Wade’s Reckless Speculation About Races

by Patrick Appel

In his new book on race and genetics, Nicholas Wade incorrectly defines race biologically. But this is far from his worst error. Robert VerBruggen summarizes some of Wade’s main arguments:

(1) Why did the Industrial Revolution occur first in England? Wade lays out evidence, collected by the economist Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms, that those in England’s upper classes had been having more children than those in the lower classes — possibly affecting traits including “interpersonal violence, literacy, the propensity to save and the propensity to work,” and in turn transformingWade the population into one capable of immense economic output. An enormous population growth spurt starting around 1770 finally set the revolution off, and it quickly spread to other nations that were similarly situated.

(2) Wade says China had the right evolution but not the right institutions to take advantage of industry once it emerged, which is why its economy didn’t take off until it adopted economic reforms. Wade notes the examination system that was in place in China starting in 124 B.C., which he says created a sort of meritocracy that allowed the best scorers to rise in society and have the most children.

(3) Did violent tendencies evolve differently in different places? Wade notes that, among the Yanomamo of South America, men who have killed in battle have 2 1/2 times as many children as those who don’t. And he cites evidence that one gene that seems to contribute to violence — “MAO-A” — doesn’t show up evenly across populations, with one evidently violence-promoting variant being present in 5 percent of African-Americans but only 0.1 percent of Caucasians. The “gracilization” of the skull — the thinning that occurred as humans became less likely to try to bash each others’ brains in — shows a pattern too, but a very different one: It’s “most pronounced in sub-Saharan Africans and East Asians, with Europeans retaining considerable robustness.” Still another genetic variant, one related specifically to violence when drunk, has been found in Finns.

(4) Wade also digs into Jewish history, relaying theories that the religion’s emphasis on literacy — a skill with little practical value in a farming society — may have driven the less intelligent to join Christianity instead, and that European Jews’ being highly concentrated in intellectually demanding professions like moneylending may have further contributed to increased IQ.

In a review worth reading in full, H. Allen Orr declares that Wade “goes beyond reporting scientific facts or accepted theories and finds Wade championing bold ideas that fall outside any scientific consensus”:

Wade obviously appreciates the distinction between behavior that “could be” genetic and “is” genetic. The problem is that he doesn’t seem particularly interested in hard evidence or even in the prospects that relevant hard evidence could ever be obtained.

There is, however, another distinction that Wade doesn’t seem to appreciate at all. He’s right that political sensitivities shouldn’t distort scientific truth: the facts are the facts. But as [Steven] Pinker notes, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be particularly careful when discussing race. History has shown that this is an especially dangerous subject, one that has resulted in enormous abuses. There is nothing unscientific about recognizing this and treading carefully.

At times, Wade’s approach seems almost the opposite. Though he issues the requisite disclaimers about the dignity and moral equality of all peoples, he’s clearly tempted, under the cover of politics-shouldn’t-distort-science, to provoke. Indeed there is a species of bravado here, as though demonstrating that he, unlike others, is tough-minded enough to face unpleasant facts. But surely there is a difference between facing facts that are unpleasant and spinning tales that are improbable.

Jerry Coyne piles on:

Wade’s main thesis, and where the book goes wrong, is to insist that differences between human societies, including differences that arose in the last few centuries, are based on genetic differences—produced by natural selection— in the behavior of individuals within those societies.  In other words, societal differences largely reflect their differential evolution.

For this Wade offers virtually no evidence, because there is none. We know virtually nothing about the genetic differences (if there are any) in cognition and behavior between human populations. And to explain how natural selection can effect such rapid changes, Wade posits some kind of “multiplier effect,” whereby small differences in gene frequencies can ramify up to huge societal differences. There is virtually no evidence for that, either. It is a mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles.

In a later post, Coyne adds:

This is the problem with Wade’s book: it presents a sweeping hypothesis about the selective basis of human social differences ( a touchy subject), but gives virtually no evidence to support it. If you like stories, it’s fine; if you like science, it’s not so fine. Wade sometimes offers disclaimers, but the reader’s impression will be that he really is presenting scientific findings.

Tyler Cowen was disappointed:

There is much I admire about Greg Clark’s (previous) book, but Wade doesn’t seem to realize Clark has hardly any evidence in support of his “genetic origins of capitalism” thesis.

Arthur Allen pans the book:

Mr. Wade occasionally drops in broad, at times insulting assumptions about the behavior of particular groups without substantiating the existence of such behaviors, let alone their genetic basis. Writing about Africans’ economic condition, for example, Mr. Wade wonders whether “variations in their nature, such as their time preference, work ethic and propensity to violence, have some bearing on the economic decisions they make.”

