WASHINGTON POST Review of “A Troublesome Inheritance”

In the Washington Post, Seth Shulman writes:

Book review: “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History,” by Nicholas Wade

By Seth Shulman, Friday, May 23, 5:10 PM E-mail the writer

Is there a topic more divisive than race? If so, perhaps it’s the pairing of science and race. After all, recent generations have seen odious prejudices exploited under the guise of scientific legitimacy to justify discrimination, sterilization and even genocide.

You’ve got to give the Washington Post reviewer credit for waiting one more sentence than the New York Times reviewer before referring to Hitler.

… He musters a good deal of persuasive evidence that, as he puts it, “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” It stands to reason that this should be so. After all, as evolutionary biologists have shown for countless species, the geographic separation of a population over time results in adaptations to specific environments. And, for many thousands of years, most human populations were separated into diverse geographic and social settings. …

Wade gets into trouble, however, in the latter half of the book, which he describes as more “speculative.” A whole chapter is devoted to the subject of Jewish intelligence, in which he argues that the disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes awarded to people of Jewish descent can be traced to the fact that Jewish money-lending in the Middle Ages required levels of literacy and numeracy far beyond those in the general population. That specialization, and the wealth it brought, he argues, conferred upon the Ashkenazi Jews of Europe an evolutionary advantage that became encoded in complex ways in their genes.

There is little solid evidence to support this hypothesis; moreover, the combinations of genes conferring intelligence — if there are any — are unknown.

“If there are any”? I’d be interested in hearing Shulman’s speculation on how there might not be any genes conferring intelligence.

While Wade demonstrates a good deal of mastery over many of the technical issues involved, he strikes a remarkably cavalier note about the obvious social and political unease such research might engender.

Brushing aside Jews’ sensitivities to this kind of research, for instance, he blithely proclaims: “The days of pogroms are past, and to ignore every difficult subject would serve only the forces of obscurantism.” And even though he offers a chapter on what he calls the “perversions of science” that led to eugenics and ultimately to the Holocaust, he never satisfyingly grapples with the reality that strictures against this type of research remain in place for a reason: namely that the science of racial differences presents an affront to our relatively fragile and hard-won political understanding (widely sanctioned internationally) that all people deserve equal treatment under the law.

In an America still struggling with glaring disparities in opportunity between whites and blacks, for instance, it is hard to know what to make of Wade’s attempt to sweep aside such issues by simply proclaiming that “fears that the evolutionary understanding of race will promote a new phase of racism or imperialism are surely exaggerated. The lessons of past abuses are still vivid enough.” Or that “opposition to racism is now well entrenched, at least in the Western world.” Despite Wade’s seeming command of the science involved, statements like these set a tone that often makes him seem like an over-eager debater so keen to score points that he ultimately loses the larger argument.