About the SA Blog Network

The Primate Diaries

The Primate Diaries

Notes on science, politics, and history from a primate in the human zoo.
The Primate Diaries Home

On the Origin of White Power

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

A new book argues race and genetics explain “the rise of the West.” Bad science explains the downfall of its ideas.

"KKK" by Nathaniel Gold

Nicholas Wade is not a racist. In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, the former science writer for the New York Times states this explicitly. “It is not automatically racist to consider racial categories as a possible explanatory factor.” He then explains why white people are better because of their genes. In fairness, Wade does not say Caucasians are better per se, merely better adapted (because of their genes) to the modern economic institutions that Western society has created, and which now dominate the world’s economy and culture. In contrast, Africans are better adapted to hot-headed tribalism while East Asians are better adapted to authoritarian political structures. “Looking at the three principal races, one can see that each has followed a different evolutionary path as it adapted to its local circumstances.” It’s not prejudice; it’s science.

Wade believes that in the 50,000 years since humans began leaving Africa in migratory waves different racial lines have evolved different social behaviors and that this explains the inequality between races today. Much like the old hypothesis that scales, feathers, and hair each evolved from a common root along the branches that became reptiles, birds, and mammals respectively, Wade argues that genetic adaptation can explain the behavioral and societal differences we observe in human racial groups.

Wade’s hypothesis faces a distinct challenge since, unlike the evolution of hair, few complex social behaviors — especially in humans — have identifiable genetic components. Genes are certainly involved in complex behavior, but no one knows which genes or how, and untangling the influence of genes from other possible factors such as interuterine hormones, environmental stress, epigenetics or even culture is a serious problem. This means that observable differences, such as behavior, could have a completely different explanation from the genetic story that Wade proposes. For example, the advance of genetic analysis has since revealed that the old story explaining the origin of hair was incorrect. Behavior, especially human behavior, is much more complicated and requires a high standard of evidence.

What makes Wade’s book so troublesome is that he offers no scientific evidence to support his racial hypothesis. None. In fact, Wade acknowledges himself that his ideas on this topic are “leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.” Nevertheless, because he thinks academics have suppressed the importance of genetics and race in human history for political reasons, Wade charges ahead and concludes, confidently, that Western civilization is a Darwinian success story.

The rise of the West was not some cultural accident. It was the direct result of the evolution of European populations as they adapted to the geographic and military conditions of their particular ecological habitat…From an evolutionary perspective, an imminent decline of the West seems unlikely. Western social behavior, the source of the open society and open economy with their rewards to innovation, has been shaped by evolution as well as by culture and history and is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Europe has had a long history of brutal warfare and colonial domination. Yet Wade argues that Europeans have actually evolved to be more genteel and civilized than other races. Building on Steven Pinker’s hypothesis from his 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature, Wade argues that Europeans underwent a biological selection pressure “toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” Even though the twentieth century has been the bloodiest period in world history, Wade champions Pinker’s conclusion that the homicide rate in Europe has declined between the years 1200-2000 because “the increasing monopoly of force by the state…reduced the need for interpersonal violence.” Rather than focus on states or on interpersonal relations, Wade insists that the ultimate explanation must be in the genes.

This is the conclusion that Pinker signals strongly to his readers. He notes that mice can be bred to be more aggressive in just five generations, evidence that the reverse process could occur just as speedily…He mentions that violence is quite heritable, on the evidence from studies of twins, and so must have a genetic basis.

It is worth noting that Pinker himself has stated that Wade is mistaken in offering a genetic explanation for racial differences. However, Wade seeks further support for his hypothesis that Europeans evolved to be more peaceable and tolerant in the experiments of Soviet biologist Dmitriy Belyaev. By breeding wild foxes, Belyaev showed that selecting for tameness could produce animals that were just as doting as domestic dogs in only 30 to 35 generations. Wade calculates that there have been 24 human generations between the year 1200 and today, “plenty of time for a significant change in social behavior if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense.”

