A Debate Over A Troublesome Book, Ctd

by Patrick Appel


A biology professor writes:

While the scientific reviews of Nicholas Wade’s new book have been almost uniformly negative, your treatment of the matter seems to have missed the major point of both Wade’s book and the damning criticisms. What Wade gets wrong is not that there are genetic differences among human populations, and that you can tell where a person (or his ancestors) are from by looking at these differences (on this point he is simply correct: the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups is not a “social construction,” but a fact of nature). Rather, Wade’s major and unsupported claim is that differences between contemporary human societies are genetic and have evolved extraordinarily quickly.

Here, for example is Jerry Coyne on the book. Allen Orr, in the New York Review of Books, has a very similar view of Wade’s book. Both Coyne and Orr are geneticists, experts in the study of species and their origins (they coauthored a book on the subject 10 years ago). While the fact of geographically-based genetic subdivision (which is what biologists mean by “race”) may drive some to apoplexy, its not news to a geneticist. It’s Wade’s “second part” that doesn’t hold up to critical analysis, and this is what knowledgeable scientific reviews have pointed out.

Wade’s application of genetics to the differences between societies is indeed the most troubling and evidence-starved part of his book. I didn’t miss it; I highlighted Coyne’s and Orr’s reviews last week. And I fully accept “the geographic division of humanity into genetically diagnosable groups.” But what’s the utility of calling those genetic divisions “race”? Having two definitions for race, one biological and one societal, is liable to make individuals think the socially constructed racial categories are exactly the same as the biological ones and lead individuals to incorrectly justify social hierarchies using biology.

The graphic at the top of this post, from Jennifer Raff’s review of Wade’s book, shows the “United States census classifications of race or color, 1890-1990.” A highlight from Raff’s takedown of A Troublesome Inheritance:

Human biological variation is real and important. I’ve studied it my entire professional career. We can see this variation most easily in physical traits and allele frequency differences between populations at extreme ends of a geographic continuum. Nobody is denying that. Let me repeat this: no one is denying that humans vary physically and genetically. All anthropologists and geneticists recognize that human differences exist. But Wade, and others who agree with him, have decided that certain patterns of variation—those which happen to support their predefined notions of what “races” must be—are more important than others.

Wade’s perspective fits with a larger pattern seen throughout history and around the world. Folk notions of what constitutes a race and how many races exist are extremely variable and culturally specific. For example, the Bible claims that all peoples of the world are descended from Noah’s three sons, mirroring the popular concept of three racial divisions (Caucasians, Africans, and Asians). On the other hand, the five-part division of races seems most “logical” to Wade. Anticipating confusion on this point he claims: “Those who assert that human races don’t exist like to point to the many, mutually inconsistent classification schemes that have recognized anywhere from 3 to 60 races. But the lack of agreement doesn’t mean that races don’t exist, only that it is a matter of judgment as to how to define them” (p. 92).

A matter of judgment. So, rather than being defined by empirical criteria, as Wade had asserted so confidently earlier in the book, it really is just a subjective judgment call. The differences between groups are so subtle and gradual that no objective lines can be drawn, so Wade draws his own on the basis of his own preconceptions.

A reader adds:

It should be mentioned that there are some reputable scientists who defend something like Wade’s conception of broad races, while being much more careful than he is to point out that these are not really discrete groups, that the number of them and boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.

You may have seen the recent comments by Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker and Alan Orr—none of whom is much bothered by Wade’s assertions of race-as-reality, though they’ve all rubbished his grand, gene-based account of human history. Personally, I have yet to see any of these guys fully justify the notion of fixed, coarse racial categories vs. the much more fluid and contextual idea of populations, which exist at various levels of scale and whose definition depends entirely on what you’re interested in learning.

There is a big cultural and, some would say, ideological split between this subset of evolutionary biologists who’ve denounced the “race as social construct” idea as a “myth,” and the majority of anthropologists, who continue to hold that position.

Another reader takes issue with Charles Mills’ speech on the social construction of race:

My gripe with this clip is that it attempts to illustrate the social construction of race by still preserving fairly recent forms of “racial” categorization as its model: i.e. “whiteness” and “blackness.” Mills then goes on to take these categories, which emerged slowly between four hundred and two-hundred and fifty years ago, and transpose them onto the medieval period.

Neither Medieval Europe nor any portion of Sub-Saharan Africa during Medieval days utilized these markers “white” and “black” as social divisions. A more useful alternative universe might imagine a social order in which completely different categorization schemes emerged. For instance, we know that through the early 1700s Europeans were more likely to classify Africans by their “tribal” origins (I’ll leave aside the problematic ways in which the encounter with Europeans actually served to construct these tribal boundaries as they came to be known). As such, where slave traders captured their labor force was a more prominent marker than that labor force’s “blackness.” “Blackness” emerges as a primary marker only after several generations of intermarriage in the Americas among slaves.

So we’re better served, I would argue, imagining a system that eschewed Blackness and Whiteness as the primary dividing line altogether, and imagine a world where, say, the Iberian Moors, with the help of darker skinned Africans from both East and Sub-Saharan Africa succeeded in displacing the authority of Europeans. In such a system, there may have been a hierarchy that placed Iberian Moors at the top of the social order (perhaps because of language skills that enabled them to serve in clerical positions in dominance of fellow Europeans). And then a “racial” scheme that divided the world according to gradations of skin (or hair, or a combination of features) that privileged something akin to a mocha over various gradations of lighter and darker skin (i.e., the darker or the lighter you were, the lower your status). Or perhaps one in which blonder and redder hair became the marker for subjugation.

The point (which I don’t think Mills did a great job of emphasizing), is that there was nothing inevitable about skin color even being a social marker. For much of human history, it doesn’t appear to have been so.

Another reader adds some context on epigenetics:

Jonathan Marks is quoted as writing:

“the ways in which DNA can be modified in direct response to the environment, and those DNA modifications can be stably transmitted…”

He should clarify what he means by “stably transmitted.” In fact, epigenetic modifications are very rarely felt beyond perhaps third generation. Jerry Coyne wrote, about 3 years ago, a great commentary on how epigenetics is being hyped.

And final reader theorizes about why Wade largely ignores culture:

Apparently Wade has it in his head that culture = easy to change through an implicit logic that if it’s not hard-coded it must be infinitely and immediately mutable. Which is sheer nonsense, of course, but betrays the unscientific bias in his thinking. There’s actually no reason at all to presume that it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another given actual institutional behaviors usually depend on a whole accumulation of wider behaviors.

The idea that cultural institutions, which have changed radically over the centuries in those regions, are hard-coded in genes is just kooky. And it’s dangerously self-excusing and deceptive to ascribe inability to easily, in a facile fashion, transfer institutions to genetics. All this is a pity as there is a lot of learning to come from the real – but subtle – influence of genetics in framing human action. That learning is deeply distorted by primitive and fuzzy-minded thinking.

Most of all, though it’s really disappointing to see a science writer for the Times betray the fact he really has a poor grasp of science.

Previous Dish coverage of Wade’s book here.