wade troublesome

Review of A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade (Penguin)

Jews are adapted to capitalism. The Chinese have evolved to be conformist. Iraqis lack the genetic mechanisms necessary for democracy. It is not difficult to find such claims in the darker recesses of the Internet. It is more surprising, though, to find them at the heart of a much-heralded new book by the former science editor of the New York Times. Yet, not only does Nicholas Wade make these claims, they form the very heart of A Troublesome Inheritance.

Discussions about race, Wade believes, have been hijacked by politically-driven social scientists blind to scientific truth. His aim is to reclaim the debate for science and to ‘demystify the genetic basis of race’. There are two elements to his argument. First, that race is a biological reality; and second that racial differences account for most of the important variations between societies. The first is a plausible, if mistaken, argument. The second is hogwash, supported by the kind of evidence and logic that might make a Creationist blush.

Despite Wade’s protestations, no one – not even nasty, horrid social scientists – actually denies that there are myriad genetic differences between human populations. The contentious questions are not about the existence of genetic differences but about their significance. And, whatever Wade might suggest, it is not just social scientists who question ideas of race as a biological reality; it is a live debate among geneticists and physical anthropologists too.

‘Race’ is a difficult concept to handle because most human populations are both social and natural. ‘If we look at enough genes’, the doyen of population biologists Luca Luigi Cavalli-Sforza has observed, ‘the genetic distance between Ithaca and Albany in New York or Pisa and Florence in Italy is most likely to be significant, and therefore scientifically proven.’ Cavalli-Sforza added that while ‘the inhabitants of Ithaca and Albany might be disappointed to discover that they belong to separate races’, the ‘people in Pisa and Florence might be pleased that science had validated their ancient mutual distrust by demonstrating their genetic differences.’

Geneticists, in other words, can distinguish between all sorts of populations. Some these distinctions are useful scientifically, some are not. Whether or not they are useful depends on the question we want to ask and the context in which we ask it. But the populations that geneticists distinguish are socially defined ones. That is because there is no such thing as a ‘natural’ human population. Migration; intermarriage; war and conquest; forced assimilation; voluntary embrace of new or multiple identities whether religious, cultural, national, ethnic or racial; any number of social, economic, religious, and other barriers to interaction (and hence to reproduction); social rules for defining populations such as the ‘one drop rule’ in America – these and many social other factors impact upon the character of a group and transform its genetic profile.

Yet, many of the ways in which we customarily group people socially – by race, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, geographic locality and so on – are not arbitrary from a biological point of view. Such groups have often been ghettoized by a coercive external authority, or have chosen to self-segregate from other groups. Members of such groups often show greater biologically relatedness than two randomly chosen individuals. What we call a ‘race’, in other words, is best seen as a social category but with biological consequences. That is why those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken.

ancient human migration map

Wade himself insists that a race is a ‘Continental population’. When modern humans first came out of Africa, they embarked on a series of complex migrations that took them across the globe. Simply by chance, each of the bands that left Africa would have had a slightly different genetic profile and, on each journey, the travellers would have picked up new genetic mutations. Defining someone by their continent of origin is really to establish in which of the first major migrations their ancestors took part.

But what is it about Continental groups that distinguishes them as ‘races’? And why should Continental groups, as opposed to other population groups, be defined as races? Wade never tells us. He cannot even tell us how many races there are. On page 4 of A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade claims that there are ‘three principal races’: Africans, East Asians and Caucasians. Sixty pages on, the three have become five with the addition of ‘the natives of north and south America’ and ‘the peoples of Australia and Papua New Guinea’. On page 100, Wade suggests that ‘it might be reasonable to elevate the Indian and Middle Eastern groups to the level of major races, making seven in all’. But, ‘then many more subpopulations could be declared races, so to keep things simple, the five-race, continent-based scheme seems the most practical’. We could, in other words, define as many races as we wish to, but for ‘practical’ reasons – a euphemism for ‘in a way that makes sense socially’ – Wade will arbitrarily limit it to five. Not a particularly scientific approach, but one that reveals the futility of trying to define race scientifically.