This selection pressure, Wade says, was an agrarian economy and the Industrial Revolution. Individuals who were more productive, and delayed their gratification by saving instead of spending, gained wealth at a faster rate and had larger families. (Wade cites one estimate from England suggesting that those with £1,000 or more at death had an average of 4 children while those with less than £25 had only 2). But, because there were a limited number of upper class families, most wealthy children had to marry beneath their station. These genetic entrepreneurs carried with them their industrious DNA down to the commoners.

Their social descent had the far-reaching genetic consequence that they carried with them inheritance for the same behaviors that had made their parents rich. The values of the upper middle class—nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience—were thus infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.

This argument suffers multiple problems, two of which are particularly crippling. First, artificial selection, such as Belyaev used in his fox experiments, can produce novel forms much faster than natural selection can. Belyaev’s fox breeding experiment identified the tamest individuals in each generation and mated them together. But, according to a genetic analysis carried out earlier this year by UCLA biologist Adam Freedman and colleagues, it took about 2,000 years for the evolution of dogs from wolves to result in distinct populations (from 14.9 thousand years ago to 12.8 thousand years ago). At an average breeding age of 3 years, this means it took around 670 generations for the split to take place — far longer than the 35 generations Belyaev’s experiment required. Even then, these dogs would not have been as tame as domestic dogs today. Dogs became fully domesticated only through artificial selection within the last few hundred years, as dog breeders selected the traits they wanted in different varieties. Therefore, it is a huge mistake to assume that Belyaev’s breeding experiment can be directly translated to recent human history in Europe.

The second problem with Wade’s argument about the gentility of the English is more central to his thesis. Even if we assume that genetics is primarily responsible for “nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience” (which it is not), there would still need to be evidence of a clear reproductive benefit in order for these behaviors to be “infused into lower economic classes” by having sex with the rich. Wade’s evidence for larger families among the wealthy in England (the only data Wade cites) comes from the 2008 book A Farewell to Alms by economic historian Gregory Clark. However, while Wade highlights how the richest 1% had twice as many children as the poor majority, he conveniently omits what Clark determines just three pages later, which is that this relative increase lasted only a very short time. This omission says a great deal about Wade’s commitment to both science and journalism.

Even if the English upper class had larger families than the poor, this did not continue into subsequent generations. After his first analysis, Clark looked at the number of grandchildren per child at different economic levels and came to very different results. The precise numbers are not cited, but according to the figure he provides (see below) there was only a slight increase in the number of grandchildren between the poorest and wealthiest families (less than 0.1 grandchildren per child). “So clearly this advantage is not perfectly heritable,” Clark concludes, “or this ratio would have been close to double for these groups.”

The number of grandchildren per child based on the economic level of their family shows little difference between rich and poor. Figure reprinted from Clark (2008).

If Wade’s argument is to be correct — that is, if genetics is to explain the transmission of social behavior throughout Europe and give rise to Western superiority — there would need to be evidence of strong heritability in the traits he thinks were important. Based on the evidence from Clark that Wade himself cites, this is not the case.

If the central thesis of Wade’s evolutionary narrative about the rise of the West is so flawed, his explanation for other races has even bigger problems. Anthropologists are in universal agreement that all humans lived in small tribes of hunter-gatherers for the vast majority of our tenure on this planet. Genetic evidence suggests that our species first emerged in Africa between 100-200,000 years ago. Approximately 50,000 years ago some human populations migrated north and, in a relatively short period of time, had reached nearly every habitable region around the globe. It wasn’t until about 12,000 years ago that humans first began using agriculture as an important means of survival. Until then, all material evidence suggests that humans were living the same mode of life whether they were in Africa, Europe, East Asia, or the Americas. Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, and it was an adaptative strategy that served us well.

