Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Nicholas Wade: Genes, Race and Anthropology

Wade's new book is promoted by racists, though he calls racism wrong.

Nicholas Wade has just published a new book, titled A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. A veteran science journalist, with The New York Times and before that both Science and Nature, Wade might be thought to be in a great position to report on this contentious topic.

Over the past 15 years or so, since the announcement that the human genome had been “mapped,” geneticists have certainly not been reticent about searching for hypothesized racial differences in DNA. Indeed, this has been part of Wade’s beat since at least 2001 (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Race also featured in a chapter of his 2006 book, Before the Dawn.

But he is presenting his new book as a brave exercise in truth-telling:

Scientists are afraid to talk about race. They know that they risk being denounced as racists and having their careers destroyed if they even mention the subject, so they refer to it instead in code words. So I decided that I would write a book that explained what we know about race and what the consequences might be, and I think [Ashley] Montagu made a terrible mistake, though I share his motives.

Montagu was the anthropologist who, in the 1940s and 1950s, did perhaps more than any other social scientist to establish the idea that race is primarily a social construct rather than a biological reality.

Today the genomics community may be somewhat uncomfortable addressing the issue of race and genetics head-on, but anthropologists are not. The first serious public examination of Wade’s current project came on May 5 in a webinar (still available online) organized by the American Anthropological Association, which was set up as a “discussion” featuring Wade and Notre Dame Professor Agustín Fuentes, moderated by AAA Executive Director, Dr. Edward Liebow.

It was not so much a discussion as a debate, and in my view Fuentes defeated Wade thoroughly, though it was all very polite (too polite). Fuentes was well prepared, and able to identify, cite and comment on every study that Wade brought up to support his thesis. More important, he kept hammering away at the definition of “race” — as in, Mr. Wade, can you tell us, what is it? If you are going to claim that certain kinds of genetic variation between populations constitute a racial grouping, how do you define it?

Mostly Wade ignored the question. To the extent that he addressed it, he dismissed it as unimportant. Whether there are three or five races, or more, and where the boundaries are drawn: these are mere details until we admit the possibility of discussing race. (I’m being a little kind to him here myself; he burbled.)

Wade is full of factoids; the impressive thing about Fuentes’ performance was that he was familiar with all of them. That inevitably led to some points of agreement. For instance, at one point, Wade started to speculate about what percentage of genetic divergence would constitute a sub-species, and zoologically, they were in broad theoretical agreement. However, Wade seemed to be edging towards very dangerous waters when it came to the concept of human sub-species. Unfortunately, Fuentes and moderator Liebow were too polite to shove him in.

Which is a shame. The first reviews, and the most enthusiastic early reception, have been on blatantly racist websites. Jared Taylor reviewed it at American Renaissance (which promotes “race realism”) on March 2; John Derbyshire at VDare (an anti-immigration site) on March 14. The marketing department at Penguin, which published A Troublesome Inheritance, offered pre-release copies (CGS got one too) with the pitch that the book will produce "a heated debate," presumably on the theory that controversy boosts sales. On the day of publication, May 6, Bryce Laliberte at Social Matter (“not your grandfather’s conservatism”) called it “certain to be this year’s most important book,” and opined emphatically that

The KKK were right.

Laliberte does call the KKK “bad guys,” but he blames the ills of society on “the academic and activist leftists” who promote “the notion that individuals and groups are essentially interchangeable.” He is sure that Wade will be vindicated, and offers a notably full-throated endorsement. Other writers of this ilk had their doubts, expressed for example by Taylor:

However, there is much waffling in this book, which was no doubt meant to ward off beatings but that, at least to undeceived readers, rings of timidity.

Derbyshire refers to “squid ink” that he assumes is intended to deflect critics. Some of the commenters at these sites, and even Stormfront (white pride world wide) are more charitable, suggesting that Wade had guts, hit “a solid double” and implying that perhaps he had to hold back in order to keep his job.

Now that the book is officially published, it’s beginning to get wider attention. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, weighed in at the Wall Street Journal on May 2; this was widely linked and quoted, especially in conservative circles. Ross Douthat has read it, and says he's looking forward to a review by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman, in Slate, calls the book “both plausible and preposterous”:

Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

Wade insists that his intent is absolutely not racist:

I think it’s best to say that racism is wrong as a matter of principle, as a matter of absolute principle, and that way you don’t care what the science says, because you’re not going to change your mind about your principles.

That was at the webinar (around 17 minutes in), where neither Fuentes nor Liebow pushed Wade on the subject of his supporters. Anthropologist Jonathan Marks (whose own scathing review has just appeared at In These Times) might have been a stricter interviewer, based on this from his March blog post “Genetics as political ideology”:

By implication, then, the only way to understand claims about human genetics is to understand that they are never value-neutral, and are invariably politically valent. This means that scientists ought to be just as accountable to justify the deducible political implications of their work as they are to justify the data collection and statistics.

Wade clearly takes the opposite view. He’s wrong all round.

Pete Shanks is the author of Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed.

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