The ‘major races’, Wade goes on to argue, gave rise to the ‘major civilizations’. Again, Wade never specifies what he means by a civilization, or how many there are, though he seems mostly to settle for three (European, Chinese and African), occasionally with the Ottoman thrown in for good measure. This gives a sense of the crudity of Wade’s argument, one that seems designed purely to enable a link between ‘race’ and ‘civilization’.

Each civilization reflects the genetic make-up of its constituent race. Every race has evolved distinct patterns social behaviour – of aggression, cooperation, conformism, etc – leading each to create unique forms of social institutions. The ‘seeds of difference between the world’s great civilizations’, Wade believes, ‘were perhaps present from the first settlements’. And these differences explain why some peoples are tribal and others modern, why some are violent and others less so, why some are poor and others rich, why some are innovative and others conformist, and so on. For Wade, the Chinese are genetically predisposed not to question authority, Africans have not evolved sufficient trust towards non-kin necessary for democracy, while Jews have evolved the ‘higher cognitive capacities’ necessary for moneylending. And no, we are assured, there is nothing racist about such grotesque stereotypes.

rosenberg 2006

What Wade presents is a racialised form of the American political Samuel Huntingdon’s  ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. His argument possesses all the flaws of Huntington’s original but piles on new contradictions. What, Wade asks, prevents a country like Ghana ‘from taking out a loan, copying every Scandinavian institution, and becoming as rich and peaceful as Denmark?’The fact that Ghanaians are not genetically equipped to do so, he answers. But what if he had asked the same question of the differences between Greece and Denmark? Or indeed between Newcastle and London? I doubt if the answer would now be ‘because of racial differences’.

Or consider the case of North and South Korea. The vast differences between the two countries, Wade admits, ‘evidently lies not in the two countries’ genes… but in the fact that the same set of social behaviours can support either good or bad institutions’. Which is a long-winded way of saying that the differences are political and cultural. Why not, then, extend that same argument to the differences between Ghana and Denmark? Racial differences, it seems, provide the explanation for social differences when, and only when, they buttress Wade’s ideological preferences.

Or take Wade’s argument about the origins of the Industrial Revolution in England. Wade draws upon the work of economic historian Gregory Clark who claims that in pre-industrial England, the rich were more fertile than the poor. The result was the downward social mobility of many in the upper classes as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the progeny of the rich took over their occupations. This in turn ensured that the genes that made the rich rich by giving them ‘values of nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience’ became more common and primed England for industrial takeoff. There was, we are told, ‘a permanent selection in pre-industrial England for the genes of the economically successful, and against the genes of the poor and the criminal. Their extra reproductive success had a permanent impact on the genetic composition of the later population’.

It is such a preposterous claim, echoing nineteenth century theories about the rich and the poor comprising distinct races, that one hardly knows where to begin. Let us leave aside the suggestion that the social class that organized the slave trade, imposed colonial rule, maintained a system of bonded labour, enforced the enclosures of the common land, and suppressed popular revolt through the most brutal of means, could be considered as paragons of ‘nonviolence’. Leave aside too the idea that literacy was a product of better genes rather than of power, wealth, leisure time and education. Or the claim that  the ‘poor’ is synonymous with, and genetically linked to, the ‘criminal’.

Is there any evidence for the claim that ‘upper class’ or ‘middle class’ values are encoded in genes, that these classes disproportionately possess such genes or that such genes were more common in the population in 1700 than they had been in 1200? Not a smidgen. Not one small speck. And that is what is most preposterous about Wade’s argument. Not that it is controversial, but that he provides no evidence for it. As with much of this book, the argument about the genetic roots of the Industrial Revolution is a fairytale presented as science. And yet, Wade dismisses those who challenge his vapid assumption, or asks awkward questions, as ‘Marxists’ or ‘anti-science’. It is difficult, though, to think of an argument more ideologically motivated than Wade’s.

types of mankind

The character of racial science has transformed over the past century and a half. Nobody would ask, as Robert Knox, one of Britain’s leading racial scientists, did in 1850, ‘What signify these dark races to us? Destined by the nature of their race to run, like all other animals, a certain limited course of existence, it matters little how their extinction is brought about.’ Or claim, as future US president Theodore Roosevelt did in his book The Winning of the West, that the elimination of the ‘inferior races’, whose existence ‘was but a degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of wild beasts’, would be ‘for the benefit of civilization and in the interests of mankind’.

