Allen Orr slams Nicholas Wade’s new book

May 17, 2014 • 8:20 am

Allen Orr, my first Ph.D. student, has developed a thriving career as a popular book reviewer, and in this week’s New York Review of Books, he critique’s Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.

I made a few comments on this book a few days ago, saying that it was in the main pretty bad, though one part, the presentation of the case for genetic differentiation of human populations, was not too bad. But Wade’s main thesis was that differences between human societies, as well as rapid changes within human societies, was due to evolutionary change mediated by natural selection. That  latter contention, I claimed, had no evidence behind it, though Wade argued otherwise.  I did not, and do not, recommend that you read the book.

I’m pleased to see that in Orr’s review, “Stretch genes,” he says pretty much exactly what I thought, though much more incisively. Here are some quotes from his piece:

A Troublesome Inheritance cleaves neatly into two parts. The first is a review of what recent studies of the genome reveal about our evolution, including the emergence of racial differences. The second part considers the part that genetic differences among races may play in behavior and in the social institutions embraced by various races. These two parts fare very differently.

…..So what has study of the human genome over the last decade revealed? Wade’s chief conclusion here is that human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional.” The facts are fairly straightforward. The continental races of human beings differ somewhat from one other at the level of DNA sequence. As Wade emphasizes, these differences are “slight and subtle” but they can nonetheless be detected by geneticists who now have access to many genome sequences from around the planet.

The central fact is that genetic differences among human beings who derive from different continents are statistical. Geneticists might find that a variant of a given gene is found in 79 percent of Europeans but in only, say, 58 percent of East Asians. Only rarely do all Europeans carry a genetic variant that does not appear in all East Asians. But across our vast genomes, these statistical differences add up, and geneticists have little difficulty concluding that one person’s genome looks European and another person’s looks East Asian. To put the conclusion more technically, the genomes of various human beings fall into several reasonably well-defined clusters when analyzed statistically, and these clusters generally correspond to continent of origin. In this statistical sense, races are real.

This is what I also claimed, and of course got slammed by the race-denialists who are motivated largely by politics.  To a biologist, races are simply genetically differentiated populations, and human populations are genetically differentiated.  Although it’s a subjective exercise to say how many races there are, human genetic differentiation seems to cluster largely by continent, as you’d expect if that differentiation evolved in allopatry (geographic isolation). As Orr notes:

As people dispersed about the planet, they ultimately settled into the five great “continental races”: Africans (sub-Sahara), East Asians, Caucasians (Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East), Australians, and Native Americans. Some of these groups are younger than others (America was peopled only in the last 15,000 years), but this division provides, Wade says, a reasonably realistic portrait of how human genetic diversity is partitioned geographically. Because of their geographic isolation from one another, these groups of human beings necessarily evolved mostly independently over the last tens of thousands of years. During this period of independent evolution, much of what we think of as characteristically human arose, including agriculture and settlement in permanent villages.

Finally, Orr takes the book to task for its big claims about the genetic underpinnings of human social differences, which are unsubstantiated:

These are big claims and you’d surely expect Wade to provide some pretty impressive, if recondite, evidence for them from the new science of genomics. And here’s where things get odd. Hard evidence for Wade’s thesis is nearly nonexistent. Odder still, Wade concedes as much at the start of A Troublesome Inheritance:

“Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.”

It perhaps would have been best if this sentence had been reprinted at the top of each page in chapters 6 through 10.

One of the most frustrating features of A Troublesome Inheritance is that Wade wants to have it both ways. At one moment, he will concede that he writes in a “speculative arena” and, at the next, he will issue pseudofactual pronouncements (“social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped”). This strategy lets Wade move in a kind of intellectual no-man’s-land where he gets to look like he’s doing science (so many facts about genomes!) while covering himself with caveats that, well, it’s all speculative.

Which might lead you to wonder: If Wade has little or no hard evidence for his evolutionary thesis, how does he hope to convince his readers to take it seriously? Part of the answer is by offering captivating narratives about how recent human evolution could have played out, as we saw earlier with the transition to permanent settlement.

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. It’s an bad piece of scientific journalism, and the next-to-last paragraph above sums up the problem neatly.

By all means read Orr’s review at the link above (it’s free), but I can’t say I’d urge readers to buy the book. It might read okay to those who don’t know a lot about evolution, but to an evolutionary biologist, or a sociologist who knows about genetics as well as the cultural malleability of societies, it is a frustrating and ultimately irresponsible book.


