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.
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.
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.
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.