And yet the underlying theme of racial science remains the same. It is a way of explaining social inequality as natural, and hence as inescapable. Racial theories, as Enlightenment philosophe Condorcet put it, make ‘nature  herself an accomplice in the crime of political inequality’. The rich are rich, African nations are poverty stricken, Iraq is beset by violence, not because of power relations or social policies or sectarian divisions but because of natural inclinations. This is why Nicholas Wades’ fairytales matter: they play into some of the most reactionary prejudices of our time.

This could have been an important, challenging book. I was hoping it would be. In the end, what is truly disappointing is not the contentiousness of Wade’s arguments but their sheer feebleness.


A shorter version of this review was published in the London Times. For a detailed exploration of the biology and history of racial science, see my book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate.


  1. Sometimes this kind of talk is couched in the duplicitous “apartheid” language of “separate but equal”. I think back to Matthew Arnold’s guff about the Celtic character – left brain right brain malarkey extended to cover entire nations. Sometimes even “positive” racial “predispositions” towards such things as poetry and music can become over-determinations that result in the repression of self determination.

  2. Thanks for the review! I’ve been tempted to read this book, just so I know the type of arguments being made. But I read these kinds of arguments all the time in the HBD and race realist blogs. I doubt I’d discover much new in the book.

  3. The problem with saying “those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken” is that it presumes to know what *all* of those who think it a natural category actually mean.

    There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”. I can’t think of any that provides a *complete* classification of humanity into a finite number of subsets but such a classification is not necessary in order for a concept to be useful. You have mentioned one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well. Given our apparent inability to respond appropriately if such links really exist, it may well be inadvisable to look for them and any claim of their existence would require an especially high standard of proof in order to be taken seriously. To look for them at all may be harmful and should not be encouraged, but for someone who should know better to claim to have found them on the basis of superficial analysis is just plain evil.

    In the meantime though, I think there may well be value in addressing the question of how we should deal with such links in the (perhaps very unlikely) event that they do turn out to exist.

    • Thanks for this. You write:

      ’There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”.’

      This is to look at the issue the wrong way round. If you were to ask, ‘Can you define genetic differences between ‘colloquial socially constructed concept of “races”?’, the answer is ‘Yes’. That is because one can define genetic differences between many populations. If that is all that proponents of the idea of the reality of race wish to claim, then there would be no debate at all. But, of course, that is not what is being claimed. What ‘race realists’ suggest is that there is something special and fundamental about racial differences that separates races from other types of populations, and that racial differences account for many, if not most, of the important variations between societies and within societies – the claim that Wade elaborates in the second half of the book.

      As I suggested here:

      The real debate about race is not whether there are any differences between populations, but about the significance of such differences. The fact that a BMW saloon is of a different colour to a Boeing 747 is of little significance to most people. The fact that one has an internal combustion engine and the other a jet engine is of immense consequence if you want to travel from London to New York. But if you are a Yanomamo Indian living in the Amazon forest, even this difference may not be of that great an import, since it is quite possible that you will be unable – or will not need – to use either form of transport. If we want to understand the significance of any set of differences, in other words, we have to ask ourselves two questions: Significant for what? And in what context? One of the problems of the contemporary debate about race is that these two questions get too rarely asked.

      It is the failure to understand population differences contextually that is the fatal flaw at the heart of the ‘race realist’ view of race.

      You also suggest:

      ’You have mentioned one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well.’

      It is true that different populations certainly show different patterns of disease and disorder. North Europeans are more likely to suffer from cystic fibrosis than other groups. Tay Sachs, a fatal disease of the central nervous system, particularly affects Ashkenazi Jews. Beta blockers appear to be less effective on African Americans than on those of European descent.

