Nicholas Wade never met a genetic just-so story that he didn't like. For a partial survey, see "The hunt for the Hat Gene", 11/15/2009, where I observed that he pivots smoothly from mere over-interpretation to complete fabrication:
Nicholas Wade is an inveterate gene-for-X enthusiast — he's got 68 stories in the NYT index with "gene" in the headline — and he's had two opportunities to celebrate this idea in the past few days: "Speech Gene Shows Its Bossy Nature", 11/12/2009, and "The Evolution of the God Gene", 11/14/2009. The first of these articles is merely a bit misleading, in the usual way. The second verges on the bizarre.
Now Mr. Wade has packaged a large-scale version of this move as a book, where a somewhat tendentious account of human genetic diversity transitions into a fictional narrative proposing genetic explanations for essentially every aspect of human cultural, social, and economic history: A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, 2014.
Reviews have been predictably mixed. There have been critical ones:
Andrew Gelman, "The Paradox of Racism: Why the new book by the New York Times' Nicholas Wade is both plausible and preposterous", Slate 5/8/2014
Arthur Allen, "Charging Into the Minefield of Genes and Racial Difference", The New York Times 5/15/2014
H. Allen Orr, "Stretch Genes", The New York Review of Books 6/5/2014
Agustin Fuentes, "The Troublesome Ignorance of Nicholas Wade", The Huffington Post 5/19/2014
And enthusiastic ones:
John Derbyshire, "Nicholas Wade’s A TROUBLESOME INHERITANCE—A Small, But Significant, Step For Race Realism", VDare 3/14/2014
Steve Sailer, "The Liberal Creationists", Taki's Magazine 4/30/2014
Charles Murray, "'A Troublesome Inheritance' by Nicholas Wade", The Wall Street Journal 5/2/2014
John Derbyshire, "Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: John Derbyshire Reviews The Reviews", VDare 5/11/2014
H. Allen Orr's review notices Wade's characteristic rhetorical method:
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. […]
Wade’s survey of human population genomics is lively and generally serviceable. It is not, however, without error. He exaggerates, for example, the percentage of the human genome that shows evidence of recent natural selection. The correct figure from the study he cites is 8 percent, not 14, and even this lower figure is soft and open to some alternative explanation. […] It would be unfair to suggest that these sorts of mistakes undermine Wade’s main claims in the first part of A Troublesome Inheritance. But they do suggest that he is not the surest guide to a technical literature. […]
In the latter half of A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade ventures into far more controversial territory. His claims are, in outline, simple enough. [..]
Crucially, Wade says that “evolution in social behavior has necessarily proceeded independently in the five major races,” reflecting their geographic and thus genetic isolation. The net result of all of this, during settlement as well as other events in recent evolutionary history, is that the continental races might well come to differ genetically in social behavior. […]
Wade devotes much of his book to showing how this evolutionary thesis can help explain all manner of differences among peoples. These include why some peoples are tribal and others modern (modern life requires, among other things, extending trust to non-kin), why some are violent and others less so, why some are poor and others rich, why some are innovative and others conformist, and so on. […]
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. […]
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.
Given the lack of such caveats in Wade's earlier NYT "science" writing, I suspect that the caveats in this book might have been proposed by an editor at Penguin — though admittedly the book's biological determinism is applied to more controversial ideas than "the evolution of the god gene". '
Andrew Gelman's review makes an especially interesting point:
The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.
I’ve been thinking about this recently after reading the new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade, who writes about the big differences in economic success between whites, blacks, Asians, and other groups and offers a sophisticated argument that racial differences arise from genetic differences that are amplified by culture. […]
[W]hat Wade is offering is essentially a theory of economic and social inequality, explaining systematic racial differences in prosperity based on a combination of innate traits (“the disinclination to save in tribal societies is linked to a strong propensity for immediate consumption”) and genetic adaptation to political and social institutions (arguing, for example, that generations of centralized rule have effected a selection pressure for Chinese to be accepting of authority).
Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics. His explanations seem to me simultaneously plausible and preposterous: plausible in that they snap into place to explain the world as it currently is, preposterous in that I think if he were writing in other time periods, he could come up with similarly plausible, but completely different, stories. […]
I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans. […]
[W]hat if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.
In any era, racism is typically supported by comparing two groups that are socially unequal and with clear physical differences. But both these sorts of comparisons are moving targets.
