Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, Penguin Press, 2014, 266 pp., $27.95.
“Human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” With these heroic words, New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade opens fire on two of the obligatory myths of our time: that there is no such thing as race, and that human evolution stopped in the Stone Age.
It is gratifying to see someone firmly planted in the mainstream poke the regime in the eye, and the regime’s reaction will be a diverting spectacle. Bravo Mr. Wade, and we wish him a thick skin—though we wish he had not been quite so circumspect on certain matters.
Race is real
Mr. Wade notes that the early peddlers of race-is-a-myth, such as Ashley Montagu (the stylish name British-born Israel Ehrenberg chose for himself), were clearly trying to distort science for political purposes, and that more recent peddlers, such as Jared Diamond and Steven Jay Gould have done the same thing.
The physical differences we see in human groups reflect separate evolutionary paths that led to unmistakably biological differences. Hunter-gatherers left Africa about 50,000 years ago, and once they wandered into all of earth’s habitable spaces, they stayed put and bred with their neighbors. DNA testing shows there was essentially no crossing until the modern era. For tens of thousands of years, independently breeding populations developed distinct genetic patterns.
Mr. Wade explains that the physical traits of populations are dramatically and consistently different even though there are very few alleles, or gene variants, that occur exclusively in only one group. This is because most traits are influenced by many genes. Norwegians, for example, need have only a preponderance of Norwegian-style alleles in their genes in order to give birth exclusively to Norwegians—and never to Malays or Pakistanis. As Mr. Wade puts it, “The fact that genes work in combination explains how there can be so much variation in the human population and yet so few fixed differences between populations.”
Mr. Wade also spends a few pages batting down some of the other side’s silly arguments. He patiently explains that, yes, there are mixed-race people but they do not disprove race. There can be mixed-race people only because there are races. He also explains that disagreement about the number of races does not disprove their existence either. Different people just draw lines at different places.
Most importantly, Mr. Wade points out that “brain genes do not lie in some special category exempt from natural selection. They are as much under evolutionary pressure as any other category of gene.” And since human evolution is “recent and copious,” the brains of different populations function differently. This is the book’s main heresy: After the races separated, they evolved different mental patterns that gave rise to different social patterns.
Social behavior evolved
The idea that human races have been evolving right up until the present is not new. The 10,000 Year Explosion, written in 2009 by Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, is the best introduction to this subject, and explains why evolution has been roaring along 100 times faster during that last several thousand years than it did during the Stone Age.
Mr. Wade goes over some of the same ground, pointing out how dramatic a change it was for our ancestors to switch from nomadic hunting to settled agriculture. For the first time, something more than bare subsistence became possible. This led to trade, wealth and poverty, government, taxes, con men, priests, etc.—an evolutionary environment completely different from the African savannah. As Mr. Wade notes, new circumstances produced new people:
As soon as the mode of subsistence changes, a society will develop new institutions to exploit its environment more effectively. The individuals whose social behavior is better attuned to such institutions will prosper and leave more children.
Some old habits were no longer useful. Farmers had to think ahead and save seed corn, whereas hunters immediately gorged themselves on kills that would rot in a few days. Smash-and-grab made sense for fast-moving nomads but not for city-dwellers who had to live with neighbors. As a rule, the longer a population has been farmers, the more the hunter has been bred out of it. The last 10,000 years has therefore seen the domestication of what had been the equivalent of a wild animal.
Not all groups are equally domesticated. Tribes that have been nomads into modern times do not adapt well to settled life. The Kalahari Bushmen think of animals only as game, not as livestock, so if someone gives them goats to tend, they eat them. Australian aborigines have not adapted well, either.
The Yanomano of the Amazon are notoriously violent, not just against outsiders but among themselves. According to one anthropologist, Yanomamo men who have killed someone in battle have 2.5 more children than those who have not. The means the Yamomano are evolving towards more violence, not less.
Mr. Wade emphasizes that behavior of this kind is influenced by genes, although only a few alleles that affect social behavior have been found. One is MAO-A, the “warrior gene,” variants of which are clearly associated with a hair-trigger temper and violence. Maoris, for example, are warlike and crime prone—and they have a high incidence of this variant.
This, in fact, is Mr. Wade’s boldest assertion: that different races behave differently because they are genetically different and genetic differences give rise to differences in social institutions. He is at pains to argue that the genetic differences are small—so small that they are almost undetectable at the individual level—but that once a group has been nudged even slightly in a particular genetic direction it may be receptive to institutions that completely change the nature of society.
