By Emily Willoughby and Jonathan Kane
Nicholas Wade's new book on race and genetics, aptly titled A Troublesome Inheritance, has been generating a lot of hubbub since its release around a week ago. It's occupying the #1 slot for every category in which it's listed at Amazon.com, despite having fairly average reviews by Amazon standards. And it's certainly not the first book to discuss most of the concepts it explores, either. So why so much fuss over another book on race?
The answer comes from the unusual thesis the book is attempting to support. A Troublesome Inheritance is essentially divided into two parts, each of which advances a different proposition. The first part serves as an explanation of how advances in genetics have overturned the long-standing idea that the concept of race is biologically meaningless. Wade argues that when humans are divided into groups based on genetic distance, the groups more or less correspond to our traditional concept of race: Europeans tend to cluster with other Europeans, East Asians with East Asians, and so on with Sub-Saharan Africans, Oceanians, and Native Americans. He presents data that in addition to genes that affect traits such as skin color, human races also differ in the distribution of genes that more significantly impact people's lives, such as lactase persistence (the ability to digest milk as adults), or a gene called MAO-A that increases the likelihood of aggression. In the second part of the book, Wade goes beyond the evidence for simple physical diversity in racial groupings. Here, he advances the idea that these differences extend to behavior, and that these behavioral differences underlie historical disparities in human societies and cultures. These evolutionary variations, he claims, could explain things like why the Industrial Revolution occurred where and when it did, and why Ashkenazi Jews have been vastly overrepresented among Nobel Prize winners. This thesis that "human evolution has been recent, copious and regional" is the driving thrust of the book, and is one of the factors that has contributed to its criticism.
Most of these ideas have been around for several years, and are well-known in their respective fields. The idea that racial categories are both useful and biologically meaningful was presented in What's the Use of Race? published by MIT in 2010, and the idea that evolutionary differences between human groups have contributed to cultural differences today was explored by the 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion. Both of these books were well-received and not especially controversial, but they both also are "niche" books that did not receive a lot of publicity. A lot of the controversy surrounding Wade’s book is not so much related to its ideas themselves, but to the fact that they are being presented in a widely-publicized book by a well-known author.
I'll be honest up front: I found the book disappointing, mostly because I wanted to see a book like this that was much more nuanced, much more carefully researched, and much more elegantly written. This is not the book I was looking for. Nicholas Wade is a science writer for the New York Times, and while he's certainly not a bad writer, he clearly doesn't have the technical expertise that such a lofty thesis would demand. Some reviewers, like Gregory Cochran, have pointed out that Wade makes it disappointingly obvious that he's not a geneticist, and that the book - based largely around an understanding of genetics - suffers as a result. But that's really selling Wade short: he's also not a psychologist, a biologist, or a historian. It shows.
The book has a number of errors, some of which are small enough that they don't have much effect on the overall theses. One example comes from Chapter 1 (which he later repeats near the end of the book) where he claims that "no genetic variants that enhance intelligence have yet been found", cited to the Chabris 2012 study. Genetics has advanced a great deal in two years, and Wade was evidently unaware of the myriad studies done in the interim that have managed to detect more signal amongst the noise with respect to alleles that contribute to intelligence variance. Our previous post tackles a few of these, but there are at least several more (some of which are in the works). Being aware of this research would have furthered Wade's thesis rather than contradicting it, but I think this unawareness of better, newer research can be viewed as a surrogate for the general level of scholarship of the entire book. There's no reason to assume the book isn't peppered with similar errors in areas of research I'm not as familiar with. In many cases, this obfuscation may be a result of unnecessary attempts at oversimplifying complex ideas.
The biggest issue isn't the minutiae of out-of-date studies and slight misstatement of facts, though. It's that much of the support for Wade's second thesis, about how group differences have impacted society, rests on convenient just-so stories and speculation rather than on hard data, because genetics has not yet progressed to the point that it can directly support them. Worse, Wade often presents data without citing a source, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to tell when he's stating facts and when he's invoking speculation. When writing about a such a controversial topic, clearly supporting novel ideas with data is of paramount importance, but in this case, a lot of the data Wade would need simply doesn't exist yet.
