Features » May 12, 2014
The Genes Made Us Do It
The new pseudoscience of racial difference.
Where scholars see changes in ways of life, New York Times science journalist Nicholas Wade imagines mutations in genes and brains that led to changes in ways of life.
Americans reject aspects of science—vaccinations, anthropogenic climate change, evolution—for diverse reasons. Sometimes those reasons are religious, sometimes economic, sometimes political. Segregationists in the early 1960s, for example, maintained that the American public was being led astray by a cabal of Communists, anthropologists and Jews, who were busily subverting the minds of students with insidious ideas about human equality. That was indeed the takeaway of a widely read 1961 book called Race and Reason by a segregationist named Carleton Putnam.
Several decades later, those themes are given a new life in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade. It is not about segregation, of course; even racists have moved on. But it is a paranoid, anti-intellectual screed about how scientists are misleading you about race in order to set their own egalitarian political agenda, one that does not harmonize with Wade’s.
The thesis of this book is that although culture is important, genetic microevolution (subtle genetic changes in a population over time) best explains the course of human history—from how we first settled down in villages, to the Industrial Revolution, to “the adaptation of the Jews to capitalism.” And since the author explains that he uses the term “adaptation” in the peculiarly narrow sense of “a genetically based evolutionary response to circumstances,” it is hard to make excuses for his choice of words. This is not about Jews “adapting” through high rates of literacy and exclusion from land ownership, but about having the right package of innate propensities.
Nicholas Wade is a prominent science journalist who works for the New York Times, but—unlike what you may have come to expect from that profession—A Troublesome Inheritance actually strives to invalidate the very science it is ostensibly about. That science is anthropology, and over the last century or so, it has demonstrated that whatever biological differences exist among human populations do not explain their social or cultural differences, which are the products of historical, not microevolutionary, forces.
This is, obviously, something of a political landscape—or more precisely, a landscape of bio-politics, in which biology (or at least arguments that sound like biology) can be brandished for or against the welfare of certain classes of citizens. In times past—and not too far past, if you remember The Bell Curve (1994)—the argument went that social stratification in America was caused by innate intellectual differences, and consequently that government programs designed to assist the socially disadvantaged and to ameliorate economic inequality were useless and doomed to failure.
It’s an old theme. Why aren’t you the Pharaoh? Because the Pharaoh is a better kind of being than you, with better ancestors and better innards. So Wade’s book is of a piece with a long tradition of disreputable attempts to rationalize visible class distinctions by recourse to invisible natural properties. The author repeatedly avows that his ideas are politically neutral, unlike those of the scientists he is busy repudiating. Yet the sources for many of his ideas about the history of society come from the political scientists Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington, and frankly, if you can’t tell that they have an ideological axe to grind, then you probably shouldn’t be writing books.
Unlike The Bell Curve, however, which at least tried to disguise itself as a work of science, A Troublesome Inheritance has no such pretensions. It is entirely derivative, an argument made from selective citations, misrepresentations and speculative pseudo-science. But it will receive attention, and we need to pay it attention, because of The Bell Curve, which reintroduced scientific racism to a new generation in the guise of a statistical analysis of IQ scores. Twenty years and many critical tomes later, we know that just about every aspect of it was baloney. But the lesson is that when scholarship has to deal reactively with highly publicized and politicized pseudoscience, that’s trouble.
Wade believes that wide swaths of the human species are effectively homogeneous—genetically, mentally and socially. Thus, after adopting the quaint idea that there are five basic kinds of people, roughly corresponding to the continental regions of Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania, Wade explains, “Chinese society differs profoundly from European society, and both are entirely unlike a tribal African society.” But this is anthropology of the early 19th century, when the best explanation for human diversity was that the sons of Noah had migrated to Lagos, Seoul and Oslo, respectively, and became fruitful and multiplied, forming three distinct human races. (Everyone else was conveniently explained away as somehow impure or inauthentic.)