88 thoughts on “Allen Orr slams Nicholas Wade’s new book

  1. Controversy sells, and Wade may be hoping to benefit from what appear to be wild speculations. From the handful of reviews thus far, I think I’ll pass on Wade’s book. For those who don’t know a lot about evolution, instead of Wade’s speculations, I recommend books by Douglas Futuyma, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, or Neil Shubin.

  2. Looks to me like this author borrowed a page from the H channel’s horrid Ancient Aliens B.S.

    I walked by the TV one day and got captivated by what was on, they were discussing a unique stone artifact, and I stopped to see what was going on… Then they jumped from a few facts on an artifact to “it must have been aliens” crap. I don’t know who left the TV on that day but it almost ended up in a remote through a HD TV screen…

    1. on that day but it almost ended up in a remote through a HD TV screen…

      Sounds to me like you need to get either a much lighter (and possibly rubber-coated) remote that won’t cause damage on impact, or hang your remote from the light fitting on a cord short enough to prevent it from impacting the TV.
      The technology for either of these solutions is the product of Lamarkian evolution of cultures, not Darwinian evolution.

  3. It would seem that Wade is playing to his intended audience…Racists. The first part of his book is grounded in science but the later half is racist. Readers who want their racism confirmed will blow right past the disclaimers and tout the book as science through and through.

  4. I think people might be getting confused over different applications of the term, “significant.”

    There are statistically significant clusters of DNA sequences correlated with geography. And some of those sequences are responsible for melanin expression and facial structure and eye color and other superficial cultural markers of race.

    However, there’s no evidence that I’m aware of that any of those DNA sequences are in any way responsible for significant behaviors or cultural practices or any of the other racist caricatures of race. In other words, the DNA clusters have no primary significance whatsoever for the sociologist.

    This shouldn’t be surprising. There’s no reason to think that a DNA sequence that controls skin pigmentation would have any bearing whatsoever on brain physiology related to social function. And, aside from some genetic disorders (which have no significant correlation with race), there’s not even any reason to think that that sort of thing is regulated by DNA in the first place.



    1. “There’s no reason to think that a DNA sequence that controls skin pigmentation would have any bearing whatsoever on brain physiology related to social function.”

      But isnt that a strawman argument? The question is not whether DNA sequences that control skin pigmentation also control brain physiology, but whether the geographical separation that allowed those differences to evolve also allowed differences in brain physiology to evolve.

      1. And there’s no evidence that differences in brain physiology did evolve. That’s why “no reason to think” could apply here if you think it means “theres no evidence in favor of the hypothesis.”

        1. Ok. If you say there’s no evidence at this point, I’ll assume thats true. But would it be surprising, given the duration of geographical separation, and differences in selection pressures, if differences in brain physiology did not evolve?

          1. “would it be surprising, given the duration of geographical separation, and differences in selection pressures, if differences in brain physiology did not evolve?”

            There’s a big difference between, “would it be surprising,” and a pronouncement from Wade that, “social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped.”

          2. I would buy the idea that brain differences between groups exist, but I would be hyper-extremely suspicious of any ‘evidence’ produced prior to several centuries after our achieving a thorough and complete understanding of how our environment affects the expression of our genes. My rational for this assumption is that I see differences between individuals that “must be” heavily influenced by genes. But given the extremely clear evidence that how an individual grows up/lives their life strongly influences gene expression I will wait until after we truly understand “nature/nurture” before I accept anything other than “there are extremely-little to no differences that matter” as a working hypothesis.

        2. There are distinct differences in average brain volume (as measured by 21st Century scanning technology) adjusted for body size among continental-scale races. And there is a moderate (0.3 to 0.4) correlation between brain volume and IQ among Americans.

      1. Yes, from a quick peek at your blog I guess you’d suck up the second half (as per comment 4).

    2. >There’s no reason to think that a DNA sequence that controls skin pigmentation would have any bearing whatsoever on brain physiology related to social function.

      I think the argument isn’t that skin color genes are also expressed in the brain, but that genes get inherited together.

      >And, aside from some genetic disorders (which have no significant correlation with race), there’s not even any reason to think that that sort of thing is regulated by DNA in the first place.

      You’re saying that the genes that contain the blueprints for brain physiology have nothing to do with social function? Am I reading this right? Where does human and animal behavior come from then?

      1. You’re saying that the genes that contain the blueprints for brain physiology have nothing to do with social function?

