What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

On 5 May 2014 The American Anthropological Association hosted a webinar in which Ed Liebow, the Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association, hosted a debate between Augustín Fuentes and Nicholas Wade. Fuentes is a professor of anthropology at Notre Dame, and Wade is a science journalist and author of A Troublesome Inheritance. This post describes what happened there, for people who don’t want to stream the whole thing. Our fearless intern Angela transcribed the webinar, and I double-checked the transcription in key places where the recording was difficult to hear. I’ve occasionally cleaned up speech, but the quotations here are as direct as we could manage — indeed, this post is designed to let people hear the participants speak for themselves.

After a brief introduction by Liebow, Fuentes began the discussion. He claimed that Wade’s argument in A Troublesome Inheritance rested on two fundamental claims, both of which were wrong: first, that “humans are divided into five genetically identified continental races, maybe three or seven depending who [is doing the classifying]” and secondly, that “there are significant differences in the genetically based social behavior between these races.”

Fuentes pointed out that “genes matter” but that “they’re just a small part of a whole evolutionary picture” which results in behavior. He also argued that Wade was imprecise in his terminology. “Wade uses cluster, population, group, race, sub-race, ethnicity in a range of ways with few concrete definitions, and occasionally interchangeably throughout the book” he said.

Fuentes then went on to deal with the topic of human genetic variation. Humans share all of their genes and 99.9 percent of variation, he said, so what was being discussed in the webinar was just “0.1 variation of all the variation in the genome.” He emphasized that “most variation in human genetics is due to gene flow and genetic drift, which basically mean that the further apart two populations are, the more differences there are going to be between them.” Wade relied on a study which showed differences between people in Nigeria, Western Europe, Beijing, and Tokyo which showed differences between these groups but, Fuentes claimed, if you studied people from Liberia, Somalia, and South Africa you would get similar variation. “So for zoologists,” Fuentes concluded, “no human populations are different enough from one another to be called subspecies.”

Fuentes argued that the color-coded clusters of genetic data that Wade used in his book were a product of arbitrary choices made by Wade and scientists, and did not emerge automatically in the data themselves. In one study, the computer program Structure was asked to cluster data into 3, 4, 5, and 6 groups. Fuentes claimed that Wade noticed the arbitrariness of this scheme in his book and decided on a five-race scheme because it was “practical for most purposes” and not because it was naturally there in the data.

Liebow then turned the discussion over to Wade. He began with some history, describing the anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s fight against racism in the 1950s. Montagu (who died in 1999) argued that biological race did not exist so that he could fight racism, colonialism, and imperialism. He was successful, but as a result “scientists are afraid to talk about race. They risk being denounced as racist and having their careers destroyed and they use code words.” His book was meant to “explain what we know about race.” Morality, he argued, should rest on “absolute principle” since if it does not, then “you risk distorting science” to serve your moral cause, which is “exactly what is happening” at present.

Wade defined “human races” as “population groups” and then began a description of human migration out of Africa and the development of five racial groups or continental groups of African, Caucasian, East Asian, Oceanian, and Native American. He then turned to the results of cluster analysis using the computer program Structure to demonstrate how these groups show up in the genetic data. Wade showed a slide in which Structure was asked to divide human genetic diversity into 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 different clusters.  Wade described how the clusters of 2, 3, 4, and 5 groups increasingly made sense, but that grouping into 6 clusters “you suddenly get this little yellow group appearing, which is the Kalash population in Pakistan, and that doesn’t make any sense.”

Wade then concluded “So this is an easy way of visualizing how the world’s populations cluster together in groups you can call races because that corresponds very robustly to our notion of race.” He then moved to another slide and argued that “you can take this further down and subdivide each of the groups.. if you want to avoid the word subraces you can use the word ethnicities…. though anthropologists use that in a slightly different sense.”

Wade then argued that different genes are under natural selection in different races. “We’ve got no idea what specific role these genes play,” Wade said, “My belief, which I explore in the book, is that they shape human social behavior and generate societies in a slightly different way.” (this last quote was hard to hear because of noise on the line — I think I’ve got it right).

