Nope, this won’t be controversial

New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, lays out the evidence for a genetic basis to race and ethnicity.

The Amazon blurb:

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years—to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits—thrift, docility, nonviolence—have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These “values” obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

I loved Wade’s earlier book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors., which traces human development from 50,000 years ago to the beginning of recorded history.

6 thoughts on “Nope, this won’t be controversial

  1. neuravinci

    I am curious, then, what it means genetically to mix races? We see whites reproducing with a slew of other races, blacks with Asians, etc. So what does this mean over time genetically? Also, this could be a subconscious prejudice of sorts, but some people say, “oh I can never be with someone of that (insert race here) because I just can’t see myself having sex with them.”–I have wondered if this is some indication that some genes are “incompatible” for lack of a better term with others.

    1. Mitch Wagner Post author

      It means, as you suggest, that the genetics mix. Characteristics change over generations. The racial and ethnic genomes we see today are not the ones we’ll see in 500 years.

  2. magnocrat

    Interesting stuff linked to the thoughts of Stephen Pinker who wrote ‘The Clean Slate’. He believes we are becoming less violent and quotes all sorts of statistics to prove his point. We are in a precarious position and many think there is not an easy way out, but evolution has brought us to this point.


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