At the 1960 censorship trial of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover the prosecuting barrister held up the offending volume and asked the jury what seemed to him to be the key question: “Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?" The popular reply to this question was: “If I had servants I would not mind them reading this book, but I would certainly keep it away from my gamekeeper”.
It is with a frisson of excitement that one reads Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” in the hope that there will be naughty bits, with any luck involving the private parts of what would now be called “the hired help”, preferably of different racial groups and, for English readers particularly, of demonstrably different social strata.
The naughtiest bit everyone is waiting for is when the bold author whips out his magnificent organ and thrusts it into the vast, presumably quivering, void left by academia’s unwillingness to admit that some scintilla of racial difference may be caused by race itself, a matter of seed over soil. How does this book shape up to the challenge of violating this well-defended and much admired vestal virgin?
Well, there is certainly a lot of foreplay. The title itself is slightly apologetic, as if our lusty hero finds his urges “troublesome”. Can we hope for a book which one day champions “Our Glorious Inheritance” boasting about our human curiosity, inventiveness and sexual urgency? One day, perhaps. Nonetheless, there are many good things here.
It is a good thing that a book about inheritance has been written by the science correspondent of a major US newspaper, and that it will very probably read by a wide audience. It is good thing that it is subtitled “Genes, race and human history”. It is good that the first chapter is entitled “Evolution, race and history” and that chapter 5 is entitled “The genetics of race” and chapter 10 “Evolutionary perspectives on race”. It is good that it aims to confront some taboos head on. Wade has eschewed the usual euphemisms about “genetic clusters” “population structures” “descent” or “heritage”. He has not been abashed by Ashley Montagu’s threating and absurd dictum that: “The very word race is itself racist”. In this book we are dealing with “races” a concept which probably came from the English practice of breeding horses for races. The book aims to discuss these races, and it champions the view that human evolution continues up to the present day. The book is a treasure trove, and deserves to be read widely.
Early on Wade coins what will probably turn out to be his most quoted line: “New analyses of the human genome establish that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional”. He reports estimates that 14% of the human genome has changed under recent evolutionary pressure, meaning in the last 30,000 years. If we assume a generation every 25 years, that is 1,200 generations. That is time enough for one variation to prosper over another, because highly selective breeding achieves effects in as little as 20 generations.
His first example relates to Tibetans 3000 years ago evolving a genetic variant which lets them live at high altitude. Greg Cochran puts the most recent variant at 8,000 years ago, and a previous one at 18,000 years ago. Apart from the matter of timing, the finding is instructive, though he leaves out the interesting bit, which is that the Andean variant is more recent and far less successful. His second example is the lower age of reproduction between 1799 and 1940 on an island near Quebec. Perhaps it is under genetic influence, but that is an inference from the failure to explain it via changes in nutrition, and will probably not immediately strike readers as conclusive.
Wade is stronger on the general point that evolution has been regional. It is hard to argue that the genome itself has been altered simply by the climate, rather than by selection. “The genes specially affected by natural selection control not only expected traits like skin colour and nutritional metabolism but also some aspects of brain function, although in ways that are not yet understood”. True. However, the last phrase could equally have been “in ways that are evident, measureable, but not yet fully understood”. (For all the quotations, please search on Kindle).
He also makes a strong point about the reality of race: “with mixed race populations, such as African Americans, 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 is also very good on the reigning doctrinal orthodoxy: “The social scientists’ official view of race is designed to support the political view that genetics cannot possibly be the reason why human societies differ – the answer must lie exclusively in differing human cultures and the environment that produced them”. “From this point of view it follows that more complex societies owe their greater strength or prosperity solely to fortunate accidents such as that of geography. The recent discoveries that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional, severely undercuts the social scientists’ official view of the world because they establish that genetics may have played a possibly substantial role alongside culture in shaping the differences between human populations”.
