Evolved: Nicholas Wade critique trilogy complete

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Philip Cohen from Flickr Creative Commons.

After writing a book review, and further critique of Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, I have completed the trilogy with a piece forthcoming in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The final article includes much of what was in the earlier pieces but edited, with more sources, and with additional material on the social science context. I have posted a pre-publication version here as, “Troubling race in the social sciences.”

Here is the conclusion:

It may be the case, as Freese (2008:S1) claims, that “the vast majority of individual-level outcomes of abiding sociological interest are genetically influenced to a substantial degree.” And it may be true that the historical migration and dispersion of people around the planet has resulted in genetically identifiable clusters that sometimes follow the contours of commonly understood races. But it does not follow that genetics explains the relative status and wellbeing of today’s racially-identified groups or their societies. In fact, these two lines of inquiry – the genetics of behavior and the geographic variation in human genetics – do not depend upon each other; the strong case linking them is the contemporary expression of scientific racism. The publication of Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance serves as a potent warning of the continued resonance of racially deterministic narratives of social inequality.

I’ve learned a lot from working on this. I hope you find it helpful.


Filed under Research reports

13 responses to “Evolved: Nicholas Wade critique trilogy complete

  1. vijay

    Page 5 “Most of the variation that emerged over thousands of years of (imperfect) separation was random coding errors that stuck for no good reason.”
    What does this even mean? Random coding error?

    First Paragraph Page 9

    This discussion is valid only if the populations of early 1900 and early 2000 are similar (i.e., closed society). Given that the population mixture changed substantially between 1900 and 2000, with close to 45% of child birth being non-white, this negates the whole discussion.
    “The principles of natural selection still apply to modern humans; they just probably don’t work very well these days.”
    What does this even mean? Principles of natural selection will work the same, independent of the year. The last ten thousand years has been the most accelerated for evolution. The fact that you are unable to identify them does not mean that they do not.

    The two top paragraphs in page 10 are entire pop-psych. Changes in early childhood learning do not have a significant impact on later achievement. You can see this constantly in improvements in NCES fourth grade and eighth grade scores, but collapse later.Inherent talent is needed beyond the eighth grade.

    I could not even get past this line
    “understanding that human evolution has not changed people much since modern humans dispersed from Africa”

    This is simply a horrible misunderstanding, Modern humans disperse out of Africa 40-70 K years ago. Almost all of human evolution has happened after that period. In fact, the last 10 K years have seen accelerated evolution.

    I will stop here because I am not able to handle the lack of biology courses. Note that I am not arguing for the Wade hypostheses. There have been much better critiques on the Wade book (e.g., by Coyne). This one is not. And finally, nothing can stop further evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vijay

    Reading back my note, I apologize if my comments sound harsh. This is because you are not aware of the explosion in genetic research in the 1990-2015 period, and too dependent on Gould’s conclusion of the late 20th century. A big chunk of biology that you quote is outdated (e.g. no evolution in the last 50 K years) and will change further and substantially in the next 10-20 years.

    A mediocre book cannot be reviewed with outdated biology.


  3. Anna

    All you’ve done is showed that at best, you don’t keep up with developments in scientific research, and at worst, you’re scientifically illiterate.


  4. Marcus

    Prof. Cohen, thank you for sharing the preprint of your work. I don’t work in the field of population genetics, but I know many researchers who do.

    Wade’s book is highly speculative and he no doubt makes errors that an expert working in the field would not. However, I can’t condemn his book as strongly as others have because I believe it highlights a more universal pathology affecting honest discussions of the implications of genetics for society.

    The early researchers in populations genetics (ca 1970s and 1980s, such as Gould, Lewontin, Cavalli-Sforza, Feldman, et al) knew they were working in a politically charged field. Owning to the possibility of their work being used to support racism, they intentionally obfuscated and sometimes outright lied about the implications of their work. One could argue that their intentions justified their behavior, but they created an environment that has perpetuated to this day of avoiding discussions of this topic.

    The result is that reasonable scientific questions are asked only by people like Wade without the skills to answer them carefully but who otherwise do not have as much to lose by asking them. Obvious questions that could be addressed with well designed studies do not get answered. Looking at it from the outside, it does appear that population geneticists are “hiding” things. From the inside, what is actually happening is that none one want to become an unemployable pariah by doing research on these topics. Thus a pernicious feedback loop is created.

