Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Epigenetics as epiphenomenal

               There is an interesting intellectual war going on right now, between scientist/author Siddhartha Mukherjee and molecular geneticists.  It was precipitated by Mukherjee’s recent article in The New Yorker on the wonderful world of epigenetics.

               Geneticist Jerry Coyne  objected stridently to the New Yorker essay. Now, Coyne is one of those people who thinks that a real scientist should not be able to tell a human from an ape, and has chastised me in the past for being able to.  Such people are either deaf, dumb, and blind, or else they don’t think that the choice to privilege genetic relations (which make it hard to tell humans from apes) over ecological relations (where it is really, really easy to tell humans from apes) requires a justification.   In fact, in the 1960s, G. G. Simpson demanded such a justification, and never got one. Historians like Marianne Sommer, Joel Hagen, and Michael Dietrich have been writing about it.

               Mukherjee is responding to his critics.  Anyway, since I already knew that Coyne is apparently not very good at confronting his intellectual prejudices, I thought it might be a good time to reconsider just what is at stake intellectually in this epigenetics business. I talked about this a little in my Annual Review of Anthropology article a few years ago.  But actually it’s a nice example of how understanding the science can be helped by asking the lawyerly question “Cui bono?” (who benefits?).  And further, it helps to show that this isn’t a controversy of biology, but of biopolitics.

               Point #1: Human genetics is invariably biopolitical. To see this point, you must grapple with the history of human genetics.  Not the history as told by scientists, the time-line approach that begins, “Once upon a time there was Archibald Garrod...” – but the history as told by historians.  That’s the history that looks at what scientists said to the public, and at the associated social relations.  The twentieth century, after all, began with eugenics and ended with “genohype” – which no sensible geneticist wants to defend today.

               And we nearly span the century when we compare the concluding statement of the first textbook of Mendelism (1905) with the director of the Human Genome Project’s comment to Time Magazine in 1989. First, the eponymous Reginald C. Punnett, remembered in science today for his square:

“As our knowledge of heredity clears and the mists of superstition are dispelled, there grows upon us with an ever increasing and relentless force the conviction that the creature is not made but born.”

               Ummm, WTF?  Granted, genetics was important enough to him to write a book about, but the message that “the creature is not made but born” is certainly not its central message.  Its central message is about how the creature gets born – not that the facts of birth are the only important things about it.

               Compare James Watson: “We used to think our fate was in the stars.  Now we know, in large measure, our fate is in our genes.”

               Now, I know, throwing out Watson quotes is hardly even fun any more, and nobody in science really believes him.  But let me just remind you that he knows more about DNA than you do, and he has a fucking Nobel Prize.  What have you got?

               What these two thoughts have in common, 84 years and a whole lot of data and theory apart, is their biopolitics.  They are saying something very important, and it’s not about fruitflies, nor is it about the ABO blood group.  It’s about your lot in life.  It’s about who you are, and what you can aspire to become. And it’s a fairly pessimistic note, if your origins are humble: You can never transcend you ancestors. Read it:

The creature is not made, but born.
Our fate is in our genes.
Your personal development is strictly limited by your ancestry.

Now, that is a message that resonates far beyond genetics.  It is familiar to readers of 1994's The Bell Curve, for instance, whose authors were a psychologist and a political theorist.  It is there in the 19th century political writings of Arthur de Gobineau.  It is also familiar to readers of pre-modern geneticists, such as August Weismann and Francis Galton.
            What is interesting in the present context is the broad opposition to that pessimistic statement, and the alternative scientific venues for studying how the creature is indeed made, our fates are not in our genes, and we can become different from our ancestors.
              One such venue, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the inheritance of acquired characteristics, often known as Lamarckism. This of course petered out with the suicide of Paul Kammerer in the 1920s, but has never been entirely buried. Bipedalism, after all, was a behavioral choice made by our ancestors, for which we no longer have a choice.

               Another venue for studying how we are made is culture, which eventually superseded eugenics as the favored mode of improving society in the 20th century.

               And still another is human adaptability.

               So over the course of the 20th century, we actually learned that, despite the biopolitical rhetoric of geneticists, there were in fact several significant ways in which you could become different from your ancestors and not necessarily be limited by them.

              The scientistic rhetoric turned once again with the Human Genome Project in the 1980s. To get that program off the ground, molecular geneticists groomed the public with sound-bites like James Watson’s.  Then (like the eugenicists of the 1920s) they embarked on a wildly successful public education program, to convince taxpayers that three billion dollars to sequence the human genome would be the best three billion dollars we ever spent.

               And a wave of purple scientific prose flowed in its wake.  Remember “Mapping the Code”?  That’s still my favorite mixed metaphor.  And “Mapping our Genes”? And “The Human Blueprint”? And “The Book of Man”?  How about “The Code of Codes”?  (I still don't know what that actually means, except that it is vaguely evocative of Jesus as "King of Kings," and of The Godfather, as "capo di tutti capi".)  Remember how the Human Genome Project was the most important scientific revolution since Galileo and we were going to know what it meant to be human and cure all genetic diseases and stuff?

               Ah well, the important thing is, they got the money.  So what if the public transiently believed that your DNA code was the most important thing about you? Hey, it's just a hypothesis.  And it might be true, right?
               Let’s now answer the question “Cui bono?”  Who benefits by having the educated public misbelieve that your DNA code is the most important thing about you?  Two principal groups – just as in the 1920s.  First off, the one percent – those now favored by nature, not merely by avarice or luck or unscrupulousness - and who are inclined to try and give their own kids a financial leg up in this dog-eat-dog world, rather than redistribute the wealth in the form of public goods and services that might permit others to compete more fairly in that world.

               And second, the molecular geneticists – the ones now studying the most important thing about you.  Your DNA code.  In fact, anything’s DNA code.  It’s also The Frog Blueprint and The Book of Frog.  That is Point #2: It is in the interests of the molecular geneticists to have you believe that everything important about you lies in the field of molecular genetics.

               That is a significant convergence of interests with the one percent.  Back to history.

