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The Problems with Nicholas Wade’s "A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History"

A Troublesome Racial Smog

by ALAN GOODMAN

Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, is what the title suggests: a troubling view of human history.   A Troublesome Inheritance is troublesome, but not for the reason he proposes: his courageous telling of hard truths about genetic differences among races.

Rather, Wade’s lack of understanding of history, the social sciences, population genetics, and the scientific process is troublesome.   Not getting the basics right leads to his linking of all manner of lived inequalities to genetic differences among races.   His logical errors set the clock back more than a century on public understandings of human genetic variation.

Anti-immigration and White Supremacist websites are gobbling it up.  The book will doubtlessly sell many copies.  It will be harder to quantify the costs of its disinformation.

The fundamental errors of A Troublesome Inheritance are not even Wade’s geneticized and racialized speculations about wealth accumulation, governance, and cultural differences.  Those are symptoms of faulty starting points and assumptions.  These speculations follow from misunderstandings about most everything, including the idea of race, evolution and gene action, culture and institutions, and most fundamentally, the scientific process.

Races as genetically real groups are the principal actors in Mr. Wade’s world: They are the forces of history.  For centuries past, race was so used to explain human variation.  We now know better.  Unfortunately, Mr. Wade does not get the differences between the facts of human genetic variation and the idea of race, an old idea used to describe and explain variation.  He does not get that a static thing cannot be the cause of itself.  He does not get that correlation is not causation.

Wade says that scientist ought to just tell the truth.   And it just so happens that those that agree with his ideas tell the truth and those that disagree do not; they are vilified as politically blinded leftists or uninformed social scientists.  As a science pundit, Mr. Wade should recognize his own biases.

Wade starts off not knowing the fundamental difference between a fact and a theory, proceeds in the wrong directions and because of that, his explanations are not even on the map of right and wrong.   Garbage in à garbage out.

Race Human Variation

Wade invokes genetics as formative of biology, brains, behavior, and human history at two levels: genes and alleles that we share as a species and alleles that occur in different frequencies in different so called races.  Yes, as a species we all have the same genes, and the forms of those genes (alleles) are doubtlessly responsible for quite a bit.

The use of genetics that sends reverbs of racisms down my spine is not so much the above universal kind, but rather, the kind that is racialized.

Mr. Wade provides some necessary caveats and disclaimers and then argues flat out that separate evolution of the races has lead to deep genetic differences among them.  Although humans only left Africa relatively recently, Mr. Wade assert repeatedly that the races have since been isolated.  Their differences are now clear to the eye and just as profound below the skin: in brains and hormones and even in our temperaments, institutions and forms of governance (p 4, 10, 66).

Does that sound familiar?  Sure.  It is a touch of Arthur Jensen’s 1969 argument that education programs fails because of genetic differences in intelligence among the races, an argument that is recapitulated in 1994 in Herrnstein and Murray’s, “The Bell Curve,” a book that reached number two on the New York Times list of non-fiction best sellers.  It harks back to the 1916 diatribe “The Passing of the Great Race” in which Madison Grant argued that US culture and the white way of life was under threat because of immigration of biologically inferior peoples. (Interestingly, Wade takes Grant to task.)  It reminds us of 19th century anthropology textbooks that tried to explain cultural forms by reverting to the biology of race.  Wade, in his later chapters, reminds us of Comte de Gobineau’s 19th century rants on the primordial differences among the races and the superiority of the Aryan race.

Mr. Wade reminds us of how Linnaeus relied on traveller’s tales to describe races in the middle of the 18th century by appearances, temperament, and governance: Euopaeus with eyes blue and governed by laws; Asiactus with eyes dark haughty and ruled by opinions; Afar with hair frizzled, anointed with grease and governed by caprice. Thank you, Mr. Wade, for reminding us about the essentialist roots of the idea of race.

To correct the record, the following are key, widely held points about race and human variation that everyone should know, not least a science pundit.

1. Human biological variation is wonderfully complex and sometimes geographically patterned.

2. Race is an idea that was invented and reified, made real by constant use, to describe the human variation. Race is an 18th century typological, pre-evolutionary, way to arrange that data.

3. The idea of race fails to explain the structure of human variation. For almost three centuries scientists have tried to fit human variation to three or more races.  But the long attempt failed.  Mr. Wade’s biggest error is his inability to separate the data on human variation from race.  Personal note 1: I once tried for nearly an hour to explain this point to Mr. Wade.

4. Wade claims that his is a new and unexplored theory.  However, if you check Google Scholar and your library and you’ll find shelves of books and science articles going back centuries that try to fit human variation into races.   Race simply does not account for and explain human variation.

5. Because race is an outmoded and ineffective way to describe human variation, most of us scientist do not use race in that way.  As an explanation for human variation, race is a tautology.  It would be a shame to use the 18th century hammer of race when we have more useful tools: computers, multivariate statistics, and mounds of genetic data.  This advance is significant because a more fine-grained analysis of human variation helps medicine and other efforts to understand human variation and can get at the actual cause of the variation.

6. Human variation is the result of history and evolution.  We vary because of the historical events that have lead to merging and movement and because of local selection events.

7. Race is an historical and social reality.  Living in a racial society has many consequences, including differences in heath and wealth.  It is fundamentally important for researchers to be able to clearly understand when differences are due to genes or to the consequences of living in a racialized society.  Wade seems to assume that all he sees is due to genes.  For examples, Europeans are genetically adapted to civilization and Jews especially adapted to mercantile capitalism.  Wade ignores a large body of studies of the consequences of living in a racial society.

