Reviewing Nicholas Wade’s troublesome book


I have written a review of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, for Boston Review. Because there already are a lot of reviews published, I also included discussion of the response to the book. And because I’m not expert in genetics and evolution, I got to do a pile of reading on those subject as well. I hope you’ll have a look:

5 thoughts on “Reviewing Nicholas Wade’s troublesome book

  1. I believe that this review should never have been published; because it is full of howlers like:

    ” Probably most of the variation that emerged over thousands of years of separation was a result of random coding errors that stuck for no good reason.”

    Understanding of what caused the variation is major part of biological research. What is “Coding errors”?

    Your criticism is based on “the widely held belief that humans ceased evolving before the dawn of recorded history”. Who held that belief? Evolution in the last 10,000 years is an important part of a number of human characteristics such as resistance to malaria, lactose tolerance, has evolved in the last 10,000 years (as you note yourself later). Almost all autosomnal recessive inheritance happens in 50-100 generations. In fact, all genetic studies are based on mutation in the last 100-150 generations. There is such a large list of traits that have evolved in the last 200 generations that no one with a functional knowledge of biology will make such a claim.

    There are so many results of change in genome in the last 5000 years that I can list only a few here:
    Cohran “10,000 year explosion” represents a state of the art at 2009.

    The paragraphs on brain+children+pink color is just useless regarding genetics. I think you just slid that in because of your research in the use of pink color for girls.

    ” it is plausible that a human embryo from that era, grown in a modern womb and born into modern society, would adapt from birth in much the same way that infants do today and would grow to be a normal modern person.”

    What the hell? Is this even a plausible research topic? you compare humans born 10,000 years ago with international adoptions? At this point, all sensible relevance to genetics is totally lost. Babies born today have taken advantage of 10,000 year explosion in genetic evolution, and in no way comparable to a baby born 10K years ago.

    If A Troublesome Inheritance does drive Wade into scientific exile, —-, but of the unsubstantiated, inflammatory, insulting, and socially harmful aspects of his work.

    Wade into Scientific exile? He was a journalist.

    A book has socially harmful aspects?

    The book is vague, but this review is just terrible.


  2. A fine review. Yes, “coding errors” would be better as “mutations”, but that is a minor error in jargon, not a “howler”, and the intended meaning is obvious.

    The comment by “vijay” above seems equally off the mark with respect to most everything else, too. “In fact, all genetic studies are based on mutation in the last 100-150 generations.” Huh? So the work on genetic intermixing between humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans studies mutations that all occurred in the last 100-150 generations? Um, no. The Neanderthals went extinct approximately 30,000 years ago, the Denisovans perhaps even longer ago, and of course the mutations that constituted the points of divergence between humans, Neanderthals, and Denisovans must date back much earlier than that. (Speaking of Neanderthals and Denisovans, this is a point I would have liked to see you delve into in your review. Some of the biggest genetic differences among modern human populations are due to the fact that Europeans intermixed with Neanderthals, and some Asians intermixed with Denisovans, while Africans intermixed with neither. According to Wade’s idea that ancestral human lineages had genetics that rendered them more “tribal”, this means that Europeans and Asians should have had a substantial influx of “tribalism” genes, and should today be more tribal than Africans, not less. Wade’s hypothesis thus doesn’t even seem to be self-consistent, much less supported by current research.)

    And yes, a baby from 10,000 years ago would, according to everything we presently know about human genetics, be essentially indistinguishable from a modern human if raised by a modern human family. Less likely to be lactose-tolerant as an adult; but then, many modern humans are lactose-intolerant, too. Less likely to have white skin, perhaps; but then, many modern humans don’t have white skin. There’s no evidence whatsoever, from what I have read, that there would be any behavioral or cognitive differences at all. Lots of genetic variation in humans today dates to mutations in the last 10,000 years, yes; but almost all of that variation is in the form of rare genetic variants that will eventually be lost due to genetic drift, rather than in the form of fixed differences between populations resulting from divergent ecological selection – as the article that “vijay” cites points out, in fact.

    So, nice work. The more reviews debunking Wade’s book, the better, since there is no doubt whatsoever that it will be cited by people who want to use it for socially harmful purposes.