              By the late 1930s, the developmental geneticist C. H. Waddington was distinguishing between the kind of information in a human cell that distinguishes one person from another (genetic) and the kind of information that distinguishes one cell type from another, with identical DNA sequences (epigenetic).  Waddington’s  reputation had been all but eclipsed in genetics, when Stephen Jay Gould revived him in evolutionary biology, specifically in the call for an evolutionary science of organismal form, rather than the reductive evolutionary science that was normative in the 1980s.

               Epigenetics is a label for the non-reductive study of heredity.  You are no longer just your ancestors’ DNA sequences, but also their methylation and transcriptional regulation patterns.  But more significantly, your genetics is far more conservative than your epigenetics.  Your “epigenome” is responsive to the environment; that is to say, it adapts.  And it does so far more rapidly and directly than your genome does.

               That extends our list of alternative scientific venues for studying your non-DNA-sequence-based self just a bit.  In addition to the study of possible Lamarckian inheritance, culture, and human adaptability, there is now epigenetics.  In other words, the significance of epigenetics lies in its biopolitical role as a reaction against the genetic determinism, or hereditarianism, that accompanied the Human Genome Project.

              There is, in fact, a lot more at stake than just transcription factors.  The smart geneticists already know that.

               Waddington, it turns out, was a very smart one.  He was a broad intellectual, and actually wrote a book about art at the end of his life.  I don’t think he was that big of a Marxist, as Mukherjee suggests, although he was certainly left of center politically, and was instrumental in getting the famous University of Edinburgh science studies program going (known as the “strong programme”).

              Waddington’s biology was also always very well-informed anthropologically.  When he and his wife visited New York they always stayed with Margaret Mead.  Why? Because Waddington’s BFF from college days at Cambridge was Mead’s third husband, Gregory Bateson.  (Waddington’s daughter is a distinguished Cambridge social anthropologist.)  The major influence on Bateson and on Waddington was not the philosopher Marx, but the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, also very much the anti-reductionist, but a bit more spiritual.

               At least I think so.  He may have been less impenetrable in person. He’s fucking tough in print.  

               Gregory Bateson’s 1936 ethnography Naven acknowledges some influence of Waddington and Whitehead in a footnote.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The time Simpson sounded like Carlin

          G. G. Simpson loved words, and used them exceedingly well. He kept the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary behind his writing desk. He also subscribed to the updates that the OED regularly published.

           One day when I arrived, he was particularly gleeful because he had gotten a volume of the updates, which included slang usages. He showed me the book, which was the volume S.

           I smiled politely, and he explained that this was the first volume of the OED updates that he had received. I smiled politely again. And he said, and I’ll swear to this on a stack of first editions of The Origin of Species, “It means that I have ‘shit’ but I haven’t gotten ‘fuck’ yet!”

Monday, January 11, 2016

Homo naledi shows how biological anthropology is not biology, and can't be, and shouldn't be

            I once read somewhere that the most interesting thing about human evolution is how everbody thinks they understand it.

            I suspect it's because everyone thinks they own a piece of it.  It's the story of where we came from, after all!  And not just any story of where we came from - it's the authoritative, scientific story.

            The authoritative origin stories are not like other stories.  They are value-laden in ways that other scientific stories are not.  Archaeology is routinely used in the service of nationalism, for example.  Rather moreso, at least, than fruitfly genetics is, so a fruitfly geneticist, or a general biologist, might be excused for not being an appropriately critical reader of the literature on human evolution or diversity, where there is rather more at stake.  It is a different and unfamiliar literature to them, and consequently requires some additional intellectual effort for a trained biologist to make sense of. Some don't bother.

            Now, there have been some very insightful contributions to the scholarly literature on human variation and evolution from biologists, even fruitfly geneticists, over the years.  I can think of three off the top of my head.

Julian Huxley collaborated with the Cambridge social anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon for this important early critique  of race, We Europeans. Rob DeSalle collaborated with biological anthropologist Ian Tattersall on their recent book, Race? Debunking a Scientific Myth.  And Doby was a friend and collaborator of several anthropologists, including Sherwood Washburn, Ashley Montagu, and Margaret Mead.

            In science, our answers to the question of where we came from are stories that center around a descent from the apes.  And our characters are already there for us: The human lineage is composed of species, just like the units of paleontology and ecology. A recent ethnographic paper by Eben Kirksey begins, "Taxonomists, who describe new species, are acutely aware of how political, economic, and ecological forces bring new forms of life into being." That is probably true, but I think generally not in the first person. That is to say, the taxonomist working with "political, economic, and ecological forces" is usually somebody else; I'm the taxonomist who is uncovering raw nature.

            Back in 1945, paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson was reviewing the literature on  mammal taxonomy, but when he got to humans, he found it impenetrable.  He had an idea why it was so impenetrable to him, as well: “A major reason for this confusion is that much of the work on primates has been done by students who had no experience in taxonomy and who were completely incompetent to enter this field, however competent they may have been in other respects”.[1] 
GGS in 1983

            Granted that many of the workers in the field may have been trained principally in medical anatomy rather than in evolutionary paleontology, Simpson thought it was reasonable to expect that an expert on  the species of other kinds of mammals should be able to translate freely to the literature on human evolution, because the units ought to be the same.  But he misunderstood the species in our own lineage, for these taxonomic entities are not like the taxa of biology.  Simpson hoped to study his ancestors dispassionately and rationally, as perhaps Vulcans  contemplate their ancestors.[2] But a purely rational and logical Vulcan approach to ancestry involves not dividing people into relatives and non-relatives, for they acknowledge that rationally and logically, everyone is related. They also do not consider ancestry beyond the twelfth generation (approximately 300 earth-years, because in the 12th generation, every sexually-reproducing organism had 4096 ancestors, which is rather a lot to track; and each contributed less than 1/40 of 1% of the genome, so none of them on average is particularly genetically significant).  But we aren’t Vulcans, we are Earthlings, and we treat our kinship and descent in all kinds of meaningfully irrational (but nevertheless coherent and logical!) ways, even in science.

