Dispatches concerning human variation

Nicholas Wade wrote a book on race, published in 2014 to scathing reviews. One of the reviews was in American Scientist. (I didn’t notice at first that it’s written by someone I know slightly: Greg Laden.)

In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, science writer Nicholas Wade claims that race is real—that Darwinian natural selection has resulted in a number of biologically separate human populations characterized by distinct, genetically determined social behaviors. He asserts that many of these differences have emerged over the last 10,000 years and that they explain much of human history. He writes that recent science has “established that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional” and uses this framework to account for regional variations in economic power and cultural pursuits.

As soon as it appeared, Wade’s book touched off a firestorm of controversy—as he surely knew it would. It’s the latest in a series of dispatches concerning human variation, whose authors in recent decades have starkly divided into two camps, one centered in anthropology and the other in psychology, political science, and economics. Wade is in the latter camp. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a widely read text by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray in 1994, proclaimed intractable human differences in ability between races; the authors based their views on disputed work published by Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton in the 1980s and early 1990s. Meanwhile, anthropologists had developed a divergent concept of human variation, reaching the collective conclusion that the human species is not compartmentalized in races or subspecies (interchangeable terms in zoology). In 1998 the American Anthropological Association adopted its Statement on Race asserting that the best available research shows race to be a social construct that is biologically invalid.

Early reviews of Wade’s book show a familiar division: Anthropologists mostly take a critical view, whereas psychologists and economists generally like the book. Agustín Fuentes, a zoologist and anthropologist, and Jonathan Marks, a geneticist trained in anthropology, are among the more negative; Bell Curve coauthor Murray and famed geneticist James Watson, a supporter of the biological race concept, land on the positive side. The favorable reviews almost invariably echo one of Wade’s key themes: Disbelief in the existence of race results from biased science driven by a left-leaning political agenda. Wade suggests that “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. . . The result is that researchers at present routinely ignore the biology of race.”

So is Wade right? Are there human races? Is the variation seen between different cultures and locations best explained by genetic differences between human populations? And have anthropologists been turning a blind eye to the evidence in front of them?

There is no shortage of scientific information, and it gives a clear answer: no.

He then gives a quick sketch of the scientific information, and sums up:

Without boundaries or predictive value, race isn’t a valid biological concept. Human races may have existed in the past—just as there are subspecies of a number of different mammals, including chimpanzees—and they could exist in the future. Nonetheless, to this point the history of Homo sapiens has not led to a known emergence of distinct races. We evolved recently, spread quickly, and in many regions interacted readily. Race is a powerful and important social construct, and in that way it is very real, but it is not a biological useful concept for understanding human diversity.

And guess who else weighed in.

Our letter to the New York Times criticizing Nicholas Wade’s book on race

That’s Jerry Coyne criticizing Wade’s book on race.

Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (already up) features a letter signed by 139 population geneticists, including myself. It is, in essence, a group of scientists objecting en masse to Nicholas Wade’s shoddy treatment of race and evolution in his new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. 

The book was about the genetics of ethnic and cultural differences, and while it made a valid point that ethnic groups do show small but significant genetic differences across the globe, there was no evidence for Wade’s main thesis: that differences in behavior among groups, and in the disparate societies they construct, are based on genetic differences. While that might in principle be true, we simply have no evidence for that conclusion, and it was irresponsible of Wade to suggest that such evidence existed.

I was asked to review Wade’s book for a major magazine, but after reading it became so dispirited that I simply didn’t have the stomach to eviscerate it (pardon the pun). But Allen Orr did a good job in the New York Review of Books; and it was telling that even the Times’s own review, by David Dobbs, was pretty critical. (The Times Book Review is infamous for going easy on books by the paper’s own writers, and Wade has written for the paper for donkey’s years.)

I find that interesting in light of the discussion (especially Coel’s part of it) on A biocultural mélange.

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