On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy

I just finished reading Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”, his latest effort to explain all of his personal racial prejudices in the light of recent human evolution. In this book he sets out to convince readers that many aspects of modern society – the English capacity for industrialization, Jewish intelligence, the inability to establish democratic institutions in the Middle East and Africa – have a strong genetic basis, the result of natural selection acting quickly to enshrine various aspects of culture in a people’s genetic makeup.

As many others have pointed out, the book is riddled with scientific and logical flaws, and the overall impression you get from Wade is not of a science journalist, but an unhinged racist who thinks his views are ok because he’s “telling it like it is”. And it is tempting to simply ignore him. But, unfortunately, I think this book needs to be dealt with seriously, because while this particular work may be dismissible, the line of reasoning it represents is both very dangerous, and here to stay.

The reason that this is issue is bigger than Wade’s book is that, while Wade’s representation of modern genetics is simplistic and selective, and he veers sharply into racist claptrap, the points that he is trying to emphasize about human evolution are, in broad strokes, right. Human genetic diversity does mirror geography, as does much phenotypic diversity. While random drift likely accounts for most of both genetic and phenotypic variation, natural selection clearly has shaped recent human evolution, and there is the potential for cultural forces to impact genetic variation over relatively short timeframes.

The problem is that – for the moment at least – that’s about all we can say. It turns out to be far easier to demonstrate that there has been a fair amount of recent natural selection acting on the human population, than it is to pinpoint specific examples, or to rigorously evaluate specific hypotheses. The reason is that different types of evolution (drift, positive selection, purifying selection) leave different fingerprints in the genome, and we can use these to estimate how prevalent each of these forces has been in human history, and, to a lesser extent, identify regions of the genome that have been subject to certain types of selection.

But the effect of specific examples of selection are almost always weak – especially the kinds of transient selection affecting relatively small groups of people on which Wade hangs his speculation. Furthermore, while natural selection leaves a signal behind in the genome, the signal is primarily that it happened – it’s much more difficult to precisely identify what was being selected, let alone why or how.

Knowing that natural selection has occurred, in some cases recently, but being unable to be more specific leaves a huge void – and it is into this void that Wade has inserted himself. He spends the first half of his book summarizing (albeit it inaccurately and incompletely) a decade of huge advances in human genomics, but then shifts abruptly from science to speculation.

In making the leap from the broad to the specific – from signature of natural selection in the human genome to explanations of the industrial revolution, Jewish Nobel Prizes and political turmoil in Africa and the Middle East – Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way.

In spending the first half of the book rooted firmly in modern evolutionary genetics, Wade is doing more than just trying to educate his readers. He is trying to give the ideas that he presents in the second half of the book the authority of science. This is crucial to his entire mission. What separates Wade’s theories – in his own mind – from those of a garden variety racist is that they are undergirded by genetics.

Wade weaves a bunch of yarns about how natural selection could have affected some phenotype using the language of modern genetics. But genetics is a science, not a series of fairy tales. Wade ignores the the fact that geneticists have developed a sophisticated set of approaches and tools designed specifically to answer the kind of questions he is raising – approaches and tools that have failed to uncover evidence for the kind of things Wade is trying to convince us must have been true. He can not have it both ways – he can not wear the mantle of a geneticist, but reject its precepts when they are inconvenient.

My concern about this runs deeper than annoyance at someone for failing to use the tools of my trade, or for cleaving to our authority. The scientific method arose as a way to understand the world because the kind of just-so storytelling that Wade is engaging in is useless. Is it a surprise that Wade just happens to find evolutionary explanations for the most pervasive racist attitudes of the day? Of course not. Because unmoored from data and logical rigor, one can make up an evolutionary explanation for anything.