        No, I’m suggesting that the variations in brain physiology that we’re aware of have nothing to do with social function, or at least not significantly so. The variations, frankly, don’t seem to be significantly related to cognitive function.

        As an analogy: one might naïvely think that human breast size and shape is related to milk production, quantity or quality or the like. But it’s not, at least not significantly. It’s entirely reasonable that large-scale changes in brain physiology (and, frankly, there’s not all that much variation) would be irrelevant to the behavioral patterns that happen at an entirely different scale.

        Frankly, what you’re proposing is a variation on phrenology….



  5. I enjoyed Orr’s review, but I was disappointed that he allowed for, “my admiration for his work as a journalist.” The errors in the first part of the book, that Orr then points out, for instance, exaggerating the percentage of the human genome that shows evidence of recent natural selection, getting some of the history wrong, and so on, are exactly the kind of errors that led me to quit reading Wade’s articles when he wrote for the NYT.

    1. I wouldn’t be so disappointed, really. He did point out the major problems with the book where admitting that some information was useful. I think he was just bending over backwards not to look vindictive or nasty toward Wade.

      I haven’t read Wade’s pieces in the NYT (though I did read, and disliked, his Templeton-funded book “The Faith Instinct”); so I am not aware of whether his Times columns contained errors.

  6. @jerry – “Wade sometimes offers disclaimers, but the reader’s impression will be that he really is presenting scientific findings.”

    well, only if you, like, don’t actually *read* the book:

    “Since much of the material that follows may be new or unfamiliar to the general reader, a guide to its evidentiary status may be helpful. Chapters 4 and 5, which explore the genetics of race, are probably the most securely based. Although they put the reader on the forefront of current research , and frontier science is always more prone to upset than that in the textbooks , the findings reported here draw from a large body of research by leading experts in the field and seem unlikely to be revised in any serious way. Readers can probably take the facts in these chapters as reasonably solid and the interpretations as being in general well supported.

    “The discussion of the roots of human social behavior in chapter 3 also rests on substantial research, in this case mostly studies of human and animal behavior. But the genetic underpinnings of human social behavior are for the most part still unknown. There is therefore considerable room for disagreement as to exactly which social behaviors have a genetic basis and how strongly any such behaviors may be genetically defined. Moreover the whole field of research into human social behavior is both young and overshadowed by the paradigm still influential among social scientists that all human behavior is purely cultural.

    “Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution. Because the existence of race has long been ignored or denied by many researchers, there is a dearth of factual information as to how race impinges on human society. The conclusions presented in these chapters fall far short of proof. However plausible (or otherwise) they may seem, many are speculative. There is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear. And speculation is the customary way to begin the exploration of uncharted territory because it stimulates a search for the evidence that will support or refute it.”

    Wade, Nicholas (2014-05-06). A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (pp. 14-15). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

    1. I did read the book, and so did Orr, and he says the same thing. Did you read his review? I mention the disclaimers. Wade gives the disclaimers, but then goes ahead and presents a completely speculative case and, and this is the bad part, adds to it the air of science. The speculation is forgotten. As Orr said, he should have printed that speculation at the top of every page. Wade gives short shrift, as Orr said, to alternative social hypotheses. Orr, in fact, cites your last paragraph.

      You clearly didn’t read Orr’s review, so check the beam in your own eye. I let this comment through, but it is misleading, and also a bit rude.

      1. In other words, the first half of Wade’s book performs a major public service by demolishing a fallacy that has become conventional wisdom: that race doesn’t biologically exist. As Dr. Coyne noted, he didn’t realize how widespread this myth was until he read comments to his review of Wade’s book. So, no matter how much you dislike the second half, why not praise the book for being half full?

        1. I think “major public service” is a bit hyperbolic; Jarrod Diamond made the same point almost 20 years ago, and I bet a lot more people have read Diamond’s books than will read this one.

          Its certainly a notion that’s worth repeating until the public gets it right, but it doesn’t sound like he’s doing anything more than just repeating what other scholars have said before – in some cases in more accessible and more popular prose.

          I won’t be buying the book. Sounds like I won’t learn much from the first part that I didn’t already know. As for the second part…I’ll happily read a journal article that reports evidence that (some of) the genetic marker differences between races have an impact on brain development. When it’s published. I’m not holding my breath.

