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a troublesome inheritance

16 july 2014

Nicholas Wade's Troublesome Inheritance isn't worth the trouble. But it has attracted all kinds of attention, from rapture to scorn, and it doesn't seem right to dismiss such a book with a handwave. So I'll wave a couple here as Wade's book passes into the rearview mirror of popular sensation.

Wade's premise is that human evolution, far from ceasing thousands of years ago, has been "recent, copious, and regional" (242), a phrase he repeats like a mantra. He suggests that new studies establish this recent copiousness beyond a scientific doubt, but cites few of them. This insistence without much evidence points to the first two problems I'll address here: one general, one of detail.

First of all, Wade's favorite strawman is a purported insistence by social scientists that all the evolving that homo sapiens is fixing to do occurred long ago and is over and done with. Granted, "blank slaters" exist and at one point dominated the scene in the human sciences; one thinks of Simone de Beauvoir's claim "On ne naît pas femme, on le devient [You aren't born a woman, you become one]," which entails that you aren't born into any given human nature, but shaped into one by forces around you.

But for biologists, no living species is fixed; to say that a species is exempt from evolution is like saying it's exempt from time, chemistry, and physics. De Beauvoir was talking about social and cultural reality, or existential matters of individual consciousness. I don't imagine even she would have exempted humans from the same Darwinian forces that affect horses and moths; she just didn't care much about studying them. Saying in response, like Wade, "Aha! Evolution exists!" is like saying "So there! There are chemical elements!"

The detailed problems come with the studies that Wade cites in support of this rather obvious contention. Remember that his claim about evolution ("recent, copious, regional") implies that small, relatively isolated human populations are continuously responding to natural selection by changing their genetics (not utterly, of course, but in terms of preponderances of genes and associated traits and features). So what's an example? Wade adduces a study by Emmanuel Milot et al., "Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population" (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108.41 (2011): 17040-17045). Milot et al. look at demographic data from a place in Canada called Île aux Coudres. Women in this fairly cut-off locale, in the early 19th century, tended to have their first child around age 26 (obviously in quite a range around age 26, but that's its center). By the mid-20th century, they were having their first kid around age 22.

So what? Milot et al. suggest, though obliquely, that these generations of women tended to marry at the same age. They also assume that the women lacked any access to birth control. The inference is that natural selection led to women who bore children younger leaving more descendants, who then bore children younger and younger; earlier fertility was selected for. Québec was becoming a more fertile place itself, and to the fecund went the spoils as the land supported more and more people.

OK. The authors adjust for various factors like migration and better nutrition and the like, in a search for a truly genetic, heritable effect that would show evolution in response to natural selection. And it's not absurd to think that humans, like some other mammals, can vary their fertility unconsciously in response to varying resources. In the absence of any conscious activity on the part of the people of Île aux Coudres, their argument seems convincing. But wait, what have I just said? Milot et al. (and Wade in accepting their claim) imply that these people could not have deliberately influenced their birthrate by deciding to have larger families and start them younger. For their purposes, the islanders constitute a "wild" unreflective population of hominids.

But you see the trouble here. For one thing, the assumption is that the females in the founding population of Île aux Coudres didn't become fertile till around age 26, which seems rather old to me. I mean, the "Age at First Reproduction" at my high school was about 17. Who were these dilatory young mothers? Also, there's no limit to human ingenuity. Faced with dim prospects for the success of large families, I imagine these early Québecois settlers could find numerous ways of avoiding them, from abstinence and non-procreative fooling around to primeval equipment and folk abortifacients: recourses that became less urgent as conditions got better. I can't disprove the article's contention, but I can tell you that people aren't rabbits: they can alter their reproductive strategies at will, even without the Pill.

More intriguing is the undeniable recent (in thousands of years) evolution of lactose tolerance among some populations – not at all confined to Northern Europe, but among white people significantly concentrated in the Western Baltic and attentuating as one gets further afield. Yet even here, conclusions about the role of natural selection are parlous. Even Wade notes the obvious, that lactose tolerance is "a fascinating example of how a human cultural practice, in this case cattle raising and drinking raw milk, can feed back into the human genome" (61). He suggests that being able to digest milk as an adult had a huge selective advantage and spread quickly through populations. But that begs the question of why many pastoral societies haven't developed the trait. Also mysterious is how the cultural practice of drinking raw milk could have taken hold without adult lactose tolerance in place to begin with. It's perhaps simplest to think of lactose tolerance as something that didn't get selected against, and drifted across some populations of cattle-raisers and not others. Those groups which didn't drift in that direction stuck to the harder cheeses and used their livestock for work and meat instead. Milk-drinking was an interesting bonus, but maybe not a crucial evolutionary bottleneck for any population.