Mr. Wade cites one study that estimates fully 14 percent of the human genome has been under evolutionary pressure since the races separated, and that substantial differences are therefore inevitable. DNA studies show that Tibetans split off from Han Chinese only 3,000 years ago, so it must be only since then that Sherpas evolved their ability to function so well at high altitudes. Indeed, there are more than 30 lung- and circulation-related gene variants that are more common in Tibetans than in Chinese. Mr. Wade also notes that American blacks may already be less likely than Africans to have sickle cell anemia—because they live on a continent without malaria where there are no benefits to sickle cell alleles. Evolution is constant.
Mr. Wade makes the crucial point that what is known as “national character” is undoubtedly genetic, and that is why group behavior is consistent. Jews prosper everywhere they go. So do overseas Chinese. If the Malays and Indonesians envy the success of their Chinese minorities, why don’t they just copy their good habits? Mr. Wade argues that they can’t; they don’t have the genetic predisposition to act Chinese.
Africans likewise cannot maintain government institutions. Their colonial masters wrote nifty constitutions for them, showed them how elections work, and explained the importance of an independent judiciary. That all ended up in the ditch once Africans took over.
Mr. Wade repeatedly emphasizes the importance of public trust—the ability to deal fairly with people who are not kin or fellow tribesmen. If a race has not evolved this level of trust it will not get beyond tribalism. That is why Americans can’t get Iraqis or Afghans to behave like good democrats no matter how many of them we shoot. Middle Easterners don’t have the genetic capacity for republican government, so it is just as crazy to try to force our ways on them as it would be to try to turn Americans into tribalistic, cousin-marrying Afghans.
One of Mr. Wade’s lesser breaches of good manners is to note that Europe made crucial breakthroughs in civilization that many groups have yet to adopt: “Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy.”
Academics have long chased their tails trying to explain why some countries are rich and others poor. Mr. Wade points out that their fatal blunder is to assume that all populations are interchangeable. He uses findings by the economic historian Gregory Clark to suggest that in Britain, where records go back far enough to make such studies possible, there was steady evolution towards the qualities crucial to the Industrial Revolution.
According to Professor Clark, who teaches at UC Davis, from 1200 to 1800, the British became less violent, more literate, more inclined to save, and more reliable workers. Prof. Clark’s ingenious studies also show that the rich, who were more likely to have these useful traits, had more children than the poor, many of whom were erased from the gene pool. This naturally occurring eugenics program laid the foundation for the Industrial Revolution.
Mr. Wade points out that most European populations had been evolving similarly, so were quickly able to industrialize as well. So, it turned out, were East Asians, with the Japanese first, followed by Koreans and Chinese.
Mr. Wade argues that science and industry did not first arise in China partly because of millennia of conformist pressure. Chinese were relatively meritocratic, with the Mandarinate open to anyone, but the examinations mainly tested rote memorization. Mr. Wade points also out that Chinese rulers showed an utterly un-European lack of interest in science and exploration, and argues that this reflected long-bred traits of conformity and submission to authority. Even today, Chinese have been unable to adopt one of the cornerstones of Western Civilization: the rule of law. Communists, just like emperors, routinely violate laws they force on others.
Mr. Wade concludes with this heresy:
It seems a fortunate outcome that the world’s dominant military power has turned out to be the West, with a system of international trade and law that offers benefits to all participants, and not a purely predatory and militaristic state like that of the Mongols or Ottomans, as might have been expected, or even a civilized but autocratic one like that of China.
This is all very fine, even courageous stuff. Any assault on dogma is welcome and laudable, and Mr. Wade will certainly take a beating for it. However, there is much waffling in this book, which was no doubt meant to ward off beatings but that, at least to undeceived readers, rings of timidity.
Mr. Wade has a whole chapter on the evils done in the name of race and genetics. We learn that the Comte de Gobineau, Herbert Spencer, and Madison Grant were rotten people, and that even the genius Francis Galton led us down “a dangerous path, to the proposal that human populations could be improved by controlling breeding, just like those of domestic animals.” There is also the obligatory salaam to the memory of the Holocaust.
None of this belongs in a book about science. It is a clearly an attempt to demonstrate virtue and avoid beatings, but it won’t work.
Even Mr. Wade’s angle of attack—social behavior—is a curious one. It is undoubtedly true that genes influence time preference, radius of trust, lack of aggression, and all the other qualities that make civilization possible, but these characteristics are not well studied and we don’t know much about the relevant genes.
