Genes and Race: The Distant Footfalls of Evidence

Ashutosh Jogalekar, Scientific American, May 13, 2014

A review of Nicholas Wade’s book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.”

In this book NYT science writer Nicholas Wade advances two simple premises: firstly, that we should stop looking only toward culture as a determinant of differences between populations and individuals, and secondly, that those who claim that race is only a social construct are ignoring increasingly important findings from modern genetics and science. The guiding thread throughout the book is that “human evolution is recent, copious and regional” and that this has led to the genesis of distinct differences and classifications between human groups. What we do with this evidence should always be up for social debate, but the evidence itself cannot be ignored.

That is basically the gist of the book. It’s worth noting at the outset that at no point does Wade downplay the effects of culture and environment in dictating social, cognitive or behavioral differences–in fact he mentions culture as an important factor at least ten times by my count–but all he is saying is that, based on a variety of scientific studies enabled by the explosive recent growth of genomics and sequencing, we need to now recognize a strong genetic component to these differences.


The second part of the book is really the meat of the story and Wade is on relatively firm ground here. He details a variety of studies based on tools like tandem DNA repeats and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) that point to very distinctive genetic differences between populations dictating both physical and mental traits. Many of the genes responsible for these differences have been subject to selection in the last five thousand years or so, refuting the belief that humans have somehow “stopped evolving” since they settled down into agricultural communities. For me the most striking evidence that something called race is real comes from the fact that when you ask computer algorithms to cluster genes based on differences and similarities in an unbiased manner, these statistical programs consistently settle on the five continental races as genetically distinct groups–Caucasian, East Asian, African, Native American and African Aboriginal. {snip}

Wade also demolishes the beliefs of many leading thinkers who would rather have differences defined almost entirely by culture–these include Stephen Jay Gould who thought that humans evolved very little in the last ten thousand years (as Wade points out, about 14% of the genome has been under active selection since modern humans appeared on the scene), and Richard Lewontin who perpetuated a well-known belief that the dominance of intra as opposed to inter individual differences makes any discussion of race meaningless. As Wade demonstrates through citations of solid research, this belief is simply erroneous since even small differences between populations can translate to large differences in physical, mental and social features depending on what alleles are involved; Lewontin and his followers’ frequent plea that inter-group differences are “only 15%” thus ends up essentially translating to obfuscation through numbers. {snip}

The last part of the book is likely to be regarded as more controversial because it deals mainly with effects of genetics on cognitive, social and personality traits and is much more speculative. However Wade fully realizes this and also believes that “there is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear”, and this statement could be part of a scientist’s credo. The crux of the matter is to logically ask why genes would also not account for mental differences between races if they do account for physical differences. The problem there is that although the hypothesis is valid, the evidence is slim for now. Some of the topics that Wade deals with in this third part are thus admittedly hazy in terms of evidence. For instance there is ample contemplation about whether a set of behavioral and genetic factors might have made the West progress faster than the East and inculcated its citizens with traits conducive to material success. However Wade also makes it clear that “progressive” does not mean “superior”; what he is rather doing is sifting through the evidence and asking if some of it might account for these more complex differences in social systems. Similarly, while there are pronounced racial differences in IQ, one must recognize the limitations of IQ, but more importantly should recognize that IQ says nothing about whether one human is “better” or “worse” than another; in fact the question is meaningless.

Wade brings a similar approach to exploring genetic influences on cognitive abilities and personality traits; evidently, as he recognizes, the evidence on this topic is quite slim. He looks at the effects of genes on traits as diverse as language, reciprocity and propensity to dole out punishment. This discussion makes it clear that we are just getting started and there are many horizons that will be uncovered in the near future; for instance, tantalizing hints of links between genes for certain enzymes and aggressive or amiable behavior are just emerging. If I have a criticism of the book it is that in his efforts to cover extensive ground, Wade sometimes gives short shrift to research on interesting topics like oxytocin and hormonal influences. But what he does make clear is that the research opportunities in the field are definitely exciting, and scientists should not have to tiptoe around these topics for political reasons.

