Whites Win, Because Genes. My Times review of “A Troublesome Inheritance”

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 EisenH. Allen OrrJerry 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.

30 responses

  1. I probably like Wade’s book more than you do but what I do not like is all the New Creationism that many of Wade’s critics are invoking:

    http://oi58.tinypic.com/33my649.jpg#sthash.1Q7J4iSV.dpuf

    The “race is a social construct” mantra of Cultural Marxists is not only wrong but is also just plain tiresome. These Cultural Marxists are the true enemies of Darwin, so, at the end of the day, I must side with Darwin against these ideological critics.

  2. You’ll probably hate what I have to say then, summarized by my post “Squid Ink”. Go check it out…

    I’m going to leave my comments to your review here. Your review is not a negative one, but, more importantly, it’s not an accurate review either, and that’s where I take exception.

    Indeed, over the past 150 years, various white Western scientists and writers have repeatedly offered biological explanations for Caucasian superiority. They have repeatedly failed because, as Mc­Closkey noted, none ever mounted a credible quantitative argument.

    Except that you’re wrong.

    Genetic selection for distinctive physical traits in different populations, such as lighter skin to maximize sunlight absorption, is well established and widely accepted. Decidedly not well established, however, is Wade’s proposal that genetic selection gives different human populations distinct behaviors.

    Frankly, I don’t understand the intellectual hang-up on this point. At least 84% of all genes are expressed in the brain. If body changed in response to selection, thanks to adaptation to different environments, then it is a priori expected that brain will change as well, especially since each environment that exerted these selective pressures also made different cognitive demands. Never mind the facts that there are visible differences in the brain across groups (particularly, size) and that behavioral traits are known to be highly heritable.

    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.

    With good reason. Those themselves are “just-so” stories. I simply don’t understand the monstrously high bar of evidence demanded for biological explanations but the slipshod acceptance of various “cultural” and “environmental” ones. Are they also not subject to critical evaluation?

    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.

    The “West” (i.e., Northwestern, Germanic Europe) pulled away from the rest of the world long ago. See my points here:

    “Racial Reality” Provides My 150th Post | JayMan’s Blog

    If Wade could point to genes that give races distinctive social behaviors, we might overlook such shortcomings. But he cannot.

    We have a hard time pointing to genes that literally cause people to overcome shortcomings – height. Human height is highly heritable, yet finding the genes that cause it has proven very difficult. Yet we don’t dispute its highly genetic basis.

    That paper found that people from different regions do indeed tend to have distinctive genomes. But Wade errs in saying the paper supports his idea that genetic selection has created races with particular social inclinations.

    To begin with, the 2008 study mentions nothing about race. It merely establishes that many of the slight differences between human genomes cluster by geography at many scales, including continents, and that genomes from any given location will most likely be similar, just as two people from a particular place will most likely speak with similar accents.

    Well, duh! What do you think that is?

    It’s not a car, it’s an automobile… :\

    In fact, they say the differences can be largely explained by “random drift” — arbitrary changes in genes having little to no effect on people’s biology or behavior.

    Because skin color or eye folds are the result of random drift… :\

    One can find more productive ways to think about genes. As a physician who researches and treats rare genetic disorders, Sharon Moalem, the author of “Inheritance,” sees firsthand how sharply DNA can constrain our lives. Yet “our genes aren’t as fixed and rigid as most of us have been led to believe,” he says, for while genetic defects often create havoc, variable gene expression (our genes’ capacity to respond to the environment with a flexibility only now being fully recognized) can give our bodies and minds surprising resilience.

    Dangerously close to uttering the “E” word here. Surprised you don’t.

    In his new book, Moalem describes riveting dramas emerging from both defective genes and reparative epigenetics.

    Moalem sometimes tries too hard to entertain, and he may overstate the extent to which trauma-related gene expression changes tend to be lasting and heritable.