For Mr. Wade, genetic differences help explain the failure of the United States occupations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. “If institutions were purely cultural,” he writes, “it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another.” It’s hard to know how to begin to address such a puzzling statement.

Indeed it is. This paragraph from A Troublesome Inheritance also made my jaw hit the floor:

When North Korea adopts market-friendly institutions, a safe prediction is that it would in time become as prosperous as South Korea. It would be far less safe to predict that Equatorial Guinea or Haiti needs only better institutions to attain a modern economy; their peoples may not have yet had the opportunity to develop the ingrained behaviors of trust, nonviolence and thrift that a productive economy requires.

Andrew Gelman’s takedown of such nonsense is worth a read:

As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”

Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift … toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.

Ian Steadman joins the chorus:

Wade often strays from his taxonomy – Caucasians sometimes stand equal alongside Africans and East Asians, while at other times “the West” is treated as separate to both the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Modern nation-states are frequently talked about as if ethnically homogenous, and what discussion there is of internal variation (say, class difference) is waved away as irrelevant. Quite why the Jews benefited from being kicked around Europe for hundreds of years while other persecuted ethnicities didn’t is unclear – the inevitable, unpleasant implication of this is that we can just as easily decide that the Roma are predisposed to petty crime, for example.

Never mind that there are plausible social, historical and economic analyses, with substantial evidence, that also explain the trends Wade has identified – his view is almost fatalistic in attributing everything to genes, based on nothing more than a correlation between the time it takes for the human genome to be shaped by environmental pressures and the time it takes for societies to undergo significant change. He does not pinpoint the genes he suspects cause social change – he merely deduces they must be there, because it fits the pattern.

And that’s so, so weird. Nobody – nobody – denies that there is genetic variation between distinct groups of people. This is visible in the colour of our skin, in our different heights and hair colours, in the higher rates of sickle cell disease among Africans and higher rates of obesity among Pacific Islanders.

What Wade is arguing for, though, is a definition of race that is at once dangerous and useless.

And Anthony Daniels’s review provides an alternative explanation for differing crime rates in Africa and the West:

The author tries to make out that the decline in the homicide rate in the western world is the result of genetic changes that gave survival advantage in new social circumstances to those who were less inclined to aggression and personal violence. These social circumstances not having yet developed in Africa, the homicide rate in the latter continent remains much higher than in Europe or the United States, the implication being that Africans are genetically more violent than the populations of Europe and the USA.

The author paints with far too broad a brush. Are there really no variations in the regions and countries of Africa, both in time and place? Is there really such continental uniformity? This was certainly not my experience of Africa, and I once travelled across it by public transport, such as it was.

Moreover, the statistics that the author uses are suspect. He says of the United States that its homicide rate is less than 2 per 100,000. The last time I looked the rate was 4.7 per 100,000—itself a very sharp decline of recent years. But a paper not long ago suggested that if the same resuscitation and surgical techniques were used as were used in 1960, the homicide rate in the United States would be five times higher than it is today, that is to say 23.5 per 100,000. The new techniques in surgery and resuscitation are unlikely to have reached much of Africa, where (the author says) the homicide rate is 10 per 100,000. In other words, either the statistics in Africa are unreliable—which in my opinion is very likely—or the statistics prove precisely the opposite of what the author wants to prove. Either way, his point is vitiated.

It’s banal to admit that genetics has helped shape human history. But one must balance genetic explanations with those based in history, culture, institutions, and random chance. Wade, under the guise of science, invents out of thin air theories to explain and justify current racial inequalities. He admits that history and culture play a role in the fates of nations, but he minimizes those factors and does not go looking for non-genetic explanations for regional inequalities. I do not detect any racial malice in Wade’s writing, but he appears to be suffering from the Just World Fallacy.  in 2010. The short version:

The Misconception: People who are losing at the game of life must have done something to deserve it.

The Truth:
 The beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and bad people often get away with their actions without consequences.

For Wade, there must be an innate reason why one population succeeds and another fails. He cannot accept that historical circumstance and pure luck are perhaps larger reasons for the current state of affairs. For example, here’s Wade downplaying the role of colonialism in keeping Africa down:

If running a productive , Western-style economy were simply a matter of culture, it should be possible for African and Middle Eastern countries to import Western institutions and business methods, just as East Asian countries have done. But this is evidently not a straightforward task. Though it was justifiable at first to blame the evils of colonialism, two generations or more have now passed since most foreign powers withdrew from Africa and the Middle East, and the strength of this explanation has to some extent faded.

Incredibly, he uses the fact that a mere two generations have passed since colonialism to argue that is should no longer be considered an adequate explanation for Africa’s continued economic problems. It would funny if it weren’t so depressing.