          I’d like to point out, too, that his hypothesis would be relatively easy to check if he’s right. If there are racially different genetic aspects to brain development, then those should show up in the markers that are racially different. They can’t be hidden in sequences that have not yet been identified, because those sequences will be the same world-wide. So all he has to do is look at the function of the markers that are already used to tell people what their geographical ancestry is. If there’s no significant impact on brain development in those markers, he’s just plain wrong. This is the type of hypothesis where ease of detection is directly linked to the validity of the hypothesis: if a sequence does not strongly correlate with some geographical ancestry, that’s going to be because it’s shared widely outside that geographical area. So if anyone claims that the brain stuff is in a marker we haven’t yet discovered, the obvious reply is: if we haven’t discovered it, that’s probably because the correlation is weak, and if the correlation is weak, the discovery won’t support his hypothesis.

      2. The speculative second half of the book is intended to sketch out a possible research program into one of the most understudied questions in human history: how might have divergent evolution impacted history. For example, it seems hard to imagine northern Europe rising to the position it has enjoyed over the last 500 years without the mutation for lactose tolerance that made the carrying capacity of the land able to make use of dairying, which generates far more calories per acre than alternative food sources.

        How many other such factors are there? It would seem interesting to try to find out.

        1. Dairying generates far more calories per acre than any other food source. Really? Do you have any numbers confirming your assertion?

          1. Google

            Crotty Ireland dairying

            “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by Cochran and Harpending (2010) has much on the impact of recent evolution on the current state of the world.

            1. Steve,

              Google doesn’t link to anything that appears relevant. Care to provide a proper link? Your assertion seems unlikely even if the cattle are just eating natural pasture to generate the energy to produce milk. It’s worse if you have to provide grain.

              I suppose dairying pays in Alpine regions. The Summer pastures in the Alps wouldn’t be of much use for agriculture. Explains why the Swiss have become a major military power.

            2. Steve,

              I now see where Wade got his claims about Ashkenazi Jews. He seems to have lifted it from ‘the 10,000 Year Explosion’. There’s no evidence that being a carrier for Tay Sachs or Gaucher’s disease makes you more intelligent.

              Culturing neurones with the trait and demonstrating that they form more connections in vitro doesn’t mean that they do that in the developing brain.

              And anyway, in normal neurogenesis, neurones form a lot of connections. With the unnecessary ones ruthlessly pared back.

              The number of connections hasn’t been to shown to correlate with intelligence. At least in Einstein it appears the number of astrocytes is more significant…

          2. Dairying is hugely valuable in parts of northern Europe where other kinds of agriculture are marginal. Not surprisingly, the lactose tolerance gene variant is most common where dairying is most relatively useful, such as Scandinavia.

              1. It’s not as if the Baltic and the North Sea are unimportant in world history. Without the lactose tolerance mutation, they would play a much smaller role in world history. Similarly, Eurasian steppe warriors tended to benefit from lactose tolerance, and they played a big role in history.

                Malaria resistance genes played a huge role in keeping colonizers from settling in much of Africa, while altitude adaptations play a big role in socio-politics of Bolivia, Peru, and Tibet.

  7. People inclined to invest in in group-out group demarcation are the last who will be persuaded by sound evidence and good reasoning to abandon their prejudice. “Race” is so negatively loaded that its employment, no matter how scientifically accurate, succors those humans who choose to hate their fellows because of different skin color, shape of eyes and noses, etc.

    1. Yes, it seems it’s awfully important for some people that certain groups of people be better than others.

      “Those guys over there can’t think properly because of how their brains are wired” is apparently a major motivator for some people in this debate, based on comments and articles I’ve found in the past 24 hours. All the usual suspects are on the scene as well — C. Murray, J. Derbyshire, etc. taking exactly the position you’d expect.

  8. In Wade’s defense, he does adduce some facts to support his speculative section. I think, for example, that his section on Jewish IQ is pretty cogent. He also talks about the different levels of MAO-A (2r) between the races, which could explain different levels of violence we see in different societies.

    He also mentions Oxytocion, which is now firmly linked to trust. Racial differences in this hormone would therefore support Wade’s hypothesis. Wade predicts that racial differences in this area will be found; and considering the racial differences in MAO-A (2r), it’s probable that something will be found.

    Despite what you personally believe, there are many lay men and men of science who don’t believe in race (the majority, according to one survey). Wade’s greatest achievement in his new book is to bring back race as an explanatory variable for history, society and culture.

    Wade’s speculative section has started the conversation that the social scientists and anthropologists are now going to have to have on race. Race can no longer be dismissed.