Wade argues, essentially, that in the last 12,000 years, Europeans evolved beyond our early tribal heritage but other races did not. In Africa and the Middle East, for example, Wade says that tribal systems of government, in which allegiance to family and clan is paramount, continue to this day. In both Africa and the Middle East, therefore, the “failure to develop modern institutions” must have a deeper explanation than centuries of colonialism, a post-World War II economic model centered in Europe and the US, Western support for regional dictators, degradation of the local resource base, limited access to quality education, poor sanitation, lack of a public health system, inequality, patriarchy, or differences in culture, religion, history, economics, law, and geography. Wade doesn’t consider any of these other factors, but he doesn’t need to; genetic biology trumps history and culture. For Wade, tribalism is in their nature and it will take a long time before those people are ready to join the civilized West.

Tribal behavior is more deeply ingrained than are mere cultural prescriptions. Its longevity and stability point strongly to a genetic basis…The break from tribalism probably requires a population to evolve such behaviors as higher levels of trust toward those outside the family or tribe.

Of course, the question about the historical rise of Europe in world affairs is certainly not a new one, nor is it unimportant. Perhaps the most well known explanation in recent years is that by UCLA biologist Jared Diamond in his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond argued that geography, not biology, was the key to understanding the fates of human societies. Up to 12,000 years ago all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. But different regions around the globe had different plant and animal species to draw from when some societies turned towards domestication as a survival strategy. Those societies that lived in regions accidentally containing species more suitable for domestication ultimately had a head start over other, less fortuitous societies. Europe’s rise to dominance, Diamond argued, was a coincidence of geography.

The geographic explanation in Guns, Germs and Steel is, in many ways, the antithesis of Wade’s race-based narrative, so it is telling that he submits Diamond’s book to special scorn. According to Wade, “Diamond’s argument seems designed to distract and confuse,” and “its anti-evolutionary assumption that only geography matters, not genes…is driven by ideology, not science.” There are certainly reasons to challenge the all-encompassing explanation presented in Diamond’s book, but it is strangely inconsistent for a journalist who admits his scientific argument is not based on evidence to charge a trained biologist with being anti-scientific.

Perhaps even more inconsistent is when Wade adopts Diamond’s own explanation for the historical rise of Europe three pages later. After the origin of agriculture and domestic animals in the Near East after 12,000 years ago, evidence shows that many of these same plant and animal species spread both west and east throughout Eurasia. There was also the independent emergence of agriculture in China. Wheat, barley, peas, and lentils emerged in the area known as the Fertile Crescent along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers; millet, rice, and soybeans in East Asia. Wild apple trees still dot the landscape along the Silk Road, chronicling their long history of transport between east and west. The emergence of agriculture was a precondition for the rise of powerful empires in the Near East, India, China, and Europe (with the most powerful states emerging in the second two regions). Why didn’t China become the Eurasian power center and end up colonizing Europe?

Wade explains, following Diamond, that the geographies of Europe and China were very different and promoted the emergence of different political structures. The geography of Europe “consisted of a patchwork of cleared regions separated by forests, mountains or marshes.” This environment promoted a fragmented and loosely integrated collection of nation-states that emerged over time. Wade notes that there were around 1,000 political units in Europe by the 14th century and, after centuries of bloody conflict between rival despots, by 1900 these had consolidated into 25 separate nations. The diversity of languages in Europe today is a testament to the isolation that these political units maintained for hundreds of years.

“China’s geography, by contrast,” writes Wade, “channeled the social behavior of its population in a very different direction.” The open plain between the Yangtze and Yellow rivers meant that China was submitted to a “winner-take-all competition” that unified the nation under a single autocracy by 221 BC. The primary concern of the Chinese empire was the powerful nomadic peoples who raided their lands from the north, resulting in their 5,500-mile long Great Wall that represents the longest man-made structure in the world. For China, the emphasis was placed on defense from inland threats and the maintenance of bureaucratic rule throughout a vast internal empire.

The different geographic and, ultimately, political differences between these two Eurasian power centers resulted in very different historical outcomes. According to Wade, Europe had “a geography that favored the existence of a number of independent states and made it hard for one to dominate all the rest.” This, in combination with a dense population and the emergence of church authority that set limits on the power of local rulers, promoted a military and commercial arms race that pushed new developments in science and engineering. When Europeans eventually sailed around the horn of Africa to China, they brought with them military gunboats and colonial intentions that the latter was unable to defend against. Ironically, Wade and Diamond are making nearly identical arguments for the historical rise of Europe in world affairs. There does not seem to be any reason to invoke genes at all.

