In Defense of A Troublesome Inheritance

Nicholas Wade, Huffington Post, May 30, 2014

Three attacks on my book A Troublesome Inheritance have appeared on The Huffington Post’s blog this month. For readers puzzled by the stridency and personal animus of these compositions, I’d like to explain what is going on.

The issue is how best to sustain the fight against racism in light of new information from the human genome that bears on race.

My belief is that opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on science. If I oppose racism and discrimination as a matter of principle, I don’t care what the science may say because I’ll never change my position. As it happens, however, the genome gives no support to racism, although it does clearly show that race has a biological basis, just as common sense might suggest.

Many social scientists, on the other hand, have long based their opposition to racism on the assertion that there is no biological basis to race. I doubt they personally believe this and suspect that they oppose racism on principle, just as I do. But they believe that other people, less enlightened and intelligent than they, will not abandon racism unless told that everyone is identical beneath the skin. So whenever someone points out that race is obviously biological, defenders of the social science position respond with attacks of whatever vehemence is necessary to get the inconvenient truth-teller to shut up.

For many years this tactic has been surprisingly effective. It takes only a few vigilantes to cow the whole campus. Academic researchers won’t touch the subject of human race for fear that their careers will be ruined. Only the most courageous will publicly declare that race has a biological basis. I witnessed the effects of this intimidation during the 10 years I was writing about the human genome for The New York Times. The understanding of recent human evolution has been seriously impeded, in my view, because if you can’t study the genetics of race (a subject of no special interest in itself), you cannot explore the independent evolutionary histories of Africans, East Asians and Europeans.

The attacks on my book come from authors who espouse the social science position that there is no biological basis to race. It is because they are defending an ideological position with a counterfactual scientific basis that their language is so excessive. If you don’t have the facts, pound the table. My three Huffington Post critics–Jennifer Raff, Agustín Fuentes and Jonathan Marks–are heavy on unsupported condemnations of the book, and less generous with specific evidence.

Despite their confident assertions that I have misrepresented the science, which I’ve been writing about for years in a major newspaper, none of these authors has any standing in statistical genetics, the relevant discipline. Raff is a postdoctoral student in genetics and anthropology. Fuentes and Marks are both anthropologists who, to judge by their webpages, do little primary research. {snip}

It would try the reader’s patience to offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the three reviews, so I will address just the principal arguments raised by each. Let’s start with Raff, who asserts, “Wade claims that the latest genomic findings actually support dividing humans into discrete races.” In fact, I say the exact opposite, that the races are not and cannot be discrete or they would be different species, but it’s easier to attack an invented statement.


The chief point extractable from Fuentes’ review is that since I don’t say exactly many races there are, races can’t exist. This is a misunderstanding of the nature of continuous variation. People may disagree on the number of colors there are, but that doesn’t mean colors don’t exist. Humans cluster into five continental groups or races, and within each race there are further subclusters. So the number of human races depends on the number of clusters one wishes to recognize. Contrary to Fuentes’ belief, this has no bearing on whether or not races exist.

The wider issue arising from these three reviews is that the social science position on race that they represent is obscurantist, counterfactual and outdated. As I show in my book, understanding the nature of human racial variation lends no support to racism. But such understanding is essential for the simple reason that there is not one story of recent human evolution but at least five different stories, given that the populations on each continent have evolved largely independently of one another since the dispersal from Africa some 50,000 years ago.


[Editor’s Note: Here is Agustín Fuentes’ response to this article.]

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