    1. If there are % differences in races along the parameters you mention, then let evidence based science sort it out. It will always raise hackles to speculate about such things without a lot of solid data first. I can agree that it is important to look at these factors as strong influences in human behavior regardless of racial demarcations.
      But the complication for oxytocin is, I think, that levels and/or sensitivity are very much influenced by environment. Since race generally has an influence on the environment that one is raised in (due to historical racism, tribalism, etc.), it will be very difficult to make a convincing correlation. I do not know about MAO-A, so I will leave it alone.

  9. This is what I also claimed, and of course got slammed by the race-denialists who are motivated largely by politics. To a biologist, races are simply genetically differentiated populations, and human populations are genetically differentiated.

    Now I’m terribly confused. The earlier piece referred to “races” (or “subgroups” or “populations”)” that “differ statistically”, all the while noting that ““races” are purely social constructs. So I wondered where the population geneticists (I think) “demes” place, and I concluded that they suited better.


    – Race:

    “A common way to decide is that organisms belonging to different subspecies of the same species are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring, but they do not interbreed in nature due to geographic isolation or other factors.” [ ]

    “a race is a taxonomic rank, under the level of a species.”

    “a subspecies is a geographic race that is sufficiently different taxonomically to be worthy of a separate name.” [ ]

    – Deme:

    “a deme is a term for a local population of organisms of one species that actively interbreed with one another and share a distinct gene pool. When demes are isolated for a very long time they can become distinct subspecies or species. The term deme is mainly used in evolutionary biology and is often used as a synonym for population.” [ ]

    Human populations are not very distinct, the variation within a population is larger than the difference between them, but I assume the notion of demes is a sufficiently good map to human genetic variation.

    So I concluded that Neanderthals and Denisovans are eponymous “human races”. In fact, the reproduction barriers had started to go up, since recent sequencing reveals that while introgression happened frequently and apparently succeeded, Neanderthal genes for sperm survival wasn’t doing great in the resulting mix AFAIU.

    But I can see, with the benefits that genetically informed medicine has, it may make sense to make the finer divisions “races” too. But I wonder how that plays out taxonomically?

    1. Speaking as a taxonomist: don’t forget that taxonomy is not the same as nomenclature! There are a large number of distinct species concepts, but if you adopt a particular one it is often possible to make an objective decision whether two populations or individuals belong to the same species.
      If ‘race’ qua subspecies is adopted as a nomenclatural rank, it denotes a clustering of (usually geographic) populations but can rarely be applied usefully to individuals (‘key’ features are poor predictors of other phenotypic characters or genetic relationships).
      Species and subspecies names (in the Linnean system, which is hundreds of years old, i.e. pre-evolutionary, and flawed in various ways) are based on unique type specimens, but no individual can be typical or representative of a subspecies in a more than superficial way.
      As Jerry has noted, the salient fact about ‘race’ is that it’s possible to identify (one or more of) the geographic region(s) from which an individual’s ancestors originate, using either morphology or genetics. That doesn’t imply there really is a discrete set of nameable populations at any time, but if you arbitrarily pick a number you can run a clustering algorithm to give you that number of groups.

  10. “As people dispersed about the planet, they ultimately settled into the five great “continental races”: Africans (sub-Sahara), East Asians, Caucasians (Europe, the Indian subcontinent, and the Middle East), Australians, and Native Americans. ”

    I thought there was more genetic diversity in Africa than in all the rest of the human race combined?

    It’s not clear to me that using the old Age of Discovery classifications is the first and best step in breaking down humanity into populations for the study of differences in gene frequencies.

    1. Mitochondrial DNA genetic trees of human populations do show major groups of humans, divided into various smaller groups. These groupings do tend to fall into continental divisions, although I think the correlation between groups and continents is not absolutely perfect. Africa has the most subgroups of course, likely b/c our species was in Africa for the longest time.
      I was trying to find a picture of one of these trees on the internet, but was not successful.

    2. “I thought there was more genetic diversity in Africa than in all the rest of the human race combined?”

      That’s a common assumption that doesn’t actually mean what everybody thinks it means.

      Wade has been explaining what’s wrong with this conventional wisdom on race in the New York Times since 2001, but this book summarizes what Dr. Coyne considers the obvious facts about the reality and coherence of racial groups.