Finally, Wade clarified that the “genetic structure of races” was not due to having different genes, but rather in the frequency of different alleles of genes. “Racial difference is something quite subtle” Wade pointed out, but could “make a big difference to the physical traits of populations.” To make this point, he used the example of the complex mix of genes that affect height.

Liebow then asked a question posed by an audience member: Don’t the existence of human adaptations like large brains and altricial young indicate selection for social behavior, rather than behavior that is genetically patterned? No, Wade said, “We’re a highly social species and we survive in social groups and natural selection would pay intense selection to the nature of our society and therefore to the social behavior on which a society depends. So we haven’t yet have much success in identifying these genes, but we have a start with genes like oxytocin which promotes sociality and I think you can say sociality is under genetic influence.”

Liebow then asked Fuentes to explains his views of the relationship between genetic variation and behavioral variation. Fuentes again emphasized claims he made earlier: the more clusters you ask Structure to make, the more unwieldly the image becomes, but the more accurately it visualizes the data. Returning to Wade’s claim that certain genes were under selection in certain races, Fuentes pointed out that Wade’s slide showed that there were 23,374 areas that were not selected.

Continuing, Fuentes argued that “genes don’t lead to behavior… We think of evolutionary biology as a complex system in which genes are participants, so to try to get away from all the other components and just talk about the genes doesn’t get us very far, especially if what we are doing is comparing small disparate populations and teeny percentages of patterns of genetic variation.”

Fuentes did agree with Wade on the importance of “staying to the science.” “Maybe there are a lot of political issues here,” Fuentes said, “But I want to focus on actual science.”

Liebow then asked Wade to respond. Wade said “I think Agustín is trying to go for what I could call obfuscation and I’m trying to go for clarity. Human genetics is a complicated subject so you have to start by looking for guideline principles or you’ll never understand it.” The samples used in the studies he discussed were representative of populations that they were from, he insisted. “Race is just a reflection of recent human evolution,” Wade said, “and to deny it puts you in the category of creationism.”

Liebow then relayed two more questions from the audience: Could Wade provide a biological definition of race? Is the level of genetic variation that we see in humans large enough to “warrant significantly different biological groups” if we found them in other species? Wade replied by saying that he thought it was interesting that in a study by Lee et. al. “you could split out the Caucasian group in two others: the Middle Easterners and the people of the Indian subcontinent… So if you wanted you could say there are seven human races instead of five. But there’s no need to get hung up on numbers, race is a very fuzzy (?) concept. It doesn’t matter how many there are, the fact that people may differ on a number of races is a matter of definition and not of the fact that races exist.”

Regarding the genetic homogeneity of humans when compared to, say, chimpanzees, Wade replied that “just a handful of genes will cause a big difference” in the right circumstances and that “because of the intense selective pressure we’ve been under the last 50,000 years, considerable of variation has developed in human species, that’s why the other races look somewhat different.”

Fuentes then responded to the question by pointing out that Lee  et. al., the study that Wade cited, concluded that their data could be explained by random drift rather than natural selection, as Wade claimed. “Bottom line here,” Fuentes said: “I’m not arguing variations don’t exist, but Nicholas consistently says that they’re reflective of races as opposed to populations… We’re talking about biological differences, we need a biological definition. So what’s the definition?”

This is the point at which Wade’s connection went on the fritz, so Liebow invited Fuentes to talk about geographic drift. Fuentes returned to his earlier theme, arguing that “if we lined up populations from West Africa all the way over to East Asia, then you’d have consistent sort of patterns and you wouldn’t be able to divide it into five things. You’d see patterns of slight changes over time. That doesn’t give us five or three or seven races. That gives us one human race with some really interesting patterns of genetic variation.”

Wade still wasn’t back on, so Liebow asked Fuentes to talk about how biological evolution is linked with social evolution. Fuentes stresssed that “rather than just the environment shaping organisms and their gene pool, we know there’s interaction between organisms and the environment, which actually changes the way natural selection works. Evolution is ongoing over time and complex, it’s not just the environment targeting genes.”