            The classification of our ancestors is still vexed.  Sure, scientists acknowledge some of our colleagues to be “lumpers” or “splitters” – interpreting anatomical diversity among the fossils to be the result of age, sex, pathology, deformation, and microevolution,  thus “lumping” the fossils into few species; or conversely “splitting” them into many species by interpreting the anatomical diversity taxonomically.  But there is something else going on here.  This is participation in the construction of an authoritative story of our ancestry.  There is simply more at stake than in the narrative of clam or deer ancestry. The units here, the species, are not comparable to the species the zoologist is familiar with, for these are not units of ecological genetics, but units of story.
[from a forthcoming paper in Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences]

           The lumper story is one of the continuity and survival of the lineage; the splitter story is one of diversity and extinction of different lineages. Is the story of our ancestry like a tree trunk, or like a bush? The lumper inclines to the former; the splitter inclines to the latter. But those are significantly different shrubbery metaphors to be imposing upon the same sample of fossils. 

            Some decades after Simpson lodged his complaint, paleobiologist Tim White reiterated it, while reviewing a book on the history of "the" 22 species in our lineage: “Many of the putative species are chronotaxa; others are not even valid species in that sense. No one really thinks that available hominid fossils represent 22 separate species lineages in the last six million years.”[3]  Except, possibly, for the authors of the book under review.

           Or perhaps they didn’t really believe it either.  The assumption here that needs to be interrogated is that the fossil taxa of other groups of animals  are comparable – are made the same way, for the same reasons, of the same elements – as the fossil taxa of our own ancestors.  And that is the key error: Fossil animal species are units of biology; fossil human ancestors are bio-cultural units of narrative.  This is not to say that they don’t overlap, and that there were no zoological species in our ancestry.  The problem is that those zoological species are inaccessible to us, and so – rather like the angels sitting on the pinheads – we can see different numbers of species and tell quite different stories from the same empirical database.  This is consequently not an empirical issue at all, but a hermeneutic issue.

A recent book by a historian tells readers on its cover that 100,000 years ago “at least six human species inhabited the earth.”  Yet few practicing biological anthropologists would come up with the number six as the target number of species in the human lineage that inhabited the earth 100,000 years ago; and far fewer would acknowledge the particular six that the author does: Homo sapiens, H. neanderthalensis, H. erectus, H. soloensis, H. denisova, and H. floresiensis.  After all, “H. denisova” has not been formally named, and is based on the genome of a Siberian finger bone, which is itself simply a variant of the Neanderthal genome, which is not clearly a different species in the first place, since recreational genomic ancestry services (for about $200) will now identify the circa 5% of your genome that ostensibly comes from Neanderthalswhich sounds very un-species-like.

            Is the tally right or wrong, then? It is actually neither.  We can’t say, because the zoological answer is inaccessible to us.  These are units of mythology, not of zoology.

            Another of the six presumptive species 100,000 years ago is Homo soloensis.  That name is a linguistic marker, denoting a particular set of Indonesian fossils, anatomically continuous with Homo erectus before and with Homo sapiens after.  As such, it is a named place-saver for a part of the human lineage – a rivulet, or capillary, or rhizome that better represents its elements metaphorically than a tree-limb does.  But in the words of Tim White, “no one really thinks” that this set of fossils represents a valid zoological species of their own.  There is no Homo soloensis. In other words, the ontological status of Homo soloensis is the same as that of Mother Corn Spirit. Neither is a unit of nature, but a unit of meaning or narrative which, to a believer, is perfectly sensible in the context of a story about origins. Homo soloensis is something, but it is not a zoologically familiar species, a fact of nature, so to speak. It is a named fictive ancestor, with more symbolic than naturalistic properties.  In the most fundamental way, human ancestry is self-consciously a story, and taxa like Homo soloensis and H. denisova are the components of this particular historical account.

            And likewise, Homo naledi, the newest major addition to our family tree. “But is it real?“ some journalists queried. Of course it’s real, you didn’t just imagine it.  “But is it real biologically?” they persist.  And that is my point: It doesn’t matter; Homo naledi is not an element of biology; it is an element of our origin story.  It is part of the bricolage of origin story-making.[4]  There is no true or false answer to Homo naledi as a zoological species; for the category of zoological species does not apply to things like Homo naledi.  The mistake here lies in assuming that Homo naledi designates a unit of zoology; that there is an underlying natural taxonomy in human ancestry that will be revealed by the proper ratiocination.  If you're looking for zoological reality, look for it at the genus level. It isn't there at the species level.

            Such is the long-standing taxonomic fallacy in grappling with the science of who we are and where we come from.  On a bio-political terrain, a preparation in biology is inadequate to comprehend the taxonomy, for it is not biological taxonomy.  To the extent that our ancestry is populated by species, those species are attempts to impose a taxonomic structure, which we assume ought to be there, upon an assortment of fossils from various times and places, with diverse anatomies, representing distinct lineages different from one another and yet connected in complex ways. There are a lot of ways of doing it, and they are all very sensitive to the conditions under which the science itself is practiced.

            If the Neanderthals and the Denisovans are not like zoological species, then what might they be like? And here we return to Linnaeus. They would be at most subspecies, as Linnaeus considered unfamiliar peoples to be.  In other words, the classification of extinct humans intergrades into the classification of extant humans. This fallacy – imposing taxonomic structure upon our ancestry, and mistaking the bio-political categories of our story for natural units – is the same fallacy we find at the heart of race.  For race, the meaningful story is “Who are we?” rather than “Where did we come from?” but the problem is the same, mistaking bio-political units of people for zoological units of people.  And those two questions are invariably intertwined, whether the answer comes from science or from any other system of explanatory narrative.

* This blog post is cobbled together from some forthcoming work, mostly Why is Science Racist? (Polity Press, 2017).

