Andrew Gelman on “A Troublesome Inheritance” in Slate

Statistics professor Andrew Gelman reviews Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History in Slate:

The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous. …

One of Wade’s key data points is the rapid economic growth of East Asia in the past half-century: “In the early 1950s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some 30 years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated.” Wade approvingly quotes political scientist Samuel Huntington’s statement, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.” And Wade attributes these attitudes toward thrift, investment, etc., to the Koreans’ East Asian genes.

But … what if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.

A massive problem in contemporary intellectual discourse is that people don’t remember the past well and don’t have a critical attitude toward whatever is the latest conventional wisdom about the backwardness of the past. In the Obama Era, we see race and sex disparities all around us, and the only socially acceptable explanation for them is that the past was so incredibly racist/sexist until … well, nobody can quite remember when, but it must have been practically the day before yesterday.

So, it’s hard for contemporary intellectuals to put themselves back into the shoes of their predecessors.

Let’s stop and think about the perspective from 1954. Sure, South Korea was rural and underdeveloped at the time (and flattened). But the United States and its United Nations allies had just finished battling to a desperate draw with North Korea, which was much more industrialized than South Korea, and China in the 1950-53 Korean War. This included America’s massive strategic bombing campaign against North Korea’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills, bridges, and railroads, which led to famous dogfights between the jet fighters escorting the bombers and the interceptors.

In the previous decade, the U.S. had fought a horrifying war against Japan that had begun with Japan’s state-of-the-art ambush of the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor.

The economic potential of China once it threw off its stultified Imperial government had been an obsession of American strategists since the late 19th Century. Keeping the Philippines after the 1898 Spanish-American War, for example, was justified as America’s entryway to the fabled China Market. The current strength and future greatness of Republican China was routinely overrated by American Sinophiles such as FDR (who set in motion China becoming one of the five members of the United Nation’s Security Council despite Chiang Kai-shek’s desultory contributions to the war effort), and the China-born Henry Luce, owner of Time and Life. During the 1950s, a Republican slogan was “Unleash Chiang,” based on the assumption of a Nationalist Chinese military juggernaut temporarily stuck on Taiwan.

Similarly, if you read traditional physical anthropology books of the era such as Carleton Coon’s The Origins of Races (1961) and The Living Races of Man (1965), Northeast Asians, who have large skulls relative to their small stature, are viewed as quite equal intellectually to Caucasians.

Or consider the much denounced eugenics works of the post-Great War Era, such as Lothrop Stoddard’s 1920 book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, which Tom Buchanan is more or less reading in The Great Gatsby. Stoddard was hardly dismissive of the potential of Northeast Asians. From Wikipedia:

In The Rising Tide of Color Stoddard blasted the ethnic supremacism of the Germans, blaming the “Teutonic imperialists” for the outbreak of the First World War.[3] He opposed what he saw as the disuniting of White/European peoples through intense nationalism and infighting.

Some predictions made in The Rising Tide of Color were accurate; others were not. Accurate ones — not all of which were original to Stoddard or predicated on white supremacy — include Japan’s rise as a major power; a war between Japan and the USA; a second war in Europe; the overthrowing of European colonial empires in Africa and Asia; the mass migration of non-white peoples to white countries; and the rise of Islam as a threat to the West because of Muslim religious fanaticism (Stoddard was an Islamic scholar and published the book, The New World of Islam in 1921.)[4][5]

An accurate understanding of historical ideas is increasingly unavailable to modern Americans due to the ever-growing demand that “history” (i.e., past racism/sexism) is the one and only cause of current disparities.