Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance

A Troublesome InheritanceAfter a twenty-year career as a staff writer for the Science section of the New York Times, Nicolas Wade published his third and most controversial book on human evolution last year, sparking the inevitable controversy that occurs every time the dead dogmas of academia are challenged by someone too venerable to be ignored. The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race And Human History, and the dogma in question is that “race is a social construct,” a meaningless categorization invented to subjugate and oppress. As is often the case with dogmas, the intentions are noble, but moralizing a question of fact leads inevitably to stultifying rigidity, and Wade dedicates the first hundred pages of his book to dismantling, as gently as he can, the received wisdom on what is perhaps the most volatile topic in America.

That wisdom goes something like this: yes, of course human beings evolved, but that ended approximately ten thousand years ago with the conclusion of the last ice age, preventing evolution from having any influence on the destinies of human beings. Furthermore, “race” itself is a meaningless construct, an arbitrary category no different than hair or eye color. Thus, for example, the following statements on race from the American Anthropological Association: “Race is a recent human invention” and “Race is about culture, not biology.” [At this point I will insert an important digression: to say that race is also about biology is not to deny the often painful cultural and historical baggage associated with the concept, nor is it to mitigate or justify the horrors – chiefly racism & eugenics – committed in its name. Wade is convinced that the ultimate takeaway from the study of race is our common humanity, and I share his conviction.] Against these sweeping pronouncements stands the field of human biology, particularly evolutionary biology, and the information gleaned from the sequencing of the human genome in 2003, which, in words Wade repeats like a refrain, “establish that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional.” But there are powerful obstacles to its further study, as the politics of academia have grown hostile to dissent:

Any researcher who even discusses issues politically offensive to the left runs the risk of antagonizing the professional colleagues who must approve his requests for government funds and review his articles for publication. Self-censorship is the frequent response, especially in anything to do with the recent differential evolution f the human population. It takes only a few vigilantes to cow the whole campus. The result is that researchers at present routinely ignore the biology of race, or tiptoe around the subject, lest they be accused of racism by their academic rivals and see their careers destroyed.

This sad commentary on the state of higher education has become all too familiar, but into this sterility Wade breathes new life with a barrage of fascinating insights into human evolution, ranging from the different skull shapes and dentition associated with each race (“By taking just a few measurements, physical anthropologists can tell police departments the race of a skull’s former owner with better than 80% accuracy”) to the more precise study of genetics, which allows researchers to place some 90% of Europeans (despite their relatively homogenous genetics) to within 700 kilometers of their place of birth. With more isolated populations, such as Scottish islanders or Italian valley dwellers, the accuracy increases to between 8 and 30 kilometers.

This astonishing precision is made possible by the study not of differences in genes but their alleles, whose varying frequency is associated with each race and the region in which it evolved. Wade quotes approvingly from the historian Winthrop Jordan: “It is now clear that mankind is a single biological species; that races are neither discrete nor stable units but rather that they are plastic, changing, integral parts of a whole that is itself changing. It is clear, furthermore, that races are best studied as products of a process; and, finally, that racial differences involve the relative frequency of genes and characteristics rather than absolute and mutually exclusive distinctions.” And from this perspective, Wade argues, the categorization of humanity into distinct racial groups makes sense, corresponding, as they do, to the major population migrations out of Africa.

A Troublesome Inheritance is really two books in one, and I would be remiss if I didn’t address its second half, which is largely speculative. The first half is dedicated to destroying the claim that race is entirely a sociological construct, whereas the second half postulates the extent to which our differing evolutionary histories shaped our cultures, and it is here that Wade has drawn the largest criticisms. Are Eastern cultures more tolerant of authoritarianism or Middle Eastern cultures more resistant to democracy because of some small variation in allele frequency? These are large, volatile claims and Wade’s discussion of them, while fascinating, is too limited to give them more authority than mere hypothesizing, a fact that his numerous detractors have been eager to point out. But Wade is aware of this. In fact, he takes special care to inform his readers in the opening chapter: “Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.” Why he chose to include these chapters in a book that would have been explosive enough without them, and why he chose to title his work A Troublesome Inheritance, is anyone’s guess; I choose to believe he was naive enough to think people might be more interested in his insights on a complex and polarizing issue than in how they might be twisted to condemn him.