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Review of A Troublesome Inheritance

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Written by Dr. Jonathan Marks (UNC - Charlotte)

Nicholas Wade is one of the premier science journalists in America, and an avid promoter of molecular genetics, particularly as applied to anthropological questions. A discussion of his new book about genetics and anthropology, "A Troublesome Inheritance" should probably begin with a recollection of his last book on the subject, "Before the Dawn" (2007).

The reviewer for the journal Science 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 the author was deemed to be "in step with a long march of social darwinists." And to gauge from the new book, he still is.

The line that sums up the scholarly merits of the book actually appears in the Acknowledgments, "Both religion and race are essential but strangely unexplored aspects of the human condition." Actually, of course, in any library there are lots of bookshelves filled with the explorations of both of these subjects; one would have to cast a strangely blind eye to the relevant literatures in order to say something like that. Which brings us to the scholarly vacuum at hand.

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 professors 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 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."

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 in the eye and slapped him silly.

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 up to seventeen 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 "Revising Race in a Genomic Age"), Deborah Bolnick explained the misinterpretation of the results from Structure, and in the same book the senior author of that study, Marcus Feldman, also explained those results quite differently than Wade does. 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.

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. But 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. And the idea that the human populations of Lagos, Oslo, and Seoul are primordial and pure is just wrong (and creationist); those are simply the furthest, most extreme, and most different from one another.

From the (social Darwinist) presumption of genetic differences in the capabilities of the British social classes, Wade tracks "nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience" into the lower classes via gene flow. This is a slightly new spin on a set of old prejudices, but hardly science, much less modern or value-free science. 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 panderer 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 the golem of science journalism, a powerful monster running amok under its own power, burdened by neither responsibility nor wisdom.

Jonathon Marks is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. This year he is on sabbatical as a Templeton Fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study. His area of expertise is human evolution and variation, race, molecular genetics and evolution, human genetics, and physical anthropology. His blog is Anthropomics.