I am an evolutionary biologist. I spend my days studying natural phenomenon and conceiving of possible explanations for why things are the way they are. But, unlike Wade, I know that, without evidence, these stories are bullshit. I could tell you stories all day about how microorganisms have evolved to manipulate the behavior of animals (one of the things my lab studies), but I don’t expect you to take them seriously until I demonstrate that they are true. Wade fails to recognize this. He seems to think that the science described in the first part of his book lends support to his theories. But in fact, it is categorically opposed to it.

This, to me, is the real danger of this work. By using the language of genetics to tell his stories, Wade is trying to obscure the distinction between science and storytelling. He is trying not just to make it ok to voice racist theories about the origins of human phenotypic variation, he is yearning to give them the validity of science. And he has to, because without the imprimatur of genetics, Wade’s stories really are nothing more than rewarmed racist rants.

But I fear that this distinction will be lost on many people. Genetics has a powerful hold on the public – they are fascinated by stories about how there’s a gene for this or that phenotype. And it terrifies me that more people will follow Wade’s lead and use the reality of genetic variation and natural selection in humans to justify to themselves and others whatever it is they want to believe about humanity (see an excellent warning about just this in a 2007 article by Amy Harmon).

This is why it is so important that scientists speak out about not just this book, but all of the related efforts now and in the future to distort science in this way. We are all used to fights with people who overtly reject science – creationists, climate change denialists, anti-vaccine wackaloons and GMO fearmongers. But here we are dealing with someone who is, on the surface at least, CELEBRATING science. But just as we speak out forcefully to explain what science does say (evolution and climate change are real, vaccines and GMOs are safe), we have to be equally forceful in communicating what science can not, or at least does not yet, say.

 

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40 Comments

  1. Posted June 4, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this.

  2. Gina D
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I agree that is important that scientists speak out against this but it is also important to speak in a forum that non-scientists look at. So I hope you cross post this somewhere like Amazon or Goodreads. I find it frustrating that I have seen more well written negative posts on science blogs than there are on Amazon. I am sure you have a well read blog but science blogging generally can become something of a circle jerk if only scientists read it.

    • Posted June 5, 2014 at 3:19 am | Permalink

      As one of these circle jerking science bloggers, I’d like to suggest and plead and beg that someone put out a high-profile book with lots and lots of publicity that provides the counter views and nuanced views that Wade does not (the Bell Curve too) and that discusses the arbitrariness of taxonomy (despite it falling in the realm of “science”), why so many people don’t see taxonomy as the human construct that it is (for one, because they aren’t thinking evolutionarily and believe that nature has constructed these categories that are up to us to discover), and the socio-politial-cultural-medical consequences of those arbitrary taxonomic categories when they’re applied to humans. Ideally, that book which I desperately hope someone publishes, and soon, is complemented by a documentary, freely available online and shown on TV repeatedly (like Blackfish) narrated/hosted by someone that everyone knows but everyone likes, regardless of political preference. That’s the only thing I can think of that will be effective while being a lot more credible than a bunch of us flooding Amazon with reviews. (BTW, as far as I know it’s number of Amazon reviews that drive up sales, more than the quality of them but I could be wrong.)

      • Holly Dunsworth
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 3:40 am | Permalink

        P.S. HHMI puts out stunning films, hint hint.

      • safe
        Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        Lol virtually all documentaries are left wing documentaries anyway what are you even talking about? I’m pretty sure you’re covered

        • Holly Dunsworth
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 5:48 am | Permalink

          Obviously the target audience wouldn’t include people who’ve made up their minds, permanently, or who see things entirely so polarized.

      • Posted June 5, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

        There is one, it’s called Guns, Germs, and Steel, and I believe there was a documentary or TV special that went along with it. I’ve never seen a more eloquent smack-down of the (eerily pervasive) belief that the technological differences between cultures are NOT due to differences in average intelligence.

