VDARE.com Note: John Derbyshire reviewed Nicholas Wade’s important new book in March. Now that it’s been actually published, we’re reposting that review.
Every Tuesday the print edition of the New York Times includes a Science section. I don’t bother with it much, in spite of having been a science geek since infancy. Like most aspects of our metropolitan culture, the NYT Science section has been colonized by the hipster lifestyle. Girly concerns dominate, and there is very little hard science to be found.
The March 11th Science section, for example, had articles on:
- gadgets to track your physical activity
- brain workouts
- online dating
- apps to help you sleep
- apps to help you relax
- kids’ ice-hockey helmets
- apps to monitor pets
- better eating
- parental smartphone usage
- cycling skills
- treadmill desks
- more on activity-tracking gadgets
If you don’t own a smartphone and don’t worry about your health, diet, and kids, there is not much of interest in the Science section. It’s hard to imagine Niels Bohr absorbed in it over his Tuesday cornflakes. (The online version, which has additional posts, is slightly better.)
All the more reason to treasure Nicholas Wade, longtime science reporter at the Times. Wade belongs to the older tradition of science writer. Before joining the Times he worked for Nature, the most prestigious British general-science journal (Wade is British-born), and for Science, the U.S. equivalent. His scientific interests are deep and wide. It is possible—I don’t know, but it is possible—that he does not own either a smartphone or a bicycle.
Although Wade certainly knows his periodic table and undoubtedly could tell you how many miles there go to the light year, most of his writing in recent years has been on the human sciences. In his articles on genetics he has distinguished himself for at least the past dozen years by writing frankly about biological race differences—for example Race Is Seen as Real Guide to Track Roots of Disease,NYT,July 30, 2002.
This is unusual in mainstream science reporting. For the New York Times, it is astounding. Charles Murray expressed the general bafflement: “Do any of the reporters at the New York Times who cover other beats read the Science section?”
All journalists in the West—including all the conservative commentators you have ever heard of—and most other educated people cleave to the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) of human nature, which declares race to be a “social construct,” a sort of figment of our collective imagination.
There has, says the SSSM, been no significant evolutionary change in Homo sapiens since one group of us left Africa to begin the colonization of Eurasia and the Americas 50,000 years ago.
Even academic professionals in the “soft” human sciences like anthropology and sociology take the SSSM as gospel. Wade’s 2006 book Before the Dawn in fact occasioned heated criticism from anthropologists: for example, see Jonathan Marks response to the Leakey Foundation regarding controversial writer Nicholas Wade, by Mark Dawson [Ethnography.com, October 15th, 2007] and Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience | Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy? by Rachel Dvoskin, Anthropology News, September 2007. (I reviewed the book here.)
In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, scheduled for publication May 6th, Wade raises high the banner of race realism and charges head-on into the massed ranks of the SSSM. He states his major premise up front, on page two:
New analyses of the human genome have established that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.
Those last four words are repeated at intervals throughout the narrative. They are, as it were, the keynote of the book; Wade returns to them many times to anchor his observations—and some speculations—on the history and development of human societies.
Along the way he has fun tweaking the SSSM-niks:
A few biologists have begun to agree that there are human races, but they hasten to add that the fact means very little. Races exist, but the implications are “not much,” says the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. Too bad—nature has performed this grand 50,000-year experiment, generating scores of fascinating variations on the human theme, only to have evolutionary biologists express disappointment at her efforts.
It is driven by ideology, not science. The pretty arguments about the availability of domesticable species or the spread of disease are not dispassionate assessments of fact but are harnessed to Diamond’s galloping horse of geographic determinism, itself designed to drag the reader away from the idea that genes and evolution might have played any part in recent human history.
In a dry little footnote to Diamond’s well-known assertion that the tribes of New Guinea are “in mental ability probably genetically superior to Westerners,” [Guns, Germs, and Steel, p. 21] Wade notes, with a reference, that the mean IQ for Papua New Guinea is 83, and adds:
If Diamond is thinking of some more appropriate measure of intelligence, he does not cite it.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker is also given a jab of the lance, though more respectfully.
Thus Wade’s longest and meatiest chapter, “The Recasting of Human Nature,” begins with economic historian Gregory Clark’s argument, in his 2007 book A Farewell to Alms, that the industrial revolution happened in England when it did because of evolved changes in behavior across the previous six centuries.
Clark documented four types of English behavior that changed: interpersonal violence, literacy, the propensity to save, and the propensity to work.
The first of those behaviors leads into the territory covered by Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature (my review here). Pinker writes about the steady decline in violence across human history, but explicitly denies that any biological changes are involved. The human mind, says Pinker, is adapted to the conditions of 10,000 years ago and hasn’t changed since.
Wade is having none of this:
Since many other traits have evolved more recently than that, why should human behavior be any exception? Well, says Pinker, it would be terribly inconvenient politically if this were so. “It could have the incendiary implication that aboriginal and immigrant populations are less biologically adapted to the demands of modern life than populations that have lived in literate states for millennia.”
Whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity…[Emphasis added].