Don't get me wrong, A Troublesome Inheritance isn't all bad. I think part of my own frustration at this book stems from having just recently read Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature (which, incidentally, is misrepresented by Wade in A Troublesome Inheritance). Better Angels tackles a lot of the same issues as Wade's book, but where Wade seeks to explain the decline of violence and rise of reason in human societies with chiefly genes alone, Pinker approaches the issue from a much more comprehensive and logical perspective that's rooted both in human nature and complex cultural change. So reading this now is a bit like trying to chase a filet mignon with a McDonald's hamburger and then trying to find something nice to say about the hamburger. The most I can come up with is "Well, it’s beef... and I like beef..."
I think the world still needs more books like Wade's, simply because some of its ideas are important and haven't been presented to the public before. For example, this is the first major book I'm aware of that discusses the 2011 study showing that Stephen Jay Gould was wrong when he claimed in The Mismeasure of Man that Samuel George Morton had fudged his measurement of skulls, and that all of the errors had in fact been Gould's. It can take a long time for society to recognize errors like this that have become culturally entrenched, but perhaps Wade's book will help to change this. Wade also points out that it's a significant problem how scientists can't examine behavioral differences between groups without being accused of racism, and that these politically-motivated sentiments have no place in science. This has been said before, but bears repeating. For all its flaws, my hope is that this book will help in some small way to dispel the myth that race has no basis in biology, and also the even more pervasive myth that there is no legitimate reason to explore group differences, genes and behavior. Unfortunately, disentangling the rat's nest of culture and genetics is going to take more than a slim speculative volume by a science writer.
It's important for the public to understand both the areas where this book is strong, and where its shortcomings are. There’s no reason to doubt that its flaws will become well-understood, because there are a number of reasonable critiques of the book that point out the areas where its speculation isn't well-supported. In addition to the aforementioned review by Gregory Cochran, two other examples are this review by statistician Andrew Gelman, and this review by Anthony Daniels (who may or may not have played C-3PO in Star Wars). Note that the criticism in these reviews is focused on the second half of the book, about how evolutionary differences between human groups influenced human history. Far more concerning is that the public might not learn anything even from the book's better-supported first half, because of a small group of reviewers who seem to wish for the book to be discredited entirely, and are using arguments at least as dubious as anything in the book itself.
There are several reviewers who do this, but I'm going to focus on one in particular, both because he exemplifies all of what future reviewers of this book should be careful to avoid, and because he’s someone who should know better. It's the anthropologist Jonathan Marks, who has reviewed the book twice: once on May 12th for In These Times, and a second time on May 14th for the American Anthropological Association. In these reviews, Marks claims that both theses of the book are factually wrong - that biological differences between races not only haven't influenced human history, but that they have no effects at all. An equally important focus of his reviews is the idea that the book is morally wrong, because Wade is presenting ideas that have historically been misused to support injustice. Marks calls Wade's ideas "a slightly new spin on a set of old prejudices" (this is a phrase that appears word-for-word in both reviews), and "outmoded, racist ideologies masquerading as science."
UPDATE: Marks has also reviewed this book a third time on May 31st. His third review says basically the same things as his first two.
Marks has a conflict of interest reviewing this book. He's the author of several pop-science anthropology books presenting the perspective that race has no basis in biology, it's a perspective he also presents in a course he teaches called "Anthropology and Race", and his devotion to attacking Wade’s book may be partly because he views its ideas as a threat to his own professional reputation. You might expect a rival scientist to only focus on providing a factual rebuttal, but this aspect of Marks' response actually is the most common, ever-present response to ideas such as Wade's: that the effects of differences between races should never be researched or discussed, because of how these ideas have been abused in the past. Before any more reviewers repeat this meme, I think it deserves further examination.
The science blogger HBD Chick makes an important point about this idea. Genocide, racism, and xenophobia all predate human history, and it's foolish to think that beliefs about biological differences between races are to blame for these millennia-old practices. The Nazis misused race differences as an excuse for their genocide of Jews, but crimes of similar scale have been committed without any need to invoke this excuse, such as Stalin's mass starvation of Ukrainians in the 1930s. The way to prevent crimes like these isn't by preventing discussion about race and genetics, but by encouraging the universal recognition of human rights, as well as recognition of the fact that these rights don't require a basis in biology. This is one reason why Hitler’s misuse of an idea is not a good reason to avoid discussing it in the present, but there's also a second reason, which is best demonstrated using a comparison.