A Troublesome Inheritance has been roundly criticized by scientists and journalists alike. Biologists such as H. Allen Orr and Jerry Coyne have pointed out its many scientific problems. Statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman has identified the “naivete” in Wade’s eagerness to assume a genetic cause for any change in social behavior. Following their debate, the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes observed, “Wade ignores the majority of data and conclusions from anthropology, population genetics, human biology and evolutionary biology.” Even Wade’s former newspaper, the New York Times, carried a review panning the book. Unfortunately, readers lacking a background in science or journalism may not so easily spot Wade’s many errors. This could lead to even more troublesome issues given the excitement the book has generated among those predisposed to accept its conclusions.

“Wade says in this book many of the things I’ve been saying for the last 40 years of my life,” said David Duke, the white nationalist politician and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on his radio program on May 12, 2014. “The ideas for which I’ve been relentlessly villified are now becoming part of the mainstream because of the irrepressible movement of science and genetics.” Duke devoted his “blockbuster” show to a discussion of A Troublesome Inheritance and celebrated how Wade bravely took on the “Jewish Supremacists” and their “blatant hypocrisy over race and DNA.” There have also been multiple lively discussions about the book at, the online forum Duke created and one of the most visited white supremacist websites on the net with about 40,000 unique users each day.

Over at The American Renaissance, which the Anti-Defamation League identifies as a white supremacist online journal, dozens of articles have been published about the book over the past two months. “People who understand race are clearly rooting for this book,” wrote Jared Taylor, founder and editor of the publication. Other white power advocates see the book’s arrival as a call to battle. John Derbyshire, a self-described white supremacist and former columnist for the National Review, wrote triumphantly, “Wade’s calm, brave assault on the enemy’s lines will likely be repulsed, but not without enemy losses, making the next assault more likely to break through.”

The fact that some groups have found justification for their racist beliefs in Wade’s book does not, of course, invalidate his thesis. Wade himself would be the first to point out that science, like journalism, requires those who are willing to risk controversy and follow the truth wherever it leads them. “Whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” That is correct. But when a thesis is known to be politically incendiary it is the responsibility of both scientists and journalists alike to ensure that the evidence is, in fact, valid before it is presented to the public. False scientific conclusions, often those that justify certain well-entrenched beliefs, can impact peoples lives for decades to come, especially when policy decisions are based on their findings. For more than 30 years Wade worked for the New York Times, an institution whose Standards and Ethics states:

[I]t is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.

Nicholas Wade has failed spectacularly. A Troublesome Inheritance is wrong in its facts, sloppy in its logic, and blatantly misrepresents evolutionary biology. If the white power movement views this book as a triumph it is a sad reflection on the state of their ideas. Instead of providing a Darwinian success story, Wade’s thesis deserves a quick extinction.

Eric Michael Johnson About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.

Follow his work on Facebook and Google+. Follow on Twitter @primatediaries.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 26 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. ScienceWrite22 8:21 am 05/21/2014

    Roundup of Book Reviews of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance

    Link to this
  2. 2. JohnGathly 8:25 am 05/21/2014

    ScienceWrite22 links to a “roundup of reviews” of the book, but following the link, the post has positive reviews almost exclusively from the cover with no secondary comment, then mixed reviews with some snide comments, then negative reviews filled with snide comments. Is this supposed to be representative of anything besides bias?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Pseudoerasmus 8:33 am 05/21/2014

    From what you are saying about Clark one would get the impression he had nothing further to say beyond Figure 6.4 ! And you are aware, Clark has had a book since then called A Son Also Rises which demonstrates the long term intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status not only in England, but also in a variety of other countries. There the transmission of status is on the order of 0.8 or more per generation.

    Even if the English upper class had larger families than the poor, this did not continue into subsequent generations. After his first analysis, Clark looked at the number of grandchildren per child at different economic levels and came to very different results.

