[This book review article was published in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 117-128.]




A Gentle Look at Race, Evolution and Genetics:

Nicholas Wade’s Elevation of Science Over Ideology

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired



A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

Nicholas Wade

The Penguin Press, 2014


There has been an odd duality within the scientific consensus on matters of evolution.  Evolution is understood as fact – indeed, as the cornerstone of much thinking in the social sciences.  At the same time, running on another track, when it deals with matters of race the consensus denies evolution and genetics, coming to the conclusion that race is a “myth.”  In the book discussed here, Nicholas Wade, a New York Times science advisor, runs counter to this unscientific second track.  With quiet objectivity and good sense, he affirms the existence of race and ties it to the differing evolutionary adaptation of the peoples who had migrated from Africa to the various continents.  While acknowledging that the understanding of the human genome has not yet progressed far enough to provide solid proof about the effect, if any, of genes on social behaviors, he offers persuasive arguments supporting an inference of a genetic role.  Though unassuming, his book amounts to a revolutionary challenge to one of the great ideologically-induced abuses of science.  


Key Words:  Nicholas Wade, race, evolution, genetics, social behaviors, continental evolution, human genome, human diaspora, culture and race, normative judgments and science, comparisons of cultures.


          Although science is a serious matter and deserves the esteem it enjoys for its application of high and diligent intellect, it is appropriate to see it as a form of human activity.  Because it is conducted by human beings, a sociological understanding of it is not out of order.  It is even possible to take a satirical view of it.  If Jonathan Swift and Francois Voltaire were alive today, they could look down with detachment, as Swift had Gulliver do with the Lilliputians, and spot some things that are out of whack, even hilarious.

          Much humor comes from a quick revelation of an incongruity that people have accepted without question.  It’s like the unexpected springing of a punchline.  Extended study would no doubt reveal a number of incongruities within the world scientific community during recent decades, but the one we will focus on here has to do without something quite ridiculous: the simultaneous enthusiasms for two opposites.  With a twinkle in their eyes, Swift and Voltaire could revel in the inconsistency and even hypocrisy, bringing to light once again the foibles that mark our benighted species. 

          They could start by noting how thoroughly Evolution has come to be accepted, not just as theory but as fact, about the development of all living things.  They might then remember how scandalized the world intellectual community was a few years back by the Lysenko Affair when in 1948 the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences endorsed biologist Trofim D. Lysenko’s theory that an organism passes environmentally-acquired properties on to the next generation.  The Academy’s (and Stalin’s) imprimatur led to the suppression of Mendel’s theory of heredity-through-genes in the Soviet Union as representing “bourgeois science.”  This suppression lasted there until the mid-1960s.  Most of us won’t see much funny about that grim time, but a skilled satirist can make even the bloodiest subject, like the Lisbon earthquake in Voltaire’s Candide, the subject of a cosmic joke.

          Gulliver, looking down on today’s scientists as though they were the Lilliputians, would marvel at how advanced they are with their science of evolution, and how appropriate their feelings were about the scandal over the Lysenko matter.  When, however, he sees that all of that earnest truth-seeking is offset by a simultaneous line of thought held by a well-nigh universal consensus that ignores abundant evidence, denies evolution, and is born out of ideological predilection and political correctness, he’ll break into a broad grin and say, “Ha!  There’s a foible.  Pure silliness!”

          What is this incongruent line of thought?  It is the insistence that “there has been no recent human evolution and that races do not exist.”  In his 2014 book A Troubled Inheritance, Nicholas Wade, a New York Times science advisor and writer, reports the view that “there are no races, there are only genetic gradients, or clines,” with the corollary that “the clustering of individuals into races [is] an artifact.”  He writes that “it has long been convenient for social scientists to assume that human evolution ground to a halt in the distant past,” and quotes from a proclamation by the American Anthropological Association that “race is about culture, not biology.”  “The social scientists’ official view of race is designed to support the political view that genetics cannot possibly be a reason why human societies differ – the answer must lie exclusively in differing human cultures and the environment that produced them.”  Led by social anthropologist Franz Boas, the “leading social science organizations” have long embraced this view. 