    Never mind. But kudos for avoiding falling into that tempting trap. :)

    Indeed, I’ll just leave with my own post on the importance of genes to health:

    IQ and Death | JayMan’s Blog

    Your review doesn’t do much to clear up the situation, and indeed, you just confuse the matter more, sadly. Don’t take this reply as anything personal, but it doesn’t help much to obfuscate the matter in the way you have.

  3. The so called New Creationism is a cute meme that I’ve now seen posted in a hundred places. And by cute I mean obnoxious and offensive, meaningless and incorrect.

    So, yeah, tiresome.

    If you have a really bad piece of science, lead with the accusation. That’ll do it.

    Nice review, David.

  4. Don’t tire your arms out beating that straw man, Reader. Biological anthropologists agree that “race” is a largely useless term, because humans have clines, not races – there are intermediate populations for any trait whose distribution you care to examine.

    Futhermore, “Cultural Marxism” doesn’t mean what you think it means. It’s a tiny and unpopular movement in sociology, not the social scientific consensus. And it’s sure as hell not synonymous with political correctness, egalitarianism, or (yes) the assertion that race is a social construct.

    I should add that positioning yourself as the brave defender of Darwin doesn’t make you sound like a fearless friend of science; it makes you sound like you’ve never heard of the Modern Synthesis.

  5. The review, and this further commentary, is just depressing in its bias.

    Let’s just take a quick gander at some of the howlers.

    You write:

    “Finally, he asks us to accept that a causal link explains a (purported) association between two (questionable) assertions — namely, that Caucasians are more fit for modern life because Caucasians have distinctive genetic make-ups selected to do so. In doing so 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 casual link 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.”

    But how can it fail to dawn on you that the cultural/environmental causal explanation for differences between the races is likewise not established with anything like a certainty? From a scientific point of view, nothing could be more obvious that the cultural/environmental explanation and the genetic explanation are competing accounts of the differences, and that indeed a real possibility is that those differences derive from some combination of the two factors. Acting, as you do, as if the genetic hypothesis is some poor cousin from a scientific point of view is pure ignorance and bias. Essentially every disparaging remark you make about the genetic hypothesis can be thrown back in the face of the cultural hypothesis with equal justice.

    Everywhere you look in your review, you repeat this mistake. You accuse Wade of making up “just so” stories. But why aren’t the accounts one always sees explaining away, say, the deficits of certain African countries as stemming entirely from the colonization not “just so” stories? Why are those kinds of “just so” stories permissible, when genetic “just so” stories are silly and unscientific? Why is the rankest speculation on cultural explanations allowed, but any speculation — such as Wade’s — on genetic explanations wild, unscientific, and outrageous? Why?

    And as usual you make a big deal over the fact that Wade can’t point to genes that lie behind differences in intelligence. But do we need to point to the actual genes that make Pygmies small and Tutsi tall to conclude that the difference is genetic? Why can’t we come to similar conclusions regarding social traits even though we can’t point to the actual genes, if there exists other kinds of evidence of genetic differences on a trait? (Cross racial adoption studies serve as one potential source of evidence.)

  6. So many desperate “why”‘s so I can’t help but bite.

    Because recent history says that explaining correlations with built-in, deterministic, biological, genetic causation is dangerous to humankind. That’s why. And no one is sorry if that harshes anyone’s intellectual mellow. Grow up.

    • What your argument here amounts to is that we can’t handle the truth, so we must pretend that perfectly scientific speculations are now somehow deplorably unscientific. This we must do even while the other side of the very issue is free to engage in equally or even more ungrounded speculation with impunity or even praise.

      You need to ask yourself: do you have any basic respect for the truth? And do you get that the truth and its implications don’t go away just because we avert our eyes? How often does avoiding an important and basic truth work as a strategy over the long haul?

      It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t pursue certain questions because we can’t accept certain answers–a questionable argument in any case. It’s quite another to encourage a situation in which one side, and one side only, is allowed to make its case, and to shout down, shame, and falsely accuse of scientific incompetence and bias those on the other side for any attempt to make to make their case.

      You don’t come out of that sort of ugly behavior with any respect for either the truth or basic integrity.