[1] Simpson, G. G. (1945) The principles of classification and a classification of mammals Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 85:1-349, quotation from p. 181.
[2] Vulcan is the “Star Trek” planet, notable for the overbearing rationality of its inhabitants.
[3] White, T. D. (2008) Review of The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans, by G J Sawyer and Viktor Deak. Quarterly Review of Biology 83:105-106, quotation from p. 105.
[4] Claude Lévi-Strauss (1962) used the term “bricolage” to refer to the available elements a mythmaker draws on, while tinkering with them to construct a resonant story. It was borrowed by molecular biologist François Jacob (1977) to argue that evolution is more like a tinkerer than like an engineer. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Nazis love Nicholas Wade. Shouldn’t that be a problem for him?

          The nutters at The American Renaissance are promoting A Troublesome Inheritance like mad.  Likewise at The Occidental ObserverAccording to the Southern Poverty Law Center,

Wade’s book has been publicly endorsed by former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, championed by noted white supremacists like Jared Taylor, John Derbyshire, and Steve Sailer, and tirelessly promoted on the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront .... For all of Wade’s supposed concerns about the politicization of science, his book is entirely a phenomenon of the racist, far-right fringe.

          I wonder whether Nicholas Wade comes home and says, "My book is a best-seller, and the Nazis love me. Life is good.".  

          Of course that’s not an argument against the book.  That’s just data about who likes the book very much.  Now let’s recap Wade's arguments (slightly modified from my last post).

  • Modern scientific views about human variation are politically correct myths produced by Marxist anthropologists, who are stifling serious discussion of human variation.
  • The human species really does come naturally divisible into a fairly small number of fairly discrete kinds of people, or “races”. Human groups are fundamentally products of biological history.
  • These groups have genetic distinctions that cause personality distinctions. These include “genetic adaptations” of the Chinese to obedience, Jews to capitalism, and Africans to violence.
  • Economic strata and nations are also fundamentally biological entities, with their own natural proclivities.
  • Global geo-political history can be understood and explained by its significant genetic component.

          In Wade’s own words, he is exploring “the possibility that human behavior has a genetic basis that varies from one race to another”; “trust has a genetic basis”; and “national disparities in wealth arise from differences in intelligence”.  Wade’s scholarship is poor, his arguments are spurious, his science is cherry-picked and  misrepresented, he dismisses the real science, and the ideas he promotes are racist fictions.   

          Context is important for understanding Wade's new book.  Some of what follows is derived from my essays in In These Times and The Huffington Post.  A lot isn't.  


               Perhaps the most important discovery of early anthropology was that social inequality was inherited, but not in the same way that natural features were.   You pass on your complexion to your children and you pass on your social status to your children, but you do so by very different modes.    The first would eventually come to be called “genetics” and the second, “culture” – and their relationship is that, although they are often correlated, the microevolutionary processes of genetics and the historical processes of culture are phenomenologically distinct.

               The birth pangs of this discovery occurred in the mid-19th century, in the works of the near-contemporaries Arthur de Gobineau and Karl Marx.  Marx, of course, recognized the fact that human misery was the result of political economy and wrote an influential critique of it.  Gobineau’s work was easier to understand, because he posited that civilization was the result of biology.  There were better and worser peoples, and in the ten places he thought that civilization arose, it was brought by the better peoples (“Aryans”), who eventually interbred with the local yokels, thus bringing forth a decline of said civilization.

               Gobineau’s idiotic theory impressed few scholars, even in an age where civilization and race had not yet been well problematized.  It was seen as a transparent attempt to rationalize the existence of the hereditary aristocracy in an age when all manner of traditional class distinctions were breaking down, and people of humble origins were becoming wealthy and powerful, and republican institutions were supplanting monarchial ones.  The early physical anthropologist (and polygenist, pro-slavery physician) Josiah Nott had it translated into English in 1856, but it wasn’t widely read, being mooted by the Civil War.  A second English edition in the UK, during World War I, did a bit better, until it too was mooted by politics, this time by World War II.   You can get it online, by the way, thanks to “The Christian Identity Forum”.  (Whoever they are, the folks at the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministries don’t want to have anything to do with them, and identify the Christian Identity movement as “centered on a racist/anti-Semitic and white supremacy”.)  

          In 1969, the right-wing plant geneticist Cyril Darlington published a genetic history of the human species , called The Evolution of Man and Society.  The trick, of course, is that you know a little bit of the history, but you just get to make up the racial and class genetics.  So ancient Greece gets a make-believe genetic treatment, in terms of Aryan invaders subjugating local peoples and admixing with them.    

It was something created and maintained by a stratified society, a society built up by the working together of many peoples, Minoan merchants, Mycenean scribes, Egyptian masons and artists, Aegean sailors, Phoenician boat builders and also priests, each caste except the slaves preserving its own genetic independence, and hence its own separate traditions, while learning, some readily, some reluctantly, to speak the common Semitic language on which the society depended for its well-being.  (p. 155)
Later, non-Aryan 

[i]nvaders from the northern Balkans burst into the Mediterranean world.  They penetrated Anatolia…. Later under the name of Dorians they invaded the centre and south of Greece….. [T] he same invaders attacked the Egyptians who threw them back.  But they were able as Philistines to settle in and give their name to Palestine; and to set up colonies in Crete, Libya, Sicily, and Italy.  These maritime achievements, could not, however, have been the work of the inland Aryans who knew nothing of the sea.  Rather they represent the fragments of Anatolian and Balkan peoples already subjugated by Aryan invaders. (p. 155).  
Each city arose from the fusion of several racial stocks speaking their own dialects and worshipping their own gods. (p. 157).
Obviously people moved around sometimes, but the idea that they remained genetically stable, much less had particular aptitudes that determined their place in a stable, rigid genetic caste system is at best non-empirical, and at worst racist bullshit.  

The Homeric society… was ruled by kings who were advised by nobles (or men with ancestors) and applauded by ordinary freemen.  This limitation of arbitrary government by custom was derived from the racial character and social structure of the Aryan invader of Greece.  It distinguished them from most of the ancient peoples who however provided the genetic elements…. (p. 163)

And to cap it off, “The result of these developments was to make the Spartan aristocracy a pure race.”  To which Darlington appended a clarifying footnote  “We are often told by popular writers that there are no examples of pure  races of men.  We shall be noting many examples and observing the predictable similarity in their history” (p. 165). 

