There are three interesting differences between Nicholas Wade’s new book A Troublesome Inheritance and The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray twenty years ago. The first is that The Bell Curve really did try to make itself look like science. Herrnstein was a real psychologist, and it was a big fat book with statistics and graphs. And several critical volumes later, we know that it was bullshit from top to bottom.
Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, by contrast, doesn’t even try to pretend to be science or to look like science. It is purely a work of the second- (and sometimes third-) hand: Here is a scientific conclusion I heard about. Wade even tells the reader that the second half is "speculative," which makes it sound as if the book belongs in the genre of racist sci-fi.
The second difference is that The Bell Curve took us all more or less by surprise, because we thought that we had put to rest the nested set of falsehoods that ideologue psychologists like Arthur Jensen had been saying even earlier in the century: that IQ measures an innate, linear and generalized brain force that some people have more of and some people have less of; that IQ is largely determined by one’s genetic constitution; that since some groups score worse than other groups on IQ tests, it means that they are genetically condemned, on average, to be less intelligent. Actually, it turns out that although isolated for decades in an intellectual racist ghetto, those kinds of things were still being said; and The Bell Curve cited over twenty papers each by Arthur Jensen, and by that new scientific racist on the block, Phil Rushton. A Troublesome Inheritance, by contrast, was being promoted months in advance; and although the scientific community didn’t get advance copies as quickly as the white supremacists did, we did have some prep time, so that we didn’t have to be totally reactive after its publication.
The third difference is possibly the most important, and it is that Nicholas Wade’s book is coming out in the age of the internet and social media. Back in 1994 there were a lot of naive reviewers who said, “Well, this sounds fishy, but it seems true, and these guys seem to know that they’re talking about....” But in 2014, any reviewer who wants to be minimally conscientious has ready access to some quick and strong critical responses to the book. I wrote two of them: one for In These Times, and one for the American Anthropological Association, which came out in the Huffington Post.
Agustín Fuentes had his critical comments in Psychology Today and the Huffington Post, and debated against Wade on a AAA podcast, showing pretty clearly that Wade did not know what he was talking about, and has egregiously misrepresented the state of scientific knowledge about human diversity. Alan Goodman had his critical comments published in Counterpunch. And Jennifer Raff, a post-doc who actually works on the DNA of ancient human populations, wrote a strong critique on her blog and the HuffPost. The point is that there are substantive criticisms out there on the web for naive, or just curious, reviewers and readers to draw on – which weren’t so easily accessible immediately after the publication of The Bell Curve.
|Yes, conspiracy nuts. That would be me and Alan Goodman presenting Ashley Montagu
with the Darwin Award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, circa 1994.
I think this has had an effect, because there aren’t too many reviews out there saying that Wade’s rubbish is erudite and sounds possible and darn it all, just might be true. There was one early one, I think. You’ve got the positive reviews by political radicals and by the political theorist who co-authored The Bell Curve, and a couple of graduate students in evolutionary psychology who will probably be wishing they had known a lot more about the subject before posting that review, when they eventually hit the job market. And then you’ve got the negative reviews by everyone else. Geneticist H. Allen Orr. Geneticist Jerry Coyne. Sci-tech writer Ian Steadman. Biological anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson. Biologist P. Z. Myers. Writer Patrick Appel. Science writer Pete Shanks. Editor Brian Bethune. The X. Arthur Allen. Science historian Nathaniel Comfort.
Now, in an act of apparent desperation, Mr. Wade is taking on his critics.
Let us review the main points of the book, shall we?
- · Racism is bad, and there have been abuses of science in the past.
- · Everybody else sees human variation as a bio-political issue, but it really isn’t.
- · 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”.
- · These races have genetic distinctions that cause personality distinctions.
- · So do economic strata and nations.
- · Global geo-political history has a significant genetic component.
(Just to show you I’m not making this up, Wade actually purports to be 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”.)
The idea that there is a conspiracy to prevent discussing human diversity within the academy is particularly bizarre, since that has been a regular – indeed, central – part of the curriculum of biological anthropology for many decades. After The Bell Curve, the American Anthropological Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists produced position papers on race, so that the public could know what we have learned about it, the state of the science of human variation, so we can move on.
Wade dismisses both statements categorically. Even if they summarize the data and scientific knowledge that we possess, they are, says Wade, the products of politically deluded minds. Unlike his.
Wait a minute, isn't that a political statement?