A Troubling Inheritance notwithstanding, we have moved on from the centuries old search for the biological races.   Wade does not cite data that shows that genetic variation among groups is essentially a function of distance, and he does not cite evidence of greater genetic variation within Africans than between Africans and non-Africans.

Race Culture and History

Imagine a billiard table with three balls.  One is white, another is yellow and the third is brown.  That billiard table is the world and the balls are the three races.  In this, Wade’s rendition of human history, the three race balls have distinct essences.  The three balls roll around the globe, independent of each other.  One might role into another and the collision might lead to scratches.  These scratches at contact points do not change the essential cultural and genetic nature of the balls.  Their essence is intact.   But this essentialist and static view of the world is wrong on a genetic level and especially misses in its understanding of history and culture.

Mr. Wade’s ideas about culture reads like a mix of mysticism and sociobiology.  Culture, for Wade, is a sort of received wisdom with a genetic basis.  Culture is mainly used by Mr. Wade as a foil to genetics as a cause of racial differences and inequalities.  Mr. Wade basically says to us “Look, culture isn’t much so how could it be so important?”

One huge problem is that each race is seen as having a single culture. These race/cultures behave like those billiard balls.  But that isn’t what archaeology and history finds.  Cultures are open systems made up of ideas, peoples and material objects, all changing, morphing, and interacting.   Cultures change as wholes and in parts sometimes in ways that make adaptive sense and sometimes not.  Culture contact is a constant.

Wade sees a world of differences and inequalities and comes to two possible explanations: genes or culture. Culture has a genetic underbelly and is dismissed.  But there is a third, explanation: political-economic processes.  These are the diverse ways in which societies come into contact, may differ in physical and ideological power, and the result may be the flow of resources from one society to another.  If this sounds like colonialism, or slavery, or global inequalities, that’s good as it should.   Local cultures and ecologies make a difference in the specifics of these processes.  That said, those with more overt and ideological power tend to do better in the end.  The global playing field has never been flat.

Science 101

A Troubling Inheritance provides an opportunity to consider a number of key issues about the scientific process and links between science and society.   After all, science, rather than being separate from society, is to benefit us and is itself a set of social institutions.  A Troubling Inheritance is essentially unimportant as science but very important because of what it implies about politics and society.

On page one Wade first states “the fact of race.”  He dismisses all social scientist as not understanding real science, mislabels scientists such as Jared Diamond as social scientists, and selectively dismisses other important scientists such as Richard Lewontin that disagree with him as being politically blinded Marxists.

The American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) statement on race is twice mentioned and twice dismissed.  The AAA is dismissed as a social science association (p. 4) and part of the social science creed (p 5).  In fact, members of the AAA include social and biological scientists. The AAA statement was crafted by a wide variety of anthropologists, including myself.

A quote from Race: Are We So Different? is similarly dismissed.  Personal note 2: I am a former president of the AAA, the lead author of the book, and a biological scientist.  I received a bachelors of science in biology, pre-doctoral fellowship in stress physiology, a Ph.D. in biological anthropology, and postdoctoral training in dental histology and international nutrition.  I’ve been a faculty member in the School of Natural Sciences for thirty years and a dean of that school.  I’ve received grants for my scientific research from NIH and NSF and publications in lots of science journals.

Like every scientist, I have my biases and blind spots.  Like every scientist, my ideas about the world influence my science.  They influence the big and small choices we make, the types of questions we ask, and how we pursue the answers to those questions.  How could it not?  We scientists are humans.

As a scientist, my science first has to be solid, repeatable and credible. It has to be that way; if the science is not right then the implications will not work.  Then, secondly, I hope, the science might lead, in some way, to a better life, particularly to those that inordinately do not have kind lives.

Wade is as politically influenced as I am.  Moreover, as a reporter, one would hope he would be held accountable to his politics.  Did his politics influence the way he sees human variation and race?  I don’t know.  I am at a loss to understand how he could be so far off the map of right and wrong.

A Troubling Inheritance shines a bright light on a missed opportunity.  Mr. Wade missed a chance to blend together the social and biological sciences in a 21st century way.  Had he better understood contemporary philosophy of science, history, political-economy, archaeology and cultural anthropology, his book could have been scientifically credible.  He might have realized that it is the intersections of genes, environments, cultures and organisms that anthropologists and other scientists find so fascinating.

Wade proclaims himself as riding the horse of a new truth and cleansing the woebegone scientific community of the idea that racial genetics is invalid and of little consequence (p 1-15).  He neatly combines the tropes of new and truthfulness.  He cites the economist Paul Samuelson as saying that knowledge advances funeral by funeral (p 6).  That may be part of the scientific process.  But when ideas have power they are often resurrected.  As Wade’s book demonstrates, race-as-genetics is an idea that lives on and is constantly resuscitated.  The typological, folk idea occasionally gets a new makeover, but it is the same deep down.  It reemerges because it allows those in power to sleep better.

Personal note 3: I co-direct the AAA’s public education project on race (understandingrace.org), with core funding from the National Science Foundation. Visitors to the website and museum exhibit seem to understand how the idea of race was invented, how human variation came about, and that we live in racial smog.  They get that the lived experience of race hurts all of us. My classes and lecture audiences also seem to get these truths.  I sometimes think I can stop and move on.  I would love to devote more time to other science projects.  And then, sadly, more racial smog rolls in.

Alan Goodman is Prof. of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College. He can be reached at: agoodman@hampshire.edu.