It is a position enforced by academic gatekeepers – the editors and reviewers who decide what ideas pass muster for inclusion in prestigious journals and books.  The result is that a set of ideas can become fixed, so that change is long resisted.  Wade makes this comparison: “For 50 years after it was first proposed, leading geophysicists strenuously resisted the idea that the continents have drifted across the face of the globe.” 

Among those who hold to the established view about race is Craig Venter, “the leading decoder of the human genome,” who says “the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”  Wade explains that “the politically driven distortion of scientific views about race can be traced to a sustained campaign from the 1950s onward by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who sought to make the word race taboo.”  Montagu had studied under Boas.  “With the horror of the Holocaust weighing on people’s minds, Montagu found ready acceptance of his views.”  There was thus a sharp reversal of the eugenic mindset that had prevailed within the intellectual community earlier in the century.

The powerful perception that Hitler made a horror out of racial theory and of eugenics has no doubt been a major cause of the consensus  that “there is no such thing as race” or that, as is sometimes said, “race is a myth.” (The consensus exists among social scientists but not among the world’s peoples at large, for whom “race” is an obvious fact.)  It is a mistake, however, to think that this revulsion has been the sole contributing factor.  Wade points out that the view that there are no cognitive differences, say, between “human population groups” is “shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma, not by science.”  Since World War II, the international context has featured a massive promotion of the peoples of the Third World, who have asserted themselves but also have been given preeminence by the West’s dominant intellectual and political culture, within which the “alienation of the intellectual” has for many decades been a salient feature.  This has included a militant opposition to any pro-European preference. 

In the United States, the American Left made a comparable shift in focus from championing workers (“the proletariat”) to allying itself with all unassimilated or disaffected groups.  This alliance has created the primary moral thrust in American social and political life since the mid-twentieth century.  American religious sensibility has fed into it, consistently with the country’s long history of social-improvement and Social Gospel movements.   Given all this, and perhaps more, including a sense by most Americans that there has indeed been historic injustice to be overcome, it cannot be surprising that so many social scientists have received their opinions antagonistic to the idea of “race” by osmosis, and that those who might venture to think otherwise choose almost reflexively to keep their heads down out of, as Wade says, “fear of being demonized.”

          Wade, however, does choose to swim against the current.  Given the quiet reasonableness and dispassionate objectivity of Wade’s book, it would be easy to overlook the moral courage it has taken for him to confront the conventional wisdom.  Readers will hardly sense that he feels any fear of being demonized, if in fact he does.  Perhaps he thinks the reasonableness and objectivity will protect him.  These find expression in his avoidance of all dogmatism and in his readiness to acknowledge when it is that his postulate of a genetic basis for much human behavior is proved and when it remains instead in the realm of educated hypothesis.  He also shields himself in part by taking some “politically correct” positions, as we will see, even though his main thesis will be an abomination to the true believers.  One suspects he is either naïve or extremely brave as he ignores the fact that for many the anti-race, anti-genetic, anti-evolution consortium rises to the level of a religion.  Gulliver, looking on, would feel some apprehension for him.  But perhaps instead of Wade’s being demonized, he and his book will be met more comfortably by the implicit book-burning known as “the silent treatment.”  In any case, it is impossible to consider him a bigot, at least without revealing an extreme bias.  A Troublesome Inheritance is an excellent example of how “race” should be something that can legitimately be discussed.  It shows that the discussion need not have any taint of the viciousness often imputed to it.