Mr. Wade almost completely ignores the psychological trait that has been studied the most: intelligence. He goes into details about the codons and base triplets that result in interesting but peripheral racial differences in hair texture, ear wax consistency, and type of sweat glands, but completely ignores the genetics of intelligence. He even writes that no genes for intelligence have been found, but that is not true. In 2005, Mr. Wade himself wrote about the discovery of genes that are implicated in brain development, and researchers recently isolated a gene that appears to account for 0.5 percent of human variation in intelligence.
Mr. Wade includes a chapter on the superior intelligence of Jews—this is something people can write about without losing their jobs—but skips over the question of black intelligence. He has a very superficial account of the debate over the genetic contribution to black-white IQ differences, but then scuttles off to safer territory: “That issue needn’t be resolved here.” Does he really think he can write that Africa is stuck with tribalism for genetic reasons, but avoid a spanking because he refuses to commit himself on IQ?
Mr. Wade’s discussion of the MAO-A gene is even more contortionist. He concedes that American blacks are no less than 50 times more likely than whites to carry the variant most closely tied to violence, but says we must draw no conclusions. Why? Whites might have different, as yet undiscovered, alleles that would make them just as violent as blacks.
In his discussion of the evolution of racial differences, Mr. Wade notes that light skin may have spread rapidly through northern populations, in part because it was considered sexually attractive. But he can’t bear to stop there and risk leaving the wrong impression. Without one word about the millions of dollars Asians and Africans spend on skin lighteners or about the clear preference even of American blacks—the widespread preference for light skin—he suggests that tanning salons prove that dark skin is inherently more attractive.
Mr. Wade also assures us that whites will keep their scientific and creative lead over the Chinese for “many generations, barring some major setback.” This is because we are genetically less conformist and more open to new ideas. And yet there is no mental plague in China that even approaches the conformity and closed-mindedness Mr. Wade is trying to combat with this book. The ease with which our rulers have driven common sense about race, sex, and nation underground shows how cowardly and conformist the heirs to the Industrial Revolution have become. If the Chinese succeed in widespread embryo selection—an openly eugenic practice that terrifies Westerners—they will outstrip us in one generation. Meanwhile, the West is filling up with the very people Mr. Wade tells us are genetically limited—Amerindians and Middle Easterners—while China remains resolutely Chinese.
Whistling past the graveyard
Mr. Wade writes that his book is an attempt “to dispel the fear of racism that overhangs discussion of human group differences and to begin to explore the far reaching implications of the discovery that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional.”
That’s not possible. If human differences have “far reaching implications” there is no way to “dispel the fear” of what goes by the name of “racism.” What, to begin with, are these far reaching implications? Mr. Wade himself manages to propose exactly one: that foreign aid is probably wasted because poor countries are not genetically prepared for the institutions necessary for wealth.
Mr. Wade even criticizes Steven Pinker of Harvard for thinking about implications. Mr. Wade accuses him of dishonestly running away from the idea of race differences because, in Professor Pinker’s words, “it could have the incendiary implication that aboriginal and immigrant populations are less biologically adapted to the demands of modern life than populations that have lived in literate societies for millennia.” That is exactly what Mr. Wade implies—but does not say.
The liberal façade is all of a piece. It cannot be punctured only in a few safe and convenient spots. That is why its guardians plug every chink with such bloodthirsty zeal. To accept what dissidents call human biodiversity would open the door to everything the regime most piously hates: immigration control, inequality, self-segregation, nationalism, mono-culturalism. Whether he knows it or not, and no matter how hard he denies it, Mr. Wade has lit a match to the entire liberal/modern world view. The next thing you know, someone might say the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be repealed or that women have no business on submarines.
That is why the reaction to this book, which goes on sale on May 6, will be so interesting. Lefties will not be placated by the back-cover assertion that “Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples.” They will realize that a very respectable figure is blowing a raspberry at their religion.
The smartest thing they could do is ignore A Troublesome Inheritance. The next-smartest thing would be to have truckling scientists calmly “refute” it by peeing on it from a very great height. Raging about “racism” would be stupid, and prove only that lefties are believers rather than thinkers.
Alas, it may make no difference what they do. As I wrote 20 years ago about a book that goaded the stooges into a record-breaking rage, “Unfortunately, the United States is probably capable of weathering a 90-day lather over The Bell Curve that leaves the country exactly as it was before.”
No one knows when sanity will return. Can this book break the logjam? Probably not. But all praise to Nicholas Wade and his publisher, Penguin Press, for trying.