For Fuentes complexity was clearly important. “The representation of little teeny minor differences in some areas of the DNA and connecting that to large sociopolitical and historical differences as Nicholas Wade did in his book, it’s misleading because it’s not giving true credit to the complexity of evolutionary biology and the complexity of understanding how things evolve.”

Another audience member asked what the difference was between races in humans and breeds of, say, dogs. Fuentes replied that the term ‘race’ meant two different things: the biological concept of subspecies as used by biologists, and “what we call race in humans: black, white Asian, Latino. Those two things are separate. There’s some relationship between characteristics we assign them, but one is socially constructed, the other biological… The biological race question is easy: There’s one. The social race question is complicated because it’s dynamic, but it’s also it’s very, very real and very, very powerful.

Liebow then asked whether Wade was correct in arguing that “the consensus explanation of almost all social science is that human societies differ only in their culture?” “No,” replied Fuentes, “I don’t think humans only differ in culture, I just made the case that humans differ genetically a lot in many ways and interesting ways. But most important is actual science behind variation. We know how that works: Humans differ in lots of ways, but not by biological race.”

Wade then rejoined the conversation and turned to the topic of the definition of a race. He returned to the theme of continuity that Fuentes had discussed. “Biological variation is a continuum,” he wrote, “so where you want to cut this continuum  is kind of arbitrary, and population geneticists have developed measures.” By one such measure, FST, humans did have enough variation to have subspecies. Wade said that a claim to the contrary was “a political judgment.”

He continued: “There’s enough variation for you to say these are subspecies or races within the single human species if you wish to, and exactly how many of them there are is really a question of not very much interest. The whole system is continuous, an unbroken spectrum from races to the ethnicities between races, which all depends on how many genetic markers you wish look at.”

Fuentes replied by saying that “human populations on average” are much lower in diversity than the amount needed by the FST standard to be considered separate. He returned to the issue of the definition of race again: “these kinds of patterns matter because understanding what we’re comparing is really important. So, Nicholas… if we say African, what is the definition? We need a definition of this. It matters if it’s three or five or seven if these are actually evolutionary units or biological categories we’re using. If we’re just saying, here’s a bunch of variations, call this this and that’s that. That’s one thing, but that’s not science.”

Liebow then began winding down the session by asking each participant one last question. He began with Wade, asking him why he thought scientists were afraid to talk about race. “They fear to say it because their careers would be destroyed. There’s a truly oppressive atmosphere that I find when talking to geneticists” he said, urging Liebow, as executive director of the AAA, to update the association’s statement on race.

Liebow then asked Fuentes to comment about the pace at which scientific knowledge advances. “Science is moving forward, but we need to talk about it accurately… and actually reflect debate… going on in science, not select just those that select a particular agenda or position. I agree with Nicholas. We need to talk more about race clearly and factually, we need to not be afraid to get these science discussions out there, and have them in ways that are as accessible as possible.” And with that the session ended.



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

14 thoughts on “What happened at the Fuentes-Wade Webinar

  1. I would have expected something different from Wade, but he just regurgitates typical race realist talking points. But at the least he does prove that race is an actual thing.

  2. I always liked Wade and his writing on science for the Times. So it is sad to see him pretending to be a scientist and going down this rabbithole for, what? Political cred with a certain kind of mouthbreather?

  3. “Race is just a reflection of recent human evolution,” Wade said, “and to deny it puts you in the category of creationism.”

    I don’t see how this follows at all. Was Lysenko a Creationist? No, he was a scientist whose theories turned out to be incorrect. If one side of this debate is correct about the science and the other side is wrong, does that mean scholars publishing work on the “wrong” idea are not scientists? This seems less than a half-step removed from ad hominem name calling.

  4. I think the point is not that Fuentes believes the world was created in seven days by Jehovah, but that both Fuentes and creationists make the same epistemic move: assume that what you know is true, and explain away all contradictory evidence. Personally I think this is the pot calling the kettle black, and I have no idea if its how creationists behave, but I think that was Wade’s point.