  11. I would blame evopsych.

    No, but seriously, I feel like this problem is too easily impressible (sellable) because our discourses about genes (and environment) and behavior are not well-honed enough. And because of our lack of clarity on how social structures create selves and how those selves then interact with and are structured by those selves, those brain/minds. From that lack of clarity enters an inability to think clearly about racial and ethnic behavioral differences. In blaming evolutionary psychology, I would say that on the individual level we are missing significant understanding of how any individual brain/mind develops, and thus fail to give good explanations for that individual’s concepts, beliefs, behaviors, and psychology that comprise such selves. Evolutionary psychology has overstated the case for certain psychological structures arising from genes, thus the link between genetic structure to psychological structure or behavior structure (think introversion/extroversion, e.g.) is usually stated too broadly and too baldly, without accompanying understanding of how and why certain behaviors manifest. Some of that may just in general be that such psychological traits are not as durable or explanatory as we believe; we overestimate and misdescribe our inner world.

    Anyways, there are obvious, large scale behavioral and cultural differences between different regions and tribes, and some of those tribal and cultural differences are fairly well correlated alongside some genetic differences such as skin color and body morphology, etc. As we see and think about cultural and behavioral differences, there arises a strong desire to link those behavioral differences with the genetic explanations that are there for the differences in those more mundane factors such as skin color. This present discussion is also distracted by the fact that our claims about genetic differences between races or “demes” (as called above) is only now entering a scientific validation, whereas many earlier claims were probably poorly guided by intuitive thinking, as well as constantly muddled by others who were justifying political or tribal beliefs.

    Of course, things that are clearly genetically differentiated, such as skin color, even if it has no “significant” value to most things we think are important to being human, can be entered into an institutional or social discourse, and then be a driver of behavior. If that institution is engrained enough, the behavior attaches to those other aspects of the body or self in persistent and unvarying ways.

    1. Whoops! That second sentence should just mean that individuals are created by society and genes and then in turn create society and environmental structures, that go on to create and structure future individuals.

      I said it was all a muddle.

    2. The problem with evo psych is that it went too far to be realistic in its attempts to try to deny the importance of evolution since Out-of-Africa. It assumed evolution stopped 50 or 100k years ago, while all humans were still in the African environment. The genome age has proven that assumption untenable.

  12. I read it too. It’s terrible. I’ve a 1 star review on Amazon.

    Wade claims that the West won (and will continue to win) over China, because it evolved the superior genes allowing the development of the right social institutions (such as corporations).

    He has no idea which genes (or even how they) favour the development of social institutions. But he claims that it’s under strong selection pressure. And happened in the past 25 generations, due to changes in many genes of small effect.

    And the evidence he offers making it even feasible? The breeding experiment in Novosibirsk which managed to produce very tame silver foxes in 20-25 generations by extreme severe selection with only the tamest 10% of females and tamest 3% of males being allowed to breed each generation in a population of around 800.

    Wade thinks that selection in West Europeans came from the rich having more children than the poor, passing their superior genes to the lower classes, as some of the children of the rich descend in social class. Which begs the question as to whether the rich are rich because of superior genes, or whether birth and upbringing are more important.

    1. “Wade thinks that selection in West Europeans came from the rich having more children than the poor”

      Is there any data showing that? I always thought it was pretty well accepted that the opposite is true.

      1. Tomh,

        The poor having more children than the rich only happened after the Industrial Revolution. For most of Europe’s history, the economy was largely a subsistence one. Being rich allowed a person to get their children survive to adulthood, including buying food in a famine, having better housing (with fewer rats and mice) in times of plague – or at least flee with one of the periodic outbreaks.

        Wade writes that the rich had 4 surviving children. The poor had 2.

    2. Which begs the question as to whether the rich are rich because of superior genes, or whether birth and upbringing are more important.

      That is the crucial point – the assumption that success is primarily determined by genes as opposed to luck is underlying it all, without evidence.

      And let’s be plain here. The best predictor of wealth in most societies is having been born into a wealthy family. While that means that one would coincidentally inherit the genes of wealthy people it does not mean that those genes have any causal connection with the creation of wealth.

  13. I dunno. I consider that even the claim that there are discrete geographic clusters of human genotypes should be pretty dubious. Sure, Europeans are different from Chinese, and I’m sure you could reliably distinguish them. But I also bet there is a continuous series of intermediate populations that you would find if, for example you tried a genetic transect along the Silk Road. You can always find discrete groups by comparing the endpoints of any smooth cline. But they’re fake discrete groups.

    Similarly, I bet you could find a nice cline between Europe and Africa by taking a trip up the Nile. And one between Asia and America across Beringia.

