Wade’s genetics of race overestimates evolution’s impact on human culture

| | June 26, 2014
This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation.

In his latest book, Nicholas Wade, a longtime science journalist, argues that evolution by natural selection created human races with different genetic predispositions for social behavior. As races evolved following divergent migrations out of Africa, their social behavior diverged and became written in their genes. This divergence fueled the development of disparate societal institutions, leading to contemporary inequalities between rich and poor countries according to their adaptability to modern economic imperatives.

Wade plants his flag with the first cited fact in the book, with unfortunate (for him) results: “No less than 14% of the human genome, according to one estimate, has changed under this recent evolutionary pressure.” He repeats this number twice. But what does it mean? Studies of the human genome have identified traces of selection pressure in patterns of genetic variation.

His source is a 2009 review article by the geneticist Joshua Akey, but Wade reads it wrong. It is not 14 percent of the genome that is under selection in two studies. The number Wade wants—the portion of the genome found in at least two studies to have been under pressure of natural selection—is 8 percent.

Wade’s assertion about recent human evolution is important because he thinks genes determine social behaviors that we know are relatively new. Despite occasional caveats about the relative importance of culture, he repeatedly returns to the idea of “genes governing social behavior,” and “social behavior . . . under genetic control.”

Read the full, original story: Don’t Trouble Yourself

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