    But the transmission in question here is from the first generation to the third. Of course the initial effect from the first generation must peter out over the generations by the simple principle that for any x <1, the x^n must get smaller with the nth generation. Yet in every generation there would be a “survival of the richest” effect that starts with n at the initial maximum value.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Pseudoerasmus 8:38 am 05/21/2014

    I note here ( ) that Clark, while defending himself from criticisms of A Farewell to Alms, engaged in classical quantitative genetic formalism. Check out in particular the PDF excerpt in the link.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Pseudoerasmus 8:51 am 05/21/2014

    ” Pinker himself has stated that Wade is mistaken in offering a genetic explanation for racial differences”

    Actually, Pinker said Wade goes beyond the evidence — presumably beyond the genomic evidence. Pinker is always very cautious with his words. But we can infer what Pinker thinks about some of Wade’s speculations from the his inclusion of Steve Sailer’s “The Cousin Marriage Conundrum” in the 2004 volume of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. ( I mention it here in ) The Sailer piece anticipates all of Wade’s speculations about the tribal nature of Afghan & Iraqi societies. And back in 2003 there was even less evidence about the effects of inbreeding on cognitive ability or social behaviour.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Patrick Clarkin 9:59 am 05/21/2014

    I don’t quite get how Wade can admit that he ’s “leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution” and then criticize others for being dogmatic and anti-scientific. That seems like cognitive dissonance. It should also be enough to say that Wade isn’t doing hard science, but a kind of storytelling exercise.

    In his review of the book, H. Allen Orr wrote:

    “One of the most frustrating features of A Troublesome Inheritance is that Wade wants to have it both ways. At one moment, he will concede that he writes in a “speculative arena” and, at the next, he will issue pseudofactual pronouncements (“social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped”). This strategy lets Wade move in a kind of intellectual no-man’s-land where he gets to look like he’s doing science (so many facts about genomes!) while covering himself with caveats that, well, it’s all speculative.”

    History is complex. To try to reduce it to single factors like genes or even geography does a disservice to scholarship.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Pseudoerasmus 10:03 am 05/21/2014

    But he clearly doesn’t reduce anything ONLY to genes. Who does ? Wade numerous times says culture and environment matter. That’s acknowledged even in the Orr piece you cite ! It’s pretty simple : Wade rejects the null hypothesis that there are no genetic differences between ethnic groups which explain some of the differences in social and economic outcomes. The null hypothesis is untenable.

    Link to this
  8. 8. Ralph Haygood 11:44 am 05/21/2014

    I never thought much of Wade. Even during his NYT days, he was obviously not in the same league as, for example, Carl Zimmer.

    What I find mildly interesting is that racist stereotyping is so appealing to a certain segment of humanity. It’s a pathology whose etiology remains in need of elucidation.

    Link to this
  9. 9. highly_adequate 11:46 am 05/21/2014

    Yes, pseudoerasmus, it’s very strange to see the strawmen being set up regarding Wade’s arguments.

    Why on earth is Wade or anyone else who believes genes play a significant role in the divergent paths of human societies obliged to account for every difference strictly in terms of genes?

    If one discerns important correlations between, say, economic success and group IQ, why does that correlation have to be a perfect 1.0 to be worthy science? What other factor studied in the social science has such a burden placed on it?

    I mean, if N Korea and S Korea now diverge in their economic success, how does that possibly count against the thesis that genes play a major, or even dominant role in the economic success of a group? Aren’t there perfectly obvious reasons for that divergence — e.g., the existence of a monstrously repressive government in one case?

    Again and again, one side of this debate is put under an onus no scientific position would ordinarily be subjected to.

    Link to this
  10. 10. highly_adequate 11:55 am 05/21/2014

    “It should also be enough to say that Wade isn’t doing hard science, but a kind of storytelling exercise.”

    But the thing is, “storytelling” is exactly what the strictly environmental side always engages in, and with utter impunity.

