Nicholas Wade and His Determinist Genes

TroublesomeThe subtitle of Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, is transparent. In combining genes, race, and human history, Wade makes a simplistic argument: genes determine race, and race determines human history. Wade is wrong in each piece of that sub-title.

Critics have called out Wade’s understanding of genetics, from mistakes in his portrayal of recent human evolution to his speculative fantasies about how genes shape behavior and culture. His understanding of human variation, which Wade aims to explain through asserting a small number of biologically distinct races, is worse than his use of genetics. As for history, Wade would rather tell a simple story – Western civilization is best, both biologically and culturally – than actually look at how history shapes our present lives. At the end of this post, I provide an array of online sources that illustrate each one of these problems in genetics, human variation, and history.

But what I want to focus on is our need for an alternative to Wade’s simplism. Two authors – anthropologist Greg Laden and sociologist Philip Cohen – look at this problem: How can we do better than Wade in understanding how human variation works and its impact on differences in behavior and culture across groups? In each case the alternative they suggest sounds a lot like neuroanthropology.

Linking Biology, Behavior, and Culture

Philip Cohen, in his review Don’t Trouble Yourself, entitles his critical section “A Better Theory of Social Change.”

Wade possesses a rigidly mechanical view of genetic influence on behavior. For instance, he concludes that genes must be the source of widespread taboos against incest, and our genes tell us, “If you grew up under the same roof with this person, they are not a suitable marriage partner.” But is there any basis for believing that genes really dictate rules of behavior to this level of specificity? Do genetic dictates include the word “marriage”?

Much as Wade would like to convince us otherwise, there is little reason to believe that natural selection is a major source of social change, that “the rise of the West was the direct result of the evolution of European populations as they adapted to the geographic and military conditions of their particular ecological habitat.” When he talks about the tendency toward such traits as cooperation and trusting authority, he just guesses that “probably all these social behaviors, to one degree or another, have a genetic basis.”

It is equally plausible, though, that adaptive traits emerge from more generic capacities of human intelligence and adaptation and are reinforced through cultural evolution and learning. For example, the ability to comprehend what others are thinking—and what they think of us—could lead to cooperative behavior as an instrumental adaptation even if there is no specific genetic driver for cooperative behavior. Similarly, clever humans in many societies could develop stone tools, or invent simple bridges, without genetic instructions for doing so.

Wade is awed by breakthroughs in genetics, but he seems uninterested in the blossoming research on brain development. This is one way that culture adapts and reproduces: children’s brains adapt to their environment and experiences. For example, children in the United States today are exposed to a pink-is-for-girls culture. Even though this is a very recent phenomenon, the ubiquity of girls in pink appears so universal as to seem genetic. The tendency to see such preferences as natural is reinforced if brain plasticity declines with age. By the time today’s children are ten, they can’t imagine a society where pink is not for girls.

The downside of children’s intense learning capacity is that insults insinuate themselves deep into their cognitive apparatuses. For example, new research shows that the toxic effects of poverty on children’s developing brains may cause “differences in long-tern memory, learning, control of neuroendocrine functions, and modulation of emotional behavior.” Such an effect could in principle be repeated over generations within poor populations without producing inherited genetic traits.

In fact, the evolution and replication of social structure through interaction has been the subject of extensive social science modeling. These studies use complex simulations, which show that very different social structures can emerge from various initial conditions. For example, the evolution of trust and cooperation may be generated by social interaction and learning, as people learn the benefits of cooperation and complementary norms spread through the population.

Greg Laden, in his review A Troubling Tome, focuses more on recent evolutionary history and how to understand how we became human. Here is his answer to how we understand human variation.

There is a more straightforward explanation for behavioral variation among humans, much more likely accurate than the one Wade proposes. This explanation is embedded in current anthropological thinking and fits better with observations of what makes humans unique among kindred species.