      A little honesty on these points would go a long way.

      • Triuth? What’s true is that Wade offers nowhere near the level of evidence required to lend his hypothesis credibility. It’s just that simple. It utterly fails as science – yet he presents it as so. History has show. Us repeatedly why this is not acceptable when it comes to issues this laden.

  7. I took a tone up there that I haven’t yet in this drawn-out, sometimes absolutely horrific discussion we’ve been having since Wade’s book was published … And although it’s authentic and I’m not sorry for it, I’m not entirely happy with how I presented it.

    • The reason its horrific is because the argument is with people who want to impose their will onto others. To classify people before they are even born into their constructed categories. To put a little label on them like mice in a lab. To pry into peoples most personal things, and then to use that information for whatever they want. On top of that this is all based on some temporary average in the same shared variants of the SAME genes. How shallow do you have to be to do that?

      What kind of discussion do you think you will have with such people? Never mind the science behind it.

  8. It’s worth noting that Wilhelm Johannsen, who coined the word ‘gene’, recognized way back in 1911 the important distinction between behavioral traits and more purely physical traits:

    1) When it comes to genetics and heredity, parental traits don’t directly cause offspring traits; traits are transmitted indirectly via genes:

    “The personal qualities of any individual organism do not at all cause the qualities of its offspring; but the qualities of both ancestor and descendant are in quite the same manner determined by the nature of the “sexual substances”—i.e., the gametes—from which they have developed.”

    2) But in the case of behavior & culture it works differently: traits are not only transmitted indirectly through genes, but also *directly*, through tradition:

    “As to the evolution of human civilization, we meet with true ancestral influences… Tradition is playing a very great role, but tradition is quite different from heredity.”

    • Too bad for him modern behavioral genetic studies show that the shared environment term – which represents the direct “cultural” transmission from parents to child is exactly zero.

  9. Best joke of 21st century.You carried out this myth for 300+ years,now 122 IQ Bengali Brahmins have 1000 times more inventions in your own country & definitely 50 times higher even in 3rd world India.

  10. Great job deconstructing the Wade book David. The racists always come out of the woodwork when they see this kind of incisive comment and tell us how courageous they are for being racist…

  11. Also just as an interesting note. Humans have a much smaller genome than wheat. We are around the same as a fruit fly IIRC.

  12. You state that Deirdre McLosky did a “take down” of Clark’s arguments, but don’t inform them of Clark’s response. Why not? Clark commented:

    “Adapting one of Bowles’ points McCloskey tries to land a knockout blow. Regression to the mean would in a few generations destroy any effects of “survival of the richest” on behavior, by taking descendants back to the average characteristics of the population. Such selection could thus only influence behavior for any descendants of the economically successful for a few generations.

    This is just a misunderstanding of the concept of regression to the mean. If McCloskey was right farmyard animals would all be at their medieval sizes still, and instead of the wonderful modern extravagance of dog breeds all dogs would have the characteristics of wolves and would make bad house pets. As a further reduction as absurdum man would never have evolved from apes in the

    first place. Why haven’t creationists latched onto this wonderful insight, which according to McCloskey Galton, the great Social Darwinist fully appreciated (and yet clung to Social Darwinism)?

    The reason is that if we take a population that varies on some characteristic, such as height, and eliminate the bottom 10 percent of the height distribution in one generation then we will for all time change the average height of that population. This is because we have changed the average underlying average genotype of the population. Because of regression to the mean the long run effect will not be as great as on the current generation. Because of random and environmental effects some of the people we removed had a large genotype, and some people we left in had the small genotype. But all regression to the mean in future generations will be to this higher mean. If we keep removing the bottom 10 percent of the population then over generations average height will keep increasing, and the variance of height diminishing, until we get to the maximum genetic potential for height in the population.4…

    McCloskey challenges me to be a true scientist and calculate the quantitative magnitude of the selection process posited. This is a straightforward calculation, and it shows that it would have strong effects. There is ample evidence that even in a few thousand years there could be significant changes in expressed human nature, by processes of inheritance within families. We know from quantitative genetics that this possibility depends just on two parameters:

    (1) How hereditable was orientation towards economic success? How much did the economic performance of fathers predict that of sons?