      Yet race is not necessarily a good guide to disease, or indeed to any aspect of human diversity. We all know, for instance, that sickle cell anaemia is a black disease. Except that it isn’t. Sickle cell anaemiais a disease of populations originating from areas with high incidence of malaria. Some of these populations are black, some are not. The sickle cell gene is found in equatorial Africa, parts of southern Europe, southern Turkey, parts of the Middle East, and in much of central India. Most people, however, know that African Americas suffer disproportionately from the trait. And, given popular ideas about race, most people automatically assume that what applies to black Americans applies to all blacks and only to blacks. It is the social imagination, not the biological reality, of race that turns sickle cell into a black disease.

      Categories such as ‘African American’, ‘people of Asian descent’ and ‘Ashkenazi Jew’ can be important in medical research not because they are natural races but because they are social representations of certain aspects of genetic variation. Races may not be natural divisions of humankind but socially defined populations provide, nevertheless, a rough and ready means of dividing humans into groups that show different degrees of biological relatedness. The irony is that in order to study human genetic diversity, scientists need socially defined categories of difference. The danger is that by using socially defined groups in research, biologists will endow differences between such groups with greater importance than is warranted.

      • I agree with almost everything you say here, especially the final sentence. But I think it is wrong to conflate “proponents of the idea of the reality of race” with those who adopt the label ‘race realist’ and use alleged properties of “race” to justify evil behaviour.

        Like it or not, I actually see you as among the former even though you recoil at use of the word.
        You appear to understand that some concept of “race” is real and sometimes leads to significant differences in the expected response to some medical treatments. There are often more effective tests than observation of apparent “race”, and we should use them to the greatest extent possible; but even in those cases there may be times where economic costs and/or temporal urgency require us to act on the basis of incomplete information – which may include apparent race as a legitimate component.

        Perhaps those who have scientific definitions of “race” should not use that tainted word to label what they are defining, but then the appropriate objection is not that the concept does not exist but that the label is offensive. This matters because denying the existence of something without knowing how it has been defined puts one in the position of possibly being found wrong and so undermines acceptance on the more important issues.

        • ‘Race realist’ is a label that proponents of the idea of the reality of race use to describe themselves. It has nothing to do with ‘justifying evil behaviour’.

          As for my view, I think you miss the point. What is ‘real’ is the existence of genetic differences between populations. To reduce such differences to the concept of ‘race’ is, however, unfeasible and unscientific for the various reasons I have laid out, particularly in ‘Why both sides are wrong in the race debate’.

        • Thanks for pointing out (in that “why both sides..” link) that the term ‘race realist’ is accepted by people like Neil Risch who make no claim that racial differences account for social variations. In that case I accept the label for myself as well. But then it was wrong to claim (without an existential rather than an implied universal quantifier) that “What ‘race realists’ suggest is that there is something special and fundamental about racial differences that separates races from other types of populations, and that racial differences account for many, if not most, of the important variations between societies and within societies – the claim that Wade elaborates in the second half of the book.” *Some* race realists may be guilty as charged, but what you have written is on the same level as saying “Americans voted for Romney in the last presidential election”. After reading Jerry Coyne’s damning review, how could you assert that race realists “suggest” the claim in Wade’s second half?

        • You are confusing a number of issues here. You began by suggesting that ‘There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”.’ I have tried to show why this is an ill-formed way of posing the issue. To claim that there are ‘good scientifically meaningful concepts’ which ‘coincide with colloquial socially constructed concept of “race”’ suggests that even were socially constructed categories of race to be different, the scientific categories would remain the same. There is no reason to believe that this would be the case. Proponents of the race concept find it difficult to answer what it is about certain populations, and only certain populations, that makes them races; and what is it about certain population differences, and only certain population differences, that transforms them into ‘racial differences’. You still have not provided an answer. Neither does Wade. The truth is that certain population distinctions are seen by race realists as more important scientifically primarily because they are more important socially, too. That is what Wade means when he writes that ‘many more subpopulations could be declared races, so to keep things simple, the five-race, continent-based scheme seems the most practical’ (p 100). (I am, incidentally, surprised that for someone who seems to be so confident about the facts of the matter, you had not previously come across the term ‘race realist’; that suggests a rather superficial acquaintance with the debate.)