Wade is not wrong in noting that different groups of people have subtle genetic differences on account of their histories. Usually these are in nonfunctional parts of the genome, but very rarely, they occur in the functional genes themselves, which might therefore have some sort of effect on the form and structure of the body. This is not news; anthropologists have been trying to tabulate and understand the biological differences among peoples for many decades. Anthropologists eventually concluded that the human species does not come naturally packaged into a reasonably small number of reasonably discrete kinds of people (i.e., “races”); and that issues identified as “racial” are actually social, economic and political, with the associated biological variation being merely a convenient red herring. For example, the average size of people’s brains, which scientists a century ago loved to talk about, is simply irrelevant to a discussion of human rights—and we now know that brain size tracks body size far more closely than it tracks IQ score, in any event.
So why talk about bodies and gene pools at all, when the subject is social and economic disparity? There is a lot of good, recent multi-disciplinary literature on the relationships among race, patterns of human variation, and modern genomics—for example, Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age, edited by Barbara Koenig, Sandra Lee and Sarah Richardson; Genetics and the Unsettled Past, edited by Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson and Catherine Lee; Thicker Than Blood by Tukufu Zuberi; Backdoor to Eugenics by Troy Duster; and Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts, to name just a few. But Wade has availed himself of none of these. Rather, he takes an enormous leap and speculates retrogressively that groups of people may simply differ in genes that affect personality and behavior. In his earlier book Before the Dawn (2007), Wade opined freely about the possible existence of ping-pong genes among the Chinese. Now he speculates about genetic propensities for violence among Africans, obedience in Chinese and capitalism in Jews. Mercifully, he stops short of inventing genes for basketball, laundry and stand-up comedy.
It is when Wade ventures into evolutionary waters that his scholarly weaknesses become most evident. His presentation of evolutionary theory is reductive and freshman-level. It is hard to find a book on evolution today that fails to mention epigenetics—the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted—but this is one such book. Flexibility and reactivity are not in Wade’s evolutionary arsenal. To acknowledge the plasticity and adaptability of the human organism—which has framed most scientific work in human biology over the last century—would be to undermine Wade’s theme of the independent, unforgiving external world exacting its selective toll on the human gene pool.
Unsurprisingly, for such a fundamentally anti-intellectual work, the writing is glib, the thought is superficial and the references are minimal. “Both religion and race are essential but strangely unexplored aspects of the human condition,” he explains, apparently oblivious to the quite extensive explorations of both subjects from many scholarly standpoints. But this permits him to make up the science as he goes along. In his chapter on “human social nature,” for example, we learn: “The urge to punish deviations from social norms is a distinctive feature of human societies.” Except that societies don’t have urges, of course. And the people who compose societies can rationalize, or get away with, all kinds of things. It is not merely that human social life involves rule-governed behavior; it is that rules are also there to be bent and circumvented, so that people can be both obedient and pragmatic simultaneously—which is why more thoughtful and knowledgeable writers don’t go quite so easily from the punishment of deviancy to the invention of a simple genetic module for it.
Or a page later: “An inbuilt sense of morality evolved, one that gave people an instinctive aversion to murder and other crimes, at least against members of their own group.” If you think there’s an instinctive aversion to “murder and other crimes,” then you need to watch The Godfather again. (Sure, that was fiction, but so is this book, although less accurately labeled.) And if you try to weasel through with the phrase “their own group,” then you need to think about the formlessness, situation-dependence and hierarchical nature of a “group.” What constitutes “their own group”? The Corleones, the New York mob, Sicilian-Americans, urban immigrants, Americans or Earthlings? Group membership is actually quite flexible and, as we now say, constructed. And there certainly doesn’t appear to be any inborn aversion to lying, embezzling, insider trading, fraud, graft or usury—so on what basis can we reliably assert anything inborn about other particular crimes?
When it comes to the antecedents of human society, Wade believes that chimpanzee society is ancestral to our own. Unfortunately, hardly any evolutionary primatologists today would agree with him. Instead, they believe that aspects of chimpanzee society, such as prominent female estrus displays, are quite singular among the apes, and thus not a useful model for a human precursor.
When Wade speculates about human prehistory, he becomes entangled in contradictory fictions. He writes of the Paleolithic age:
People as they spread out across the globe at the same time fragmented into small tribal groups. The mixing of genes between these little populations was probably very limited. Even if geography had not been a formidable barrier, the hunter-gatherer groups were territorial and mostly hostile to strangers. Travel was perilous. Warfare was probably incessant, to judge by the behavior of modern hunter-gatherers.