    1. “There’s no evidence whatsoever, from what I have read, that there would be any behavioral or cognitive differences at all.”

      where have you read this? First and foremost, I am not sure even if the baby would survive a few days because of lack of resistance to all the diseases that sprang up in 10,000 years.

      ” Lots of genetic variation in humans today dates to mutations in the last 10,000 years, yes; but almost all of that variation is in the form of rare genetic variants that will eventually be lost due to genetic drift, rather than in the form of fixed differences between populations resulting from divergent ecological selection”

      Please roll this back. This suggests total misunderstanding of science. There is no evidence all differences would be lost by genetic drift.


  3. Thanks, Ben! That Neanderthals / Denisovans angle is important. Funny (to me): I used the phrase “coding errors” tongue in cheek, but the joke was lost in the editing – in the original I had a riff on how Wade made that error about the number 14%, which actually appeared in three different contexts in the paragraph he was citing, so it seemed like one kind of DNA coding error that he copied the wrong 14%. Maybe the metaphor is wrong.


  4. Actually, Wade indication that recent evolution did happened is well-founded fact – a lot of genes shows signs of recent evolution and selection, and you actually admit that – 8% is large number no matter what.
    This place a lot for a genetical-based variance in between not just “racial” groups, but amongst ANY human group. Including between Poles from Greater Poland and from Lesser Poland, between Poles and Swedes, between northern Europeans and southern and so on.

    But it’s true that Wade writes nothing new – all his hypothesis were advanced in the past, sometimes by people like Darwin, Boas, Jensen and others. Your review is also nothing new – pretty much the same arguments which was applied years ago and which I read in discussions with 100% environmentalists (and come on: you, the statistician, you are trying to argue against slight differences in means, but invoking examples of individual successes? Males are not genetically higher than women, because good nutrition can provide boost to female height, and many females are higher than males? What kind of argument is that?!)

    Frankly, I do not know why you accuse Wade of racism. just because he writes a reasonable hypothesis and speculations. There is no proof that behavioural differences between human groups are related to gene frequency differences, but there is no proof against such hypothesis too; moreover, there is solid support for nurture-nature mix in case of behaviour variation within populations. Moreover, every ay of life selects for something (as it was nicely put by Clark); it is total wishful thinking to assume that in every society on earth, they have identical sets of genes contributing for behavioral differences. To explain why Wade’s speculations are valid, to use the most controversial case: we know intelligence is partially heritable within group (in a given environment -now confirmed by genetical studies). We don’t know all the genes involved and we may not know them ever. We know only few gene variants, each contributing a tiny bit to a variance. But for those gene variants we know, their distribution amongst human populations IS different. There may be other, yet unknown genes, with different distributions – but they are unknown, and for those known, to repeat, we have different frequencies.

    For MAOA, there are now more studies claiming different frequencies of relevant gene variants. E.g. “Monoamine oxidase A regulates antisocial personality in whites with nohistory of physical abuse”. All in all, if several studies more or less replicate the results, it’s hard to claim it’s just a statistical fluke. It does not mean that blacks are somehow innately more violent; it merely MAY mean that it is likely, that proportion of “blacks” who are more prone to negative effects of some environmental inputs is larger that similar proportion of “whites”. As one study put it nicely, genes provide the gun, but it’s environment which pulls the trigger. In other words, it may mean that blacks are simply more vulnerable to effects of poverty, racism, violence and so on.

    You should also read Clark’s paper explaining why 20 generations is more than enough for even weak selection to produce good changes. They describe their model in discussing the case of Amishes, mathematically describing a model in which modest selection pressure, small changes in fertility and so on and clearly very significant in the long run (meaning mere few hundred years). In fact, given all the facts and just logically thinking about that, it should be clear that the default hypothesis should be that gene frequency differences always will account for some part of differences between any too populations, no matter how small the populations are, and no matter how great is within-population variance in comparison to between-population variance.

    And finally, quoting a modern study, which did not control for the genes?? Any study which uses SES without controlling for genes is worthless. ( : 40% of the hippocampal variance was attributable to genetic influences ). SES is partially heritable. Meaning one expects to find hippocampus size differences even if there would be no effect of poverty at all, and the said differences would be results of genes alone (which is clearly not the case, since even the most hardcore hereditarians claim merely that it ‘s not environment alone, but thet genes play roles too).

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