And that's about all that Wade has to offer as support for the idea that natural selection continually goes to town on the human genome. (There may be lots of other examples, but I'm critiquing his use of evidence here, not a whole academic field).

As his subtitle might suggest, Wade's other big interest is in spreading the word that race exists and we shouldn't be afraid to study it. (His picture of the academic world is one locked in the grip of PC groupthink, where even to speak the word "race" is to invite ostracism.) What's his evidence that race exists and is a useful concept?

The least controversial chapters of Wade's book, as he himself notes, are 4 and 5, where he demonstrates that colored people are colored. No, really. He posits that there are three major races (Caucasian, sub-Saharan African, and East Asian), and documents that those races exhibit various heritable traits, like skin color, hair texture, eyelid form, skull proportions, tooth shape, sweat glands, and earwax. Again, this is pretty weak sauce. I know that white liberals will go into self-parodic contortions not to describe black people as black, but at the end of the day I am sure Noam Chomsky himself would admit that some people are darker than others, and that the kids of dark couples tend to be darker than the kids of light ones. And the earwax thing is interesting, too, though I'm not inclined to do any independent research on that issue.

Again, I suppose there might be diehards who would reject the idea that human populations can be identified along the curly/kinky/straight hair continuum. But "race" in that sense – most biologists would use the far less-charged term "population" – is non-controversial. The "race" that Franz Boas, Richard Lewontin, Jared Diamond, Stephen Jay Gould, and other writers have inveighed against is a different meaning of the word: the notion that human groups can be distinguished not just by the skin-deep but by the morally profound. To establish that we show superficial differences is not to entail profound ones.

However, having shown that there's a shallow end to the gene pool, Wade proceeds to cannonball into the deep one. It's as if his ground-breaking discovery that white folks are pasty-looking sanctions any kind of evolutionary speculation about any group of people, large, small, real, posited, or simply imaginary. In a way, he commits the inverse of the fallacy that he attempts to debunk. Hardcore blank-slaters refuse to sanction any discrimination among human populations, even on the most superficial level. They forbid the term "race." But once it's reintroduced, Wade picks it up and runs around the field of history, economics, and social sciences with it, waving it around like some kind of magical explainer.

Wade's favorite large-scale claim about history is that the West (and that means the Caucasian race), let's face it, is just better at modern life than the rest of the planet. Not "better" in some comprehensive moral sense, he's quick to qualify, because that would be bad racism. But better at offering fair and just government, trusting one another, being honest and efficient, saving money, delaying gratification, and improving standards of living. None of them moral qualities: just sayin'. White-folks qualities are qualities that led to the Industrial Revolution and succeed in a globalized economy, whereas their opposites might have been as functionally efficient in tribalized hunter-gatherer societies.

Wade is very quick to acknowedge that it's mainly Western institutions – hence, imitable cultural traits – that have led to these successes. But he's intent on asking "why" the West is best, and suggesting ominously that culture can't account for all of it: that it's reasonable to suppose that some racial genetic factors are at work in white excellence, even if they can't be identified (and remember that they can't be identified because liberals are afraid of identifying them. But presumably scientific advances could do so if they could ever get funded).

Much of the second half of Wade's book is a drab, highly abstract chronicle of the rise of this empire or that, unobjectionable per se but to little point except to show, I suppose, that kingdoms come and go, but the wonders of our way of life, capitalist and theoretically democratic, just keep appreciating. His main example of a purportedly genetic basis for this view comes from the work of someone named Gregory Clark, and it's weird enough to merit analysis at some length here.

Until the Industrial Revolution, Wade claims, humanity spent almost 15,000 years on the verge of starvation. The agrarian standard of living was crap, except for the rich, who were minimally few. People lived hand to mouth and harvest to harvest, and whenever a good year led to population growth, famine or pestilence would kill people down to sustainable subsistence level again.