        • Holly Dunsworth
          Posted June 6, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

          I didn’t see the doc, but I read the book and I could be wrong, but I don’t recall GG&S dealing much with population genetics, taxonomy, genes for behavior, group level behavior differences: whether they exist and whether they’re explained by genetic differences, or race in any of those contexts, or the consequences of applying racial categories to humans on their behavior, status, wealth, education, health, well-being, mortality, etc. This is what I meant by a direct response to the issues raised in The Bell Curve and Wade’s book.

      • Stephanie
        Posted June 8, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

        “Ideally, that book which I desperately hope someone publishes, and soon, is complemented by a documentary, freely available online and shown on TV repeatedly ”

        Holly,

        So you basically want a propaganda campaign?

        This is truly disgusting and completely antithetical to science.

        You so hate science and truth you want to smear it with lies?

        Lysenko would be proud.

        • Holly Dunsworth
          Posted June 9, 2014 at 8:46 am | Permalink

          If all education and knowledge sharing is propaganda (like above comment insinuates), that’s a truly saddening thought. Because, to someone like that, everything they know is propaganda.

      • Reader
        Posted June 8, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

        More information on human biodiversity at:

        http://www.humanbiologicaldiversity.com

        ..

    • Brad Foley
      Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

      The Amazon review route, it turns out, is thankless and not particularly productive. There seems to be a contingent of dedicated people who vote down critical reviews (pushing them out of the most helpful slot). And some of the comments begin to verge on the surreal (one guy was yelling at both Dmitry Petrov and Graham Coop after they reviewd Wade’s book, calling them “know nothing sock puppets”)

      I tried to do a reasonably thorough Amazon review (I’m peripherally acquainted with some of the behaviour literature) but it’s not clear that it convinced many people. And then you have to deal with trolls. It’s time consuming, and it’s kind of embarrassing to be provoked to snap at people.

  3. Carrie
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    This review is emotional and at times irrational. How many times are you going to use word ‘racist’?

    The simple fact of the matter is that while Wade’s book is speculation, it is probably right in its general gist. We know now that evolution has been recent and regional, and things like the things Wade describes will probably turn out to be true. It’s probably best to prepare ourselves for them now in a mature and informed way.

    Emotional rants like the one above do not advance understanding.

  4. Reader
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Using the slur of “racist” does not make an argument incorrect.

    Likewise, just because the accounts of the number of races vary, it doesn’t mean race doesn’t exist. People disagree on the number of shapes but shapes still exist.

    The entire Cultural Marxist “race is a social construct” propaganda is quite tiresome. Few people believe this crap, which is why the Cultural Marxists feel they must shout it even louder. Sorry, but this is propaganda, not science.

    I think that what really terrifies people is that we have in fact learned that evolution has been recent and regional. While Wade may or may not be correct about some particulars, the general gist of his book more than likely is correct, something that we are going to have to come to terms with.

    Unless, of course, you want to continue down the path of liberal creationism:

    http://oi58.tinypic.com/33my649.jpg

  5. UCBerkeley Grad
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    These articles are public relation pieces whose science is more related to Edward Bernays than to any credible, classical science. I see appeal after appeal to emotion, with little, if any, real science. Scientific conclusions are made without any evidence or references. While the author may be concerned about a skeptical public, there is ample evidence to suggest that this skeptical public is perhaps simply exercising their critical thinking skills. Regardless of the merits of Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”, the author here steps beyond the confines of the book to voice an opinion which seems overly broad. It seems foolish for any scientist to even attempt to study (pro or con) the scientific basis for racism. But I guess there some….Nicholas Wade being one example. In nature, there are ample examples of both biodiversity as well as monoculture. Natural selection dictates which policy is employed. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. When biodiversity serves the interests of an organism or group of organisms, there is propensity for biodiversity. However, there are also examples of monoculture as well. To paint this subject with a broad brush is sophomoric. As it relates to human populations, it is insulting to suggest that monoculture are somehow deserving of racial animus. Attitudes and population biology are two broad subjects and linking the two is a monumental task, to say the least. Again, why even attempt such folly? But, on the other hand, one cannot dismiss the social-political movement of “multiculturalism” whereby more-or-less homogenous societies are purposely destabilized by artificial, external forces. Objecting to artificial multiculturalism is by no means “racist”….but those promoting it often use this as cover to discredit their opponents. The real agenda here is exposed by the revealing admissions of the author by using such propaganda soundbites such as, “creationists, climate change denialists, anti-vaccine wackaloons and GMO fearmongers”. Shows me how politics and political correctness has infected classical science…… A true scientist would not say such things…..s/he may think such things…but stating them only discredits their work.