    If, say, nations in Africa can’t get their act together even after generations of being released from colonial rule, then the environmental side tells stories about the long, long evil and damaging reach of colonial rule well into future generations. Those stories have no more a priori credibility than any story Wade might tell, but they are always given a complete pass.

    Why? Because we like those stories, and for no better reason.

    But on any rational ground, the environmental and the genetic hypothesis are of equal a priori merit. But that can never be admitted.

    Link to this
  11. 11. mwalker96 12:50 pm 05/21/2014

    This has got to be the dumbest article yet written on Wade’s book.

    KKK? “White power”? Are you joking? This is an ideological hit piece intended to scare people away from Wade’s book. Shame on you Scientific American for even publishing this trash.

    That aside, this piece is interesting in that it’s symptomatic of a larger trend:

    Liberal Creationism: “Those who profess to believe in Darwinism buy deny biological reality of race and seem to think that human evolution for past 50k years has occurred only from the neck down. In other words, they believe in miracles.”

    Link to this
  12. 12. rufusgwarren 1:46 pm 05/21/2014

    Racism is genetic, true. Each family prefers its own, usually. However, someone must account who started modern society, mathematics, metallurgy, diplomacy, science, art, etc.. It was barbarians that took the weapons and ignored social maturity and destroyed entire races, and culture. The above is the meandering of an uneducated mind and yes, possibly a racist.

    Link to this
  13. 13. ssm1959 1:57 pm 05/21/2014

    Arguing individual selection criteria as a force driving cultures is fallacy. The cultural units of inheritance trumped the physical units long ago and their power continues to dominate. The beauty of this is the cultural units of inheritance are available to anyone that chooses them.

    Link to this
  14. 14. rossm 5:07 pm 05/21/2014

    Joseph Needham’s research ( shows that nearly every scientific and technological innovation made by humans up to around CE 1500 happened decades or centuries earlier in China than in the West.

    Wade is simply ignoring any culture that doesn’t fit his pre-planned conclusions.

    Link to this
  15. 15. highly_adequate 5:34 pm 05/21/2014

    “The cultural units of inheritance trumped the physical units long ago and their power continues to dominate.”

    Yeah, Evolution just said to itself one day, “Oh, now that human beings have culture, I’m just going to drop all that physical genetic stuff, even it makes them better adapted to their cultures. Otherwise, feelings would be hurt!”

    Link to this
  16. 16. SJCrum 6:32 pm 05/21/2014

    For REAL SCIENCE FACT, this article is hilariously clueless about one ENORMOUSLY revealing and totally undeniable FACT. And, my gosh, what a joke to think anyone could accept the gene slop being associated with this topic.
    A real science fact is that racial acceptance, or racial prejudice exist entirely INSIDE a person’s soul, and NOT in genes even in the slightest. And, just like a rock cannot be either accepting or prejudice, neither can any part of the DNA mechanical generator system. And, the total baloney genes are all inside that totally mechanical physical part of the human body.
    if this science is too deep for anyone, think of the simple question of “how can the clutch pedal located under the steering wheel a bit, down there, actually vote for a president, and even in this country?” Gee, that’s a super enormous toughie, huh? My gosh, who woulda’ guessed. You know what? Maybe the next ultra-wow president of the good ol’ U.S. of A. will be a REALLY Good ol’ clutch out of a Buick that really spews a good one while clutchily debating. My gosh, what a debate that would be to see. Just think of the clutch saying cleverly, “Yeah, riiight!”

    Link to this
  17. 17. interestedreader23 11:28 pm 05/21/2014

    Thank you Eric Michael Johnson! I have read Wade for years, and have been following the incredible bias around the release and praise of his book. Your review points out how he selectively presents data while undermining (yet borrowing) ideas from other key thinkers (who also have their own problems). Anyone who has any familiarity with epigenetics, or even basic sequencing knows who fantastical Wade’s claims are.

    I’ve also noticed that their is a thought police on any blog or publication site that will allow comments coming from the passionate people who posted the link in comment 1. They basically hound any writer with a different take on Wade (Their actual names appear on one of Gelman’s blog posts). Clearly they aren’t reading the reviews that point out the flaws–or they simply don’t care. This whole phenomenon needs its own analysis which you begin here. Superb piece!