          Darlington’s work had its predecessors, like Hans  F. K. Gunther’s  Rassenkunde Europas, which was translated by Nazi assholes in 1927 as The Racial Elements of European History and has been digitized by modern Nazi assholes and is available here.

          And Darlington’s work has its successors as well. In particular, a newish dopey genetic history of the human species, called The 10,000 Year Explosion, by a physicist, Gregory Cochran, and an anthropologist, Henry Harpending. The theme is pretty much the same as Darlington’s: The authors know a bit of genetics, and they’re going make that about 10% of the story they want to tell, and creatively imagine the other 90%, but not take too much trouble to distinguish them for readers. Cochran and Harpending begin with the proposition that the human gene pools have been tweaked by things like malaria resistance and lactase persistence over the last 10,000 years, from which they conclude that many aspects of our gene pool have been tweaked as well over much shorter spans of time, for psychological traits, resulting in the major outlines of history, such as the agricultural revolution, scientific revolution, and industrial revolution.

          There are differences between The Evolution of Man and Society and The 10,000 Year Revolution, to be sure. Darlington’s work was over 750 pages of small font, erudite, tightly-spaced bullshit, while The 10,000 Year Explosion is 288 pages of ignorant, widely-spaced bullshit. Where Darlington’s bullshit about the ancient Greeks ran to scores of pages of make-believe genetics, Cochran and Harpending dispense with them in just a couple of paragraphs, noting that the ancient Greeks had colonies and that their gene pools fought off malaria. Of rather more interest to them are the Etruscans, “a somewhat mysterious people who spoke a non-Indo-European language that we have not yet deciphered.” But undeterred by such agnotological issues, they explain that the “Etruscans added a healthy dose of Middle eastern, agriculture-shaped alleles into the Roman mix. We have reason to suspect that those alleles shaped attitudes as well as affecting metabolism and disease resistance” (p. 144).

          Not surprisingly, also unconstrained by relevant data, Darlington blows a bigger bag of genetic gas about the Etruscans. According to Darlington, they had a “genetic particularism [which caused] a lack of political unity” and connected them with Hittite ancestors, thus demonstrating that “the genetic continuity overrides the cultural discontinuity” (p. 238).

          And there are similarities too. Darlington is very interested in the Jews. He devotes two chapters to them, and “Jews” is the longest entry in his copious index. But although he is obviously a bit too creepily interested in them, he remarks only in passing that some of them have been smart, and at least stops short of geneticizing that. The first on board that ship was actually C. P. Snow – of “The Two Cultures”, according to a New York Times article in 1969.  Unsurprisingly, it generated a bit of correspondence.

          And that’s really what The 10,000 Year Explosion is really all about – asserting that the idosyncracies of the Ashkenazi Jewish gene pool, which most geneticists today attribute to genetic drift, is really due to natural selection for intelligence. In the same way that some populations are genetically shielded from the worst aspects of malaria, the Ashkenazi Jews are shielded from the worst aspects of stupidity. And although the Cochran-Harpending book is not cited in Nicholas Wade’s brand-new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, their other work is, and his arguments are heavily derivative upon theirs.


               Nicholas Wade is one of the premier science journalists in America, and an avid promoter of molecular genetics, particularly as applied to anthropological questions.    But his professional idiosyncrasies are well known; the Anthropology News did a story on him in 2007, and he told them, “Anyone who’s interested in cultural anthropology should escape as quickly as they can from their cultural anthropology department and go and learn some genetics, which will be the foundation of cultural anthropology in the future.”  A discussion of his new book about genetics and anthropology, then, should probably begin with a recollection of his last book on the subject, Before the Dawn (2007).

               It was reviewed in the journal Science by Rebecca Cann, who did not exactly gush.  

As a graduate student, I was amazed by the number of books popularizing human paleontology that ignored human genetics, and I often wished that there were science writers energized to follow the new insights from geneticists as closely and rapidly as others reported interpretations of fragmentary fossils. Well, be careful what you wish for.  

It was also reviewed in Nature, where he was deemed to be “in step with a long march of social darwinists”.    And to gauge from the new book, he still is.

               The theme of A Troublesome Inheritance is an unusual one for a science journalist, namely that the scientists themselves are all wrong about the things that they are experts in, and it will take a naïf like the author, unprejudiced by experience,  judgment, or actual knowledge, to straighten them out.  If this sounds like a template for a debate with a creationist, well, yes, I suppose it does.  That is because the nature of the intellectual terrain – the authoritative story of where we came from and who we are – lies on the contested turf of human kinship, and everybody thinks they own a piece of it.

               Wade’s ambition, then, is not to popularize the science, but to invalidate the science. He explains that anthropologists, who have been studying human variation for a while, and who think they have learned something about it, have actually been blinded by their prejudices – politically-correct prejudices, that is.  And his message to them egghead perfessers is that he believes the science of 250 years ago was better than that of today:  There are just a few basic kinds of people, and economic stratification is just an expression of an underlying genetic stratification.

Lest you think the author is an exponent of racism or social Darwinism, he is quick to tell you that he isn’t.  He’s read a book or two on each of those subjects.  He doesn’t think he is a racist because a racist believes that natural groups of people are universally or transcendently rankable, whereas he only believes they are rankable intellectually.  And he doesn’t think he is a social Darwinist because that was an ideologically-driven “perversion of science” to be laid at the feet of Herbert Spencer, and he is quite certain that he is not an ideologue.  He is simply exploring a few propositions, such as: “the possibility that human behavior has a genetic basis that varies from one race to another”; “trust has a genetic basis”; and “national disparities in wealth arise from differences in intelligence”.  Eventually he even comes around to “the adaptation of the Jews to capitalism.”  And lest you think that he is using the term adaptation in the broad sense of “fit to the environment” he explains that he only uses the term in the narrow sense of tweaking the gene pool - “a genetically based evolutionary response to circumstances”.