Though I would add that in the area of racial stereotypes as elsewhere, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." You don't have to look very far into the recent discussions of Europe's economic troubles to find echoes of the old regional and national stereotypes. And the Nicholas Wades of the world will have no trouble finding the genomic underpinnings — as Wade writes (p. 79),
Using a 500,000 snip chip, researchers at Stanford University have found a strong correspondence between the genetics and geographical origins of Europeans. In fact, 90% of people can be located to within 700 kilometers (435 miles) of where they were born, and 50% to within 310 kilometers (193 miles). […]
Another group of researchers looked at Europeans in isolated regions who weren’t likely to move much. One site was a Scottish island, another a Croatian village and the third an Italian valley. Anyone who didn’t have all four grandparents living in the same region was excluded. Under these conditions, the researchers found they could map individuals to within 8 to 30 kilometers (5 to 19 miles) of their village of origin.
The finding shows that the world’s human population is very finely structured in each geographic region in terms of its genetics, with human genomes changing recognizably every few miles across the globe. Such a situation exists only because, until the past few decades, most people have taken marriage partners from very close to where they were born. Such a high degree of local marriage “was probably the norm in rural Europe due to lack of transport or economic opportunities,” the researchers conclude.
If you'd like to read more of Wade's own perspective on these things, without investing in the book, he has a recent article in The Spectator: "The genome of history: DNA explains more than you think", 5/17/2014. And the predictable first comment on that site:
We Nationalists have known these obvious facts for ages.
It is PALPABLY blatant that the races are intensely different in every single way: physically, mentally and societally.
Race is everything. It explains why Africans are unable to build or maintain civilisation; it explains why black people behave consistently in a very different way to White people, or Chinese people. More sinister is the way in which White people are now branded racist because black people are unable to do well in school, and in life in general…..
Race also explains why Whites have built the most advanced civilisation in the entire history of mankind.
It should, even more importantly, remind us that its our race that makes us what we are, and our nations what they are. And then we should remind ourselves, urgently, that the two other foreign races have colonised our nations, and will, eventually, be the majority.
Whites are now only around 8% of the world population…
Update — There is also an except/adaptation from Wade's book in Time Magazine: "What Science Says About Race and Genetics", 5/9/2014. And other commentary includes Margaret White, "What if race is more than a social construct?", The Globe and Mail 5/10/2014; Rosemary Bennett, "Genetic theory of West’s rise is denounced as racist", The Times 5/12/2014.
Update #2 — A review by Seth Shulman in the Washington Post, 5/23/2014. And PZ Myers weighs in under the title "I would not want to be Nicholas Wade right now", 5/22/2014, quoting from a detailed review by Jennifer Raff, "Nicholas Wade and race: building a scientific façade", 5/21/2014:
I’ve focused a lot of this review on numerous technical details because I think that it’s very important that non-geneticists understand the degree to which Wade is distorting the results of recent research on genome-wide human variation. I won’t speculate whether this distortion is deliberate or a result of simple ignorance about genetics, but it is serious. There is a great deal more in this book that also needs to be critiqued, such as Wade’s assertion that the genetic differences between human groups determine behavioral differences, resurrecting the specter of “national character” and “racial temperaments”. But as I’ve shown here, Wade’s book is all pseudoscientific rubbish because he can’t justify his first and primary point: his claim that the human racial groups we recognize today culturally are scientifically meaningful, discrete biological divisions of humans. This claim provides a direct basis for the whole second half of the book where he makes those “speculative” arguments about national character. In other words, the entire book is a house of cards.
Update #3 — PZ Myers ("I wonder if there’s a gene for thinking there’s a gene for everything", 5/30/2014) links to a review by Jon Phillips at SPLC ("Troublesome Sources: Nicholas Wade’s Embrace of Scientific Racism", 5/28/2014), which notes that
Wade bases his belief in genetically-enhanced Jewish intelligence on a single paper, which he describes as “[t]he only serious recent attempt by researchers to delve into the links between Jewish genetics and intelligence.” This paper, from University of Utah researchers Henry Harpending, Gregory Cochran, and Jason Hardy, “elaborates the hypothesis that the unique demography and sociology of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe selected for intelligence.”
That hypothesis is the brainchild of Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychologist and director of the racist American Freedom Party (formerly “American Third Position”), which he founded with lawyer William D. Johnson, who has proposed repealing the 14th and 15th Amendments, replacing them with a Constitutional amendment which reads:
No person shall be a citizen of the United States unless he is a non-Hispanic white of the European race, in whom there is no ascertainable trace of Negro blood, nor more than one-eighth Mongolian, Asian, Asia Minor, Middle Eastern, Semitic, Near Eastern, American Indian, Malay or other non-European or non-white blood, provided that Hispanic whites, defined as anyone with an Hispanic ancestor, may be citizens if, in addition to meeting the aforesaid ascertainable trace and percentage tests, they are in appearance indistinguishable from Americans whose ancestral home is in the British Isles or Northwestern Europe. Only citizens shall have the right and privilege to reside permanently in the United States.