  5. I listened to the entire podcast. And was particularly disappointed when Wade lost contact just at the moment Fuentes was challenging him to produce a definition of race. Even after he returned to the discussion, he failed to do this.

    I seriously wonder whether a definition of race as Wade sees it is really possible. The more technical definitions I’ve seen could just as easily be applied to concepts in population genetics as race, so even if race were biologically meaningful, it would be redundant. In other words we would have nothing more to learn by describing human biodiversity in terms of race than we already do when we describe it in the language of population genetics.

    In his Time article, based on the book, Wade presents a brief argument for the biological reality of race that is truly bizarre. Referring initially to “mixed race populations,” he points to the fact that “geneticists can now track along an individual’s genome, and assign each segment to an African or European ancestor, an exercise that would be impossible if race did not have some basis in biological reality.”

    This is a blatant non sequitur. No one has ever doubted that every human has ancestors. And the ability to track them is a technological achievement, not a theoretical breakthrough. Yet for Wade the technology seems to be some sort of alchemical formula that transforms ancestry into race. Presto chango!

    Wade’s logic is also circular — he begins by referring to “mixed race” populations, thus anticipating his conclusion at the outset of his argument. Sorry, Nicholas, but it is ancestry that has a basis in biological reality, NOT race. Unless the two are the same, which you forgot to demonstrate.

  6. I am still not sure what to think about this debate. Sometimes, I think that Wade and Fuentes were talking past each other: to Fuentes, ‘race’ means the idea that human beings can be naturally divided into a small number of discrete groups. To Wade, it seems to mean just the fact that there is meaningful human variation at all, a fact he believes some people are suppressing. Then at other times Wade seems to be making the argument “its just obvious looking around at people that there are just a few races, and we don’t need all this obfuscation about dynamism and complexity”. This last position seems particularly vulnerable to me — its just not how scientists and scholars think about the world. Or should think about the world, in my opinion.

  7. In my book, “Sounding the Depths:Tradition and the Voices of History,” I consider a theory developed by Stephen Oppenheimer and researched by a team led by Michael Petraglia, that posits a major population bottleneck centered in South Asia, due to the explosion of Mt. Toba, circa 74,000 ya. The possibility of such a bottleneck at roughly that time, due to a major disaster of some sort (possibly not related to Toba) is especially intriguing because, in the words of Petraglia’s assistant, Sacha Jones, “Post Toba populations would have reduced in size such that founder effects, genetic drift and local adaptations occurred, resulting in rapid population differentiation (Ambrose 1998). In this way the Toba eruption of ~74 ka would have shaped the diversity that is seen in modern human populations today.”

    Contemplating the effects of such an event, I wrote: “Egalitarian values might . . . go by the boards in a situation where the strong can only survive at the expense of the weak. And the weak survive only if protected by someone stronger — and more aggressive. Once such a situation is established, it’s very easy to see how it could become a self-perpetuating tradition.” Since my focus was on tradition, I neglected to consider the possible evolutionary effects of a situation where those with genetic predispositions to violence and competitiveness might well prevail, to pass on not only their antisocial values, but their antisocial genes to subsequent generations.

    Reading these days about Nicholas Wade’s theories regarding what he calls “recent” biological evolution, I must say that, in view of the issues raised in my own book, I can’t deny that he could have a point. What’s most interesting, perhaps, is the difficulty in deciding whether cultural or biological factors are more important in determining the fate of future generations. Until we can isolate specific genes for such behaviors, there will be no way of knowing for sure, I suppose. But the possibility of some sort of biological determinism in this respect does remain. Of course, if some sort of post Out of Africa event triggered adaptations leading to increased violence, that would actually turn Wade’s assumptions regarding an increased propensity to violence on the part of Africans upside down.

    I must add, by the way, that NONE of the above has the slightest to do with “race,” no matter how one might want to define it.