Interestingly, though, the most positive reviews of Wade’s book have come from political extremists, of the sort that you wouldn’t want to invite to family reunions.
Makes me wonder whether his claim to political neutrality is just amazingly stupid, or a simple lie. For what it’s worth, history can sometimes be illuminating: the paranoid claim that you can’t talk about human variation on campus because of the commie thought-police was put out there first in the early 1960s by the segregationists; then revived by Jon Entine in his horrid 2000 book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid To Talk About It; it isn’t even original with Wade.
The taboo on race in the study of human variation is directly parallel to the taboo on creationism in the study of human origins. We used to think it was true, we now know differently, and to talk about it today marks you as someone who is ignorant of the science, and is irrationally committed to an outmoded and false understanding of biological anthropology.
What does Wade have to say in his defense?
It takes only a few vigilantes to cow the whole campus. Academic researchers won't touch the subject of human race for fear that their careers will be ruined. Only the most courageous will publicly declare that race has a biological basis. ... The understanding of recent human evolution has been seriously impeded, in my view, because if you can't study the genetics of race (a subject of no special interest in itself), you cannot explore the independent evolutionary histories of Africans, East Asians and Europeans.
There is an element of truth to that. It’s not in the accusation of vigilantism, since the position opposite to Wade's is the normative position of the community of scholarly experts. It’s not in the courage to talk about race as a natural category (“has a biological basis” is a vacuous statement, since there is a biological basis for everything; the scholarly issue is whether races are primarily categories of nature or of social history). It’s the last statement that contains the element of truth. And it’s not in the first clause; the study of the genetics of race is an old research program in biological anthropology, and I’ve written about how it killed itself off. No, it’s in the thought that “you cannot explore the independent evolutionary histories of Africans, East Asians and Europeans.” If you believe that there are “independent evolutionary histories of Africans, East Asians and Europeans” then you misunderstand human evolution, for human histories are not independent of one another. They may be separate to varying extents, but they are also biologically connected in all kinds of interesting ways, and if you aren’t prepared to acknowledge that, then you don’t know enough to be taken seriously. Nor are they units of nature, to be taken for granted. The idea that the continents somehow represent natural units of human biology is empirically false, and when you read up on the history of the continents – the intellectual history, not the geological history – you quickly see how it could not be otherwise.
The attacks on my book come from authors who espouse the social science position that there is no biological basis to race. It is because they are defending an ideological position with a counterfactual scientific basis that their language is so excessive. If you don't have the facts, pound the table. My three Huffington Post critics -- Jennifer Raff, Agustín Fuentes and Jonathan Marks -- are heavy on unsupported condemnations of the book, and less generous with specific evidence.
Speaking just for myself, all of my condemnations of the book were entirely supported. There is hardly anything I’ve enjoyed more in the last few months than quoting this horrid anti-intellectual book to my friends. Why? Because I think Wade can speak for himself, and when he does, you hear words that are familiarly ignorant and racist. I don’t like ignorance and racism, and correcting them is kind of my job.
Despite their confident assertions that I have misrepresented the science, which I've been writing about for years in a major newspaper, none of these authors has any standing in statistical genetics, the relevant discipline. Raff is a postdoctoral student in genetics and anthropology. Fuentes and Marks are both anthropologists who, to judge by their webpages, do little primary research. Most of their recent publications are reviews or essays, many of them about race. Their academic reputations, not exactly outsize to begin with, might shrink substantially if their view that race had no biological basis were to be widely repudiated. Both therefore have a strong personal interest (though neither thought it worth declaring to the reader) in attempting to trash my book.
There is a self-interest at work, but it’s the same self-interest that we have vis-a-vis a creationist. We have devoted our adult lives to understanding the subject of human origins and diversity. The only appropriate way for you, as an amateur, to challenge the authority of science on the subject is to show that you know more than your biological anthropology interlocutors, not to impugn their scholarly credentials (that you have none of, in any event). It’s also weird, again, coming from the standpoint of scholarship, that Mr. Wade is first discovering our work, from our webpages, and that “many of [our publications] are about race”. Then I must say that I find it odd that he didn’t read them before he published a book on the subject.
And hey, when did statistical genetics – which Mr. Wade doesn’t speak for, anyhow – suddenly become the only relevant intellectual area? The fact is that statistical genetics doesn’t support Wade – as indeed the history of the statistical genetical study of human diversity, and the work Wade himself cites, both show. Wade makes reference to the 2002 study in Science that used a computer program called Structure on the human gene pool.
