Get ready for Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”

Nicholas Wade’s new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, drops on Amazon today. Wade, a science writer for the New York Times, has been critical of cultural anthropology in the past — and the feeling has pretty much been mutual. Inheritance is set to create a ground swell of indignation in the anthropological community because it is one of the most biologically reductionist writings to come out in years. The AAA has, to its credit, been on top of the issue and has hosted a showdown between Wade and Augustín Fuentes. Expect more coverage from us, including a couple of guest blogs, in the next couple of months.

Anthropologists of a critical bent take deep personal satisfaction in denouncing racism and reductionism wherever they find it. These days, its rare for something as blatant as Wade’s book to appear with the blessing of a major press. So… yeah. I’m guessing that it’s going to be on.

I personally prefer to use claims, reasons, and evidence to criticize authors. When books like this appear, however, its easy for passions to get inflamed and for people to make personal attacks: Jared Diamond’s comb-over is ugly, Charles Murray’s male pattern baldness makes him look like Princess Leia, etc. We also tend to make arguments of guilt from association: Madison Grant was wrong and so are you. Both of these rhetorical maneuvers don’t do justice to the uniqueness of an author’s position or engage its particulars directly — and thus are unanthropological.

As this moves forward I hope people punch above the belt. It shouldn’t be hard, since Wade is such an easy target.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

101 thoughts on “Get ready for Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”

  1. TNT,

    It is true that certain developments within a field of study can render an older books dated. It is just as true that the opposite can occur. Wolpoff’s multiregional account’s view of gene flow between humans and neantherthals has been verified.

    The thesis that neanderthals and anatomically modern humans interbred dates back long before Wolpoff was even born, and it was common enough knowledge that even popular books on anthropology carried the information in a matter-of -act way.

    Here’s an example. As you’re reading it, try to guess what book this selection is from:

    Neanderthal Man was a purely meat eating hunter, living in caves, or rather in their entrances. He was dolichocephalic and not unlike existing Australoids, although not necessarily of black skin, and was, of course, in no sense a negro.

    The skull was characterized by heavy superorbital ridges, a low, receding forehead, protruding and chinless under jaw, and the posture was imperfectly erect. This race was widely spread and rather numerous. Some of its blood has trickled down to the present time, and occasionally one sees a skull of the Neanderthal type. The best skull of this type ever seen by the writer belonged to an old and very intellectual professor in London, who was quite innocent of his value as a museum specimen. In the old black breed of Scotland the overhanging brow and deep-set eyes are suggestive of this race.

    Answer? The Passing of the Great Race by Madison Grant, published in 1916.

    What is the strength of such an approach? Simply that it builds off off various lines of evidence.

    There’s nothing wrong with building off various lines of evidence, but is someone who wrote nearly twenty years ago the best source for one of those lines of evidence?

    And I assume that by “old books are not the way to go” you take these models to be static. Even ole Victor pointed out that some of Wolpoff’S ideas have changed. This is expected. That theories get modified by evidence is how science should work.

    Social scientists don’t spend much, if any, time going through the historical sources in their field. You can get a PhD in economics without ever reading Adam Smith, David Ricardo, David Hume, or Alfred Marshall. You can get a PhD in genetics without ever reading Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace.

    That’s not necessarily a good thing. I can think of several reasons why economists and geneticists ought to read the major historical works in the field of economics and biology, but it’s true that most social science classics have been superseded by so much research that what’s true about them has been subsumed in the field and what’s not true about them has been dumped.

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