    • Name
      Posted June 11, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Classical science? Like Samuel G. Morton and Josiah Nott, Louis Agassiz, Francis Galton, Charles Davenport, Harry H. Laughlin, Henry H. Goddard, Madison Grant, Earnest Albert Hooton, Carleton Coon? These are your heroes?

      The depth of dishonesty in so many of the posters is staggering. Time is not on the side the neo-scientistic racists but the ability of these closeted bigots to inflict harm remains strong.

  6. Helga Vierich
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    The term “race” is a loaded one for one and one reason only… which is that people tend to assume that there are mental differences: in creativity, moral integrity, criminality, or in the averages in ability to defer immediate satisfaction in favour of longer term rewards, and finally in cognitive ability as measured by IQ – candlepower to win Nobel Prizes. I wonder if conspiracy theories or calling people names ought to be on this list?

    If this sticky part of the race issue were not there, we might be perfectly charmed by talk of how people from some populations tend to have a higher proportion of long distance runners, while others can get more Vitamin D from sunlight in northern latitudes than others who come from populations where, by contrast, darker skin protects them from getting skin cancer in the intense equatorial sun. Might we not be equally charmed to know that a higher proportion of certain populations have an adaptation to wearing kilts in cold weather that involves the retraction of male genitalia into the warmth of the pelvic cavity, while others have bigger lungs as an adaptation to living at high altitudes?

    However, racism is founded, not on these kinds of delightful differences illustrating human adaptive flexibility. It is founded on the idea that some populations are simply mare evolved and therefore better people than others, and therefore deserve to be in charge of world affairs.

    Nicolas Wade, as far as I can see, has based this new book of his mostly on an elaboration of Henry Harpending and Greg Cochran’s “The 10,000 Year Explosion”, the main point of which seems to be that it was especially innovative populations who developed agricultural systems of food production, and have shown “copious” evolution in immune systems and digestive organs, so there is not reason why they ought not have also continued to evolve in cognitive ways that permitted the establishment of complex societies and rocket science. I asked Henry about this recently, quoting from the “Explosion” to ask him what is implied by the section that hints that it was Neanderthals who contributed the genes to Eurasians, and hence the (and I quoted, from the book)…

    b

    To which Henry replied:
    (personal communication, 11.15 AM, June 3, 2014)
    and earlier:

    All I can conclude from this is that Henry Harpending also judges that the human brain must have changed by 200,000 years ago, creating fully modern “theory of mind” and other “high level cognitive stuff”. The people who domesticated plants and animals were not smarter than other people, for when I asked him why I had got this impression from his book, he responded:

    b (Ibid)

    An argument that recent recent evolutionary change has been rapid in genes affecting some tissues, like the genes for immune system, digestive enzymes, and skin colour, so we can logically expect that the brain has been subject to similar regional and copious evolutionary changes. It is NOT what the most recent research has found.

    Read more at: http://phys.org/news86333632.html#jCp

    • Werner Jensen
      Posted June 4, 2014 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Helga,
      Have you read Svaante Paabo’s paper on possible admixture with Neanderthals? The idea that Neanderthals and Humans might have mixed is supported by much of modern genetics. DNA analysis can be fickle as far as racial and ethic history but the more and more well-preserved skeletons of Neanderthal and Denisovians the more it looks like modern humans could have in fact mated with archaics.
      I’m afraid you’re going to be very disappointed in the future as more data come in.