               The punch line of the book, however, is not really about anthropology at all, but about history.  Towards the end of the book, Wade finally confronts his bête-noire, the biologist Jared Diamond, whose 1997 best-seller, Guns, Germs, and Steel, took a self-consciously anti-racist approach to the subject of human history, and concluded that the answers to the big questions about how the modern  social-political-economic world came to be as it is lie in the domains of geology and ecology.  Wade rejects this, because he believes the answers lie in the domain of genetics.   Actually, though, they’re both wrong, for the answers to those questions lie in the domain of history. 

               Guns, Germs and Steel was admired by biologists, but generally ignored by historians.  Why?  Because it wasn’t a very modern approach to history.  If history is reducible to nature (ecology and geography in one case, genetics in the other), then history doesn’t really happen.  You just wait long enough, and eventually it merely unfolds.  Why? Because the explanations for things lie outside of the relations among the things themselves, but lie instead in nature.  The historian William McNeill pointed that out in his review of Diamond in the New York Review of Books,  judging that book to be “a clever caricature rather than a serious effort to understand what happened across the centuries and millennia of world history.”  And finally, McNeill lowered the boom on Diamond’s politically correct, biologized history:  “I conclude that Diamond … has never condescended to become seriously engaged with the repeated surprises of world history, unfolding lifetime after lifetime and turning, every so often, upon single, deliberate acts.”  When Diamond objected that his book was profound and scientific, McNeill reiterated, arguing that historians have “more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history. He wants simple answers to processes far more complex than he has patience to investigate.”

               For the most part, though, historians were dazzled by Diamond’s erudition, relieved that he wasn’t a racist, impressed by the story he told, and they treated the book politely and deferentially.  And A Troublesome Inheritance is the racist chicken that has come home to roost.  Wade explicitly opposes his book to Diamond’s, and attempts to explain the big picture of human history not in terms of the shapes of the continents, but in terms of the innate qualities of the people inhabiting the continents.   History is not history, you see, it is genetics.

               At the heart of A Troublesome Inheritance is a simple dissimulation.   Wade repeatedly asserts that his interlocutors are mixing their politics with their science, but he isn’t, for he is just promoting value-neutral, ideology-free science.  And yet the primary sources for Wade’s discussion of the history of human society are Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington.  One gets the impression that either Wade is lying, or he wouldn’t be able to recognize ideology if looked him dead in the eye and slapped him silly.


               Before advancing his thesis, Wade prepares the way, explaining that – unlike what anthropologists have concluded – first, race is biologically real; second, the course of human history is biology; and third, this is all ideologically neutral.

               The problem, he believes, lies with the anthropologists, who have been ideologically corrupted, sometimes by their Marxism, sometimes by their desire to be politically correct, sometimes by their persecuted Jewish origins.  There is no indication that Wade realizes it, but this argument was originally put forward by a segregationist activist in the early 1960s named Carleton Putnam.  It was bullshit then, and it’s bullshit now.  Moreover, it was political then, and it’s political now.  In fact you can download it from the friendly folks at the Christian Identity Forum for free, or buy a copy for just $12.95 from Nicholas Wade’s supporters at the American Renaissance.   

          But that raises the question:  When Wade makes the argument that the topic is so political that anthropological science has been ideologically corrupted by anthropological politics, how do we know that Wade’s vision is not also political?  If you have already acknowledged that you are on political terrain, we should have some evidence that your own science is less politicized, especially when your views are so convergent with those of certain political extremists.  And when you consider that the most genetically knowledgeable reviewers of Wade’s work have found remarkably little value in his ideas about the subject, it does seem that Wade is rather more politicized than the anthropologists, not less.

               But this raises the odd question of just how a science journalist can position himself so self-consciously against the science he reports on.  Imagine a journalist writing a book claiming that chemists are all wrong about chemistry.   Would such a lunatic even find a publisher?    But anthropology  is a special science, and he does find a publisher.  Why?  Because, contrary to his own misbegotten contention, it is indeed political; it’s politics all the way down.  That doesn’t mean that there is no knowledge, of course, only that we have to be extra careful in evaluating the diverse kinds of data and conclusions, because there are more variables at work.

               Wade quickly notes that IQs differ geographically, and doesn’t question the assumption that this is a precise measure of small differences in innate brain power, but does reassure his readers that “a higher IQ score doesn’t make East Asians morally superior to other races.”  But moral ranking isn’t the issue; intellectual ranking is at issue.  And if you believe, as Wade does, that Africans have less of this innate brain power, on the average, than Europeans do – which implies that a randomly chosen African is likely to be constitutionally dumber than a randomly chosen European - well, that made you a racist in 1962, and that makes you a racist now.

               Wade lays out his ideas about race in Chapter 5, as a rhetorical exercise in selective and mis-reporting.  His centerpiece is a 2002 paper, published in Science by a group led by Stanford geneticist Marcus Feldman, which used a computer program called Structure to cluster populations of the world by their DNA similarities.  When they asked the computer to cluster peoples of the world into two groups, the computer gave them EurAfrica and Asia-Oceania-America.  When they asked the computer for three groups, the computer gave them Europe, Africa, and Asia-Oceania-America.  When they asked the computer for four groups, it gave them Europe, Africa, Asia-Oceania, and America.   When they asked it for five groups, it gave them essentially the continents.  And when it asked the computer for six, it gave them the continents and the Kalash people of Pakistan.  (They asked the computer for many more clusters, but only published the results up to six.)

               Wade misreported these results as validating the five races in The New York Times back in 2002.  In an important edited volume from 2008 called Revisiting Race In a Genomic Age, Deborah Bolnick explained the misinterpretation of the results from Structure, and the senior author of that study, Marcus Feldman, also explained those results quite differently than Wade does.  In fact, I’ve heard Feldman say that Wade has totally misrepresented his work and misquoted him.  Why, then, does Wade persist in this genetic misreporting?  Perhaps for the same reason he persists in his anthropological misreporting.  In Chapter 6, Wade casually explains that among “the Yanomamo of Venezuela and Brazil, aggressive men are valued as defenders in the incessant warfare between villages, and those who have killed in battle – the unokais – have on the average  2.5 more children than men who have not killed, according to the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon,” citing Chagnon’s 1988 paper that indeed made that claim.  And yet, although that claim has been definitively shown to be bunk – that is to say, not robustly derivable from the data – Wade continues to repeat it, most recently in The New York Times last year.   There is, again, a direct parallel to arguing with creationists here: they have their story and they will stick to it, and reality  just doesn’t matter to them.   (And just between you and me, I’d be very interested to find out what Napoleon Chagnon thinks of this book!)