Raff and Marks take issue with one of these surveys, which used a computer program to analyze the clusters of genetic variation. The program doesn't know how many clusters there should be; it just groups its data into whatever target number of clusters it is given. When the assigned number of clusters is either greater or less than five, the results made no genetic or geographical sense. But when asked for five clusters, the program showed that everyone was assigned to their continent of origin. Raff and Marks seem to think that the preference for this result was wholly arbitrary and that any other number of clusters could have been favored just as logically. But the grouping of human genetic variation into five continent-based clusters is the most reasonable and is consistent with previous findings. As the senior author told me at the time, the Rosenberg study essentially confirmed the popular notion of race.
Two fairly big things wrong there. First, Wade's unscientific reasoning, which is quite different from that of the authors. Wade says that since the runs for K<5 and K>5 yield racial nonsense, then we should accept the run at K=5 as being racially meaningful simply because it fits in with his a priori notion of human diversity. If that logic had been used in the paper itself, it would not have been publishable. The correct conclusion is that unless you have a better (i.e., independent) reason, you have to assume that the result at K=5 is just as racially nonsensical as the rest of them. In science, we don’t juggle variables until we find a result that we like and then say that it is correct because we like it. Second, “the senior author” was Marcus Feldman of Stanford, whom Wade indeed quoted in 2002 in the Times: "Dr. Feldman said the finding essentially confirmed the popular conception of race.” Except that I’ve heard Feldman specifically deny having said that to Wade, claiming he was abjectly misquoted there.
In fact, it was at the very conference that inspired Deborah Bolnick to write her trenchant critique of the racial abuse of Structure. So I don’t think Wade knows the statistical genetics, quite frankly, any more than he knows the biological anthropology. Geneticist Jeremy Yoder is none too satisfied with Wade's treatment of the Structure work, either.
I honestly also don’t think that the ontology of race is the most important stupid idea in the book – it’s kind of a red herring beside the stupider idea that the industrial revolution in England was driven by the genes for “nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience” that Wade imagines to have arisen as mutation in the upper classes in the Middle Ages, and then diffused by gene flow into the lower classes. As I mentioned above, even Wade tells the reader that he's speculating, in which case we either judge it as science fiction, or place it in context of all of the other genetic theories of history that have been proposed and rejected.
But let’s return to try and make some sense of what Wade means by “race” in his rebuttal.
[R]aces are not and cannot be discrete .... In fact, the races are not demarcated at all. They differ only in relative allele frequency, meaning that a given allele may be more common in one race than in another. ...
Humans cluster into five continental groups or races, and within each race there are further subclusters. So the number of human races depends on the number of clusters one wishes to recognize.... [T]his has no bearing on whether or not races exist.
Once again, there is truth here, but Wade can't identify it. There is geographic structure in the human gene pool, but that is not race. There, I said it. I’ve said that every semester for thirty years. Nobody denies that there is geographic structure in the human gene pool. But if you call that “race” then you are using the word “race” in a new and heretofore unprecedented way. It's similar to the way some geneticists were redefining it in the 1960s, but then realized it was intractable. Why? Because if the only factor that determines the number and kinds of clusters that you see in the human gene pool is how closely you examine it, then race (as genetic cluster) is not a natural feature, but a bio-cultural construction. The most relevant variable is simply the scope of your analysis, which is arbitrary. The genetic clusters are real, but there's no sense in calling them races. They're just arbitrarily-sized clumps of allele frequencies. Or, for lack of a better word, "populations".
What’s the alternative? That the human gene pool is homogeneous? No anthropologist has ever thought that.
The lesson here is a basic one at the undergraduate level in biological anthropology: Discovering difference is not race; discovering geographic difference is not race; and if race is all you can think about, then you aren’t going to get very far in understanding the nature of the human gene pool.
But as I said, I think race is a bit of a red herring here, since when all is said and done, the only people who merit their own chapter in Wade’s book are the Jews. And yes, we do have a lot of familiarity in the history of anthropology with people who are obsessed with race and with Jews. We can just add Mr. Wade to that list of unscholarly writers who don’t know the modern data or literature on human diversity, and who mistake their feelings and prejudices for thoughts.
So who actually likes Wade’s book anyway, aside from Charles Murray, some snot-nosed evolutionary psychology students, and the white supremacists? I suspect that even other elitist Etonians are running away at full stride, rather than be caught in such company.