Where to begin with such a hodge-podge of pseudo-prehistory? If we know hunter-gatherer groups are very mobile, and they were busily spreading, then on what basis do we suppose there was such limited mixing of genes? They certainly overcame the hostility, peril and warfare readily enough to do all that spreading, and a lot of trading as well. Trade was a critical and ubiquitous feature of early human ways of life. All over the world, archaeologists have discovered shells, feathers and raw materials from far away; and where goods flow, so do genes.
In the Neolithic Age, a very interesting genomic time in Wade’s opinion, people began settling down and growing their own food. “Most likely a shift in social behavior was required,” he writes, “a genetic change that reduced the level of aggressivity common in hunter-gatherer groups.” Wait—what hunter-gatherer groups are we talking about here? And what do we know about their gene pools, or their levels of aggression? Of course people’s behavior changed when they settled down in villages. But where scholars see changes in ways of life, Wade imagines mutations in genes and brains that led to changes in ways of life.
Speculative genetic explanations for social phenomena have an old and undistinguished history, some of which Wade reviews superficially, presumably to demonstrate his skill at reviewing topics superficially. The common thread, though, is that such explanations have always been (1) put forward to establish a bio-political point, to draw imaginary limits around the social progress of certain human groups; (2) accompanied by the dissimulation that they are not political statements, but merely value-neutral science; and (3) false.
However, any thoughtful person can enumerate all kinds of reasons to think that the general behavioral propensities of large groups of people have evolved to be roughly the same. First, human evolution has been principally the evolution of adaptability, not of adaptation; that is to say, we evolved to be intellectually flexible, not static. Second, in concert with that understanding of human evolution, immigrant studies show that people can fully adopt any different way of life in a generation or two. Names change, accents disappear and economic advancement over time seems to make the newcomers look just a bit less alien and threatening. Third, we tend to solve our problems principally technologically these days, and have been doing so for quite a while, and that is not a function of mental propensity, but of social process.
To be fair, Wade has an underlying model, derived from the work of a radical hereditarian economist named Gregory Clark. Wade summarizes:
[The late Medieval English] rich had more surviving children than did the poor. … Most children of the rich had to sink in the social scale, given that there were too many of them to remain in the upper class.
Their social descent had the far-reaching genetic consequence that they carried with them inheritance for the same behaviors that had made their parents rich. The values of the upper middle class—nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience—were thus infused into lower economic classes and throughout society. Generation after generation, they gradually became the values of the society as a whole. … Moreover, the behaviors emerge gradually over several centuries, a time course more typical of an evolutionary change than a cultural change.
From the (social Darwinist) presumption of genetic differences in the capabilities of the British social classes, Wade tracks “nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience” into the lower classes via gene flow.
This is a slightly new spin on a set of old prejudices, but hardly science, much less modern or value-free science.
History is not an organic property. That is to say, if you want to understand our world, the stuff inside peoples’ heads (neurons and genes) seems to be much less important than the stuff between people’s heads (social relations and cultural forms)—and even Wade acknowledges this throughout. “Genes … can be overwhelmed by learned behavior, or culture,” he writes. He notes “the vast power of culture to shape human social behavior…” and reiterates later that “culture is a mighty force, and people are not slaves to innate propensities.” Kind of makes you wonder why he bothered to write this book at all. Disclaimers like these suggest that Wade hasn’t even got the guts to own his ideas. If the influence of culture has been so mighty and vast, then it stands to reason that that is what you should be reading books about; not this one. Wade’s labor has effectively been to fabricate a small tail to wag a mighty big dog.
There is little to recommend here. This book is as crassly anti-science as any work of climate-change denial or creationism. And like those odd birds, Wade adopts a radical relativism of expertise. Sure, all the relevant experts say one thing, but he’s going to tell you the truth.
It’s a sad day for the profession of science journalism.
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Jonathan Marks is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and presently a Templeton Fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee and Why I Am Not a Scientist, both published by the University of California Press. Paradoxically, however, he is about 98% scientist, and not a chimpanzee.