    Link to this
  18. 18. UglyHedgepiglet 5:39 am 05/22/2014

    “He then explains why white people are better because of their genes.” Ok, seems like a pretty strong indicator that this article identifies the desired ideological endpoint and then finds a way to get there.

    @rossm: you don’t seem to know what Wade actually claims regarding Europe vs Asia.

    @the author: the complaint about the dog breeding analogy is weird. It’s not clear that the criterion for “distinct population” used by the author of the article you cite is relevant to the issue at hand. And anyway, different human populations obviously have at least some differences in trait frequencies with genetic bases (skin color, lactose tolerance, running ability, etc.). The question is whether behavioral ones might also follow that pattern.

    Also, what about the migratory hypothesis for the DRD4 2-repeat allele and ADHD? Is that impossible? (No.) And couldn’t other trait-frequency-differences have similar, historical-scale genetic origins? Because you flat out assert that it’s false/impossible that there are genetic roots for average behavioral trait frequencies in England, which seems pretty confident.

    And ditto regarding your understanding of Pinker and Clark.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Pseudoerasmus 9:29 am 05/22/2014


    Johnson asserts, Clark’s Figure 6.4 shows that the “The number of grandchildren per child based on the economic level of their family shows little difference between rich and poor”. But in the rest of the chapter Clark argues that the rich had roughly double the fertility rate of the general population — 1.8 surviving sons versus 0.9. That implies, the average grandfather testator in the £10-24 bequest cohort of Figure 6.4 had less than 0.18 surviving grandsons (<0.2×0.9) and that’s a generous calculation using the fertility rate of the population average. By contrast, the typical grandfather testator from the second richest cohort of figure 6.4 had <0.72 surviving grandsons (<0.4×1.8). Now, 0.18 versus 0.72 is a big difference.

    So how can you say the class gradient in net fertility rates cannot possibly exert strong selective pressure ?

    Link to this
  20. 20. primatediaries@gmail 10:37 am 05/22/2014

    Thanks for your many comments Pseudoerasmus. In my review I was pointing out how Wade made a scientific claim that higher fertility rates were the result of genes for “nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience.” That is a scientifically ridiculous proposition since there are a myriad of influences for such complex traits. But, if this were the case, Wade himself says that this could only be achieved “if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense.” This means that, if genes–and not just the financial advantages–were driving higher fertility rates we would expect to see evidence of this in grandchildren as well (since Clark argues that many of these children were dispersing into lower economic marriages). Clark finds that the heritable advantage is not particularly robust at the next generation. Wade’s assertion is therefore wrong.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Pseudoerasmus 11:09 am 05/22/2014

    But I just showed you in the previous comment that you have misunderstood what Clark is saying.

    Link to this
  22. 22. primatediaries@gmail 12:14 pm 05/22/2014

    Implication is not evidence of anything. In chapter 6 of Clark’s book he follows up his finding that grandchildren per child between rich and poor do not show the same high fertility rate with an analysis looking at only fathers and sons. He looks at 147 father-son pairs and comes to the rather unastonishing finding that “rich fathers tended to have rich sons and vice versa.” Of 72 fathers in his analysis he says they had a range of children between 1 and 11 suggesting that not all sons received the same large bequest. He states that the fathers might have passed on their culture to their sons to help them economically and they also might have passed on their genes (chances are they did, but whether the genes helped their sons economically in any way is completely unknown).

    I don’t find his argument particularly compelling. From where and when does this sample of men come from? What statistical test did he employ and what are the significance values for his analysis, or any of the analyses he conducted for that matter? Clark presented an interesting idea and it deserves to be researched further. Maybe fathers did pass on genes that helped their sons financially (although it seems mothers would be equally likely to). Maybe we should sample the sons of wealthy families today to see if we can identify these possible “hedge fund” genes in that population. Maybe. But this doesn’t change the fact that Wade’s thesis is built on nothing but idle speculation.