Wade further laments that the fact that sometimes a whole field of scholars drift politically to the Left or Right. University departments currently lean almost exclusively to the Left. It should not matter in any science worthy of the name, but it tends to influence grant applications and promotion, leading to self-censorship and to distortions in debate and a drop in research quality.
Wade argues that opposition to racism is now well entrenched, and even makes the large claim that “it is hard to conceive of any circumstance that would reverse or weaken this judgment, particularly any scientific evidence”. I sometimes think that is the case, and that individuals will be judged solely on their merits. I also believe that genocides rarely require any scientific evidence, and can be easily started by pointing out that some minority group has more money and power, for some presumed nefarious reason. The Hutus did not lay into the Tutsis because of a profound knowledge of the genome. However, I could never be sure that the next big fight will be on national or religious lines, and not on racial ones. Race has malign advantages when organising a fight, in that you do not have to spend time explaining ideological or religious issues, but can just point to your presumed opponents.
However, Wade misses the main point: freedom means that you should be able to find out what is true because finding the truth is intrinsically better than being mistaken. If, as seems likely, data emerges to show that there is a large genetic component in intellectual ability and that this varies between racial groups, this could be used for foul purposes. The Hutus might lay into the Tutsis (or the other way around, though it is generally the bright minority who get attacked) with renewed vigour once it is made clear that they are intrinsically brighter. Knowledge can be used to do bad things. The scientific ideal is that we should push on with discovery nonetheless, making sure that our results are presented soberly, with due reference to error terms and limitations. We must be clear that knowledge has risks, but that ignorance is worse.
Wade then gets into further silliness: “If researchers should one day find a gene that enhances intelligence in East Asians, say, they can hardly argue on that basis that East Asians are more intelligent than other races, because hundreds of similar genes remain to be discovered in Europeans or Africans.” In fact, researchers would say: “We have found a specific gene which explains X% of the reason why East Asians are brighter than Europeans. We now want to find the other genes which explain the rest of the difference”. In his next paragraph Wade changes tack somewhat, saying “Even if all the intelligence-enhancing variants in each race had been identified, no one would try to compute intelligence on the basis of genetic information: it would be easier just to apply an intelligence test. But IQ tests already exist, for what they are worth”.
In fact, computing intelligence on the basis of genetic information is exactly what researchers are doing at the moment. Currently the match with IQ results is very poor, because understanding how genes bring about the brain changes which lead to intelligent behaviours is very complicated, though very interesting. Once the match gets to be good, then those calculations will be possible. Why not admit that? Final point here, dear readers of Psychological Comments: it is so tedious when authors pander to their audience by attacking IQ. Cut it out, Wade.
Then he digs himself deeper. “A higher IQ score doesn’t make East Asians morally superior to other races”. In fact, that is an empirical question. Rindermann found that higher IQ countries (not just East Asian ones) tended to be more moral, less corrupt, more humane and more liberal in their approach to human freedoms. One can certainly argue that intelligence does not guarantee morality, but that is a different point. Wade is trying too hard not to scare the horses.
And then more: “The notion that any race has the right to dominate others or is superior in any absolute sense can be firmly rejected as a matter of principle and, being rooted in principle, is unassailable by science”. I think that the “domination” of one person by another, let alone one race by another, however true in reality, is something which can be objected to by reference to a moral principle: you should not behave like that to other people because it is wrong, full stop. I agree with that view, as a matter of moral preference on my part. There may well be a quid pro quo in a practical sense, in that if I behave well to others I hope they will reciprocate, but that is an additional benefit, and morality should not depend on it.
How about “superior in any absolute sense”? Can that notion be firmly rejected as a matter of principle, and be unassailable by science? It is pretty clear that European Jews are brighter than Europeans and brighter than East Asians, so it seems very likely that they are intellectually superior in an absolute sense. We can compare them on other measures as well: crime rates, social involvement, charitable giving and so on. I think they would come out pretty well, and even higher if we were to include joke telling. They may well be superior in an absolute sense, and to have achieved that by the very careful choice of marriage partners over many generations. If true, they are superior and worth emulating.
