Geneticists think Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” is wrong

Ouch. Just….: Ouch. Over 130 geneticists have signed a letter to the New York Times saying that Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance is inaccurate and misrepresents their work. This includes the authors of articles that are central to Wade’s argument. When the very scientists your book relies on announce that that book is wrong? Ouch. Read below the fold for the gory details.

You can read the whole letter, signatures included, here. All the signatures and their affiliations make for a long read, but the body of the letter itself is short and sweet:

As scientists dedicated to studying genetic variation, we thank David Dobbs for his review of Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History” (July 13), and for his description of Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies.

As discussed by Dobbs and many others, Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

There has been a lot of debate about this book on the Internet (behold, my bookmarks). Many people, including cultural anthropologists like me, find Wade’s book fatally flawed. But Wade has always claimed that this didn’t matter, since social scientists were incapable of appreciating his Pure Science approach.

In fact, it is now clear that population geneticists agree with cultural anthropologists: Wade’s book is bad science. “Our findings do not even provide a hint of support in favor of Wade’s guesswork” says Harvard professor David Reich.  “He’s claiming to be a spokesperson for the science and, no, he’s not,” says Sarah Tishkoff, the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor in Genetics and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Wade has issued a response in which he says “This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers.” To the best of my knowledge this claim, like his claim that Chinese people have a gene for hierarchy and obedience, has no evidential basis. At least one signatory, Jerry Coyne (author of the excellent Why Evolution Is True) says of Wade’s book, “I read the damn thing twice to review it—an experience I wouldn’t want to repeat.” I think its telling, too, that this letter did not appear the moment Wade’s book was published, but months afterwards. This is not a letter from the die-hard anti-Wade contingent, its a group of scientists who discussed the book for some time before making this statement.

In his letter, Wade claims that the geneticists have merely asserted his book is flawed without proving that their claim is true. It’s an important point, given that this debate hinges on the question of who is rigorous and who is not. Jennifer Raff has responded with some links describing criticisms of Wade. But I think its also important to understand that some questions only seem reasonable when you don’t know the answer.

There are some questions — does genetics determine behavior? — on which the answer is so well established that it is simply a waste of time to explain to people why its wrong. If someone wrote a book about how Mayans arrived on earth from outer space, would we expect professors to stop doing real research to go over the argument with a fine-tooth comb? No. They would write it off as a depressing waste of time. And in fact, this is more or less what Jerry Coyne has said about the prospect of reviewing Wade’s book: “I was asked to review Wade’s book for a major magazine, but after reading it became so dispirited that I simply didn’t have the stomach to eviscerate it.”

Actually, I shouldn’t say that its a waste of time to explain, very slowly, what the actual results of science are. It’s actually an incredibly important activity called ‘teaching.’ If Wade wants to understand what’s wrong with his book, he should take a class in genetics.

Many of the hard-core anti-Wade types (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Marks) have made much over the fact that Nicholas Wade is well-loved by Nazis and white supremacists, seemingly suggesting that he is a white supremacist himself. I’ve always felt this was unfair and mean-spirited. But when Wade’s response to this letter is to accuse scientists of being part of an anti-science conspiracy, its hard to be charitable. Wade may not be a paranoid racist, but his epistemology shares a lot of features with theirs: an insistence on “commonsense” over evidence, and a tendency to explain away disconfirming evidence through ad hominem argument, and a belief that the truth is simple and he already knows it.

Wade has been writing flawed, biased popular science for years now. This time, the experts he reads have taken the time to respond.

Ouch. Just…. ouch.

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

9 thoughts on “Geneticists think Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” is wrong

  1. Are these geneticists saying that Darwin was also wrong on this issue of human evolution where the civilized human species would exterminate and replace the non-civilized human species such as the Australian primitive people of his time?

    “At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

    Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., New York: A L. Burt Co., 1874, p. 178

  2. All that these geneticists have been able to say in their pathetic little ‘letter’ is that those few chapters that Nicholas Wade said are highly speculative are indeed that, speculative. So what’s ‘ouch’ about that? Come on, come up with something better than this!

  3. @SD. You’re correct to point out that Nicholas Wade presents some of his chapters as speculative, but he does cite/profile the work of various scientists in those chapters to substantiate his (speculative) claims. Some of those authors are saying that he misrepresents their work…which happens in science writing, right?

    A separate matter is the way in which Wade “speculates” throughout the book. He repeatedly points out that he’s merely putting ideas out there and suggesting new lines of investigation, but the implication is clear: “If you don’t agree that these ideas make sense, you are probably a ‘cultural marxist’ and/or trapped in the Lysenkoism and intellectual inertia of the academy.” It’s a rhetorical mode that brings to mind Jon Stewart’s satire of cable news headlines: you can say whatever you want as long as there is a question mark at the end. I don’t think this is something we should aspire to in science or anywhere else.

  4. mivart: excellent post. I think it’s interesting that these so-called scientists feel compelled to defend the Church against heretics, much like their ancestors did to Copernicus and Galileo. New church, new phenomena to explain or explain away, but same mentality.

    If Darwin were writing today, he’d surely get the same treatment. Sadly, Darwin was probably wrong about one thing, because the “civilised” races appear to have been too civilized to exterminate the savage ones– the ones that “hoard, and feed, and sleep, and know not me.” Tennyson got that part correct, at least.

  5. “At some future period not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla”

    Excuse me? Civilised in what respect?

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