[Marxism] Review of A Troublesome Inheritance | American Anthropological Association

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri May 16 09:25:04 MDT 2014

(An equally damning review of Wade's atrocious book, all the more so 
since it appears in his employer's newspaper.)

NY Times, May 16 2014
Charging Into the Minefield of Genes and Racial Difference
Nicholas Wade’s ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’

Genes, Race and Human History
By Nicholas Wade
278 pages. The Penguin Press. $27.95.

Few areas of science have contributed more to human misery than the 
study of racial difference. In the 1920s, eugenicists from top American 
universities promoted the sterilization of the unfit and later praised 
Hitler’s racial codes while advocating laws that would exclude thousands 
of Jews from our shores.

Contemporary researchers have found it useful to examine genetic 
variations that affect traits like diabetes in Native Americans or high 
blood pressure in African-Americans. But in the shadow of the Holocaust, 
scientists in the United States have largely avoided the classification 
of races as a “futile exercise,” in the words of the population 
geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza; the very concept of race is a 
matter of scientific debate.

In “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” however, 
Nicholas Wade argues that scientists need to get over their hang-ups and 
jump into studies of racial difference. “The intellectual barriers 
erected many years ago to combat racism now stand in the way of studying 
the recent evolutionary past,” he writes.

Mr. Wade, a longtime science writer for The New York Times, draws on the 
wealth of evolutionary data that has emerged from the decoding of human 
genomes. This research has enabled scientists to imagine our prehistory 
with more precision, and the picture is one of unexpectedly significant 
genetic change since many of our ancestors left Africa. Since this 
evolution affected traits such as skin color, body hair and the 
tolerance of alcohol, milk and high altitude, why not intelligence and 
social behavior as well? Mr. Wade asks.

The central problem here is that if significant genetic-controlled 
behavioral differences exist among races, with scant (at most) exception 
they haven’t been discovered yet. To build a case with the evidence at 
hand requires a great deal of speculation, with the inevitable 
protrusion of the nonscientific worldview.

Mr. Wade presents a few scattered genetic studies and attempts to weld 
them into a grand theory of global history for the past 50,000 years. 
Where Jared Diamond argued in “Guns, Germs and Steel” that environment 
and geography enabled Europe to develop a highly successful 
civilization, Mr. Wade says environmental pressures led to genetic 
differences that account for much of that advantage. “The rise of the 
West,” he writes, “is an event not just in history but also in human 

Conservative scholars like the political scientist Francis Fukuyama have 
long argued that social institutions and culture explain why Europe beat 
Asia to prosperity, and why parts of the Mideast and Africa continue to 
suffer destabilizing violence and misery.

Mr. Wade takes this already controversial argument a step further, 
contending that “slight evolutionary differences in social behavior” 
underlie social and cultural differences. A small but consistent 
divergence in a racial group’s tendency to trust outsiders — and 
therefore to accept central rather than tribal authority — could explain 
“much of the difference between tribal and modern societies,” he writes.

This is where Mr. Wade’s argument starts to go off the rails.

At times, his theorizing is merely puzzling, as when he notes that the 
gene variant that gives East Asians dry earwax also produces less body 
odor, which would have been attractive “among people spending many 
months in confined spaces to escape the cold.” No explanation of why 
ancient Europeans, presumably cooped up just as much, didn’t also 
develop this trait. Later, he speculates that thick hair and small 
breasts evolved in Asian women because they may have been “much admired 
by Asian men.” And why, you might ask, did Asian men alone prefer these 

Mr. Wade occasionally drops in broad, at times insulting assumptions 
about the behavior of particular groups without substantiating the 
existence of such behaviors, let alone their genetic basis. Writing 
about Africans’ economic condition, for example, Mr. Wade wonders 
whether “variations in their nature, such as their time preference, work 
ethic and propensity to violence, have some bearing on the economic 
decisions they make.”

For Mr. Wade, genetic differences help explain the failure of the United 
States occupations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. “If institutions 
were purely cultural,” he writes, “it should be easy to transfer an 
institution from one society to another.” It’s hard to know how to begin 
to address such a puzzling statement.

Mr. Wade acknowledges that specific evidence for the influence of 
“social behavior” genes is quite limited. The one example he presents 
repeatedly is the MAOA 2R variant, the so-called warrior gene that has 
been linked to violent behavior in men abused as children and is more 
common in blacks than whites or Asians. Mr. Wade admits that such genes 
at most create a tendency to violence, and adds that there may be other, 
yet undiscovered violence-susceptibility genes that could skew the 
racial picture.

Mr. Wade’s distinctive focus is on how evolution, in his view, shaped 
different races’ “radius of trust,” or ability to assume loyalty to, 
say, a nation rather than a tribe, and to punish those who violate 
social rules. Modern civilizations select out violent individuals and 
their genes, which might be more valuable in tribal societies, he argues.

When it comes to his leitmotif — the need for scientists to drop 
“politically correct” attitudes toward race — Mr. Wade displays 
surprisingly sanguine assumptions about the ability of science to 
generate facts free from the cultural mesh of its times. He argues that 
because the word “racism” did not appear in the Oxford English 
Dictionary until 1910, racism is a “modern concept, and that 
pre-eugenics studies of race were “reasonably scientific.” This would 
surely surprise any historian of European colonies in Africa or the 

“Science is about what is, not what ought to be,” Mr. Wade writes. “Its 
shifting sands do not support values, so it is foolish to place them 
there.” Yet he acknowledges that views of scientific truth are highly 
contextual. The philosopher Herbert Spencer “was one of the most 
prominent intellectuals of the second half of the 19th century, and his 
ideas, however harsh they may seem today, were widely discussed,” Mr. 
Wade writes. Why does he suppose that Spencer was so popular? Was it 
science’s “shifting sands” that gave his ideas credibility, or their 
tendency to support what powerful people wanted to believe?

The philosopher Ludwik Fleck once wrote, “ ‘To see’ means to recreate, 
at a suitable moment, a picture created by the mental collective to 
which one belongs.” While there is much of interest in Mr. Wade’s book, 
readers will probably see what they are predisposed to see: a 
confirmation of prejudices, or a rather unconvincing attempt to promote 
the science of racial difference.

Arthur Allen is the author of “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl,” 
to be published by W. W. Norton in July.

More information about the Marxism mailing list