Except, of course, in the 100-meter race. West Africans do better than all comers including, I presume, Jews. Racial differences in sport are obvious, and offer an entrance point to the discussion of racial difference because most of the competitions involve absolute measures: one person runs faster than another, throws an object further than another, and so on and the winners are clear to see.
Wade continues in an explanatory and reassuring vein, both of which are required in the current academic atmosphere, as well we know. “The genetics of race will inevitably reveal differences, some of which will show  that one race has some slight edge over another in a specified trait. But this kind of inquiry will also establish a wider and more important truth, that all differences between races are variations on a common theme.” Really? What if it turns out, as it may well do, that one race has a considerable “edge” over another race in a highly valuable trait such as intelligence? What then?
“Genes do not determine human behaviour; they merely predispose people to act in certain ways. Genes explain a lot, probably far more than is at present understood or acknowledged. But their influence in most circumstances is or can be overwhelmed by learned behaviour, or culture”. On the first comment, I agree that neither genes nor environments determine human behaviour. Humans are agents and make decisions. As to the second assertion, I don’t know how confident we can be about genetic versus situational variables. What Wade has said is probably right, but it does not have to be right. We might find that, even in the most beneficial cultures, some genetic groups are more of a nuisance than others. What then?
Finally, Wade comes to his central assertion, which I reproduce in full:
“Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value. The emerging truth is more complicated. Human nature is very similar throughout the world. But though people are much the same, their societies differ greatly in their structure, their institutions and their achievements. Contrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more than other cultures in many significant spheres and has done so because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy”.
“Some societies have achieved much more than others, perhaps through minor differences in social behaviours. A question to be explored is whether such differences have been shaped by evolution.”
“Race may be a troublesome inheritance inheritance, but better to explore and understand its bearing on human nature and history than to pretend for reasons of political convenience that it has no evolutionary basis”.
“Tribal societies are organised on the basis of kinship and differ from modern states chiefly in that people’s radius of trust does not extend too far beyond the family and tribe”
As regards economic disparities Wade asks why some previously poor countries have been successful in becoming wealthy, and others have not. He certainly understands that there are cultural differences, as anyone who quotes the success of South Korea implicitly accepts. Say what you like about North Korea, it is one hell of a controlled experiment. “In the natural experiment provided by the two Koreas, the people are the same in both countries, so it must be bad institutions that keep North Koreans poor and good ones that make South Koreans prosperous” (18 times more so). A marshy island called Singapore ends up rich, and resource-rich Nigeria remains poor (and very populous). Could this be because of any differences between Chinese and African peoples? Frigid Iceland does better than balmy Haiti. Is the climate entirely to blame?
Wade’s point is that the free flow of ideas, not least of all about economics, should predict a rapid convergence of national economies, and thereby of wealth. Convergence is not the case at the moment, or certainly not at the speed expected since the decade of liberation from colonial rule.
“Institutions are not just sets of arbitrary rules. Rather, they grow out of instinctual social behaviours, such as the propensity to trust others, to follow rules and punish those who don’t, to engage in reciprocity and trade, or to take up arms against neighbouring groups. Because these behaviours vary slightly from one society to the next as the result of evolutionary pressures, so too may the institutions that depend on them.” Hence, argues Wade, some of the difficulties encountered by Western countries in Iraq and in their expectations of the Arab Spring.
Talking of the perversions of science, Wade says that the central premise of racism is that there is an ordered hierarchy of races, and that distinguishes it from ethnic prejudice. Why? I assumed that racism was incorrect views of other people based on their genetics, and was thus a particular example of a general propensity to prejudice.
William Hazlitt (1830) remarked: Prejudice is prejudging any question without having sufficiently examined it, and adhering to our opinion upon it through ignorance, malice or perversity, in spite of every evidence to the contrary.
