Old middle school trick: Instead of calling someone a name, ‘stupid’ for example, just say his ideas are stupid and that a lot of stupid people agree with him. This is also a great way to call someone a racist, the primary point of Eric Michael Johnson’s review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance:
Nicholas Wade is not a racist. In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, the former science writer for the New York Times states this explicitly. “It is not automatically racist to consider racial categories as a possible explanatory factor.” He then explains why white people are better because of their genes. In fairness, Wade does not say Caucasians are better per se, merely better adapted (because of their genes) to the modern economic institutions that Western society has created, and which now dominate the world’s economy and culture. In contrast, Africans are better adapted to hot-headed tribalism while East Asians are better adapted to authoritarian political structures. “Looking at the three principal races, one can see that each has followed a different evolutionary path as it adapted to its local circumstances.” It’s not prejudice; it’s science.
Johnson picks apart a lot of the emerging ideas that Wade presents in the second half of the book, those that Wade himself presents with a disclaimer that the scientific evidence is speculative. It’s the story of how genetics could have played out in human history through the prism of human behavior. There’s not a great deal of solid evidence of causation between genes and behavior, but it is coming. Earlier this week scientists showed they can identify alcoholics with genetic tests.
Another factor, which Johnson picks out as a fault in Wade’s book but ignores as a fault in all social and scientific study, is the over-sized influence of Western culture, which predictably, studies itself and its history more often than it focuses on others. This happens in Hollywood film where stories of minorities are underrepresented, and it happens in scientific study where white men were the long time preferred subject pool.
But what really undercuts Johnson’s review is the way in which he calls out, in the greatest detail I’ve yet read, the reaction of white supremacy groups to Wade’s book as fodder for their cause. Johnson brings this up, says it shouldn’t matter, then says Wade should have known better:
“Wade says in this book many of the things I’ve been saying for the last 40 years of my life,” said David Duke, the white nationalist politician and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on his radio program on May 12, 2014. “The ideas for which I’ve been relentlessly villified are now becoming part of the mainstream because of the irrepressible movement of science and genetics…”
The fact that some groups have found justification for their racist beliefs in Wade’s book does not, of course, invalidate his thesis…But when a thesis is known to be politically incendiary it is the responsibility of both scientists and journalists alike to ensure that the evidence is, in fact, valid before it is presented to the public.
No negative reviewer has been talking about the first half of Wade’s book, the part that outlines the known genetics of race and how they relate to biological differences between people. And that’s a shame. The negative, polemic reviews of the speculative half will discredit the entire endeavor in the public's mind. And, when an evolutionary anthropologist quotes the KKK in Scientific American in the content of race, it’s the equivalent of using the nuclear option.
- On the Origin of White Power, Eric Michael Johnson, Scientific American
- Troublesome genetics and race, Tabitha Powledge, Genetic Literacy Project
- Gene studies suggest ‘races’ may exist but sociologists push back, fearing stereotypes, Meredith Knight, Genetic Literacy Project