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.  

I

               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.

II

               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.

III

               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!)

IV

“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.

V

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: “...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,” 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?



6 comments:

  1. Your almost-book-length rebuttal of everything in Wade's book, including "and" and "the", is convincing! But then I'm a member of all the groups that Wade argues get everything wrong....

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  2. Another excellent response; thanks! One minor thing: where you say, "For the most part, though, historians were dazzled by Diamond’s erudition..." you mean biologists, not historians, right?

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    1. No, I think the historians were kind of overwhelmed and deferential and gave him a freer pass than he deserved. I think McNeill's review was quite exceptional in that regard.

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  3. http://online.wsj.com/articles/david-altshuler-and-henry-louis-gates-race-in-the-age-of-genomics-1402094811

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  4. The cliff notes version of Wade's book:

    http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/rassenpo.htm

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  5. Interesting how I've never seen a single critical review of Harpending & Cochran's book.

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