What I like about Hazlitt’s definition is that it serves for everything and everybody. Distinguishing between pre-judgment and valid judgment is a process of examination of evidence, with honesty and promptness when one needs to change one’s mind. It is criterion based: you must aim to be as close to the truth as possible. I would rather stick with Hazlitt than fret about where racism shades into ethnic prejudice, particularly when “racism” is used so widely without necessarily matching its original historical meaning, which Wade is explaining here. As Hazlitt remarked further on in his essay ‘On Prejudice’: “Thus, the difference of colour in a black man was thought to forfeit his title to belong to the species, till books of voyages and travels, and old Fuller's quaint expression of 'God's image carved in ebony,' have brought the two ideas into a forced union, and men of colour are no longer to be libelled with impunity.”
And on that very point of not having sufficiently examined a question and adhering to it through ignorance, malice or perversity, all those researchers working in the field of intelligence who have been plagued with the malign influence of Stephen Jay Gould will be particularly pleased to see how Wade most expeditiously disposes of his slander about Morton’s skull measurements:
“There are two lessons to be drawn from the Morton-Gould imbroglio. One is that scientists, despite their training to be objective observers, are as fallible as anyone else when their emotions or politics are involved, whether they come from the right or, as in Gould’s case, from the left. A second is that, despite the failings of some scientists, science as a knowledge-generating does tend to correct itself, though often only after considerable delay.” (In fact this particular error was spotted early, but repeated endlessly. The last repetition of the slander I came across was by a Professor in a stem cell laboratory two months ago. He admitted in our subsequent correspondence: “I was vaguely aware that there had been much subsequent discussion about the accuracy of Morton’s measurements”). Naturally, we often trust what we read in well-written popular books. Nota bene.
Wade succinctly summarises disparate sources to make a case for evolutionary change, describing the move to agriculture (after 185,000 years of hunter-gathering), Malthusian limits to growth, Darwin’s notion of natural selection, Gregory Clark’s work on the selective survival of children of the rich (and therefore probably the bright and industrious) , the industrialisation of England and Europe (after 15,000 years of agriculture), the rise and fall of China, Islam and Europe, which was semi-tribal in 1000 AD but well ahead in exploration and learning by 1500 AD. Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending’s 10,000 Year Explosion gets well merited coverage.
His coverage of the American version of the dysgenics movement is coruscating, and the path to German National Socialism clear. Forced sterilization in the US encouraged the same in Germany, and that led to gassing of handicapped children, a progression laid out by Robert Jay Lifton in his study of Nazi doctors in 1986. In contrast, British eugenicists just talked, mostly about encouraging the bright to have more children, and their few attempts at eugenic legislation floundered. In a book about genetics Wade does not have to list the abuses which have sprung from the Blank Slate hypothesis in the hands of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Ideas can be dangerous. Wade does not grasp the nettle: can a society freely decide on eugenics, and benefit from it?
Wade’s account of the importance of the sclera, the prominent white of the eye which the human monkey enjoys and the other monkeys do not, is a delight. The sclera is not a social construct. It evolved, it would seem, “to stand out like a beacon, signalling to any observer the direction of a person’s gaze and hence what thoughts may be on their mind”. I had never thought of that. Wade points out that signalling to an enemy what is on your mind is a liability, so there must have been a compensating advantage of overwhelming magnitude: allowing humans to infer what group members were thinking just by seeing the direction of their gaze.
Blushing is another visible signal shaped up by evolution. It is not a social construct but the self-mortifying signal of embarrassment, and neither are shame and guilt only social constructs, but vivid penalties for our own social failings as members of our tribe, part of our inheritance.
In discussing the distinctive human virtue of cooperation, Wade reports on Tomasello’s charming demonstrations of unprompted, unrewarded helpfulness in 18 month old children. Tomasello argues these urges are based on shared intentionality, an instinctive human trait, which emerges without being trained, and is not sensitive to rewards. Kids just want to be helpful, and also want other children to follow the rules of games. Two other common human predispositions are to criticize and if necessary punish those who do not follow social norms. (Don’t write books about inheritance). “Another is to bolster one’s own reputation, presenting oneself as an unselfish and valuable follower of the group’s norms” an exercise that may also involve finding fault with others. (Don’t speak well of people who write books about inheritance).