    Link to this
  23. 23. Percival 5:28 pm 05/22/2014

    Yeesh, yet another voice added to the endless debate on race and racism. Wade claims not to be a racist, yet he comes across as what I call a “soft racist”, one who seems to cast everything he thinks (and writes) about in terms of race. His views dovetail nicely with David Duke’s “race consciousness” version of the KKK’s watered down racism as evidenced by Stormfront’s apparent love for the book, while the other extreme, what I call Rainbow Liberals, attack him on every point.

    Wade makes some serious mistakes, of that there’s no doubt. His “three principal races” are as specious (and blatantly racist) as his “trickle-down” theory of cultural enrichment of Britain’s “lower classes” via outmarriage by the “upper class”.

    Also, his geographics-driven genetics sounds vaguely enough like epigenetics to make some give it some credence, but Europe isn’t the only place on Earth divided into relatively small arable patches by natural barriers like mountains and rivers- why didn’t southeast Asia develop a similar “rugged individualists building Democracy” as Europe? What about all the “brown” peoples?

    He does make some good points though. What the West calls Democracy doesn’t seem to be taking root in the Middle East, Africa, or much of South America. If its benefits are so obvious, why the resistance? Wade ties it all to genetics but he does seem to want to ignore the powerful influence of cultural heritage. South America is a shining historical example of power concentrated in nation-states (mediated by religious institutions) just as was Europe for a long time, and the Spanish/Portuguese political models were relatively easily transplanted there.

    Finally I’d like to point out that Wade’s thinking displays the same fundamental fault most of the Environmentalist movement does- the assumption of an ideal steady state that existed at some unspecified time in the past. Today people cross arbitrary lines on maps and bring some of their cultural baggage with them, and trade some or all of it out as they acclimate to their new physical *and* political environment. They intermarry with “the natives”, mixing genetic propensities for political preferences (in Wade’s terms). This is not a new phenomenon- people have migrated, intermarried, and assimilated not just since we’ve been people but for long before that. I’m thinking he’s of the political evolution persuasion- he believes that humans first organized like the great apes do in paternalistic family units, then into superfamily “tribes” that required a rudimentary Democracy, thence (I’ll skip a few steps) to the full flower of Representative Democracy. In this way of thinking the tribalistic Africans are simply sadly underevolved, and are to be gently guided into Democracy, or failing that to be “managed” for their own (and everyone else’s) good.

    He is wrong. Representative Democracy has its inherent benefits just as Communism and every other form of governance does, but they also all have their inherent flaws but most importantly, there simply is no direct evolutionary path from one to the other. He ignores that fact and tries to tie the evolution of politics to the evolution of races. Africans are no more “less evolved” than Europeans than chimpanzees or termites are.

    He is another example of trying to address a large subject with too small a mind.

    Link to this
  24. 24. MP019 4:51 am 05/23/2014

    As BGI Cognitive Genomics Project member Steve Hsu notes, the hypotheses by Wade are testable using known scientific methods. For instance, it seems that North Europeans, on average, have a larger number of height increasing alleles than South Europeans. In time the alleles for other traits could be identified.

    I suggest you challenge Wade to a bet. Kind of like the John Simon & Paul Ehrlich bet in the 1980′s?

    Link to this
  25. 25. llirbo 10:53 am 05/23/2014

    Pseudoerasmus, and others,

    “…demonstrates the long term intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic status not only in England, but also in a variety of other countries.”
    It certainly has not been DEMONSTRATED: there is some evidence based on soft statistics. Maybe true, maybe not, but not demonstrated. While saying those things, remember that in the 18th century, when Britain tried to open China, the latter represented one third of the world’s GDP. How would that be explained. We have the genomes, let’s do the looking: what are the genes involved, and most important how and why they evolved? So, long term transition? Perhaps. Genetic transmission: very doubtful.

    Link to this
  26. 26. greg_t_laden 6:08 pm 06/27/2014

    The following review was written for print, so the process took longer and it has been missed by some of the link-farms. It is at Scientific American Backwards, AKA American Scientist:

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article