Today the New York Times Book Review published its advance online version of my review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. (It will appear in print this Sunday.) Others have already reviewed this book elsewhere, with particularly sharp takes coming from Jennifer Raff, Eric Johnson, Michael Eisen, H. Allen Orr, Jerry Coyne, and, also at the Times, Arthur Allen. You’ll find a fuller listing within Daniel Lende’s review at NeuroAnthropology; and another, with many favorable reviews, and ad hominem attacks and annotations I largely disagree with accompanying critical reviews, at Occam’s Razor.)
I’m afraid my own review is not exactly glowing. Given how hard it is to write a book, I generally don’t review books I dislike — unless I think they’re dangerous, laughably bad, or abusive of a position of authority. There’s nothing laughable about this one. Wade demonstrates how a lucid, well-written, selective presentation of evidence — eloquent, elegant cherry-picking — can sell smart people pernicious ideas that seem scientific, but which science does not support. Much of the sleight of hand in this book will not be evident to people who don’t know the field. In some cases one has to read a specific paper cited by Wade to recognize that he thoroughly misrepresents its findings.
There are other sleights of hand as well. From my review:
Wade … indulges in circular logic. He tells just-so stories. While warning us to avoid filtering science through politics, he draws heavily from conservative historians who minimize the roles played by political power, geographic advantage, momentum, disease and dumb luck. Conveniently, this leaves more historical questions for genetics to answer.
And despite his protests to the contrary, Wade often sounds as if he sees the rise of the West as a sort of stable endpoint of human history and evolution — as if, having considered 5,000 years in which history has successively blessed the Middle East, the Far East, and the Ottoman Empire, he observes the West’s current run of glory and thinks the pendulum has stilled.
If Wade could point to genes that give races distinctive social behaviors, we might overlook such shortcomings. But he cannot.
Something I lacked room to explore in the NYTBR review was Wade’s dismissal of culture. He repeatedly overlooks or ignores that culture provides a way through which societies can create and pass on values or behaviors. This dismissal is necessary, of course, for his argument that genetic differences create different social behaviors in “the three major races.” (These, per Wade, are Caucasians, East Asians, and sub-Saharan Africans; he more or less dismisses Austronesians and Native Americans from the race race.) He argues Caucasians are more trusting and cooperative, for instance, because genetic selection has made them so. But because he can’t plausibly point to specific trust-and-cooperation genes that were selected for, he ends up arguing that these group’s differences in social behavior must be genetic, or they would not be so persistent.
This, of course, is not just a just-so story but a tautology. It also ignores a wealth of findings showing that culture provides a powerful and flexible way for behaviors to evolve and pass on. In fact, transferring values, behaviors, and practices is culture’s entire purpose. Clearly genes give us the general power to create culture; we get that power from genes that create brains that help us make tools, form concepts, remember, and communicate. Those genes we all share. But there’s no evidence of genetic differences of the sort Wade insists upon, the sort that create race-specific differences in social behavior.
Wade asks an awful lot. He asks us to accept his premises as facts. He asks that we accept what he describes as the plausible and the possible as the most probable — and then to accept that what he describes as the most probable is an inconvenient truth we must face.
Finally, he asks us to accept that a causal link explains a (purported) association between two (highly questionable) assertions — namely, that Caucasians are more fit for modern life because Caucasians have distinctive genetic make-ups selected to do so. In asserting this link he is asking us to set aside one of science’s most fundamental tenets. This is the null hypothesis — the principle that we should not assert a causal relationship between two phenomena unless there’s hard evidence for doing so. Wade has no such evidence for his assertions. Yet he asks repeatedly that we set aside the null hypothesis and indulge him.
And why? To speak of three genetic races, one more fit than the others, instead of a world of ever-changing overlapping genetic populations. To see humanity in three colors, divided, instead of in its rich and continuous spectrum.
Which is why I find this a “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”
Note: I’m grateful to several anonymous readers who vetted drafts of my New York Times Book Review review, and to the fine editors and fact-checkers at that publication.