Other topics covered include: the creation of social trust, role of oxytocin and its limited radius of trust; Dmitriy Belyaev developing strains of sociable and unsociable rats by selection from the same strain of Siberian rats (does not mention that Broadhurst had done the same in the 60s and found you could selectively breed anxious rats and after 16 generation could relax selection within the new breed without alteration to the underlying traits); the heritability of aggression in humans “but very few of the genes that underlie aggression have yet been identified, in part because when many genes control a behaviour, each has so small an effect that it is hard to detect “; the role of MAO-A genes in aggression and in racial comparisons.
At this point Wade makes an interesting argument about the methodology of gene-behaviour interactions: among African American men (the most studied of Africans anywhere) the 5% that carried two MAO-A promoters were more likely to have been arrested and imprisoned than those African American who carry three or four promoters. Only 0.1% of Caucasian males carry such two promoters. Wade cautions that no conclusions can be drawn about racial difference because, apart from the need for replication, a large number of genes are involved in controlling aggression. True. However, the argument is back to front. The first step is to accurately measure the rates of aggressive behaviour for males of different backgrounds. This has been done in the US, and African American men are significantly more aggressive, probably 7 times more so. Any genes which are differentially present when compared with Chinese, Mexican, and European men are candidate genes for explaining the difference. The identification of one gene does not prove the case, but it could be one part of a general picture which explains an observed difference in violence. Wade does end that paragraph, after the cautions, saying “important aspects of human social behaviour traits are likely to vary from one race to another, sometimes significantly so”.
Lactose tolerance is given as an example of how raising cattle and drinking milk can “work into the genome” by means of favouring lactose tolerate individuals who then leave ten times more descendants through the generations, until their tribal genome is somewhat different from before.
“The aggressive and independent nature of hunter-gatherers, 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. A foraging society that turns to agriculture must develop a whole new set of institutions to coordinate people in the unaccustomed labour of sowing and harvesting crops.” In a word, like their animals, humans had to become “domesticated”.
So strong is the fashion for denying race that forensic scientists, who are asked to assign recovered skulls of victims to racial groups to help the police trace the victim, do the task quickly (with about 80% accuracy) and then obsess about how to describe their results without admitting race. “Population stratification” seems to fit the bill. Equally, it is now so easy to assign race and mixed parentage from DNA that an obfuscation is thought to be required. Rather than say “race is in the genes” they murmur “We have used AIMs” (Ancestry Informative Markers). Incidentally, when a few years ago the UK National Health Service decided to admit that the analysis of blood should take into account racial background because there was a 20% difference in the diagnostic level on a particular measure, they added to that test result the phrase “Multiply by 1.2 if of Black African descent”. Come on, it’s Darwinian!
“Races are a way station on the path through which evolution generates new species. The environment keeps changing, and organisms will perish unless they adapt.”
This entire section is a very useful summary of population genetics, and well worth a read.
Wade has fun with Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel. I claim a prize for reading the whole thing whilst having worked out on page 19 that it was a tendentious polemic, but one from which I thought I could learn something. He takes apart Diamond’s contrived view that race is mainly about skin colour rather than a cluster of criteria, and his specious selective examples about malaria resistance. However, the Diamond book has had an influence on a generation, so it is fun to see another soon-to-be-popular book giving reply 17 years later. Wade also exposes Lewontin’s claim that the amount of variation between racial populations is so small as to be negligible. I sometimes fear that Lewontin will last for ever in public debate (together with Stephen Jay Gould) and that the first communication from outer space will be “Are you the planet that gave us Lewontin’s fallacy?” It is the correlation structure of the differences between the populations which has so much of the impact, as AWF Edwards noted, but the misunderstanding has cast a baleful shadow.
