The Genes Made Us Do It

The new pseudoscience of racial difference.

Jonathan Marks May 12, 2014

Phrenology has gone out of style, but its successors are alive and kicking. AFP/Getty Images.

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.

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.

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.

Aggres­sive­ly anti-science

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.

Rad­i­cal idiocy

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.

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.
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