          Wade’s thesis about race is rather simple.  Tracing the history of the human diaspora, he mentions that “the earliest known appearance of modern humans” occurred some 200,000 years ago.  The ancestral homeland was in northeast Africa, with people living in hunter-gatherer societies until about 15,000 years ago.  The first dispersal began about 50,000 years ago, spreading eventually to the various continents.  Since then, “the populations on each continent have evolved largely independently of one another as each adapted to its own regional environment.”  The three principal races that developed are the sub-Saharan African, East Asian, and Caucasian, although “within each continental race are smaller groupings which… may be called ethnicities.”  Native Americans and Australian aborigines can be considered additional races with continent-based origins.  The separate continental development of peoples has resulted in varied clusters of traits which differentiate them from one another.  “People belong to a race not by virtue of a single trait but by a cluster of criteria that includes color of skin and hair, and the shape of eyes, nose and skull.  It is not necessary for all these criteria to be present.”   

Wade knows that classification systems can reasonably differ, and that it is even possible to speak of “many races.”  “The lack of agreement [about classification] doesn’t mean that races don’t exist, only that it is a matter of judgment as to how to define them.  As with any species that evolves into geographically based races, there is usually continuity between neighboring races because of gene exchange between them.  Because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races – that is the nature of variation within a species.”

There is a “biological reality to race,” as shown by “analysis of genomes from around the world.”  “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.”  Wade refers to “sophisticated surveys [that have] all come to the same conclusion, that  ‘genetic differentiation is greatest when defined on a continental basis.’”  He quotes Neil Risch, a statistical geneticist at the University of California-San Francisco, who writes that “effectively, these population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry.”  Geneticists, Wade says, have come to realize in recent years that “many traits, like skin color or height or intelligence, are controlled by a large number of different genes, each of which has alleles [i.e., alternative forms of a given gene] that individually make small contributions to the trait.” 

Wade provides considerable detail about how the physical differences among the races are genetically based.  For example, when Wade discusses skin color, he tells how “among Africans, dark skin is maintained by the gene known as MCIR.  A single version of this gene is found throughout Africa.”  Europeans, on the other hand, have “several alleles that promote pale skin… Almost all Europeans have two copies of the threonine-denoting, skin-lightening allele of the SLC24A5 gene.”  When he discusses diseases, he explains that “a variation called the Duffy null allele has become almost universal among Africans because it is an excellent defense against an ancient form of malaria…  Almost everyone in Africa carries the Duffy null allele…, and almost no one outside does.”  To mention these things is simply to give some taste of Wade’s detailed examination of the genetics of human variation.  There is much more than we can mention here.

What especially interests Wade is the impact of genes on human behavior.  He “suggests a new possibility: that at the root of each civilization is a particular set of evolved social behaviors that sustains it, and these behaviors are reflected in the society’s institutions.  Institutions… grow out of instinctual social behaviors.”  These “include an instinct to cooperate vigorously with members of an in-group, to obey the in-group’s rules and to punish those who deviate.  There is an instinct to fairness and reciprocity, at least among members of the group.  People have an intuitive morality, which is the source of instinctive knowledge that certain actions are right or wrong… Probably all these social behaviors, to one degree or another, have a genetic basis….”  There are behaviors “useful in accumulating wealth” and to “engaging  in trade.”  Human beings share “an inherited propensity for religion,” and there is a “neural machinery” that “both generates rules of grammar and predisposes children to learn whatever language they hear spoken around them,” with culture, rather than genes, “providing the entire content of the language.”  Speaking of people’s neural makeup, Wade points to “a cascade of discoveries, many in the past decade, [that has] made it clear that… sociality is written into our physical form… It is engraved in our neural circuitry.”  He adds that “the genes that set up the circuitry of these social instincts have yet to be identified, but their presence can be inferred….”   It is known, he says, that “the neural hormone called oxytocin… engenders trust toward members of the in-group, together with defensiveness toward outsiders.”    

One of the great transitions in human development has been from “tribal to modern society” (although, of course, many tribal cultures still exist, and readers will know from their common experience that there is even a strong propensity toward tribalism among people in in-groups of all kinds in extended  societies).  What Wade sees is that “tribal societies are organized on the basis of kinship and differ from modern states chiefly in that people’s radius of trust” [has expanded].  In this small variation is rooted the vast difference in political and economic structures between tribal and modern societies” (our emphasis). 