Wade tells our human story very well. It has a good pace (evolution is so slow, so the narrative depends on multiple exposures speeded up into a film). Continents separate, glaciers come and go, and small bands of hunter-gatherers live mostly local lives, developing their particular traits as a consequence of relative isolation. Sex was local for a very long time, and as a consequence each tribe developed their particular flavours.
By chapter 6 Wade starts his discussion on the evolution of societies and institutions. This is more general territory, as far as I am concerned, and harder for me to judge as a psychologist. It is a very good read, and probably correct, and he develops the case for institutions growing out of the people who make them, rather than the other way round, thought the institutions, once made, can partly guide how descendants behave. I believe that institutions, although they can sometimes last a long time, essentially are creatures of people. If the institutions do not suit the local flavours of human nature they either alter very significantly or collapse.
The chapters that follow are very good summaries of relevant genetic-related descriptions of human history. They flesh out the hypothesis that: “It’s the people, stupid”. Indeed, you could almost summarise it with the wry Argentine joke about Archangel Gabriel arriving back from the making of the world and explaining that he has spent all his time making only one country, giving it mountain ranges, precious metals, wide rivers and the largest quantity of fertile alluvial soil in the world. God rebukes him for having favoured one country above all others. Gabriel replies: Wait until you see what sort of people I have placed there.
Interestingly, he shows how important downward social mobility can be. Clark’s hypothesis is that the greater rate of children surviving wealthy parents (probably brighter, restrained and hard-working) coupled with the lack of opportunity in an agrarian society led to humble jobs being done by bright people. Their diligent intellects provided the head of steam for the English phenomenon of the industrial revolution.
The book continues fleshing out that which had been outlined in the first chapters. Perhaps Wade has succumbed to the American habit of over-filled plates and fat books. No matter, all this stuff will be new to many people, as it was new to us recently. I record here some of the many points of interest. The larger point is that Wade is attempting a gesamtkunstwerk: nothing less than a thinking man’s Guns, Germs and Steel but with genetics and intelligence being given a chance to attend the party. I enjoyed reading these “continuation and amplification” chapters, and hope others will read them, but I would not want to die in a ditch to defend each and every interpretation. Fun, though.
Wade criticizes Pinker’s decision to reject the genetic explanation for a decrease in violence. It might be a contributor, inconvenient as that explanation might be to some social narratives. If this book has any impact, it will be to make it de rigueur to consider genetic variables as a factor in all behavioural observations.
Wade is too quickly dismissive of the data on national intelligence results and economic and social progress, saying the direction of causation is unclear. However, he instances only one set of arguments about Eastern European immigrants doing better on tests when they move to richer countries, and not contrary arguments such as the large expenditures on education in the Gulf not translating into higher scholastic attainments. In other parts of his own book he backs Thomas Sowell’s accounts of immigrant Japanese and Chinese doing well wherever they go: Hawaii, California, Brazil; and rightly points out that Sowell (always worth reading) avoids the obvious step of considering whether there is a genetic component in these diligent and bright East Asian immigrants, whose fellow nationals at home score so well on intelligence tests and scholastic attainments.
Wade considers the low achievements/high IQ of East Asians as a vast counter-example to Lynn’s thesis but this is simply explained by other parts of the Wade text: Japan is in fact very rich and not short of achievements, and China is getting rich fast and will do that even faster when, and if, it gets better institutions. Also, personality variables should get a mention. Japanese are more open to experience than Chinese, whose curiosity is submerged under social conformity.
Perhaps I am getting page turning fatigue, but it seems that later on Wade sees through all the “it’s the institutions wot won it” explanations he was backing earlier (perhaps it was just a straw man), and now says that the institutional explanation is weak and derivative and the best explanation is human evolution.