“History is bunk” said Henry Ford, and Wade is not too keen to worry about getting his history right, either.  He presents the reader with Linnaeus’s 1735 classification of humans into species, rather than his 1758 classification of humans into subspecies (which is more important, since that is the work with which biological systematics officially begins).  He also says that “Linnaeus did not perceive a hierarchy of races,” although that is hard to reconcile with Linnaeus's terse descriptions of Europeans, Asians, Americans, and Africans for either covering (wears tight-fitting clothes, wears loose-fitting clothes, paints himself with fine red lines, anoints himself with grease) or governance (law, custom, opinion, caprice).  Sounds pretty hierarchical to me.

Moreover, says Wade, the 18th century American craniologist Samuel George Morton “did not in fact believe … that intelligence was correlated with brain size.”  Nevertheless Morton does characterize “The Caucasian Race” in Crania Americana (1839) as follows: “The skull is large and oval…. This race is endowed for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments.”  And for “The American Race,”  Morton records, “The skull is small…. In their mental character the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge….”  Sure sounds like he thought they were correlated.

Wade’s admiration for Morton seems to be based in large part on his uncritical reading of a bizarre 2011 article that made some unfounded claims against the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.   Wade actually quotes approvingly an especially false statement from that paper, “Morton, in the hands of Stephen Jay Gould, has served for 30 years as a textbook example of scientific misconduct.”   But that statement is doubly false: Morton’s work is not at all presented as a paradigmatic example of misconduct, and indeed, even Gould explicitly said it was unconscious bias, not scientific misconduct.  The paper quoted by Wade had bogus citations in support of that statement:  a book of mine that did not cite Morton at all on the subject of scientific misconduct, and a book by C. Loring Brace that explicitly cited it as not scientific misconduct.   I’ll let Gould speak for himself here:  “Yet through all this juggling, I detect no sign of fraud or conscious manipulation.”  [S. J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 1981: 69].

When Wade gets around to Darwin, he makes some impressive misstatements as well.  Darwin of course wrote The Origin of Species in 1859 and avoided the topic of people (which is probably why the book is still readable today).  But Wade keeps on:  “Humans were covered in his second volume, The Descent of Man, which appeared 12 years later.”  It’s hard to imagine The Descent of Man being Darwin’s “second volume” of anything, since he published two books (On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects and The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication) in between them.   And frankly, The Descent of Man was two volumes by itself. 

Wade’s treatment of social Darwinists is surprisingly cursory, given that he had been accused of being one of them in the pages of the leading science journal in the world.  Historians today appreciate that only in hindsight was social Darwinism monolithic and nameable, and it was significantly different from eugenics, at very least because the social Darwinists wanted less government interference, and the eugenicists wanted more.  The movements are united by the fact that they both assumed that the (visible) social hierarchy was an expression of an underlying (invisible) natural hierarchy; the “haves” were simply constitutionally better suited to “having” than were the “have-nots”.  As will become clear, Wade really does fall in with them.

Perhaps the most unhistorical aspect of Wade’s racial theory, presented at the end of Chapter 4, is that he seems to be oblivious to its origins and antecedents.   Wade claims to speak on behalf of Darwinism to legitimize his ideas, like many of the discarded ideologies he discusses early in the book.  But when he tells us that there are three great races associated with the continents of the Old World, and intermediate hybrid races at their zones of overlap, he is merely repackaging the pre-Darwinian Biblical myth of Ham, Shem and Japheth, the sons of Noah, who went forth, became fruitful, and multiplied.   The people Wade thinks are the least pure live precisely where the oldest fossil representatives of our species are known – East Africa and West Asia.  The idea that the human populations of Lagos, Oslo, and Seoul are primordial and pure is wrong (and creationist); those are simply the furthest, most extreme, and most different from one another. 

On p. 58, Wade names his adversaries for the first time: “Marxist academics”.   On p. 68, he goes after Ashley Montagu, attributing his anti-racist writings significantly to his Jewish origins.  (And for what it’s worth, Montagu fit nobody’s definition of a Marxist.)  On p. 119, Wade tells us that Montagu’s book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth, relied heavily on Richard Lewontin’s 1972 genetic work.  Perhaps the edition Wade skimmed indeed cited Lewontin’s work, but the first edition of Man’s Most Dangerous Myth was published in 1942, so I suspect that it was based on other data and arguments.  For a book about the engagement of race and genetics, it’s kind of odd that Wade seems to be oblivious to all work in the area prior to Lewontin’s.  And for a book that takes race as its central subject, it’s kind of odd that Wade doesn’t seem to be familiar with the source of Montagu’s campaign against the word “race” – which was derived from We Europeans, the 1935 book by the British biologist Julian Huxley and anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon.   Neither of them was Jewish, and not much in the way of Marxists, either.


It is when Wade ventures into evolutionary waters that his scholarly weaknesses become most evident.  His presentation of the evolutionary theory is reductive and freshman-level; it is hard to find a book on evolution today that fails to mention epigenetics, but this is one such book.  But to acknowledge the plasticity or adaptability of the human organism would be to undermine the theme of the independent, unforgiving external world exacting its selective toll on the human gene pool.  Flexibility and reactivity are not in Wade’s evolutionary arsenal – he constructs evolution as gene pools adapting to given external circumstances.  That is only a few decades out of date.

Similarly, he explains that “The words adapt and adaptation are always used here in the biological sense of a genetically based evolutionary response to circumstances” (p. 58).   Sure, except that that defines most adaptation (which really refers to the fit between an organism and its surroundings, of which a small subset is actually genetic) out of existence.