Damn right! If I had been wearing a hat at that point, I would have thrown it in the air. Such strong, clear endorsements of scientific independence against political orthodoxy are all too rare. Three cheers for Nicholas Wade!
Some readers might downgrade that to two cheers. Although he makes no really substantive concessions to the SSSM mob, Wade does emit a certain amount of squid ink by way of showing that he understands why frank talk about evolved group differences makes people nervous.
The first chapter of his book is brief and introductory. The second, titled “Perversions of Science,” is a particularly mighty blast of squid ink: a trip through the various scientific follies and political evils that the concept of race has been associated with.
We read of Blumenbach, Gobineau, and Morton. The last of those names gives Wade an opportunity to give a poke of his lance to the corpse of Marxist con-man Stephen Jay Gould, who, in defense of the SSSM—of which he was of course a fierce and dogmatic adherent (the SSSM is an essentially Marxist construct)—wilfully misrepresented Morton’s work.
Darwin’s sensible views on race are described, then Wade leads us through Social Darwinism and the early 20th century fad for eugenics.
Here he gets into something of a tangle.
Francis Galton’s scheme of positive eugenics was, says Wade, “to induce the rich and middle class to change their marriage habits and bear more children.” Wade pooh-poohs that: “The eugenic program, however reasonable it might seem, was basically incoherent.”
Was it? Then what of that later chapter on Gregory Clark’s thesis, which was precisely that, in Wade’s own words:
The fact that the rich were having more children than the poor [i.e. in England from a.d. 1200 to 1760] led to the interesting phenomenon of unremitting social descent. Most children of the rich had to sink in the social scale, given that there were too many of them to remain in the upper class.
Their social descent had the far-reaching genetic consequence that they carried with them inheritance for the same behaviors that had made their parents rich. The values of the upper middle class—nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience—were thus infused into lower economic classes and throughout society. [Pages 159-160.]
That sounds strangely like an undirected form of Galtonian eugenics, with a highly beneficial result. So Galton’s program was “incoherent” … how?
The real problem with Galtonism—as Wade, to be fair, points out—is that positive eugenics was politically impractical. The minimal government of Victorian England was in no position to boss its upper and upper-middle classes around to the necessary degree.
The American lower classes were a different matter, so that negative eugenics made some headway on this side of the Atlantic. The 1927 Buck v. Bell case—“Three generations of imbeciles are enough”—has a starring role here.
So, unfortunately, do the U.S. immigration restriction laws of the 1920s. If, as Wade says, the eugenicists influenced those laws—the point is disputed—it is hard to see that influence as other than benign. Why should a nation accept physically or mentally defective immigrants?
And why should immigration laws not seek to preserve a nation’s ethnic balance? Senator Edward Kennedy, speaking forty years later, thought they should (or believed it expedient to seem to think so); and the following eight chapters of Nicholas Wade’s book provide ample evidence that he was right.
Thence of course to Germany and the National Socialist programs of slave labor and mass murder. Wade:
Ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas. It puts responsibility on scientists to test rigorously the scientific ideas that are placed before the public.
Some ideas about race are dangerous when linked to some political agendas. But the horrors of the Holocaust did not happen because the German public misapprehended some point of biology. They happened, along with many other great evils, because the Germans surrendered their government to a lawless gangster-despotism.
This chapter-length blast of squid ink at the front of the book is presumably strategic, its purpose being to deflect critics who might otherwise say, with a roll of the eyes, that obviously Wade has never heard of Social Darwinism, Buck v. Bell, or the Holocaust.
(If you don’t believe SSSM defenders could possibly say something that staggeringly infantile, you don’t follow human-science controversies very closely.)
Having emitted the ink-blast in Chapter 2, Wade mainly sticks to straight science in the remaining eight chapters, with only an occasional brief ink-puff here and there.
He skips hurriedly over the black-white IQ gap, for example (“That issue needn’t be resolved here …”), proceeding directly to a somewhat skeptical survey of Lynn and Vanhanen’s work on correlations between IQ and national wealth.
Into that latter survey he incorporates some of Ron Unz’s 2012 critique of Lynn and Vanhanen’s data. We published a lengthy response to Unz by Lynn here at VDARE.com; apparently Wade has not read it. Perhaps in future editions of his book he will take it on board.
Wade is merciless towards the standard SSSM appeal to what I, in my own 2009 book We Are Doomed, called “Culturism”—the notion that the human beings of two different societies are identical at some psychic level, so that each society could switch its institutions for the other’s if they felt inclined to do so.
To the contrary, says Wade, those institutions “are largely cultural edifices resting on a base of genetically shaped social behaviors.”
If the differences between a tribal society and a modern state were purely cultural, it should be easy to modernize a tribal society by importing Western institutions. American experience in Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan generally suggests otherwise. [Page 241.]
Indeed. The much more prolonged and determined efforts of European colonial powers to shape African and Asian societies likewise slid off those societies like water off a sheet of glass.
Cambodian students in Paris took the silly but harmless abstractions of Left Bank theorizing back to their now-independent country and made the killing fields.
Again and again Wade contrasts the speed of cultural change—Germans and Japanese switching from militarism to pacifism well-nigh overnight—to the comparatively slow changes in genetically shaped behaviors.