Not many people are aware of this anymore, but the first country to demonstrate a link between smoking and lung cancer was Nazi Germany. This was not a case of research being conducted by good scientists, and being subsequently misused by racists. One of the purposes of this research, at the time when it was being conducted, was to support the belief that cancer was somehow linked to racial impurity, and to further the goal of creating a cancer-free and racially pure utopia. At this point in history, Nazi Germany was the only country researching the link between smoking and lung cancer, so as a scientific hypothesis this idea was inseparable from the Nazis' racial ideology. The Nazis' research in this area is summarized in Richard Proctor's book The Nazi War on Cancer.
Scientists in the United States and England eventually reproduced this research in the 1950s, despite the resulting moral outrage at their attempting to prove an idea originally used to support the Holocaust. The historical connection between anti-smoking research and Nazism continued to be an objection to public health measures in this area until the 1990s, as described in this paper. As the connection between smoking and lung cancer has entered the scientific mainstream, the United States seems to be slowly forgetting the racist roots of this idea, although they haven't been forgotten in Germany.
The moral objections in Marks' review are objections that could have been made, and in some cases were made, to publicizing the connection between smoking and lung cancer in the second half of the twentieth century. In the case of causes of lung cancer, I think the world is very fortunate that these criticisms were ignored. I'm Jewish by ancestry on my mother's side, and my mother's parents had relatives who were killed by the Nazis, but they also had at least one sibling who died from lung cancer as a result of smoking. If these objections had succeeded at suppressing knowledge about smoking and lung cancer, it would not have saved anyone's life, but would have caused there to be many more people whose lifespans were shortened by smoking due to being unaware of its health risks.
Although it's less obvious how public health benefits from research about the effects of race differences, the same principle applies there also. This article from the New York Times describes how determining the best possible treatment for patients often requires including their race as a factor. Reactions to drugs do not line up perfectly with racial divisions, but there is enough of a correlation that this can sometimes be a decisive factor in determining the correct dosage, especially since a standard dose for one patient can be a lethal overdose for another. Note that this article is from 2002. In the time since then this practice had gradually declined, mostly due to the belief that it's always wrong to let one's actions towards a person be influenced by their race. But as is mentioned in that article, it has been documented that this approach was able to save lives, and these lives are not saved when this practice is abandoned.
In a paper published in 2005, Marks has denounced this practice. His argument is that since every anthropologist knows that racial categories don't mean anything in biology, race could not possibly be useful in a biomedical context, and that using it there also is immoral because race has historically been used to justify things like segregation. The claim that race could not possibly be useful in medicine is not typically convincing to doctors who have experience showing otherwise, but it's effective for creating a political climate in which using this information to improve care for one's patients is risky to a doctor's career. In some cases, doctors who listen to Marks' advice would have to ignore the instructions packaged with the drugs they're prescribing. One example is the warning included with the drug Crestor (rosuvastatin): "People of Asian descent may absorb rosuvastatin at a higher rate than other people. Make sure your doctor knows if you are Asian. You may need a lower than normal starting dose."
There are legitimate arguments that can be made against the use of racial categories in biomedicine, such as that personalized genomics will eventually make it possible to determine a patient's sensitivity to drugs far more precisely, so that the use of race in biomedicine will eventually become superfluous. But that isn't the argument Marks makes. In both his 2005 paper and his reviews of Wade's book, he is arguing that ideas with a racist history should simply not be considered, which in both content and effect is essentially identical to the argument which was made against research on the health risks of smoking. He's also arguing that people who repeat these ideas are themselves guilty of racism, but if he intends to denounce A Troublesome Inheritance by attacking Wade's motives, he should be prepared for his own to be questioned as well.
