Does Nicholas Wade’s ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’ focus on ‘race’ inaccurately portray human differences?

Since it’s publication this spring. Nicolas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance has become widespread controversy fodder within the fields of population genetics and science journalism. The book claims that evolutionary selection is responsible for behavioral differences between races, which in turn led to the rise of Western societies.

Now, more than 130 population geneticists, some cited by Wade in the book, have issued a public statement, published August 8 online at the New York Times (and here in full) that disputes the existence of evidence linking genetic adaptation and behavior and condemning Wade’s interpretations of the research:

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.

The scientists point to David Dobbs’ in depth critique of Wade’s book, which draws from the original genetic studies used by Wae. In one example, Dobbs describes a 2008 paper that shows that genomes sort by geography at many different regional scales, ‘just as just as two people from a particular place will most likely speak with similar accents.’ But Wade uses this same study to say that those geographical distinctions of genomes relate to behavior and are proof of genetic selection. But that’s not at all what the paper found Dobbs writes:

The paper’s authors specifically state that while selection may sometimes create genetic differences between populations, they saw little evidence that selection shaped the small genetic differences they found. In fact, they say the differences can be largely explained by “random drift” — arbitrary changes in genes having little to no effect on people’s biology or behavior. All of this directly contradicts Wade’s argument. Yet he baldly claims the study as support.
And he does this sort of thing repeatedly: He constantly gathers up long shots, speculations and spurious claims, then declares they add up to substantiate his case.

The scientific community largely agrees that Wade oversteps when making any claims about race, genetics and behavior, largely because evidence linking genetics and human behavior is so new and somewhat fragile. Even linking genes to major mental health disorders, like schizophrenia, is contentious. Relating genes to a more qualitative characteristic, like aggressiveness or social obedience seems rather an overreach. University of Pennsylvania geneticist Sarah Tishkoff has found some evidence of genetic difference in race in regard to lactose digestion among certain populations, but told Nature that’s about as far a connection as she can make:

Tishkoff scoffs at the idea, proposed by Wade, that natural selection has shaped cognitive and behavioural differences between populations around the world. “We don’t have any strong candidates for playing a role in behaviour,” she says.

Wade for his part has issued a statement about the scientific rebuke, calling it politically driven and saying many of his critics have not actually read the book:

“A Troublesome Inheritance” argues that opposition to racism should be bee don principal not on the anti-evolutionary myth that there is no biological basis to race… “A Troublesome Inheritance” seeks to explain how race can be understood without racism, a problem increasingly posed by the advances in understanding the human genome.

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17 thoughts on “Does Nicholas Wade’s ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’ focus on ‘race’ inaccurately portray human differences?”

  1. There is no question that biology influences the propensity to violence but that is not to say that it causes, determines or is solely responsible. It just tilts the odds – a bit – which is all you need to have a statistical difference between groups. For example, all other things being equal (culture, income, employment, upbringing, situational triggers) males are – a bit – more likely to be violent than females – in all cultures, all historical periods, and in most animal species. It is also known that some alleles of some genes (e.g. MAOA – tilt the odds of being violent and impulsive. If the allele frequencies differ between populations, then it follows that their influence on the odds of violent behaviour will differ – a bit – in each population. But if the many environmental factors also vary, then their impact can either mask or amplify the small genetic influence. So let’s move on from the sterile genes vs environment debate. Let’s get real, recognise the influences of both, and develop evidence-based means of dealing with them.

  2. Wade may be right or wrong in some of his ideas, but some anathemas are clearly as politically motivated as various successive pompous Statements on Race extorted from anthropologists after WW2 &c.

    The phrase “there is no evidence” or its equivalent is all too familiar.

        • Tactics used by political hacks, both left and right, that attempt to prop up, using irony and sarcasm, claims about human diversity that cannot be supported honestly.

          I am not an SJW or a Marxist. I am a radical free-thinking liberal centrist.

          Yes, dogs differ. The dog of truth is very different from the dog of war. Can you tell them apart?

          • I do not give myself a label. I suggest that your last sentence is sarcasm. Although the reasons for diversity of canine breeds differs from the selective factors responsible for diversity of human populations, there are differences which are more than those of coat or color. Both dog and human “races” can interbreed.

            I am no great enthusiast for Wade’s books, and would refer to Ashley Montagu, “The Human Revolution” (1965); Stanley Garn, “Human Races” (1971); John Baker, “Race” (1978/2012); Luigi Cavalla-Sforza, “Genes, People & Languages” (2001); Vincent Sarich & Frank Miele, “Race: The reality of human differences” (2004); Richard Lynn & Tatu Vanhanen, “IQ & Global Inequality” (2006). See also e.g. A. W.F. Edwards, “Human genetic diversity” (2003 & Linda Gottfredson. “What if the hereditarian hypothesis is true?” (2003) both online.

