt to open up to discussion the subject of the existence of distinct races and genetic racial differences, and how those might affect social structures and institutions, you will think it is good. If you expect it to be a definitive proof of one interpretation or another of those same matters, you will think it is bad, for it is nothing of the sort. And, of course, if you are stuck in the old politically dictated paradigm that all differences among humans are purely random or cultural, and that “race is a social construct,” you will think it is mad, bad and dangerous to know.

I think the book is pretty good, but has some gaps beyond those numerous gaps freely admitted by the author, and has at least one glaring and repeated contradiction in its analysis that tends to undercut much of its basic premise. I’ll get to that. But it is in essence a very well-written book with modest claims that would, if most people’s minds were not already closed, open up substantial areas of important and interesting discussion.

(As a side note, this book has many one-star reviews. The vast majority of those show little evidence of having read the book, and many of them use the rhetorical fallacy of appeal to authority: “I am a molecular biologist and I didn’t like this book!” The book attracts reviews from lots of people who prefer to wish away evidence that doesn’t cohere with their existing political views. Amazon does, however, have an extended one-star review by Brad Foley, which is very much worth reading, along with its very interactive comments thread, for a negative take on Wade’s book.)

Wade’s book is, in many ways, an attempt to extend and amplify the basic premise of Greg Clark’s A Farewell To Alms, to which Wade repeatedly refers. In short, Clark attempted to demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution began in England and not elsewhere because of basic changes in the English population itself—a change in the population’s behavior away from hunter-gatherer characteristics like high time preference (i.e., laziness), violence, unwillingness to save, and so forth, to “modern” characteristics such as thrift, industriousness and saving. Clark thinks (though he hesitates to say so) that this is a genetic change, caused by the rich distributing their genes over centuries throughout the society by having more children than the poor, but he is very tentative. Clark’s main analytical contrast is of England with modern India, where thrift, industriousness, and saving are still not established, so the society is backward.

Wade attempts to not only reinforce Clark’s argument in the case of England but extend globally the same premise, that heritable genetic characteristics strongly influence economic success, by their influence on social institutions, which largely exist in each society in the form they do “because of slight [genetically based] differences in social behavior.” His target here is writers like Jared Diamond, an easy target because of his political denial of any genetic differences among humans, in services of his “guns, germs and steel” theory advanced in the 1990s, and other writers like Steven Pinker, who are not so simplistic but shy away from recognizing the possibility of genetic racial differences.

The first part of the book is an extended expedition into the Social Darwinist and eugenics movements of the late 19th and early 20th Century, which Wade discusses in order to try to insulate himself from the charge of racism, by contrasting his approach to theirs. (He notes without comment that eugenics was pushed exclusively by the liberals and correct-thinking people of the day, such as the Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, and including most notably Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood in order to help eliminate inferior races (though he does not mention her by name)). Wade does a good job both with the history and with distinguishing his non-racist approach, although doubtless those who originally created the “science” of eugenics could have said the same about what they were doing, and stated with equal conviction that they were only interested in the science, not where it would lead. I think there is no doubt that Wade is not a racist, and equally little doubt that Wade’s conclusions, if proven, would lead to an increase in racism (defined as perceiving one race as inferior to another, whether or not factually true).

Wade begins by talking about the divergence of humans from chimpanzees, with emphasis on cooperation and altruism among humans as opposed to chimpanzees. He notes that trust, control of aggression, and the ability to co-exist with fellow creatures beyond the very immediate kin group do not exist in chimpanzees—in other words, that human societies are vastly different than chimpanzee societies (disposing along the way the silly notion of human nature being a blank slate, citing Steven Pinker, who wrote an entire book disproving the silly notion). Wade attributes, uncontroversially I would think, these differences to the genetic differences between humans and chimpanzees. He proceeds to extend that genetic difference analysis to differences among human populations, using examples like the development of lactase tolerance and skin color divergence, to show that human evolution has continued to the present day. Much of this discussion is focused on technical discussion of the handful of known gene/allele effects (e.g., that the reason some races have lighter skin is completely genetically different from the reason other races have lighter skin).