    1. But what kind of cline was there in 1491 between Senegal and Brazil, which are only 1600 miles apart.

      These are all good questions, but they demonstrate the value of reading the NYT’s genetics reporter’s book, since he answers much of the confusion apparent here in the comments.

      1. Please remedy my confusion. I will certainly agree that there are no clines across oceans, but in order for there to be true “races”, there would have to be no clines connecting the end points, regardless of how twisty the route would have to be. The line connecting Senegal and Brazil would pass through both the Nile and Beringia; still a line, though.

    2. The actual genetic differences between groups are a matter of fact at this point, not speculation. The speculation is about how they got that way. In many cases, it isn’t very speculative–e.g.sub-saharan africans and australian aborigines were cut off from other populations for tens of thousands of years, and hence are very different.

      1. Can you provide evidence for this claim? Mostly, what has been sampled are the end points. It’s certainly not controversial that Chinese are different from French. But are the geographic intermediates also genetic intermediates, or is there a nice dividing line (perhaps the Urals?) at which Caucasian genomes turn into Oriental genomes? I think it’s the former. Or consider a trisect from Baluchistan through Assam to South China. Have you tried that?

        Nobody ha been completely isolated for tens of thousands of years, not even Australians.

        1. John, I don’t think anybody would argue against the existence of a continuum — quite the opposite.

          The question, rather, is the distribution of populations on that continuum. And, if you were to plot “heat maps” of populations, you’d find clusters of high population density around the centers of the defined races, and low population density between.



          1. Ben, perhaps that’s true, though certainly not so in all cases. The “racial” boundaries in south Asia certainly run through some highly populated areas. But even if so, so what? Are red and yellow discrete colors if there aren’t all that many orange things? You might argue that races, like red and yellow, are convenient abstractions (though I would not), but do you contend they’re more than that?

            1. I’m not familiar enough with the data to tell you where the clusters are, or the relative densities of the clusters against the background. But Jerry would seem to be, and he’s comfortable describing it in these terms….


        2. There have been a number of works on genomic differences between “races”. DNA analysis demonstrates (along with physical anthropological evidence, including carbon dated artifacts) that the Australian aborigines were isolated for about fifty thousand years, possibly longer. Similar analysis shows that much of subsaharan African was isolated for a similar period of time, perhaps since the Toba eruption.

  14. There is no a priori reason why the various races and groups of people should not vary genetically in all kinds of ways. But if you’re going to suggest ways in which they do vary you need to come up with some hard evidence to support these ideas and disentangling genes from environments is a thorny task that has caused terrible difficulties in much less sweeping studies than entire races. I’m not sure how much success twin studies will have in finding pairs who have been raised on different continents.

    I wonder how Wade’s intellectual descendants will explain the rise to world dominance of China in the next couple of decades.

    1. Francis Galton pointed out that the Chinese were in only a “temporary dark age” in 1873 and emphasized their potential for a “high material civilization.”

    2. Since East Asians are quite intelligent,comparable to Europeans, your comment is a non sequitur. Nations rise and fall for various reasons, but the more intellectually gifted groups have dominated since at least the Classical Greeks.

  15. If anyone’s interested, the New York Times reviewed Wade’s book yesterday. It’s rare for a review in the Times to level harsh criticism at one of their own, but in this case, the reviewer didn’t care for Wade’s book any more than Orr did. A lot of empty speculation, very little substance.

  16. Orr can write beautifully, and his criticism of the HBD stance seems spot-on. Why indeed aren’t they more troubled by North/South Korea or by Scotland? Well, because it is all about cherry-picking, confirmation bias and ad-hocking, not about open-ended enquiry.

    1. It’s funny because the North was the more prosperous one for awhile — very industrialized until all that was wiped-out during the war, and was still ahead of SK till the 70s, I think. Does anyone seriously doubt that they wouldn’t prosper if anyone but the Kims were in power?

    2. The North/South Korea divide is as much evidence against HBD as rolling a one on a die would be evidence that it was not loaded to disfavour such an outcome.

      1. I think of it as necessary vs. sufficient conditions for material prosperity. If you have an IQ of 80, you will never get an advanced physics degree, but having an IQ of 140 doesn’t guarantee that you will either.

        As for the reductio ad North Korea, a lot of it is contingent on examining relatively short time-frames, plus the American idea that NK is literally hell on Earth as opposed to just really, really bad. I imagine they’ll get their act together in 20 or 30 years (they’re already making tentative inroads into the free market), and then blank-slaters will have to find another underperforming police state, I suppose.