  7. SDHunt
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    1. Scientist posts reasonable argument that using science to prop up ideology by cherry-picking is bad science.
    2. Scientist is angry about this because it damages rational discourse.
    3. The peanut gallery posts: “You got mad, which must mean you’re not being rational!” They all pat themselves on the back and go on to say, “Maybe the other dude is right because something something socialist propaganda…” without providing any evidence.
    4. The article’s point is proven by the peanut gallery, in such a way that makes everyone die a little inside.

  8. Posted June 4, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    As per usual of the negative reviews of Wade (which are on a seemingly united front), this is pretty nonsensical. I’m going to try to pick out a few redeeming qualities here.

    First of all, my usual disclaimer: I am Black.

    the points that he is trying to emphasize about human evolution are, in broad strokes, right. Human genetic diversity does mirror geography, as does much phenotypic diversity. While random drift likely accounts for most of both genetic and phenotypic variation, natural selection clearly has shaped recent human evolution, and there is the potential for cultural forces to impact genetic variation over relatively short timeframes.

    Yes, that’s true…

    The problem is that – for the moment at least – that’s about all we can say. It turns out to be far easier to demonstrate that there has been a fair amount of recent natural selection acting on the human population, than it is to pinpoint specific examples, or to rigorously evaluate specific hypotheses.

    Except that is complete and utter nonsense.

    Look, I’m going to refer you to Greg Cochran’s (co-author of The 10,000 Year Explosion) word on the matter, which I think is supremely relevant here (from Unknown Phenotypes | West Hunter):

    One of the fun parts about these gormless discussions about race consists of people who talk as if we don’t really know anything about the phenotypes under discussion. Like, who really knows what intelligence is, and who really knows if groups vary in average intelligence, blah blah blah.

    The funny thing is that a lot of those discussing these issues really don’t know. At this point, the average graduate student in physical anthropology doesn’t know that different populations have significant differences in average brain volume – so why would you expect Jerry Coyne to? Does he know that there’s a fair-sized correlation between brain volume and measured intelligence? Even if he doesn’t, he would immediately understand why that was highly likely. Is he moderately familiar with modern psychometrics? Probably not. Does he know that there is a one-std difference in IQ between blacks and whites, and that it shows up before kindergarten? I doubt it.

    How many know that the observed rank-orderings of groups are apparently the same everywhere? Bring in Japanese as farm workers, and they’re in the upper middle class in four or five generations. Bring the Chinese into Malaysia as illiterate tin miners, and they end up owning and running all the industry in the country (and the Communist party too, back in the day).

    How many of those talking about clines and races know that black 12th graders in the US score lower than white 8th graders on reading and math? How many known that blacks are hugely underrepresented in the upper tails of the achievement distribution?

    Parenthetically, none of these practical questions have anything to do with typological questions: a population that originated from the other end of a cline can be very different, and it’s the differences that matter, not whether there’s a natural seam between populations (like the Sahara, or the Himalayas). This is obvious to anyone who’s ever thought seriously about the matter. Both of us!

    Seriously, you are squirting squid ink here, inserting a bunch of facts (when they are facts, that is) which are ultimately irrelevant to the issue at hand. As someone who’s been on this since before Wade’s book was published, I can say it’s getting quite tiresome.

    Indeed, I anticipated much of the sheer rubbish on the matter that has been thus far been put out on the matter. I address most of these here:

    JayMan’s Race, Inheritance, and IQ F.A.Q. (F.R.B.) | JayMan’s Blog

    Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way.

    Except that this is, to use your term, bullshit. Both Cochran’s and Harpending’s work on the Ashkenazi and Gregory Clark’s work on surname analysis shows that modern analysis can shed some light on our evolutionary past. Sure, we can’t tell you the whole story yet, but it’s far from the case that we have nothing to go on. That process of uncovering this is what science is for.