Wade then posits that continued evolution has divided the human species into five genetically distinct races, based essentially on the time of their geographical divergence from each other: African, East Asian, and Caucasian as the main ones; with American Indians and Australian/New Guinean aborigines as smaller races. Naturally, he notes that the margins bleed into each other, and that you could argue for sub-groupings of various types. (He also notes that over time, if this process continued, they would become separate species, which strikes me as a particularly unpopular statement.)

There seems little doubt that distinct races can be identified by a cluster of shared characteristics, and that a set of characteristics define those races, and a set of genes (mostly unknown) defines those characteristics. In fact, though Wade doesn’t mention it since it’s a very recent development, police are now using sketches of suspects created purely from DNA, that show much more than the skin color of the individual; while such sketches are hardly perfect, this would be a silly exercise if you could not tell a great deal about how a person looked from his DNA. Wade extends this to posit that you can tell a great deal about how the average person in that race will, on average, act relative to a person of another race, for example in his thriftiness or aggression, and that those differences, created by adaptation to environment over time, greatly influence social institutions.

Wade traces the source of genetic divergence to the needs of the local populations, largely influenced by local physical characteristics (e.g., whether the land supported a dense population), and the resultant impact on social organization (e.g., the move from tribalism to chiefdoms and cities), which in turn created its own genetic changes. He posits that, for example, genes (or more accurately alleles) for cooperation and trust in strangers had to become more prominent as a society moved toward “modern” organization. In other words—some modern humans, namely those with a more tribal orientation such as commonly found in Africa, are worse genetically adapted for modern life than others, based on their history and how that has affected their genetic makeup. He calls this “incendiary,” which is probably an understatement.

Wade’s most glaring failing, which tends to undercut his entire thesis, is that he can’t seem to decide who “Cacucasians” are, even though the has the most to say about that group. He repeatedly defines the group as including “Europeans, Middle Easterners, and people of the Indian subcontinent”—really, everyone except East Asians and Africans, other than the minor races of American Indians and Pacific aboriginals. But this places him in a difficult position, because the modern economic and social structure of, say, England and India is nothing like each other (and most similarities are due to English colonialism, not racial or social similarity prior to colonialism). So Wade says things like (p. 177) “Consider first Caucasians . . . . Most European countries followed England almost immediately in transitioning to modern economies.” He then proceeds to state that because no Cacausians outside Europe did so, then or later, it was due to the institutions they lived under, which were unstable and did not reward savings and so forth. Fine enough, but by his theory that should make them a separate race over time. And then he gives the counterexample of some Middle Easterners, such as Lebanese, in fact having the desired traits. Wade can’t have it both ways. Given the enormous diversity of social institutions within his “Cauciasan” grouping, and his belief that even so Caucasians are a race because of the time and location of their divergence from other groups, it severely undercuts his thesis. (In fact, Clark, on whom Wade heavily relies, uses Indian subcontinent peoples as a direct counterpoint to the supposedly genetic traits of Europeans, and therefore would, apparently, entirely reject Wade’s characterization of the “Cacucasian race”.)

Wade is at great pains to posit that merely slight differences in the aggregate can have dramatic impacts on social institutions, even though culture that is not driven by genetics can also have impacts. He never quantifies this, or tries to formally parse the two. In fairness, that’s not what he set out to do. He set out to speculate, mostly, about a forbidden topic, and tries to point out avenues for more research. In this, of course, he’ll be disappointed, because no researcher could touch any of these ideas and expect to retain his job or reputation among the right type of people. His ideas are speculative in part because research into them is actively and continuously suppressed. Wade only published this book when he retired, for obvious reasons—he would have been immediately fired by the New York Times for daring to suggest that genetic racial differences might exist.

Bottom line: the book is hardly comprehensive or perfect, but it’s worth reading if you have an open mind and are interested in competing theories, of which there are very many, of how human societies came to be as divergent as they are.

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Published in Book Reviews Charles Ethnography & Race Great Divergence Political Economy Science Social Behavior The Orient


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