I don't believe it's possible for someone who's written on this topic as extensively as Marks to be completely unaware of the basic statistics about it, or of the instructions included with drugs such as Crestor. Ignorance is not an excuse, but he's evidently decided it's better for this data to be disregarded, for reasons related to either morality or self-interest. If Marks can ensure that research on the effects of race differences remains forever taboo, he can no doubt preserve the popularity of his own books and of the college course he teaches. He's also Caucasian, and the proper drug doses for Caucasians are always widely-known, so it's no loss to him if doctors sometimes fail to prescribe effective dosages to minorities. But I would argue that it's immoral for him to prioritize his career over minorities receiving proper medical care. And... hey, isn't there a word for that sort of attitude?
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Are you kidding me? Pinker's discussion of MAOA was criminally wrong! He even passed on the copy-and-paste error that I call the idiot test. He made another ridiculous, politically correct claim that I debunked. His errors seem to have an ideological bias in addition to the sloppy scholarship. I also noticed that he would cite a tertiary source for a claim, rather than go back to the original source. I consider Wade's scholarship to be far superior.
Racial groupings can be addressed at different levels of resolution. Wade's broadest divisions are generally cited to recent studies that look at repeating genomic sequences at particular sites, and doing so clusters people into five groups (same as the Cavalli-Sforza study from 1994, which I believe is the first study to attempt to do this) corresponding to the continental regions of Africa, Europe, East Asia, the Americas and Australasia. He also discusses the fact that these groups can all be broken down into many smaller subgroups, such as those revealed by examining SNPs of nearly a thousand people from 51 populations. This study, led by Jun Z. Li and Richard M. Myers, reveals even more genetic clusters, such as that formed by the people of central and south Asia, including India and Pakistan, and also reveals that the cluster distinct to the Middle East has considerable admixture from Europe and Africa. Wade speculates on this basis that the "Indian" and "Middle Eastern" racial groups could be elevated to the level of the aforementioned main five, and also discusses how each of these groups can be further broken down still (SNP studies can distinguish French, Italians, Russians, Sardinians and Orcadians, for example, and he also spends considerable space on the breakdown of subgroups in Africa).
In general, the detail at which he discusses which groups belong to which race depends on the point he's trying to make, and he does not devote equal space to every subgroup in existence. The idea that these subgroups represent distinct local clusters is generally well-supported by genomic data, though. Here are a few studies Wade cites that you can peruse if you're interested: , , , , and Cavalli-Sforza's original 1994 analysis can be found here.
And where do Central Asians, South and Western Asians fit into this? According to what you wrote they don't seem to be what he considers races.
I can look into the studies, but after that 2005 Harvard study that claimed the same as Wade, I am pretty sceptical.
Yes - for the practical utility of things like biomedicine, "race" is usually defined at a fairly broad level of classification. Understand that "race" isn't a distinct taxonomic level in the same way that "genus" or "family" is, though, and its usage is often context-dependent. Of course, the fact that people use it differently is not an argument for the nonexistence of these groupings.
Central, South and Western Asians are actually closer genetically to Europeans than they are to East Asians or Australasians. Here's an excellent chart based on the 1994 Cavalli-Sforza study showing human genetic groupings in a dendrogram. Note that this chart uses eight divisions rather than five, but you can see how some could be categorized together in overarching supergroups. Incidentally, there has been considerably more research done in this field since 1994 (some of which I linked in my comment above), and these studies have enabled us to achieve much greater specificity in assigning clusters. As far as I know, there's no neat dendrogram available for newer data, though.
And as interesting as it was what you said, you didn't fully answer my question. What is with the groups that the book doesn't mention in the groupings. E.g. did he ay South Asians cluster with Europeans?
And instead talk of human populations or something?
How scientific are the definitions of 'races' anyway? Those definitions seem to be culture-dependant. Things like 'hispanic' seem to be an US-thing for example.
The cultural perception of race doesn't line up perfectly with genetics, but the correlation is pretty strong. One study cited in Wade's book showed that when people's ancestry is measured using genetic markers, the results are consistent with their self-identified race over 99% of the time.
These results included people who self-identify as Hispanic, but Hispanics aren't one of the five clusters discussed in Wade's book. I think that's because Hispanics typically have some ancestors who were indigenous to Europe, and some who were indigenous to Latin America. So when people self-identify as Hispanic, there are genetic markers which correlate with that, but its being defined as a "race" is also heavily influenced by culture.