    Throughout this whole critique, and indeed, throughout most critical pieces on Wade, on highly important field is ignored, and that is the whole science of behavioral genetics. The bottom line is, and something you can’t sweep under the rug, we know that variation in ALL human behavioral traits is heavily affected by genetic variation. This is incontrovertible. Couple that with your initial line (“Human genetic diversity does mirror geography, as does much phenotypic diversity…natural selection clearly has shaped recent human evolution, and there is the potential for cultural forces to impact genetic variation over relatively short timeframes”), and the conclusions Wade makes, which is really a basic summation of the evidence, are a given, at least in “the broad sense.” Human cultural variation MUST be, to some extent, affected by between-group genetic variation. Yet, we’ve heard arguments that “race doesn’t exist,” or “you can’t explain cultural differences with genetics or evolution,” etc., which are all complete nonsense. The only way to address falsehood and nonsense like this is to respond with the truth. Hopefully, that eventually makes a difference.

    • Posted June 4, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      WordPress totally needs a comment preview system. If you wouldn’t mind fixing the tag (need to add a ) at the end of the sentence “we know that variation in ALL human behavioral traits is heavily affected by genetic variation.” please.

    • Tim R
      Posted June 4, 2014 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

      “Human cultural variation MUST be, to some extent, affected by between-group genetic variation.”

      Must be? Why? There’s no good evidence for this claim. There’s good evidence for genetic differences explaining differences in skin color and certain other physical traits, but culture is much less deterministic than skin color. It might be entirely dependent on environmental factors.

      There very well MIGHT be genetic differences that contribute to behavioral differences (which in turn could contribute to cultural differences), but because of the plasticity of intelligence and behavior, it’s also quite likely that those contributions would be negligible compared to environmental contributions.

      “we know that variation in ALL human behavioral traits is heavily affected by genetic variation. This is incontrovertible.”

      This is flat out wrong. You’ve made another huge leap in going from “affected to some extent” to “all traits are heavily affected”. The first claim was unsupported but plausible, but this claim is completely implausible. Are we to believe, for example, that whether a person speaks Spanish or English is genetically determined? Or that driving on the left side of the road is caused by a genetic difference in British people? Take a moment to consider the sheer ridiculousness of what you’re asserting.

    • jescid
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      How many of those talking about clines and races know that black 12th graders in the US score lower than white 8th graders on reading and math?
      I wonder why this author is so pathetic, albeit having not mentioning the avarage income of these two groups. Intelligence and grade do not depend on the income? Say me about this. Elsewhere,

    • Jes
      Posted June 5, 2014 at 7:01 am | Permalink

      How many of those talking about clines and races know that black 12th graders in the US score lower than white 8th graders on reading and math?
      I wonder why this author is so pathetic, albeit having not mentioning the avarage income of these two groups. Intelligence and grade do not depend on the income? Say me about this. Elsewhere.

    • Gug
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      That utter pseudoscience that Jayman posted about 10000 year explosion is evident as night and day.

      Especially the brain size part. It forgets to mention that the difference itself isn’t big at all(same kinds of differences within each group) and the data is old/small samples from people who have been eating vastly different amounts of food and types of food. Its also a weak to moderate correlation with IQ which means vast numbers of people with smaller brains are smarter based on IQ than people with bigger ones.

      On top of all that brain size can change just by doing random things like playing games on a computer, what you eat for breakfast can affect the size of your brain, if you don’t believe go check on google. Meditating, learning languages, becoming a london cab driver, eating rice instead of bread. Being obese, exercising, being born premature. Go check epigenetics after that too. Literally what your grandmother experienced.

      This guys evidence is over exaggeration and exclusion of vital information. Average height, IQ, brain size, every single thing they are measuring has been changing by sometimes big margins from generation to generation. Go look at Flynn effect with height and IQ.