    Consider, for example, the topic of Ashkenazi IQ that Coop et al mention in their NYT letter. I read the original publication that Wade cites. There is an obvious flaw in the conclusion made in that study, but because of lack of engagement no one seems to have pointed this out in the literature. The original authors observe that a number of rare diseases found at high frequencies within the Ashkenazi population occur within a particular biological pathways affecting the brain — statistically much more likely than by chance. They conclude that natural selection for greater intelligence caused the increase in frequency of these pathological mutations. A much simpler and more likely explanation is that once a single case of such a disease in this pathway was identified, researchers sought out other cases, resulting in an ascertainment bias towards diseases within the same pathway being reported. A quick literature search finds that there are dozens of diseases with higher frequency in the Ashkenazi population, but the more recent discoveries are in different biological pathways and not involved in the brain per se.

    I discovered this in an a few hours of reading and I’m not especially engaged in this literature. Surely experts in this field could have identified this much sooner and could have updated the literature to address this. The fact that they haven’t is telling.

    In your piece you write: “I am not aware of evidence that genetic scientists are cowed by fear of violating racial taboos and redirect their careers accordingly, but that may be the case.” This is indeed most definitely the case, but again no one within the field is going to talk about it openly.


    • Thanks. I don’t know how to assess the taboo claim. We have good methods for studying sensitive topics, but by your argument no one will employ them to study the question!


      • Marcus

        A guess: those methods are unknown to population geneticists. An opportunity for cross-disciplinary collaboration?


      • Anna

        You cannot be serious that you don’t know how to assess the taboo claim. You employed scientific studies that you obviously don’t have any training in not just to criticize Wade’s 2nd half of the book – which he openly says is speculative over and over again – and are highly plausibly false speculations on the level of which you constantly make yourself out of possibly even thinner air – but to criticize his first half, which is sound science. I’m sure that it was confirmed to you and others that it is sound science, and yet the backlash, resistance, and damnations of the findings remain in sociology circles. How do you account for this, if not for the taboo claim? Social scientists are obviously in way over their heads in disproving the science, so what else is left?

        Also, what sociological methods even are there for studying and confirming or disproving ever such findings (which may well be revised or even disproven yet, as is the nature of science) when sociologists have zero training in the relevant areas? Has there been some kind of addendum to sociology departments since I’ve been out of school? Because from the outside at least, it seems like ideology rather than scientific methods overtook sociology even more than in the years since I graduated. Kindly demonstrate examples of freedom from taboo, groupthink, and castigating/silencing in your academic circle around this sensitive topic, because there is a serious case of cognitive dissonance going on between what I’m reading on this subject and a taboo claim that you “don’t know how to assess”. Well, figure out a way to assess it then. I mean, that’s definitely part of sociologists’ training.

        Sociologists built a house of card by chaining their theories of inequality to the hypothesis of cognitive parity/sameness, and now that this hypothesis has been shattered, are scrambling to protect their academic standing, funding, etc. Only the sociology that is not beholden to the house of cards is going to survive in relevancy. Sociologists only see this science for its potential harms, yet not its equally real potential for finally making effective interventions to alleviate social inequality, in the long liberal (in the true sense of the word) value of transcending nature. Although they claim to be a social “science”, not only haven’t they discarded disproven hypotheses and even theories, but they hold steadfastly onto them (witness sociologists still – even now!! – bringing up stereotype threat on the subject of test performance).

        Sociology is in the midst of a major, unstoppable crisis, along the lines of the astrology/astronomy and alchemy/chemistry schisms. With history as an indicator, I predict it will take many painful, suppressive years (although you never know with the rate the research technology is advancing), but eventually much of the current discipline will be rendered obsolete, and in its place a new model that actually is scientifically integrative. Again, please demonstrate how there is no taboo and no suppression taking place among sociologists over this emerging science. What am I missing?


  5. Mr Cohen, I’d really want you to post some FAQ of what posts you think are inappriopriate in this blog. At first I thought my comments were cut out because they were too long; but Marcus’ comment is also very long and got through. Then I thought maybe because I posted a link to “Scientific racist” page, but vijay suggested you to read dienekes and razib, who are also often labelled as “scientific racists”, and his comment got through. I think I posted no ad hominem remarks, and even if I did, Anna’s comment was edited out, but got through.