You might be interested to know that for the purpose of the U.S. Census, whether or not a person is Hispanic is considered a separate question from their race. The way the "race" questions of the census are worded is shown here: racebox.org/
That was a study made in US and Taiwan, though.
I have seen studies like that before, and they have always been of US-focused.
Also 'hispanic' is considered a race in that study.
And 'African Americans' are considered a race? So are the 'Caucasians' then 'Caucasian Americans'?
I'd be interested in what the situation would be like in somewhere like Europe of Africa.
It seems to me the word 'race' is much more commonly used by American biologists. And your population history is sort of different.
But I'm unsure how well-established those terms are even in the US. (For example is 'hispanic' a race? Are there 'hispanics' in Europe? If a person from Africa (like Egypt) moves to US does their race become 'African American', even though I'm pretty sure the population history of black people in the States is not just Africans from whereever?)
Africa has immense genetic diversity, so if you're going to divide humanity into races, Sub-Saharan Africa should definitely get more than one. I mean, if "Hispanic" is a different race from "Caucasian"...
Of course, that's what you get when "Caucasians" do the classification.
I do find it funny that most of the "Caucasian" population of the US doesn't originate from anywhere near the actual Caucasus. "Western European" would be a far better description.
Phylogenetically speaking, we're all sub-Saharan Africans. Those of us whose ancestors are indigenous to other parts of the world are just a sub-group of sub-Saharan Africans who've evolved lighter skin, and a few other adaptations to other environments.
I think the way Africans and non-Africans are classified is similar to the situation with maniraptoran theropods and birds. From a phylogenetic perspective, all birds are maniraptoran theropods, and there probably was at least as much genetic diversity among non-avian maniraptorans as there is among all birds. But it's still somewhat meaningful to classify non-avian maniraptorans as one group and birds as another, based on the presence or absence of the derived traits all birds have in common, even if it's paraphyletic.
I wonder whether anyone's ever tried applying cladistics software to living groups of humans. It probably wouldn't produce any new insights beyond what's been produced by these genetic studies, but a cladogram would be a useful way of presenting this topic to people with a background in paleontology.
I find your example of maniraptorans and birds interesting. For one thing, "birds" were recognised as a separate group long before we had any inkling of non-avian theropods. Had we known about, say, cute fuzzy tyrannosaurs millennia ago, would the line now be drawn somewhere else? I agree it's meaningful to create taxonomic entities based on shared traits. But the tree of life is a fractal; which branches we highlight and what traits we deem interesting enough is a function of our perceptions.
Second, while we recognise birds as an entity, we *also* recognise that "maniraptorans minus Aves" is not a monolith but contains a lot of diversity. By the same token, it makes sense to recognise and study the diversity within the paraphyletic group of "Sub-Saharan Africans minus other people". (Maybe it's already being done, I don't know, I don't follow this area at all.)
(Also, the analogy may not be the best because non-African populations are commonly subdivided. Having Africans vs Europeans and East Asians and Australians seems more like maniraptorans vs penguins and ratites and songbirds than maniraptorans vs birds. And no, I have no clue about avian interrelationships, but I hope you get the general idea )
The closest thing I'm aware of to a cladogram of human groups is on the second page of this paper, although the methods used for it still aren't really cladistics. I think this chart also helps to show the difficulty in coming up with an organization that clearly reflects the genetic data. The single largest genetic division is between Africans and non-Africans, so humans could theoretically be divided into just two races based on the genetic data. But non-Africans can also be sub-divided into a few smaller sub-clusters (such as the blue group representing Europeans), whereas coming up with similar subdivisions within Africans is more difficult.
This reminds me of an episode of M*A*S*H*, where Cpl. Klinger didn't re-order chloroquin (an anti-malaria drug) for the MASH's stock, instead he started digging into their stock of Primaquin, which is a stronger drug and has some very bad, almost coma-inducing side affects for blacks, and as it turned out, mediterraneans like himself, which was not known at the time. He of course got in a lot of trouble, because it meant that many patients would have delayed or problematic recovery times.