      Lets take that Chinese in Malaysia, Japanese farmers and “black” comparison. Chinese who came to Malaysia came in 5 waves first as settlers not illiterate miners. The illiterate miners(unsure if actually illiterate) came with jobs offered not only in mining but in British navy, they were soon educated in Chinese after that too. Just go look, you’ll see they were nowhere near deprived as this author makes it out. Same goes for the Japanese.

      As for Africans, 99% if not all came to America with nothing as friggin slaves, they were not allowed to learn. They had no common language among themselves because they came from groups far apart from one another. They didn’t come for JOBS, with pay, no they came as slaves, do you know what that means? Do these idiots not realize how much of a difference there is when a group of people are enslaved for 200 years then segregated and treated like shit for another 100 years vs people like Japanese farmers come for work from the mid 1800s?

      This buffoon wade is comparing problems in countries like Nigeria with over 250 ethnic groups, who only had a country since 1960s vs much less complicated older populations like Korea. Then with no regard for anything says “oh look they had two generations why have they not sorted everything out?”.

      Seriously, be careful of these kinds of people.

      • Brad Foley
        Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

        “Average height, IQ, brain size, every single thing they are measuring has been changing by sometimes big margins from generation to generation. Go look at Flynn effect with height and IQ.”

        I taught English in Japan for three years, for the first 6 months kept banging my head in my house. I was told that the reason was that it was an old house, and young Japanese guys had the same problem. Every generation since the war has been getting taller.

  9. Ed Hagen
    Posted June 4, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Examples please.

  10. Posted June 5, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    The problem is that – for the moment at least – that’s about all we can say. It turns out to be far easier to demonstrate that there has been a fair amount of recent natural selection acting on the human population, than it is to pinpoint specific examples, or to rigorously evaluate specific hypotheses.

    Indeed, we don’t really know most of the the genetic variants that influence intelligence or other behavioral traits in individuals.

    The default position should then be that we don’t know whether populations differ in their genetic predisposition to lower or higher intelligence, right? They might all have the exact same (or similar) capacity to produce great thinkers and maintain a high level of civilization. Or, they may not.

    So, anyone (like Nicholas Wade) who claims that there are statistical differences between human populations in behavioral genetic propensities should be chastised. But, so should anyone who claims that all human populations have the same genetic propensity to be smart or have either desirable cognitive and behavioral qualities.

    But, I don’t see anyone criticizing the promoters of human genetic equality when they make grand statements proclaiming their belief in the fact that human differences are only skin-deep and our innate capacity is equal.

    If someone says that patent European superiority in achievement over Africans (or men over women) in science and technology (even in part) is due to a genetic advantage, he is quickly denounced as a racist. But, if someone says that Africans and Europeans are genetically equal in every genetic propensity and only differ in skin tone, hair texture, or other cosmetic traits, then he is quickly lauded as a progressive and enlightened spirit.

    The hypocrisy of the modern egalitarians never ceases to amaze.

    • Bill Mitchell
      Posted June 6, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      “The default position should then be that we don’t know whether populations differ in their genetic predisposition to lower or higher intelligence, right? They might all have the exact same (or similar) capacity to produce great thinkers and maintain a high level of civilization. Or, they may not. – See more at: http://www.michaeleisen.org/blog/?p=1609#sthash.WNkVZdYf.W74JLYEl.dpuf

      Why do we have to make these same arguments about genetic dispositions leading to civilization, etc. over and over again:

      1) Different groups differ in their achievements over brief periods of time. Europe was a backwater peninsula on Eurasia until they stumbled on American gold/silver and foods. The Mayans once created great communal centers and made great advances in writing and astronomy, but are now no longer a central part of world civilization. China after a period of decline is now once again a central world place. Etc, Etc. Do we explain these events genetically or are there simpler, more parsimonious explanations?

      2) All human languages are capable of exploring and explaining the world, our chief way we respond to environmental perturbations.