      2. Fascinating how every pattern in favor of HBD is evidence, and every pattern against HBD can be rationalised away. Yeah, you are totally doing science!

        1. But why is North Korea evidence against HBD ? Must a genetic theory of human differences account for a regime which was imposed by the Soviet army and now maintains itself through an oversized military ? This is like asking biology to account for asteroids. And in what way the difference between North and South Korea informative about other countries which are free to pursue their own institutions ?

  17. I haven’t yet read Nicholas Wade’s book. Just bought it today.

    As I understand, the second half is more speculative and has been criticized. I’ll read it as speculation. I have read Cochran and Harpending’s 10,000 Year Explosion, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the best book I’ve read on recent human evolution.

    Regarding the fist half of the book, it doesn’t seem very controversial from what I’ve read. The “race doesn’t exist” / “race is a social construct” myth is a pernicious lie. As scholars and academics, we should be committed to the truth and debunking lies. If the first half of Wade’s book helps to expose this lie, then it should be praised.

    I understand peoples’ concerns that this book could lead to racism. I’m Chinese-American and concerned about racism, but the truth should always outweigh politics. In this day and age, I seriously doubt there will be a widespread return of racism.

    Anyway, I’m excited to read Wade’s book. If nothing else, we should praise Wade for debunking the “race is a social construct” lie.

  18. @ Professor Coyne,

    What is your take on “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution”? That book covered similar ground in a pretty reasonable manner I thought.

    As for Wade’s book, Steve Hsu – involved in the BGI Cognitive Genomics Project – notes the 2nd half of the books is speculative, but some of these hypothesis, questions may be answered with genomic research like this height example:

    “We can’t answer the question without understanding the specific genetic architecture of the trait. For example, are alleles that slightly increase height more common in one group than another? We need to know exactly which alleles affect height… But this is challenging as the traits I listed are almost certainly controlled by hundreds or thousands of genes. Could population averages on these traits differ between groups, due to differences in allele frequencies? I know of no argument, taking into account the information above, showing that they could not.

    In fact, in the case of height we are close to answering the question. We have identified hundreds of loci correlated to height. Detailed analysis suggests that the difference in average height between N and S Europeans (about one population SD, or a couple of inches) is partially genetic (N Europeans, on average, have a larger number of height increasing alleles than S Europeans), due to different selection pressures that the populations experienced in the recent past (i.e., past 10k years).

    Many who argue on Montagu’s side hold the prior belief that the ~ 50k years of isolation between continental populations is not enough time for differential selection to produce group differences, particularly in complex traits governed by many loci. This is of course a quantitative question depending on strength of selection in different environments. The new results on height should cause them to reconsider their priors.

    It is fair to say that results on height, as well as on simpler traits such as lactose or altitude tolerance, are consistent with Wade’s theme that evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.

    Further extrapolation to behavioral and cognitive traits will require more data, but:

    1) The question is scientific — it can be answered with known methods. (I estimate of order millions of genotype-phenotype pairs will allow us to extract the genetic architecture of complex traits like cognitive ability — perhaps sometime in the coming decade.)

    2) There is no a priori argument, given what we currently know, that such differences cannot exist. (Cf. Neanderthals!) Note this is NOT an argument that differences exist — merely that they might, and that we cannot exclude the possibility.

    An honest Ashley Montagu would have to concede points 1 and 2 above.

    The second part of A Troublesome Inheritance covers controversial topics such as genetic group differences in behavioral and cognitive predispositions, and their societal implications. Wade is mostly careful to present these as speculative hypotheses, but nevertheless his advocacy leaves him vulnerable to easy attack. What I have summarized above are the incontestable (albeit, in some circles, perhaps still controversial and poorly understood) new results that have accumulated through the last decade of genomic research.”

    1. “It is fair to say that results on height, as well as on simpler traits such as lactose or altitude tolerance, are consistent with Wade’s theme that evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.”

      Neither height, lactose tolerance or altitude tolerance has anything remotely to do with what Wade is talking about when he refers to “race.” So while this research does suggest that certain traits are in fact inherited, it does NOT support Wade’s blatantly racist “speculations.”

  19. I always enjoyed Orr’s reviews…he is a really effective writer. One of his best reviews was a devastating take-down of Dembski’s “No Free Lunch” in the Boston Review of Books. I still assign that review when discussing ID in my classes.

  20. Massimo now has a commentary on Wade’s book


Leave a Reply