Although he points to such “vast differences” – and even to behaviors that are repugnant to millions of people, such as “blood revenge and the killing of female relatives deemed to have dishonored the tribe,”– a surprising thing about Wade’s findings is that he sees more significance in the similarities among people than in the differences.  “Nowhere is the essential unity of humankind more clearly and indelibly written than in the human genome.”  His perception of races stemming from differing continental development points to clusters of difference, but he balances that with his perception of universality based on what people have in common.

In what we have said so far, we have seen that Wade (1) strongly bucks the notion that “race is a myth,” (2) sees the races as having resulted from evolution on a continental basis, and (3) postulates an underlying genetic foundation for human behavior (as well as for the races’ varied physical traits).  It is interesting that he does not assert that the third of these – that there is a genetic foundation underlying social behaviors – has been proved.  He looks forward to the day when the responsible genes, alleles or allele frequencies have been identified.  (Until that is done, of course, the question of whether they will ever be identified remains open.)  As part of his discussion of social behavior, he talks about the “two camps in the IQ debate known as hereditarians and environmentalists,” who disagree about whether genetics play any part in human intelligence; and although he sides with the hereditarians when he writes that “intelligence is almost certainly under genetic influence,” he adds that “none of the responsible alleles has yet been identified with any certainty, probably because each makes too minute a contribution to show up with present methods.”

Lacking hard proof, Wade bases his discussion of social behaviors on reasoned inference, expressed hypothetically and without dogmatism.  It is likely that most readers will find his thinking persuasive, even while reserving judgment.  When, say, he observes that it took modern humans “185,000 years to settle down in fixed communities,” he infers that “it is tempting to assume that a substantial genetic change in social behavior was required and that it took this long to evolve.”  He explains that “the aggressive and independent nature of hunter-gathers, accustomed to trusting only their close kin, had to yield to a more sociable temperament and the ability to interact peaceably with larger numbers of people.”  And he finds the study of animal behavior instructive: “Given the distinctiveness of chimp social behavior, there is no reason to doubt that it has a genetic basis.”  He reasons that an extrapolation is possible and that continuity, not discontinuity, is to be expected.  Accordingly, “if social behavior was under genetic control during the evolution of human society from that of a chimplike ancestor, it is hard to see why it should not have continued to be molded by evolutionary forces up until the present day.”

A difficult question, of course, has to do with the relative contributions of genes and culture.  Wade’s view, as we have seen, is that genes provide “the underpinnings of human social behavior.”  He says “there is considerable room for disagreement as to exactly which social behaviors have a genetic basis and how strongly any such behaviors may be genetically defined.”  “Nonetheless,” he says, “it is reasonable to assume that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior, and hence the very different kinds of society seen in the various races and in the world’s great civilizations differ not just because of their received cultures… but also because of variations in the social behavior of their members, carried down in their genes.”

None of this involves a denial that culture carries a tremendous wallop.  Wade points to the examples of North and South Korea, and observes that “North Koreans are poor while South Korea has developed a tiger economy… The difference, evidently, lies not in the two countries’ genes or geography but in the fact that the same set of social behaviors can support either good or bad institutions.”  A similar point can be made about Germany and Japan: both “developed highly militaristic societies before and during the Second World War but both are now determinedly pacific.  This is a cultural change, one far too quick to be genetic.”  What are we to conclude from this?  It would seem that because culture by itself is sufficient to explain such extreme variations, it becomes impossible to say more than that genes “create a propensity,” which is what Wade asserts.  To assert, however, that genes have played no role in such a thing as the shift some 15,000 years ago from hunter-gatherer societies to larger communities is to assert something that itself carries a difficult, if not impossible, burden of proof.  As Gulliver would notice, the Lilliputian intellectual community is, in all other matters, convinced of biological evolution.  Those who would argue that human social development is the sole exception would seem called upon to explain why that is so.