          You then go on to claim that I ‘assert that race realists “suggest” the claim in Wade’s second half’. That’s not what I argue. Indeed, even with Wade, I distinguish between his arguments about the biological reality of race (which I describe as ‘plausible, if mistaken’) and his claims about social differences in the second half of the book which I dismiss as ‘hogwash’.

          What I do say is that in trying to answer the questions that I raise above – what is it about certain populations that makes them races? And what is it about certain population differences that transforms them into ‘racial differences’? – race realists have to find ‘something special and fundamental about racial differences that separates races from other types of populations’. This leads them to reframe social differences as natural. I accept that the phrase that for race realists ‘racial differences account for many, if not most, of the important variations between societies and within societies’ is, perhaps, overstated, but the basic point stands. That is why few people, these days anyway, regard the social and economic differences between Greece and Denmark, or between Newcastle and London, as being caused by racial factors, but many (and not just Wade) would attribute to race at least some of the differences between Ghana and Denmark .

        • My claim (which you have just denied) that you ‘assert that race realists “suggest” the claim in Wade’s second half’ was based on the following direct quote: “What ‘race realists’ suggest is that there is something special and fundamental about racial differences that separates races from other types of populations, and that racial differences account for many, if not most, of the important variations between societies and within societies – the claim that Wade elaborates in the second half of the book.” Thank you for acknowledging that this is “overstated”.

          In fact just before the above quoted bit you say “… one can define genetic differences between many populations. If that is all that proponents of the idea of the reality of race wish to claim, then there would be no debate at all”. But I don’t actually see people like Jerry Coyne and Neil Risch going much beyond that. You don’t like the fact that they call such distinguishable populations “races”, but it seems to me to be both consistent with the use in biology regarding other species and a reasonable adaptation of the colloquial socially constructed use of the term.

          The only place where I think we disagree is on whether the “plausible” definitions of “race” used by Coyne and Risch are “mistaken”. Given the historical associations it may well be a poor choice of terminology but I am not convinced by your arguments that they are scientifically wrong. (And if you read me carefully you will see that my main point is that, whether right or wrong, taking a position on an area of perhaps legitimate disagreement creates a distraction from the much more important issue of dealing with claims like those in Wade’s second half.)

        • Sigh.

          1. I did not write that all race realists believe in Wade’s speculations. What I noted was that Wade elaborates in the second half of his book ideas about what makes racial differences ‘special and fundamental’ and about how racial differences account for many social differences, ideas that, in some form or other, race realism necesarrily implies. My point is not that all race realists think as Wade does about social differences but that all race realists have to specify what is ‘special and fundamental’ about racial differences and that, given that races are socially-defined categories, so they are led, at some level or other, to reframe social differences as natural ones.

          2. I have asked, again and again, what it is about certain population differences that distinguishes them as ‘racial’. You have so far refused to answer that beyond suggesting that Neil Risch and Jerry Coyne think that races are genuine biologically categories. I know they do. And I disagree with them. I have engaged with Risch’s arguments in detail in my book, Strange Fruit. The fact that X and Y, however distinguished they may be, think as you do is not evidence that what you think is therefore right.

          You suggest that Risch and Coyne don’t go ‘much beyond’ the idea that ‘one can define genetic differences between many populations’. But, of course, they have to, because only certain populations are considered ‘races’. We return, in other words, to the question that so far you have refused to answer: what is it about certain populations, and only certain populations, that makes them ‘races’? Do you think that Jews constitute a race? Or South Asians? Or the people of Florence? And if not why not?