Whatever. In Wade's history, the vast wealth and extensive influence of Egypt, the Hellenistic world, the Roman Empire, ancient China, the high European Middle Ages, barely registers: I suppose the lavish resources of those civilizations belonged to small elites in his view – at any rate, he doesn't stop to consider such nuances. He argues that not until the Industrial Revolution did we escape the "Malthusian trap" of subsistence agriculture, and finally put a chicken in every pot.

I learned in school that the Industrial Revolution was a conjunction of ingenious technology and elegant organization (Adam Smith's pin factory), but of course, cultural and institutional explanations can't account for the "Why" of it, in Wade's mind. (Why ask why, occurs to me: it seems merely a set-up for harping about race again, but never mind.) Wade imagines that in order to make such a break with the agrarian past, a small human population somewhere had to evolve radically under selection pressures in a few generations.

Gregory Clark's argument is ingenious if strained. In the year 1200 or so, England featured a tiny wealthy upper class with noble values, and a vast rural peasantry whose lives were nasty, brutish, and short. ("I thought we were an autonomous collective!") Over the ensuing five or six centuries, the upper classes outbred the lower, but since standards of living weren't going up much, there was no way for all these various bastards to stay in the style to which they'd been accustomed, so they and their genes filtered downwards and became beef-eating yeomanry. By the 18th century, the island was packed with gratification-denying, thrifty, honest, fair, trusting, upright chaps, eager to become insanely productive. While medieval Darby and Joan would drink away their pay packet in corny ale before starving for the next two weeks, the Briton of late anteindustrial times would sock his shillings away – unconsciously, remember – in the building society. The heck with the steam engine; the Industrial Revolution was ignited from the scrimping and saving of natural noblemen.

Where do I begin. In the first place, Wade (following Clark) acts as if the Industrial Revolution was a thing. It certainly was, of course, in the sense that the shoes I wear in Texas today arrived by container ship from China instead of being crafted one by one from Texas hides by Texas cobblers. But this weird state of affairs isn't the result of a localized or overnight development. Despite the primacy of Britain in early-modern manufacture, the idea that a small strain of supermen on the island transformed the world economy in a generation or two is historically suspect. Even Wade has to admit that if the English were innovators, they were copied around the globe far too fast for their success to be based on the spread of their genes. And if similar genes had also pre-evolved elsewhere, that's tantamount to saying that people are pretty much alike everywhere, which contradicts Wade's main point. But it seems necessary to Wade's view of history that The Industrial Revolution was a localized, near-instantaneous, hugely innovative explosion of dominant ideas. Perhaps on some scales it was. But Wade's is a dramatized version of a very complex phenomenon, some elements of which (Protestantism, printing, the idea of the "liberal subject") are of much longer preparation and much more diffused provenance.

And then there's the question that Clark's thesis demands but neither he nor Wade seem to answer: how did the upper classes of medieval England evolve their Industrial Revolution genes to begin with? The assumption seems to be that, instead of being a group of lucky and specially vicious Vikings, the Norman aristocracy was endued with a noblesse based on nascently-capitalist values all along. So how did they evolve them? I imagine we're back to one of the bad-racist ideas that Wade critiques in his Chapter Two, something about the steely Nordic character, forged in the glaciers and fjords and constant battle with mighty reindeer or something, as opposed to the boorishness of the Anglo-Saxon race or the ineffable stupor of the Celt. Wade never says such a thing, but it's just beneath the surface.

Within just a couple of lifetimes, of course, Britain assembled and then lost its empire, its leadership passing to the US in military terms and to the Continent in economic. Apparently the new master race had been diffused by misguided policies that let the proletariat breed on the dole, or possibly vitiated by dusky post-imperial immigration. Or something. What we know for sure is that we can't directly observe the All-England Industrial Revolution tribe of über-fellows anywhere, past or present. This is a genetic argument involving no actual genes. We have to infer the effects of the supermen's minor racial differences from other Britons by the vast cultural and institutional changes they provoked. Wade himself stresses that no direct evidence of this transformation is, or possibly ever will be, available. But in that case, we're not really talking biology or any other science. We're telling a florid story about British superiority, spinning it in ways that favor blood over brains or belief. One might as well argue for divine favor smiling on England (as some English thinkers used to!), or alternatively for the hidden hand of the Illuminati or the UFO Aliens.

