May 21, 2014 | 26
A new book argues race and genetics explain “the rise of the West.” Bad science explains the downfall of its ideas.
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.”
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 Stormfront.org, 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.