    (2) How much reproductive advantage did the rich have?

    Since economic orientation was and is highly hereditable, and it conferred large reproductive advantages, expressed human behavior could change quite quickly in the pre-industrial world.

    Note that people’s economic behaviors are influenced by three systematic forces: their genes, culture vertically inherited from their parents, and culture horizontally acquired from the society they live in. For purposes of social policy the most important distinction is not between genes and culture, but is between traits acquired within families (which are very hard to change by any social policy) and traits acquired from peer imitation. This is the effect I estimate below. I also show, however, that based on modern evidence the majority of these effects would be genetic.”

    (European Review of Economic History, August, 2008)

    http://www.econ.ucdavis.edu/faculty/gclark/Farewell%20to%20Alms/EREH%20response%20-%20revised.pdf

    I note that Professor Steve Hsu, involved with the BGI Cognitive Genomics Project, has commented that in time Clark (and Wade’s arguments) can be tested using similar methods to those that identified differences in allele frequencies for height between North & South Europeans.

    http://infoproc.blogspot.co.nz/2014/05/whats-new-since-montagu.html

  13. Just so you know average height of people from all over the world has been increasing, most of the time by more than the actual gaps between them, way faster than selection could be responsible for. It has decreased too sometimes. Same applies for IQ and economics, wealth, health, democracy etc. Africa didn’t have a middle class a short time ago, but they do now and growing.

    Heritable does not mean its genetic. Its that simple. Clark and Wade can whine on and on about heritable all day and it can all be environment.

    David Dobbs is right, Wade has no evidence, in fact its worse than no evidence, its bad evidence.

    Like with the violence allele correlation. Those alleles can be utterly unrelated to violence. They are just correlations. Why doesn’t Wade mention how “good” these correlation studies actually are?

    They are all over the place, go check my previous links as to why they are.

  14. @ Panther Ausf G,

    Like height, cognitive ability (g) is a heritable and polygenic quantitative trait. Like height there are known phenotypic differences between groups. These aren’t entirely explained by environmental factors at this stage.

    The point Professor Hsu is making is that you can ultimately test whether this is due to differences in alleles linked to cognitive ability as appears to be the case with height differences between North and South Europeans.

    In theory there is no reason differences couldn’t have arisen in part due to evolutionary factors.

    The simplest model would be that time since development of agriculture varies between groups, and this variation leads to different levels of selection for traits which might be more useful for agriculturalists than for hunter gatherers.

    0) Behavioural traits are heritable.

    1) there is plenty of extant genetic variation, probably due to a large number of genes of individually small effect – no additional mutations are required.

    2) selection can act if reproductive rates are impacted by these genes (i.e., conscientiousness, cognitive ability).

    3) simple estimates suggest that 50,000 *could have* been enough time to produce .5 SD (genetic) group differences.

  15. Actually, we can pretty much prove that many so called environmental factors of the IQ gap between groups (SES, Race etc.) are mostly due to genetic variation, mostly due to recent studies by Plomin, Turkheimer et al.

    • No you cant, those studies are all over the place, go check, and the newest ones

      This part especially:
      “we prove that many so called environmental factors of the IQ gap between groups (SES, Race etc.) are mostly due to genetic variation”

      Nonsense. Modern GCTA and GWAS studies, which is what Plomin does almost always show lower heritability when compared to Twin stuides. In fact so many are all over the place, it hits zero many times. CHECK your own sources.
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3969293/

      • Thats just one go check the studies mentioned in my previous links by Evan Charney. Pretty much most of them are by Plomin and Turkheimer or he was part of them.

        Here is another that finds lower bounds for for everything including height and then a whole load of zeros for behavior traits. There are huge differences between the twin study heritability and GCTA heritability.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24074471

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