          3. If you believe that ‘taking a position on an area of perhaps legitimate disagreement creates a distraction from the much more important issue of dealing with claims like those in Wade’s second half’ why have you bothered spending so much time challenging my arguments, especially when you refuse actually to engage with them? Since this discussion is going nowhere, we might as well bring it to a close. I have better things to do with my time.

      • If you don’t want to approve this that’s (of course) fine. But I hope you read it carefully and try to take seriously what I am saying.

        3. “why have you bothered spending so much time challenging my arguments”
        As you have pointed out, I haven’t been challenging your *arguments*. I disagree with one of your *conclusions* (re the definability of “race” in a way that is scientifically useful) and have referred to a tentative definition on my own blog but have not imposed on your space to specify it in technical detail. I may take the time to explain there more fully why I think it meets the criteria, and even to specifically identify where I think your argument goes wrong, but that’s not really what I am on about.

        It may even be that you are right in terms of your own usage of the phrases “definability of race” and “scientifically useful” but not as I (and Risch and Coyne) understand them. I mention those names not as “authorities” but just to show that the usage is not universally established in a way that makes your conclusion valid. Thus you can appear to a significant fraction of the scientific community to be basing your anti-racism on what many intelligent and well-intentioned people consider a false foundation (ie the non-existence of race rather than the issue of doing bad things with it). Of course this won’t undermine the views of those who are already anti-racist, but it may weaken your effectiveness at the borderline (which is the only place it matters) and may cause other anti-racists to echo your position and so similarly weaken their own effectiveness.

        What you say is mostly right and consistent with what I would say myself. You have a voice and reputation that I do not, and so in a sense I have to let you speak for me. To that end it is better for me if you are completely right and maximally effective. I think that by agreeing that Risch and Coyne (and I) can have a scientifically useful definition of something that could reasonably be called “race” you would be improved on both counts.

        2. I would welcome your feedback on the tentative definition I posted on my own blog and would defend or correct it here in the (unlikely) event that you thought that might be useful.

        1. I guess I must have misread the sentence I quoted in the first paragraph of my last comment.

  4. Are races real?

    There is no single gene that everyone or nearly everyone in a particular ‘race’ possesses that all other ‘races’ lack. There is no gene or set of genes that separates races.

    For example, Africans and those of African descent have more genetic diversity than does any other population on the planet. Genetically speaking, it would make more sense to combine as a single race all non-Africans than it would to combine as a single race all Africans.

    Also, populations like African-Americans are highly mixed genetically (Jamaicans are even more mixed). African-Americans have on average 20-25% European genetics (although some studies show it as low as 18% and some as high as 30%). Abbout 1 in 10 are more European than African. Henry Louis Gates Jr explains,

    “As we have shown in the “African American Lives” series on PBS, […] between 30 and 35 percent of all African American males can trace their paternal lineage (their y-DNA) to a white man who impregnated a black female most probably during slavery.”

    More interesting, at least 5% of African-Americans have more than 50% European genetics and a recent study (Shriver) puts that at about 10% of African-Americans. Some African-Americans are almost entirely European, except for a tiny percentage of African genetics.

    “People who identify as African-American may be as little as 1 percent West African or as much as 99 percent”

    Some studies have even found that 5.5% of so-called African-Americans had no detectable African genetics. That is more than 1 in 20, no small part of the population of ‘black’ Americans.

    Taken together, this means that at least in some ways African-Americans are even more genetically diverse than the African populations that are part of their ancestry. African-Americans include the ancestors of the original slaves from West Africa and other slaves from the non-Anglo-American colonies with various other admixtures, Jamaicans in particular being highly diverse. Also included are the newer immigrants who have no enslaved ancestors and who come from every region of Africa, thus bringing with them that immense genetic diversity.

    A not insignificant point is that a large number of African-Americans should be more accurately designated as European-Americans. Just think about this. Whenever you pass a group of ‘black’ people, the probability is that at least one of them is actually mostly European and may have very little or no African genetics. Indeed, if you suspend the typical American racial biases, you’ll notice most ‘black’ Americans do have lighter skin than the average African, often as light skinned as other non-African people including many Southern Europeans.