      3) As for the rise of agriculture, every hunter-gathering group knows the relationship between the seed and the plant. No great achievement there. The question then becomes why did some groups began to devote more energy into the production of plants than others. And genetic explanations simply don’t make the cut.

      4) Why are African Americans so often equated biologically with Africa (which is itself diverse) rather than Europe when we know the impact of slave concubinage on biological diversity? Just think Jefferson!

      5) Parsimony, parsimony! Let’s use Occam’s razor. Did the Mayans all of a sudden lose genetic intelligence or did the rise of their civilization and its decline relate to cultural response to historical and environmental considerations? Was it genetic change or the European encounter with the Americas that led to its rise from being a backwater to world dominance? The latter explanations require far fewer assumptions than the former.

      6) Am a a college professor unlike my illiterate Irish peasant grandparents because of some great genetic change in two generations or was it the postwar economic rise in the US and the increased availability of education?

      • Mike Steinberg
        Posted July 14, 2014 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        @ Bill Mitchell,

        Controlling for environmental factors doesn’t appear to remove group differences.

        Given behavioural traits are partially heritable why is it so odd to suspect different environments would favor different traits leading to average differences?

      • Mi
        Posted July 14, 2014 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

        @ Bill Mitchell,

        I’m not sure environmental factors have been able to explain group disparities as they exist controlling for SES.

        What I find interesting is that people seem to find it surprising that group differences could be partly due to genetic variation. Given behavioural traits are heriable and different environments and cultures might favor different traits, why would it be surprising if there were average differences?

  11. LWA
    Posted July 4, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Lots of problems argued here. But there is another — the follies of faith in data:
    http://www.musingsone.com/2014/07/the-problem-with-data.html

  12. Posted July 6, 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I agree that is important that scientists speak out against this but it is also important to speak in a forum that non-scientists look at. So I hope you cross post this somewhere like Amazon or Goodreads. I find it frustrating that I have seen more well written negative posts on science blogs than there are on Amazon. I am sure you have a well read blog but science blogging generally can become something of a circle jerk if only scientists read it

  13. Greek Caveman
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    Great example of selective interpretation of data and the fact that “unmoored from data and logical rigor, one can make up an evolutionary explanation for anything.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Fragile_Intellect
    - discusses a couple of articles in Trends in Genetics and the ensuing back and forth with a prominent molecular biologist, Gerald Crabtree. The articles themselves are an interesting (if not frustrating) read.

  14. Brad Foley
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I feel like I’ve been hiding under a rock. I had no idea there was such a committed group of pseudo-scientific racists lurking on the fringes, willing to argue with the very researchers who are developing the actual science they claim to be defending. It’s weird.

    Thanks Mike for this excellent post! Whenever I need an incisive takedown of shoddy genetics, you never disappoint.

  15. Mike Steinberg
    Posted July 14, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    ***Wade fails to recognize this. He seems to think that the science described in the first part of his book lends support to his theories. But in fact, it is categorically opposed to it. – ***

    How can you say with high confidence either way? There are known phenotypic differences between groups. Steve Hsu has noted that while Wade’s arguments are speculative, ultimately they can be tested using the same methods that have identified allele differences linked to height between North and South Europeans.

    Like height, cognitive ability (g) is a heritable and polygenic quantitative trait. Like height there are known phenotypic differences between groups. These aren’t entirely explained by environmental factors at this stage.

    In theory there is no reason differences couldn’t have arisen in part due to evolutionary factors.

    The simplest model would be that time since development of agriculture varies between groups, and this variation leads to different levels of selection for traits which might be more useful for agriculturalists than for hunter gatherers.

    0) Behavioural traits are heritable.

    1) there is plenty of extant genetic variation, probably due to a large number of genes of individually small effect – no additional mutations are required.

    2) selection can act if reproductive rates are impacted by these genes (i.e., conscientiousness, cognitive ability).

    3) simple estimates suggest that 50,000 *could have* been enough time to produce .5 SD (genetic) group differences.

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