It ties back to individual human development. Our species pays a huge evolutionary cost for its extended childhood. Unlike our ape relatives, we are born and remain for years nearly helpless and at risk. Birth itself is costly and dangerous because of our large brain. These things are linked. A typical human adult is imbued with human qualities by virtue of an extended period of learning and enculturation during which that big brain is shaped by its environment. Were our children born with more genetic programming for social behavior, the brain could potentially be smaller, growing up could be faster, the emergence of appropriate behavior more reliable, and reproductive output higher.

Our large brains have a high metabolic cost as well, and accounting for this cost has been central to many recent theories of human evolution, including Richard Wrangham and his colleagues’ cooking hypothesis and Leslie Aiello and Peter Wheeler’s expensive-tissue hypothesis, which together explain where the energy for growing and maintaining large brains comes from.

Our relatively slow reproductive rate and the extended demands of child rearing are thought to be compensated for by the evolution of reproductive senescence (menopause). “The Grandmother Hypothesis,” as it’s sometimes called, posits that older women forgo their own reproduction in favor of providing critical investment in raising grandchildren. These contemporary interpretations of human evolution do not exclude genetic change; large brains, language, menopause, and other unique human features clearly have genetic underpinnings. But the features themselves seem linked to a system of developing appropriate social behavior as part of human cultural adaptability and are not expected to manifest as distinct fine-tuned genetic adaptations in different races.

Most likely, a key human trait involved is an adaptability to diverse contexts through learning, which is in turn facilitated by these costly features. Hence, an excellent explanation for variation across human populations is culture, not genes.

Learning and enculturation explain most human behavioral variation. This is a basic tenet of modern anthropology. Perhaps the best evidence is the simple fact that children adopted as infants across vast cultural boundaries do not carry their parents’ social behavior with them. More broadly, sudden large-scale changes in national or regional economy, such as the uniting of East and West in Germany, produce rapid change in IQ measures and social behavior. Oddly, Wade acknowledges that these things happen within a race, or at least one race (Caucasian), but insists that when the same traits vary across races they can be accounted for only by evolutionary genetic change.

Neuroanthropology was built to combine an evolutionary approach with human development, learning, and culture. In other words, development, learning, and culture are as much a part of our nature as our genetic inheritance. As Cohen and Laden outline, this new science works better than Wade’s simplistic determinism. But we need to continue to develop the specifics. Thankfully, we can now examine a wide range of causal processes in specific contexts and look at how they work to shape patterns of human variation.

We need this alternative. If we don’t fill this gap, we’ll be led back to a determinist model of social change and social difference, whether that is over historical time or within a specific population. That is why neuroanthropology needs to develop its ability to both do the research and convey its import. We need more evidence and a better story.

Can’t Handle the Truth: Nicholas Wade as Punchline

Neuroanthropology is based on understanding how interactive processes shape patterns of human variation. It aims to go beyond the simplism that defines Nicholas Wade. That simplism is based on two dichotomies: Nature versus Nurture, and Essentialism versus Relativism.

To explain why people do what they do, Wade is on the Nature side. That biological nature determines the essential truths of humanity: genes to race to human history. He pitches this approach against the “cultural marxists.” These are people who highlight nurture as most important and declare a relativist truth.

In other words, Nicholas Wade comes off like Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessep in that crucial scene in the movie A Few Good Men.

“You want answers?!” Jessep yells at interrogator Lieutenant Kaffe, played by Tom Cruise.

Kaffe yells back, “I want the truth!”

“You can’t handle the truth!” Jessep shouts. “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded… I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.”

Jessep then explains. “You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. We use words like “honor”, “code”, “loyalty”. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline.”

Nicholas Wade is praising himself for crying out his “Code Red.” He thinks we need essential truths like “race” that keep walls in place. But it’s just a fantasy, a speculative movie where Wade wants his star turn as the hero. But as the reviews continue to come in, Wade keeps getting made into the punchline.