Overall I found this book extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued. The many researchers whose work Wade cites makes the writing authoritative; on the other hand, where speculation is warranted or noted he usually explicitly points it out as such. {snip}

But the real lesson of the book should not be lost on us: A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically incendiary; as Wade notes, “Whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” {snip}

Ultimately Wade’s argument is about the transparency of knowledge. He admonishes some of the critics–especially some liberal academics and the American Anthropological Association–for espousing a “culture only” philosophy that is increasingly at odds with scientific facts and designed mainly for political correctness and a straitjacketed worldview. I don’t think liberal academics are the only ones guilty of this attitude but some of them certainly embrace it. Liberal academics, however, have also always prided themselves on being objective examiners of the scientific truth. Wade rightly says that they should join hands with all of us in bringing that same critical and honest attitude to examining the recent evidence about race and genetics. Whatever it reveals, we can be sure that as human beings we will try our best not to let it harm the cause of our fellow beings. After all we are, all of us, human beings first and scientists second.

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  • Kenner

    I’m interested in what ‘Discover’ magazine will say. They did a great job covering the ‘10,000 Year Explosion’, and exposed Steven Jay Gould’s utterly fictitious ‘measurements’ that were the basis for his ‘Mis-Measure of Man’.

  • Martel

    A political ideology developed and promoted by feeble narcissists, mainly motivated by a childish need to rebel against their parents,can only survive for so long. Billionaires and crooked politicians will lobby and campaign to hold on to a very rewarding and profitable illusion, but reality and ideology have to part ways eventually. That time is now.

    Game over. It has become impossible to lose this debate.

    • David Ashton

      So long as we are allowed to debate.

      • Martel

        I expect laws governing content distributed on the internet, including social commentary. Its not something to be feared, the disaster of multiculturalism is obvious, taking away the ability of people to vent their frustrations only directs that frustration elsewhere. I’m sure we will see lots of thunder coming from the Eurocrats, the likes of George Soros, and many others who will do anything it takes to prevent the world they have build from falling apart. A castle build on sand will not stand for long.

        • David Ashton

          One multimillionaire had more power on Black Friday than its multimillion population, and he wants a castle built on drugs. But the resistance is building up.

    • John R

      I like that: “A political ideology developed and promoted by feeble narcissists, mainly motivated by a childish need to rebel against their parents,” perfectly sums up the liberalism in the 1960’s of the Baby Boomer Generation.

  • David Ashton

    Some liberals are open to persuasion; others remain insulated in a bigotry they cannot recognize, but Wade has helped to open ears and eyes. For that, be grateful. Half a loaf is more than a crumb.

    • JohnEngelman

      I think a very large number of white liberals know what they truth is. Nevertheless, they do not want to offend their black friends.

      • Zimriel

        By “black friends” you mean “accessories”.

        • ElComadreja

          They certainly take great care to make sure they live nowhere near them.

      • FeuerSalamander


    • Erasmus

      Ironically, many of those on the left who’ll decry the claim that behavior is biologically determined and can be closely linked with race are the same people who claim that same-sex attraction is biologically determined.

      • David Ashton

        Good point.

      • ElComadreja

        Nice little bit of hypocrisy, isn’t it?

  • Stan D Mute

    Scientific American *used to be* a great publication. I recall one article back in the 90’s that discussed our genetic distance from primates like chimps relative to differing races and estimated the point of divergence at 50,000-100,000 years ago. This was relatively common for them back then. Some time in the late 90’s or early aughts, they seem to have taken a large lurching turn to the left and articles like that stopped appearing while we saw more and more of the Marxist spin on anything that remotely touched genetics. Perhaps this piece will reverse that tide. It would be great to have at least one major publication telling the truth.

    • FeuerSalamander

      a whole bunch of magazines lurched to the left in the 90’s. I used to like popular science and popular mechanics. Then, all of a sudden, every article was bout global warming or about a technology and how it could help lower carbon emissions. IT was disgusting.

    • dd121

      For decades it always had one or two left leaning articles. Around the 90s the writing and editing got so pathetic as to become unreadable.

    • David Ashton

      “New Scientist” in the UK ditto.

  • Romulus

    I wonder if anyone else has picked up this observation from the reviews.
    The inference being that the primary evolution that has been “recent,copius, and regional is IQ.
    I agree.
    The modern metro effeminate wuss and suburban brow beaten couch potatoes are but a cartoon of manhood.
    Our ancestors were by far better representations of male prowess and physique.

  • ” but more importantly should recognize that IQ says nothing about
    whether one human is “better” or “worse” than another; in fact the
    question is meaningless.”

    It’s not meaningless when determining immigration policies. I do look forward to reading the book someday. It seems like a great leap forward and, hopefully, it will help shape public policy for the better.

    • David Ashton

      Horses for courses. You don’t injure people with IQs below 90, but you don’t give them jobs as…rocket scientists, brain surgeons, classics teachers or higher mathematicians.