Wade has a good section on Jewish accomplishment. This familiar ground bears repeating, and when the Culture Explains All hypothesis rears its head Wade tartly rejoins: If Jewish advantage were purely cultural there would be little to prevent others from copying it. My derived variant is: If Jewish accomplishment were solely based on the child rearing skills of Jewish mothers, we would all have accepted adoption by now.
Chapter 9 is about the rise of the West, and contains a natural experiment I did not realise had taken place. Historian of science Huff explained that in 1608 a Dutch spectacle maker invented the telescope and within a few decades this spread around the world, thus putting all cultures on an even footing, allowing them to look up to the stars and come to some conclusions. For once, there was a level playing field. In Muslim India the calendar was revised, but the Ptolemaic system was retained and no telescopes were built for a century. In the Muslim Ottoman empire telescopes fared no better. They reached Istanbul by 1626, were used in the navy, but no improved telescopes or observatories were built, nor were European astronomy texts translated, and no debates took place about what the telescope revealed. China probably got the telescope in 1618 and recognised it helped predict astronomical events more precisely, as avidly demonstrated by Jesuits who were using it to drum up converts. The Emperor noted their successes, but he and his court had no interest in European research, despite the Jesuits feeding them all the relevant material. In Europe an Italian, hearing a description of the new device, built one himself, turned it to the heavens and observed the moons of Jupiter, used the existence of those satellites to provide empirical evidence in favour of the theory that planets were satellites of the sun, and thus favoured the helio-centric solar system hypothesis. This got him into trouble with the local religion, but his ideas shot across Europe anyway, starting a scientific revolution. However, he lacked a proof, even though he had the wit to use a pendulum as a timing device (but not as an earth bound indicator of the earth’s rotation). Just as well that, when shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition, Galileo Galilei thought it prudent to recant his views (in public at least). Europeans were innovative, outward looking, eager to develop and apply new knowledge and sufficiently open, eventually, to have a revolution in thought. Elsewhere there was a deficit of curiosity.
Europe, constituting only 7% of the world’s landmass ruled 35% of it by 1800 and 84% by 1914. All of that, driven mostly by curiosity and the hope of gold. Adam Smith thought that “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice”. The great man was wrong in this particular, thinking that he could judge universal human nature on the basis of the Scots. They are a troublesome tribe, and it would be imprudent to regard them as the norm of humankind. Only in Europe was the magic formula of peace, easy taxes and justice achieved, and on that basis they ruled the world, if only for a century or so, because open knowledge was openly given away.
Good to see Wade give the great David Landes a mention. In one of his most crucial passages, on page 516 of “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” (how marvellous it is when someone else picks out the very paragraph one remembers as a pivotal point in a magnificent work) he finds that all the explanations about national wealth fail, except one: “culture, in the sense of the inner values and attitudes that guide a population, frightens scholars. It has a sulphuric odour of race and inheritance, an air of immutability”. Landes, as I politely told him (but in that former age only through his publishers, so I never heard his answer) ducked making the last step. Culture is a collection of habits created by individuals. Under the force of the current reigning Inquisition people felt they could not say aloud: “It’s the people, stupid”. Obvious, but not to be noticed or mentioned. Now, finally, it looks as if it can be mentioned. Wade points out that Europeans had at least 1000 years largely on their own to develop their own flavours of person, the Chinese 2000 years. The argument that the differences are cultural is of limited utility. If culture was really the key a Jewish Moma or an East Asian Tiger Mum, or child rearing guides based on Jewish or Confucian principles, should have an immediate beneficial impact on all racial groups. Worth a controlled trial, surely, when so much is at stake?
Wade points out that English and Chinese expatriate populations have behaved at a similar level to their source populations over many centuries, and a genetic anchor may explain this, and also explain why it is hard for other populations to imitate them. Malay, Thai and Indonesian cultures resent the Chinese, when the smarter move would be to imitate them, if they can manage to.
