06/09/2014 09:23 am ET Updated Aug 09, 2014

A Troublesome Controversy

Nicholas Wade's book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History has been out for a month, and the fuss, such as it was, seems to be dying down. As of June 6, its Amazon rank has dropped to 1300 (it did briefly hit 21), while Barnes and Noble has it at 34,695, and in The New York Times it's only at 7 in Science Times, below the long-running hit about Henrietta Lacks.

A roundup of reviews by a supporter essentially confirms that those scientists who bothered to review the book panned it. The Genetic Literacy Project is listed as a positive review, but in fact that's just a report on Charles Murray's piece in the Wall Street Journal. The minority who were predisposed to agree with his thesis -- self-described "race realists" and the like, including some anti-semites at David Duke's site -- by and large came away wondering why Wade didn't go further.

So, is "scientific racism" dead? Unfortunately, it's too soon for that particular funeral. This was just a bad book.

The biologists and anthropologists have taken mighty whacks at A Troublesome Inheritance, though the historians seem to have wisely ignored it. As one raised British, however, I cannot resist quoting Wade's summary (derived from the work of Gregory Clark) of the changes in England that led to the Industrial Revolution:

Most children of the rich had to sink in the social scale, given that there were too many of them to remain in the upper class. Their social descent had the far-reaching genetic consequence that they carried with them inheritance for the same behaviors that had made their parents rich. The values of the upper middle class -- nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience -- were thus infused into lower economic classes and throughout society. Generation after generation, they gradually became the values of the society as a whole.

This is nuts. On many levels, even without the posited evolution of the English gene pool. Did the aristocracy really get rich by being patient, thrifty, well-read pacifists? Uh, no. What Wade is caricaturing here is the petit-bourgeois social armament against exploitation by their employers. It's bad history, bad economics, bad sociology, bad psychology ... to go along with the crackpot science.

But the topic is important, not because this book is a menace to society -- though it would be if taken seriously -- but because the category error that confuses human genetic variation with socially constructed race remains all too common.

As witness, this doubtless well-intentioned article by Victoria Colliver in the San Francisco Chronicle on May 20:

Racial diversity crucial to trials of drugs, treatments

Diversity is certainly important. A trial that included only or mostly men for a condition that also affects women would obviously be lacking, though sadly unsurprising. (A recent paper showed that evolutionary biologists studying genitalia still tend to study penises.) Social communities may indeed be worth studying, for their shared environmental and attitudinal responses. And that does tend to map, to an extent, with self-identified race.

But to think that the problem of genetic diversity in a population sample has been adequately addressed by applying socially constructed race is to make a crucial mistake. And one that may have serious consequences, as social disadvantages are redefined as genetic, with all the baggage that can entail.

Wade repeatedly insists that he actively opposes racism:

The issue is how best to sustain the fight against racism in light of new information from the human genome that bears on race.

That was from his attempt to answer his critics. Anthropologist Agustín Fuentes (whose early conversation with Wade about the book set the prevailing tone of well-warranted critical dismissal) responded, again, that Wade knows not whereof he speaks:

Humans vary biologically, and we are not all the same. But there is only one biological race at present in our species. Understanding that, and the science behind it, is critical.