          • (My last sentence was a rejoinder to what appeared to be a pun.)

            Firstly, I don’t believe anything written by a hate group.


            Secondly, humans are the only species that produces depictions of its own visual form, often with erotic potential, with precision that potentially lasts forever. This results in a sexual selection for a perpetually fixed set of visible varieties, even while every other trait continues to evolve.

            Thirdly, the UNESCO resolutions have nothing to do with genetics. Genetics has developed into an increasingly detailed science, finding genetic differences among humans that doesn’t match racial boundaries. Meanwhile, UNESCO has deteriorated into an irrelevant fantasy club.

            Fourthly, IQ is not a natural kind, nor does it supervene on any natural trait. It is merely, due to the ignorance of its developers, a test of aptitude to the lifestyle popular in European cities at the time it was invented. A lifestyle which only ever existed in Europe, and which was obsolete even there soon afterward.

          • “Hate” group: some people, including Jewish observers and non-racist Christians, have applied this term to the SPLC itself. I am aware of the arguments for and against the Pioneer Fund. However, what matters to me are the actual reasons and evidence presented for particular conclusions on human medical, behavior and climatic adaptation genetics, not personal “guilt by association” with a Godwin’s Law twist. So “racist” and “hate” are question-begging labels. As you know, John Entine, who runs this site, has been labeled a “racist” and people have demanded a suppression of further work along the lines of Robert Plomin’s “DNA”. This “racist” label is not a refutation but just a worthless insult.

            I am not sure what UNESCO has to do with my answer. In the post-WW2 era it issued a number of publications attacking “racism”.

            As you are ideologically inhibited from reading, weighing or believing “anything” from anyone denounced by the SPLC, you could look at the biological anthropology studies by the “anti-racists” Ashley Montagu or Stanley Garn. Your objection to “IQ” studies has been superseded by new culture-fairer methods of testing and direct brain research.

            See also Hank Pellissier, “Six brain-damage scourges…” (2012) onllne.

          • Actually, I didn’t know about John Entine. I don’t keep a list of allegedly authoritative essayists, as it appears you do. You seem to have an endless list of citations to bolster your agenda and try to convert me. As I’ve said, I am a free thinker. And that’s not just a label.

            I am aware of the attacks on the SPLC after they posted the warning about the Syncretic network. They were forced to delete it, but fortunately it had already been copied to other sites. I’ve been suspicious for many years that there’s such a network, and now I know for sure. There are many groups that carefully mill their propaganda to look like reason and evidence to uncritical readers like you.

          • Actually, I didn’t know about the Syncretic network.
            You are impervious to “conversion”.
            I resent your description of me as “uncritical”. You have as little a clue about me as you have about biological anthropology.

          • Dear Mr TheMechanicalAdv, the article you quote contains 20 utter falsehoods or misleading insinuations about me, currently subject to action that must remain confidential, hopefully only for a little while longer. The Mail dragged me into their campaign against Max Mosley because of his support for Leveson 2 which would prevent press intrusion into private lives and enable libel actions to be pursued against a millionaire press with a wide circulation by maligned individuals without having to bear enormous costs even if they win the actions. The newspaper denied me the right to reply. I have had no contact or connection with Max Mosley for some 55 years. My lifelong opposition to multicultural mass-settlement in England entailed neither color bar nor deportation, and never descended to the abuse voiced against immigrants by Mail writers, such as comparing refugees to rats. Given the mess in my country today my opinions seem prescient and humanitarian.

            As for the real debate between us, I suggest that readers do what you refuse to do – which is read the references on “racial differences” I gave, and if interested read what Max’s father actually wrote in the book I assisted as a paid amanuensis when at university.

          • The mess in your country, and in mine, has been orchestrated by Putin and Dugin and their agenda of Neo-Eurasian Geopolitics. I suppose you’ve never heard of that either?

          • Your comments as usual are purely personal, usually impertinent or misguidedly sarcastic. I am not partial to “conspiracy theories” but I deplore the proven harmful actions on British soil by this chip off the old KGB block. I am totally opposed to Dugin, the Eurasian Heartland danger, and much of the so-called “Fourth Political Theory”. There is no point in my boring decent and sensible readers here any longer with responses to your characteristically empty abuse.

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