Evolutionary biology perhaps takes its biggest beating when Wade breezily tells us about ants.  “In the case of ants, evolution has generated their many different kinds of society by keeping the ant body much the same and altering principally the behavior of each society’s members.  People too live in many different types of society, and evolution seems to have constructed these with the same strategy – keep the human body much the same but change the social behavior.”  Of course he is comparing one species of humans with over 20,000 species of ants – that is to say, an orchard of apples with an orange.   By the next page (66), Wade actually appreciates the idiocy of the comparison, and concedes, “With human societies, institutions are largely cultural and based on a much smaller genetic component.” 

Wade also places a lot of emphasis on “in-groups” and “out-groups,” repeatedly asserting that we have an innate desire to support the ins, and to distrust, despise, or harm the outs.   Some data on domestic violence might disabuse naive readers about the validity of such a facile generalization.  So might some data on the flexibility of group membership, not to mention the constructed nature of the groups themselves.  Here’s a glib thought from p. 50: “ 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,” you need to watch “The Godfather” again.   (Sure, that was fiction, but then so is A Troublesome Inheritance, although less honestly labeled.)  If you try to weasel through with the phrase “your own group” then you need to think about the formlessness, situation-dependence, and segmentary nature of the “group” – What is Michael Corleone’s group? The Corleone family, 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?

On p. 49, we learn that “The urge to punish deviants 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 deviants to the invention of a simple genetic/mental module for it.   Moreover, if you remember first-wave sociobiology from the 1980s, one of the things the sociobiologists used to say was that there could be no group selection in humans since it requires coercive mechanisms in order to be a stable evolutionary strategy.   Apparently those coercive mechanisms were there after all, and those sociobiologists were all wet.  (As an ironic aside, first-wave sociobiology also cast itself consciously against anthropology, and Wade’s only blurb on the jacket for this awful book comes from E. O. Wilson, himself.)

Perhaps the most appalling feature of all is that Wade hasn’t even got the guts to own his thoughts, sprinkling the prose with disclaimers like, “Given the vast power of culture to shape human social behavior....”  Or, “a society’s achievements … are largely cultural in essence.”  And, “culture is a mighty force, and people are not slaves to innate propensities.” 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.  At best, Wade’s labor has effectively been to fabricate a small tail to wag a mighty big dog.

Wade’s neuroendocrinology is just as bad.   His representations of hormones and their actions and regulation are what one would expect to see in Cosmopolitan: oxytocin is the hormone of social trust: monoamine oxidase is an aggression gene.  Wade clearly wants readers to believe that their activities are set by natural selection, in spite of disclaimers like  “It is not yet by what specific mechanism the oxytocin levels in people are controlled” (p. 53).  And he has no reluctance to invoke science fiction where there is no science: after explaining to readers that he thinks African-Americans have a higher frequency of a violence gene, he mollifies them with the thought that other violence genes (that he hasn’t invented yet)  may be higher in whites.  “It is therefore impossible,” he intones, to say on genetic grounds that one race is genetically more prone to violence than another.”  But in the very next paragraph,  he clarifies, "that important aspects of human social behavior are shaped by the genes and that these behavior traits are likely to vary from one race to another”.

It does seem to me that the focus on the ontology of race is a red herring in this book.  Wade relies a lot more on other inaccurate invocations of genetics that are even more radical, and more importantly, political.  He overstates the isolation of prehistoric populations.  More importantly, what scholars think are changes in ways of life, Wade thinks are changes in genes and brains that lead to changes in ways of life.  Thus,  “a deep genetic change in social behavior underlay …. the transition from an agrarian to a modern society.... Most likely a shift in social behavior was required, a genetic change that reduced the level of aggressivity common in hunter-gatherer groups.”

And for all his rhetorical interest in races as natural categories, somehow the only group that merits their own chapter are ... the Jews!  The Jews seem to be central to the book’s meta-narrative, as one very sympathetic blogger on "White Identity, Interests, and Culture" explained: "I can’t think of any prominent race denial figures who are not Jewish. The backbone of the race denial movement was a specific radical Jewish subculture that had become entirely within the mainstream of the American Jewish community by the early twentieth century.... There is excellent evidence for their strong Jewish identifications, their concern with specific Jewish issues such as anti-Semitism, and for their hostility and sense of moral and intellectual superiority toward the traditional people and culture of America. Jonathan Marks is a contemporary example of this long and dishonorable tradition. The rise of the left to elite status in American society, beginning with universities, is key to understanding the race denial movement and the stifling political correctness that is all around us today."

Why is Wade so interested in the Jews, anyway?  His staunchest defenders sure are, too.  But the nature of their interest is highly anachronistic.  (Actually the Jews are of some legitimate scholarly interest today in what we might call “the anthropology of genetics” – for example, in the recent excellent work of anthropologist Nadia Abu el-Haj, and historian Veronika Lipphardt.)

And finally, his view of the origin of the industrial revolution in England involves mutations in the upper economic classes for “nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience” and their diffusion by gene flow into the lower classes in Late Medieval times.   This is a slightly new spin on a set of old prejudices, but hardly science, much less modern or value-free science.  Wade doubles down on this a few pages later, too: “The burden of proof is surely shifted to those who might wish to assert that the English population was miraculously exempt from the very forces of natural selection whose existence it had suggested to Darwin.”

Afraid not.  The burden of proof still lies with the disseminator of outmoded, racist ideologies masquerading as science.  Wade simply believes he can construct his own reality by selective reading, misrepresentation, and continuous repetition.  This is a golem of science journalism, a powerful monster running amok under its own impetus, burdened by neither responsibility nor wisdom. 

We write books for a reason. So, given the abysmal quality of the scholarship, misrepresentation and dismissal of the relevant science, and the embrace by the most reprehensible elements in modern politics, what do you suppose was Nicholas Wade's motivation for writing A Troublesome Inheritance?   Does he really believe his own lies, or is he merely pandering?