    Also, around a third (30%) of European-Americans has the equivalent of three African ancestors in recent centuries (2.3% African genetics). In South Carolina (that had a historically majority African-American population), about 1 in 8 European-Americans have had a relatively recent African ancestor. This racial mixing was common all across the Deep South. Louisiana is similar to South Carolina while other Deep Southern states are mostly around 1 in 10 European-Americans with African genetics.

    Click to access palmie_05.pdf

    “As Stuckert (1976) has pointed out in an ingenuous statistical extrapolation from historical records, by the time of the 1970 U.S. census, some 24% of all persons listed as “white” might reasonably have been presumed to have had African ancestors, while more than 80% of all “blacks” would have had non-African ancestors. Transformed into numerical values, this means nothing less than that the overwhelming majority of all Americans of African ancestry – i.e. about 42 millions at the time – had not been counted into the black population (which then stood at 22 millions), but classified as white. Put differently, there were (and surely still are) almost double the number of “white”Americans of African descent as “black” ones (cf. Palmié 2002).”

    Skin color isn’t a good indicator of genetics. Both light and dark skin are caused by many different genetics. Skin color was one of those traits that developed separately in numerous populations. Skin color, like many other physical features, doesn’t necessarily indicate common genetics.

    In conclusion, ultimately race is an arbitrary social construct. Yes, it is real to the extent that, like any social construct, it can be enforced onto a population. But no, it isn’t inherent to genetics as an a priori reality. Plus, even with centuries of enforced genetic segregation, much of racial identity requires subjective perception and still perception often fails to tell us much about the actual genetics of individuals.

    You have to be looking for the social construct of race in order to find it, both in appearances or in genetics. There are millions of distinctions between humans and hypothetically any or all of these could be called races. The point is that the folk taxonomy of races doesn’t fit the data, although one can cherrypick data to fit whatever theory one wishes to prove by way of circular reasoning. In the end, though, it just doesn’t add up to a plausible scientific theory. The relationship between genotype and phenotype is too complex and nuanced for centuries old non-scientific racist categories.

    This is something I’ve been writing about for a while now. I go in greater detail in many of the posts at my blog:

  5. Sarah AB

    I am rather surprised to find myself writing this, but I don’t find this critique of Wade fully convincing. (I’m surprised because all my confirmation biases strongly push me towards KM and against NW.) Someone sent me the chapter ‘Jewish Adaptations’ and that is the only part I’ve read. I found it unsettling, but I didn’t precisely think it was arguing that race was a biological reality, more that certain population groups had evolved in particular ways in response to local/historical conditions.

    • Sarah, you should read the whole book, or even just p 4: ‘Analysis from genomes from around the world establishes that there is indeed a biological reality to race’. This, however, is not the problematic aspect of Wade’s book. The argument for the biological reality of race is, as I suggested in the review, plausible but mistaken, though for more subtle reasons that usually claimed by critics. It is an area of genuine debate. The most problematic aspect comes in the second part of the book, where he suggests (with virtually no evidence in most cases) that most of the important variations between societies are the result of genetic/racial differences. It is true that Wade argues that ‘certain population groups had evolved in particular ways in response to local/historical conditions’. That is his argument for the development of racial and civilizational differences. Whether he believes that Jews, or Ashkenazi Jews, constitute a distinct race or not, Wade never quite says. But that is in keeping with much of his book.

      • Sarah AB

        Thank you. As I found your own book on race entirely convincing, I am sure that, if I looked further into his views and your objections, I would agree with you.

      • The English early on considered the Irish to be a separate race. They associated them with Africans, which seems odd to our modern notions of race as defined by skin color. However, there is an argument for the Irish being a separate ‘race’ as a separate genetic population. The Irish genetically descend from the Basque, and the Basque were the first Europeans with separate genetics, culture, and language from other Europeans. The Irish (and Basque) along with all of their descendents will be surprised, though, to learn they aren’t part of the white race. Also, doctors and medical researchers will have to discontinue the practice of treating them as being of the white race.

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