Chapter 10 is about evolutionary perspectives on race. Wade opens with a striking image: an African, a European and an East Asian are standing on a hill and by some mysterious compression of evolutionary time find that their mothers, grand-mothers, great-grandmothers and so on are standing in line down the hill, 3 foot apart, so 4 generations representing 100 years take only 12 feet to walk, and every 120 feet a thousand years. If you walk down your ancestral line (nodding respectfully to all your ancestral mothers while noting the changes in their features) you find that after 3,600 feet the European mother line and the Asian mother line converge, and after 5,280 feet the mixed European/East Asian lineage deriving from an adventurous hunting party merge with the longer-established African lineage from which it sprung. (My own version of this day dream, not as good as Wade’s, involved everyone walking back the maternal line to the Rift Valley, where I imagined that everyone would get on well and chat to each other but, humans being humans, would not want to have anything to do with the Neanderthals).
This chapter is good, and summarises the case for regarding the culture-only view of human nature as being in need of significant revision. “The slow march of evolution exerts an unseen collar on the pace of history”.
This book has much in it which can, once and for all, engage general readers in the case for a genetic contribution to human accomplishments. As such it may bring to the surface of everyday discussion the conversations currently restricted to the corridors outside the main conference hall of public debate. A distorted and often contorted set of arguments about race has received a serious challenge, and that is a welcome development.
Back to Hazlitt’s essay On Prejudice: The absence of proof, instead of suspending our judgment, only gives us an opportunity of making things out according to our wishes and fancies; mere ignorance is a blank canvas, on which we lay what colours we please, and paint objects black or white, as angels or devils, magnify or diminish them at our option; and in the vacuum either of facts or arguments, the weight of prejudice and passion falls with double force, and bears down everything before it.
Currently, the discouragement of genetic explanations for human behaviour leaves a blank canvas on which others can paint at will. The religionists of the environment give full reign to their wishes and fancies, crowding out other portraits of humankind. The study of the genetics of group differences has been cast as a dubious procedure, an example of prejudicial attitudes and malign intentions. Conversely, any proposal that human difference is due to the environment is judged as being fundamentally good. Hazlitt’s stricture that we must not prejudge any question without having sufficiently examined it certainly applies to Blank Slateism, still a dominant force in academic and political discourse.
Will “A Troublesome Inheritance” have as much impact as the un-banning of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” which is generally credited with ushering in the Swinging Sixties and the permissive age? Richard Hoggart, the star witness at the trial, confirmed it had achieved that status, and Philip Larkin gave it the final seal of approval:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
It would be great if open discourse about race were to begin in two thousand and fourteen. It would be great if neither discussion nor data about race were curtailed, censored or distorted. It would be great, for example, if those who mentioned race when protesting about differential arrest rates would also give the races of perpetrators as described by victims.
I hope people read this book. Wade has done a sterling job of preparing the general reader for the genetic age. Virtually all our social science research is genetics-free. A whole structure of Blank Slate-ism is going to have to be taken down, funeral by funeral. As cohorts begin to enter studies with their full genome already sequenced, genetic explanations will turn out to account for some or much of the variance currently attributed, in a rather vague but possessive way, to “the environment”. At a guesstimate, one third of health outcomes may be related to genetic variables and the same may be true for behaviour.
This is a good book, and it may seem churlish, given the flak Wade may get for saying things that are demonstrably true, to point out that it could have been even better. He is doing his best not to frighten his readers, brought up to assume that any interest in genetics will lead them into racial wars and even the gas chambers, if not the killing fields of Pol Pot. The notion of the blank slate has also caused much human misery, and plain ignorance is often even more dangerous than any theory. Public education has a long way to go, made even longer when so many in academia choose to resist genetics as an explanation for anything.
However, even when a good book opens out the possibility of a welcome shift in the zeitgeist towards a more open discussion of genetics as a cause of human differences, we must continue to carp, churl, complain and nit-pick our way through every page of it, so that, in the Western tradition of the Enlightenment we may eventually arrive at that least error prone temporary conclusion we call the truth.