  8. I want to supplement what I’ve just written with an assurance that my concession to Wade on this one point should by no means be taken as an endorsement of the many blatantly racist and uncalled for theories he puts forward in his completely unscientific and in fact unscrupulous book. There is absolutely no meaningful evidence to support Wade’s assertions regarding such matters as African genes for violence, Chinese genes for conformity, Jewish genes for success as good capitalists, and European genes for hard work, creativity and economic superiority. While the notion that certain capabilities and behaviors could have a biological component does make some sense, there is as yet no hard evidence to speak of supporting such an hypothesis and there is as yet no reason to assume that they could be entirely due to long standing cultural traditions. The theories offered by Wade go, in any case, well beyond what any reasonable researcher in his right mind would propose.

  9. The bickering over “race” seems a red herring. The real question is whether environmentally distinct populations correlate with biological distinctions, and do any of those biologically distinct traits incline towards behavioral differences? Call it “race” or call it “local hereditary group” — what’s important is whether skills, behaviors, personalities or faculties are included in selection. Also important whether similar environments result in similar evolution. Our understanding of evolution is mostly post hoc and not predictive, but it would be interesting to see just which kinds of environmental pressures produce similar traits and which don’t.

  10. I wouldn’t make too much of this debate. Wade is a popularizer of scientific ideas. He’s spent his life reporting on science. But he’s not a competent debater, and it shows. He’s also not a scientist, and so when pushed into unfamiliar territory he retreats to well-worn rhetorical paths he has already trod.

    What race realism needs is another Darwin’s Bulldog, a fierce and informed public advocate who knows the subject well and is prepared to meet all comers in the public arena when discussing it. He probably should be a scientist (like T.H. Huxley), but it’s more critical that he is a tireless and effective public advocate – more Chris Hitchens than Carl Sagan, good debating in print as well as on the tube.

    Wade is not that fellow. He has neither the temperament nor the knowledge for that kind of fight. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

    None of Fuentes’ arguments should’ve caught Wade by surprise. He should’ve been prepared for them. But he’s not a public intellectual accustomed to participating in partisan debates. He’s a journalist and an old man.

  11. I thought Fuentes was particularly ineffective in directly answering and countering Wade’s arguments. His remarks were anthropologically and scientifically correct, but he did not make strong, clear, easily digestible points. For people without training in anthropology or biology, I think Wade came out ahead in this debate, which is too bad.

  12. As Fuentes points out, Wade’s argument has two components: that meaningful genetic differences between regions exist, and that these differences are responsible for some important regional differences in intelligence and behaviour. The first point is well-supported by recent genetic research, and Wade’s book may have made a positive contribution if he had focused on this point. The second point is completely speculative and would have been hard to argue even if there was good evidence for it, which there isn’t, at least not yet. Fuentes, by claiming that both points were wrong and obsessing about terminology rather than the substance of the ideas, didn’t really help make this any clearer.

  13. The second point [that these genetic “differences are responsible for some important regional differences in intelligence and behavior”] is completely speculative and would have been hard to argue even if there was good evidence for it, which there isn’t, at least not yet.

    Well, it’s not completely speculative, and many scientists who study evolution make these behavioral arguments all the time for other animal species. Differences in group IQ, for example, are not just speculative.

    In fact, none of Wade’s speculations would’ve been even remotely controversial, scientifically, if he were talking about something other than humans.

  14. Pat Savage: “As Fuentes points out, Wade’s argument has two components: that meaningful genetic differences between regions exist, and that these differences are responsible for some important regional differences in intelligence and behaviour.”

    Meaningful genetic differences do indeed exist. And if Wade had left it at that then it would be possible to take some of his other proposals more seriously. But Wade insists that meaningful genetic differences define races, and this is simply absurd. As for the rest, yes, in principle, it’s possible that “genetic differences are responsible for some important regional differences in intelligence and behaviour.” And of course it’s always interesting to speculate. However, there is no real evidence to support most of Wade’s speculations, especially the controversial ones. He makes the mistake of confusing correlation with causation and then, despite his insistence that he is “only” speculating, he writes as though any other possible explanations are unlikely. That simply isn’t true. Also the fact that so many of his theores are so blatantly provocative makes his book irresponsible, if not out and out racist.

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