The Malay, Thai, or Indonesian populations who have prosperous Chinese populations in their midst might envy the Chinese success but are strangely unable to copy it. People are highly imitative, and if Chinese business success were purely cultural, everyone should find it easy to adopt the same methods. This is not the case because social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped. [Page 237.]
Those are my italics there. The readiness of human beings to imitate others, when they can, is a key feature of all our societies. It is, for example, the basis of fashion, and the rationale behind the concept “role model.”
Yet it seems not to operate at all when a brutish tribal society needs to be brought up to a civilized level.
That same phrase, “people are highly imitative,” shows up in Wade’s chapter titled “Jewish Adaptations.”
People are highly imitative, and if the Jewish advantage [in cultural achievements, which Wade has just listed] were purely cultural, such as hectoring mothers or a special devotion to education, there would be little to prevent others from copying it. [Page 199.]
This is the thesis of Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending’s 2005 paper “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” discussed at the time on VDARE.com here, and summarized in Chapter 7 of Cochran and Harpending’s 2009 book The 10,000 Year Explosion.
Wade gives a good account of the original paper, then contrasts it with later work by economic historians Botticini and Eckstein, who offer a different theory. They stress the priestly demand, from the first century a.d., that all male Jews be literate. This met with much resistance: “The Talmud is full of imprecations against … boorish country folk who refuse to educate their children.” [Page 211.]
These boors fell away from the Jewish community, commonly into Christianity (“Judaism Lite”), leaving the bookishly inclined element to become more concentrated generation by generation. This too, says Wade, amounted to an evolutionary adaptation.
There are many other good things in this book: an excellent short course on population genetics; a brisk five-page debunking of arguments against the existence of race (including Lewontin’s damn fallacy—”More variation within groups than between groups”—which seems to be unkillable: I just spotted it in a book I am reviewing for another outlet); a closing explanation for the rise of the West, built on all that has gone before; and an argument that we are currently in a transition period as momentous as that from hunter-gatherer bands to settled communities—“the Meso-Industrial Age,” Wade calls it.
Wade is also illuminating on the very local, inbred quality of human populations. Until very recently, humans mated almost exclusively with near neighbors: Siberians with Siberians, Patagonians with Patagonians, Bushmen with Bushwomen.
I have for years been using my own elementary-school class photograph to illustrate this fact. Three-quarters of the kids in that picture, I note, had parents and grandparents born within fifty miles; and this was the most advanced nation of its time, with a long seafaring and colonizing history.
Once you have internalized this fact it is not surprising, although still striking at a first read, to learn that by close scrutiny of the genome, our geographical origins can be discovered to quite high resolution. Wade writes:
Researchers at Stanford University have found a strong correspondence between the genetics and geographical origins of Europeans. In fact, 90 percent of people can be located to within 435 miles of where they were born, and 50 percent to within 193 miles. Europeans are fairly homogeneous at the genetic level, so it is quite surprising that enough genetic differences exist among them to infer a person’s origin so precisely. [Page 77.]
Most people don’t visit these websites, though, and are raised and educated taking the SSSM for granted. To them, the facts that Wade’s book presents and the ideas it discusses will come as thunderclaps.
Will it do any good? Will, for example, Wade’s book hasten the day when the American Anthropological Association issues a statement beginning: “Of course race is a real, biologically-based feature of human populations! How on earth could we ever have been so dumb as to think otherwise…”?
I’ll declare myself somewhat more hopeful than that. No, the AAA won’t be embracing race realism this month, or this year. The preposterosities of “Affirmative Action” and “disparate impact” won’t cease to insult our intelligence just because of Nicholas Wade’s book.
(Indeed, as I was writing this, the New York Post carried a story lamenting the dire performance of black and Hispanic students on the entrance exam to get into the city’s elite high schools: “Of the 5,096 students accepted by eight specialized schools, just 5 percent were black and 7 percent were Hispanic … Advocates say the low pass rate for blacks and Hispanics is an outrage …” etc. [Black & Hispanic pass rates drop in elite high school exams, By Aaron Short, March 12, 2014] Five years, probably ten years from now, those advocates will still be outraged.)
But, ultimately, fantasy must yield to reality, falsehood to truth, superstition to science. Nick Wade’s calm, brave assault on the enemy’s lines will likely be repulsed, but not without enemy losses, making the next assault more likely to break through.
Entrenched orthodoxies don’t fall easily, but they fall at last. In Coventry Patmore’s words:
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
I don’t share Jared’s pessimism, but I join with him in heartfelt praise for Nicholas Wade and his publisher, The Penguin Press, who have put into the public arena a plain, clear statement of well-supported facts about our human nature.
John Derbyshire [email him] writes an incredible amount on all sorts of subjects for all kinds of outlets. (This no longer includes National Review, whose editors had some kind of tantrum and fired him. ) He is the author of We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism and several other books. His most recent book, published by VDARE.com com is FROM THE DISSIDENT RIGHT (also available in Kindle).His writings are archived at JohnDerbyshire.com.
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