    Note I do not dispute or condemn or disrespect your right to cut the comments on your own blog according to any policy you think is OK.
    It’s just I’d like to know in advance whether it is worth to spent a lot of time reading you paper, googling for links, and commenting on what I think are flaws in your paper and your reasoning. All I did I argued why your arguments about “races” are wrong and pointed a link explaining your mistakes wrt MAOA gene variants – if I did something inappriopriate, I’d really want to know. As I do not expect you to answer specifically to me, and as there may be other people like me, maybe you could be so kind and post a commenting FAQ?

    I just’ve thought that if you are posting pre-print publication, you want to get criticism from people and start a discussion.


    • That’s a good idea, thanks.

      In the meantime, I deleted a few of your comments because they made unsubstantiated claims but apparently, ironically, the spam filter seems to have deleted your comment with links in it, because I never saw it. Feel free to email me links for reading and I’ll post them here.


  6. szopeno emailed me with the following material, which I have not edited or vetted:

    The blog concentrating on MAOA:


    The part addressing your paper starts with “University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen wrote a somewhat lengthy critique, and it contains a number of mistakes”.

    My claims that males with MAOA-3R variant are at higher risk to develop anti- social and violent tendencies when faced with abuse is based, amongst other, on Byrd et al meta-analysis [Amy L. Byrd and Stephen B. Manuck, BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2014;75:9–17]. As it seems the effect is the same amongst population groups studied, it would seem to me that there is a large group of blacks who are more vulnerable to adverse environmental factors.

    For a claim that “scientific racists” do not think races are separate categories, but rather groups with differing gene frequencies with fuzzy boundaries, see for example Hartl & Clark:

    relevant quote:

    “Table 4.2 provokes a brief discussion of the sensitive term race because term is prone to misunderstanding or misuse. In population genetics, a race is a group of organisms in a species that are genetically more similar to each other than they are to the members of other such groups.
    Populations that have undergone some degree of genetic divergence as measured by, for example, Fst, therefore qualify as a races.

    ___Using this definition, the human population contains many races___.

    Each Yanomama village represents, in certain sense, a separate „race”, and the Yanomama as a whole also form a distinct „race”. Such fine distinctions are rarely useful, however.

    ___It is usually more convenient to group populations into larger units that still qualify as a races in the definition given___.

    These larger units often coincide with races based on physical characteristics such as skin color, hair color, hair texture, facial features and body conformation.

    Contemporary anthropologists tend to avoid „race” as a descriptive term from human groups because cultural and linguistic differences, which are also important, are often discordant with genetic differences and sometimes discordant with each other. ”

    I can send you a very long paper with a new definition of “race”, papers discussing whether “race” is a valid concept and so on. None of them considers a race to be a population which is strictly separated from the others, or has some gene variants which do not appear at all in other populations.

    Examples of genes involved somehow with either behavior, or brain development, for which there is gene frequency differences between populations. I can send you full papers if you want to.

    Note that, obviously, none of the papers above constitute a proof that any observed behavioural differences in human populations are effects of genes.

    Sometimes gene variants seem to have different effects in different populations; there may be also some gene variants, yet undiscovered, which would have similar effect to the variants discovered, but would have different frequencies.

    But in the same time, I would say it is safe to state that speculations that differences in gene variant sequences may play some, possibly very small, role in observed differences in behavior, are not completely baseless.

    “We found evidence that collectivistic cultures were significantly more likely to comprise individuals carrying the short (S) allele of the 5-HTTLPR”


    “The story for ASPM is similar, but even more extreme. Here, the selected allele came under selection only 5800 years ago (!) (confidence between 500 and 14,100 years). Its proliferation has almost entirely occurred within the bounds of recorded history. And to come to its present high proportion in some populations of near 50 percent in such a short time, its selective advantage must have been very strong indeed — on the order of 5 to 8 percent.”

    “Certain dopamine receptor D4 (DRD4) polymorphisms are associated with low neuronal reactivity and increased exploratory behavior, novelty seeking, and risk taking, collectively considered novelty-seeking trait (NS)” …

    “we found significant support for dispersal distance during the out-of-Africa migrations being asso- ciated with higher frequencies of NS alleles in DRD4 exon 3. Given the findings of Chen et al., (1999) that these alleles did not induce migration within a single generation, the likely best explanation of our observed association is that NS individuals experience higher fit- ness during migrations. Migration distance, thus, effec- tively selects for NS phenotypes and associated alleles even though NS individuals may be no more prone to migrate than are other individuals. ”


    There are between-population differences in frequencies of gene variants associated _somehow_ with educational achievement.



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