Critical Reviews of A Troublesome Inheritance

Here those reviews are. There are more out there; these are a selection that caught my eye. I’ve split them into three sections – Genetics, Human Variation, and History.

Don’t get caught up in the three different types; ideas from different sections flow back and forth. But if I had to boil the critiques down, here’s what they say:

-Genes are for more than storytelling.
-Racism explains the impact of race.
-History matters.

*Michael Eisen, On Nicholas Wade and the blurring of boundaries between science and fantasy
*Agustin Fuentes, Things to Know When Talking about Race and Genetics
*Jennifer Raff, Nicholas Wade and Race: Building a Scientific Façade
*Jeremy Yoder, How A Troublesome Inheritance gets human genetics wrong
*H. Allen Orr, Stretch Genes
*Rob DeSalle & Ian Tattersall, Mr. Murray, You Lose the Bet
*Chris Smith, A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part I: The genetics of human populations
*David Dobbs, The Fault in Our DNA
*Graham Coop, Michael Eisen & 130+ Signatories, Letters: ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’ with coverage in Science, Geneticists decry book on race and evolution
*James Holland Jones, On Genetics and Human Behavioral Biology

Understanding Human Variation
*Jon Marks, The Genes Made Us Do It
*American Anthropological Association, A Troublesome Inheritance — A discussion on genes, race and human history with author Nicholas Wade. This youtube debate between Wade and Agustin Fuentes is also usefully summarized at Savage Minds in What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar.
*Kenan Malik, a fairy tale, but, oh, so feeble
*Ian Steadman, The Dangerous New Scientific Racism
*Holly Dunsworth, If scientists were to make the arbitrary decision that biological race is real, can you think of a positive outcome?
*Ken Weiss, The visible colors: and the falseness of human races as natural categories
*Sam Wang, Race and mental traits: Nicholas Wade’s third error

*Patricia Williams, Does Genetics Cause War and Peace?
*Jon Philips, Troublesome Sources: Nicholas Wade’s Embrace of Scientific Racism
*Jon Marks, Science imitates art?
*Jon Marks, Nazis love Nicholas Wade. Shouldn’t that be a problem for him?
*Andrew Gelman, The Paradox of Racism
*Eric Michael Johnson, On the Origin of White Power

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6 Responses to Nicholas Wade and His Determinist Genes

  1. Holly Dunsworth says:

    Thanks for this post.

    Do you think that Cohen’s (what I took for cheeky and clever) use of childhood thinking to describe Wade’s is useful, in neuroanthropology terms, for thinking about how we think racially? What I mean is, pink-is-for-girls sounds a lot like white-is-for-smart, etc. Is it the same phenomenon? How could we know?

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    • daniel.lende says:

      Thanks, Holly. I took Cohen’s point as more highlighting the historical contingency of how we think about human difference. But to answer your question, yes, I think that approach can add something to understanding how we apply categories to people, though I don’t think it’s as simple as bounded categories and us vs. them thinking. Lawrence Hirschfeld’s book Race in the Making gets at some of this approach to how we come to think racially through combining childhood development and cognition. I included it as part of a much broader outline of the neuroanthropology of race that I wrote back in 2012.

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  2. John Terrell says:

    While only implied in the review of Wade at Science Dialogues ( that you overlooked in your survey (this site is so new that I’m not surprised, although disappointed), I believe we may also be seeing in the continuing debate about race that science today is currently in transition between categorical thinking and network thinking, and all too easily still stuck in the former mode. In short, it is not just a matter of data but also theory.

    Said another way, the concept of “population” is in fact every bit as problematic and the idea of “race,” yet scientists are still given to talking about populations when they are trying to grapple with global and local human variation–and (or so I would argue) as a consequence we end up sounding like we are just bickering when we say we don’t like the idea of race, etc.

    Race as a category makes little sense from a networks point of view. Or so it is hinted in the Science Dialogues review.

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