If you completely ignore genetic differences of race, you will run into problems like this. Cookie cutter mistakes when humans are never all identical. True we are all alike in many aspects, but humanity also went through some pretty horrific events before the start of written history, which caused drastic population bottlenecks and genetic changes taking hold. Didn't the Sioux have a total LACK of immunity to flu let alone smallpox? This sort of thing MATTERS. There are some isolated populations (like the Andamanese) that doctors are very reluctant to treat for Indo-european diseases since they fear the drugs may have unknown side-effects that make the native even more hostile to any sort of medical aid, from peace corps, UNICEF, etc.
Of course today with genetic halpogroups defines, we can get even MORE specific than race when it comes to mutations and possible weaknesses to certain medicines. So it's better not to just stop at race, but also have a person know their haplogroup in case of emergencies just like they know their blood type. This way medicine can be better selected and targeted so as not to harm the people it's trying to help.
So the Third Reich was the first country to connect smoking with lung cancer, huh? Pretty interesting, considering Germans today largely still smoke profusely and don't seem to care that it's harming their lungs. It's not like that regime never accomplished a single beneficial thing, as is too sadly often taught in history books. The entire cleanliness and anti-infectious disease campaign, even if it did have racist overtones, actually did wonders for lowering infant mortality and increasing life expectancy. One need only look at the prints of Kollwitz to see what a dysfunctional and unsanitary squalor the broken and unstable government of the Weimar Republic caused in the cities. Working conditions were also greatly improved, as Hitler believed that when you make the worker's conditions clean and bearable, he has nothing to fight for, and is not going to turn communist or go on strike. They even had a "Beauty of Labor" department to make sure work conditions in factories were not detrimental to health and safety. Of course if you weren't from the "right group" the shoe was on the other foot, and the slave labor camps were anything but clean. It's when the Reich started treating people like bacteria and murdering them, that the cleanup became a nightmare.
However, the real resilience of a nation should be measured in its ability to keep the good of previous systems and throw out the bad. Otherwise the entire experience will have been a complete waste. One prejudiced regime doesn't justify more prejudice against its more beneficial achievements. Wholesale throwaway attitudes result in stagnation and stifle scientific progress. And yet even most educated Germans still smoke. Hitler is dead, smoking for the sake of giving him the finger is foolish. It doesn't hurt him, it hurts you. People need to show some common sense and maturity here.
The problematic thing was that National Socialism was more than a political party - it was an aesthetic, a cultural movement, a way of life that encompassed many things, most of which don't get any press these days. This is what makes it hard to avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water, hard to separate the good accomplishments from the bad. There seems to be a tendency these days for many history documentaries to overemphasize only the military blunders and character flaws of its leaders to imply that everything about Nazi Germany was illogical, unscientific, and mindless. It clearly was NOT what way, otherwise it would not have had so much widespread support, particularly in the prewar years. Some aspects of it were downright ghastly and unexcusable, but others (usually forgotten) were things that made life much better - at least for the "racial types" favored by the regime. Of course there's nothing to stop us today from using these advances to benefit all of mankind - except our own reactionary prejudices. Cancer treatments were pioneered there, malaria was wiped out, and German doctors of the 30s were the best at eradicating infectious diseases. Science actually did exist in the 3rd Reich, it wasn't all pseudoscientific propaganda like in the Soviet Union (the idiotic quackery of Lysenkoism, for example, never caught on in the Reich). Medical care (and medical education) was actually affordable and not hijacked by parasitic insurance companies. Antibiotics were developed and used properly. And even the hospitals were cleaner than many hospitals today in the United States, where it seems at every turn patients are in danger of catching a strain of staph or TB that's resistant to every antibiotic out there. Sure carbolic acid stunk, but it did keep everything sterile. And don't forget the insane engineering leaps that are still used worldwide today like the invention of infrared night-vision, stealth technology, and the jet engine. Where would we be without jet engines and the ME 262... Every space program on earth also traces back to Von Braun and the V2. Many of these things had a frightening history, but that hasn't stopped them from being very useful to the modern Geneva Conventions-compliant world.