To do him justice, much of Wade's dreary argument about the inexorable rise of the West is filled with disclaimers that stress how much of Our superiority must necessarily be culturally derived and transmitted. He is also careful to note that the role of natural selection in history must take the form of slightly enhanced tendencies, not macroevolution. His support for his own assertions is in fact so tepid at times that the book devolves into little more than a reiteration of oversimplified paeans to how great the West and its white people are, which might be gratifying to me as a Western white guy if it weren't so boring. He jumps from the earwax stuff to "now that we've established that race is real, perhaps race explains everything" without intermediate steps. Talk about missing links.

Time and again, Wade makes confident, sweeping statements about prehistory that make his forays into history itself seem laser-precise. Vast fields of prehistory, anthropology, archeology, and evolutionary science get summed up in a sentence or two as if the events of tens of thousands of years ago were as transparently recorded as 19th-century newspaper archives. The visible whites of human eyes, for example, must have evolved to facilitate social interaction (40).

But at times Wade can be dogmatic and unfocused at once. He's particularly so about the Chinese. China is a failure (230); Chinese emigrants are huge successes (237), China went into inexplicable decline (12, 216ff.), China is doing magnificently now but riding for a fall (195). Chinese people are among the world's smartest in terms of IQ and among the world's dumbest in developing dynamic institutions. Basically, China functions as an ad hoc all-purpose argument here, and as often, all-purpose arguments lead to purposelessness.

That said, I do admire Wade's commitment to generalism and synthesis. Much of his synthesis comes from other popular books for the general reader, but that forms much of my own reading, and I too believe that the big ideas are way too important to leave to specialists.

Yet there is a continually disturbing tone just beneath Wade's veneer. He's no racist and indeed he derides crude racism. But his ideas are so superficial that they often reduce to racism. Like many writers of his ilk, he's fixated on IQ, which he presents as an unproblematic advantage for Asians and whites over sub-Saharan Africans, while offering the usual disclaimers that it probably doesn't matter anyway. So why bring it up? Seriously, why should anyone care about IQ, quite apart from the extremely intractable nature of defining IQ, and its virtual invisibility, to begin with? Do black people seem stupid to you? Do Asians and Jews seem especially clever? Do Hispanics seem unteachable? Unless you have some basic inability to see beyond your prejudices, I suggest not. I've been a college teacher for 30 years, and I've seen many, many students of all possible American ethnicities, and I cannot generalize about them beneath the epidermis. I've known lazy and unmotivated and frankly none-too-bright black and white students alike, and brilliant students of all races. I've known Mexican-American students who were exceptionally assiduous, and German-American students whose idea of a due date was mañana.

The usual rejoinder is that I have access to only one swath of the IQ band, and that there are hordes of smart Asians and stupid blacks that I don't get to teach. But I know people outside of my classroom too (really!), and I have never noticed general differences in how various "races" function in the world. So why am I supposed to care about some racial generalizations from invisible abstraction from impractical test data? – unless the point is that I should have the worst prejudices of the 20th and previous centuries reinforced for me lest I give up the white man's burden.

Wade seems determined to insinuate that black people (in particular) just don't have what it takes, in terms of thrift, gratification-delay, or simply getting to work on time, to succeed in the modern world (well-adapted as they may be to hunter-gatherer nomadic ways). With rhetorical caution (can't quote a white guy here!) he invokes an African writer named Etounga-Manguelle on "the rapport the African maintains with time" (185) – basically, an improvident one – which sounds suspiciously to me like an attempt to get us to accept that "colored people's time" exists and has, moreover, an innate basis.

Colored people, as I've said, are colored, and maybe have earwax different from mine. To some people this still a very big deal, apparently. But as Theodosius Dobzhansky said,

Human equality is stubbornly confused with identity, and diversity with inequality, as though to be entitled to an equality of opportunity, people would have to be identical twins. Human diversity is not incompatible with equality.

Fifty-five years of observing people has taught me that all humans, diverse as they may be in many individual and even some group ways, have the same linguistic abilities, any one of us capable of learning (when young enough) any of our languages. I know that children adopted from one "race" and raised in another adapt seamlessly to their new context. I know that immigrants assimilate, and that a few generations on become undetectable unless color prejudice intervenes (I'm living proof). I do not see any prima facie evidence that groups of people are inherently different in any ways that go much beyond curiosities. Call me naïve, but if you're going to do so, offer better specific evidence of why I'm naïve than Nicholas Wade does.

Wade, Nicholas. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, race, and human history. New York: Penguin, 2014. GN 365.9.W33