Although what we have covered so far examines A Troublesome Inheritance’s main thesis, there are additional facets of considerable interest.  Let’s look at them before we conclude:

The discussion of this subject often seems to suffer from a failure to separate the factual from the normative.  Wade is correct when he says that “science is about what is, not what ought to be.”  A problem arises, however, when science is cited as the basis for denying a normative judgment in a case where the judgment is itself rooted in an accurate perception of facts.  Where this comes up most prominently is in the argument over “superiority.”  Francois Boas’ view was that “no culture is superior to any other.”  Wade sides with Boas on this when he says: “That European societies have turned out to be more innovative and productive than others, at least under present circumstances, does not of course mean that Europeans are superior to others – a meaningless term in any case from the evolutionary perspective.”  This is an odd sentence.  The first part denies that a judgment of “superiority” follows legitimately from a society’s being “more innovative and productive.”   The second part attempts to justify this conclusion on the ground that “evolution” can’t speak to it.  This is a classic non sequitur, since the conclusion (that a normative judgment can’t be made) doesn’t follow from the premise (that evolution has nothing to say about it).  It is not unreasonable for someone to look upon European societies and, seeing that they are “more innovative and productive,” conclude that they are “superior” to the societies whose people live in squalor.  This is a normative judgment quite apart from “science.”  The view that European society is “not superior” is itself normative.  Since it flies in the face of some rather obvious facts, one must look to ideology and political, demographic dynamics to understand it.  Certainly  not to science.

We commented earlier that Wade has embraced some “politically correct” (i.e., ideologically conformist) views and that his doing so may give him some cover (although that is unlikely).  An instance of this is apparent when he insists on seeing the question of “superiority” from a non-judgmental evolutionary perspective, as we have just seen.  Another instance comes when Wade discusses Madison Grant’s early twentieth century concern over whether “the type of native American of Colonial descent” was threatened with extinction from uncontrolled immigration.  He dismisses this out of hand by invoking guilt by association, pointing to the fact that Hitler admired Grant’s thinking.  Wade thereby puts himself on the side of today’s conventional thinking among America’s opinion elite that it is illegitimate for people of European descent to oppose the rapidly advancing demographic swamping of Western society.  People such as Walter Laqueur in The Last Days of Europe, Patrick Buchanan in The Death of the West, Tony Blankley and Jared Taylor have diametrically the opposite cultural and perhaps racial preferences than Wade expresses.  Again, such  matters are normative, not a matter of science.  Wade certainly is “politically correct” in the value choice he makes (in this case, on one of the most portentous issues facing civilization). 

It is plausible to ask whether the difference between Wade and those who say race is a myth is  merely a matter of semantics, with the latter preferring to see trait-clusters as mere gradients on a continuum and choosing for prudential reasons to abjure use of an emotionally laden word like race.  But this wouldn’t seem to be the case, at least so far as the more adamant race-deniers are concerned.  As we have seen, there are substantive, not just semantic, differences.  They relate to the science, but perhaps even more significantly to the egalitarian, anti-Western ideological overlay that they place on top of their perception of the science.

We have given attention to Wade’s thesis on the subject of race, evolution and genetics.  As one reads A Troublesome Inheritance, however, one is struck by how there is so much intriguing informational content in the book that that, by itself, makes reading it worthwhile.  For example, he tells about the research of Mark Stoneking, a population geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, about what can be learned from lice: “The body louse, which lives only in clothes, evolved from the head louse, which lives on hair.  Stoneking realized that a date for the first tight-fitting clothes could be derived by using genetic methods to date the birth of body louse lineage – about 72,000 years ago.”  We are told about how gross the manners were in Europe in the sixteenth century, and about how little empathy the people had in those days: “A famous midsummer day festival in 16th century Paris was to burn alive a dozen cats.”  One fascinating passage tells details, which for reasons of space  we won’t repeat here, about the sexual behavior of chimpanzees.  This reviewer had not previously known about “Sahul, the Ice Age continent that then included Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania” or about “Beringia, the now sunken landmass that once connected Siberia to Alaska.”  We mention these things simply to give a taste of what awaits a reader.

For all the reasons stated (though with a couple of caveats) – recommended.