      • ElComadreja

        You also don’t encourage interbreeding with them as our media does on a daily basis. We’ve been bombarded with images of interracial couples since Obama took office, almost always a white woman with a black man though I have seen one or two examples of the reverse but it’s generally too unrealistic. When a white man goes outside of his own race it’s usually with an Asian or Hispanic. .

        • David Ashton

          The bombardment is similar in the UK but began sooner – dating shows, dancing partners, celebrity partnerships, television school stories, adverts for bedroom furniture, &c &c – on a scale that suggests a method in the madness.

  • Evette Coutier

    The white liberal agenda is feelings over fact.

  • Daniel Schmuhl

    A Troublesome Inheritance was a pretty breezy read. Like Tyler Cowen, I was surprised how fast it ended.

    I doubt it will have much impact on society as a whole. Its actually more politically correct than the Bell Curve and has attracted far less attention. Liberals and lower case “l” liberals (Republicans), will find ways to fit it with status quo ideology.

    I was talking to this Republican guy about some of the themes in this book and the political consequences and he just blew it off. He told me that this stuff doesn’t matter because humans have free will. Of course there is a lot wrong with that statement (not going to digress here), but after raising several objections, I gave up in frustration.

    • Zimriel

      Less informed than several other anthropology books too. 10,000 Year Explosion is the gold-standard in my opinion; Troublesome Inheritance fell short of that (and inexcusably missed the recent data on Neanderthal and Denisovan crossbreeding).

      It’s more important for who’s saying it – a NYT guy – than for what it said.

      • Kenner

        10,000 Year Explosion is also my pick. I’m all for a measured, strategic approach when needed, but I’m getting that Wade may have pulled a punch too many.

  • JSS

    “After all we are, all of us, human beings first and scientists second”.

    Since when? Where were scientist like you when James Watson was basically crucified? Why are scientist like you silent about the obvious anti White agenda of charlatans like Jared Diamond? Why are scientist like you always repeating every liberal cliche about race being skin deep and “there’s more genetic difference with in then between races”? Now you want to pat yourself on the back for being brave with a book review. As far as I can tell any scientist who takes government shekels is typically anti White first and a scientist a very distance second. I don’t know it’s fair to call them human at all.

  • Zimriel

    Does this count as an apology, for the slime that Scientific American threw at Murray and Herrnstein two decades back?

    Whether or not, I’ll take it as one.

  • TL2014

    Very solid review! I’m impressed!

  • Ike Eichenberg

    “The crux of the matter is to logically ask why genes would also not account for mental differences between races if they do account for physical differences. The problem there is that although the hypothesis is valid, the evidence is slim for now.”

    I must have a different definition of “slim” than the author.

    • David Ashton

      Darwin, Huxley and Tylor reported long ago on the differences in the brain itself between “civilized” and “savage” peoples. No subsequent investigations, however restricted from the 1970s, have contradicted the implications of that, or established that all mental differences are not genetic, or made likely the proposition that all human populations are absolutely identical in brain function.

      • Ike Eichenberg

        The Minnesota Trans-racial Adoption Study explicitly attempted to “prove” that black kids raised by affluent white parents (average parental IQ 115) would perform just as well as the biological offspring.

        The results showed the adopted kids with two black parents had an average IQ of 89 points at age 17.

        The biological kids of the white parents averaged 109, the adopted white kids averaged 106, and the mulatto kids had an average of 99.

        Another study of Korean kids adopted by white families should they had an average IQ of 117.

        One of the authors of the MTRA study, Sandra Scarr admitted that the IQ of the black adopted kids was about the same as their biological parents.

        • David Ashton

          Actually such studies are quite complex to set up and still controversial in their genetic implications.

  • Martel

    The link at the end of the article directs me to the article on SA. Amren articles are always snipped.

  • Bob Varkin

    A lot of our perception and mental reactions are also taught and learned, and the sad reality is the AIPAC media has brainwashed us that Whites are racist, Non-whites somehow deserve hand outs even though there were more black slave traders than whites, and that Jewish are vicims even thoug it is they who first financed Hitler to attack Palestine.. its all a Israeli agenda with their control of media and everyhting else to create wars for profits.

  • Candid

    Do you pathological altruists not realize that ONLY WHITE WOMEN can have white babies.
    The Media need to destroy the white race is always going to portray the blue eyed blonde beauty white female with the quasi mulatto afroid males.
    Tell your white female friends they are the last hope of the magnificent white civilization.