Different Races Exist. So What?

A review of Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance


Otago Daily Times

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade. Penguin Press, 278 pages, $27.95.

I wanted to like Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance. The book begins well enough, with a nice roundup of what genomic science has told us about human evolution and migration. But the author then proceeds to offer some highly speculative hypotheses about why different social, cultural, and economic practices appear among different human groups. He has clearly outrun his data.

First, the science. Wade, a former science reporter for the New York Times, wants to gore the ox of the political correctness when it comes to the topic of race. Does it make sense to categorize people by groups, he asks—and if so, which groups?

Let's hop for a moment into the WABAC machine to visit the White House ceremony in 2000 celebrating the publication of the first draft of the human genome. On that occasion, private genetics researcher Craig Venter noted that his company had sequenced the genomes of five individuals including people identified as Hispanic, Caucasian, Asian and African-American. His company did this, Venter said, "to help illustrate that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis."

As Wade correctly points out, "Different populations don't have different genes—everyone has the same set." Perhaps this is the point that Venter was trying to make. However, genes often come in variations called alleles that usually arise through mutation and are responsible for such hereditary differences as eye and hair color, the ability to digest milk as an adult, and greater resistance to malaria. It is thus possible to slice genetic human diversity into all sorts of groupings: brown-eyed versus blue-eyed versus green-eyed races, or the milk-digesting race versus the milk-indigesters. Identical twins aside, each person is genetically unique, so the reductio ad absurdum is that every individual belongs to a "race" of one. Perhaps it should be thus, but doing that means ignoring some interesting questions about human history and evolution.

troublesome inheritance
Penguin Books

Wade argues that people can be coherently sorted into various groups based on the differential frequencies of alleles. Some groups carry a higher percentage of certain alleles than other groups. Wade reports that geneticists can use clusters of so-called ancestry informative markers (AIMs) to reliably identify the continents of origin of any particular individual's ancestors.

Wade relies heavily on research by the Stanford geneticist Noah Rosenberg, who noted in the journal Human Biology that "despite the high levels of similarity across populations, the accumulation of small differences across large numbers of markers enables inference of geographic ancestry." Researchers can set their computer programs used to probe AIMs to reveal ever-finer allele clusterings. Set the programs to three, and they sort human beings into Africans, Europeans/South Asians, and East Asians. Set them to five, they sort humans into basically five continental groups, now including Australasians and Amerindians. Rosenberg points out that "the pattern of human genetic similarities and differences can be explained as the outcome of a human expansion out of Africa via a process in which new migrating populations each carried only subsets of the variation from their parental populations, and in which major geographic barriers have historically had reduced permeability to human migration."

Wade argues that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional, with something like 14 percent of genes in human beings showing some signs of being subject to recent selection pressure. He also makes the uncontroversial claim that natural selection doesn't just work on the genes that determine characteristics such as skin color or lactose tolerance but also on the genes that shape brains. If genes shape brains, then they also shape behaviors.

Wade suggests that the evolution of social behaviors "necessarily proceeded independently in the five major races and others; and that slight evolutionary differences in social behavior underlie the differences in social institutions prevalent among the major human populations." Wade acknowledges that "this thesis is unproven," but challenges critics to show "why social behavior should have been exempt from natural selection."

Clearly the advent of agriculture 8,000 years ago has resulted in differential genetic makeups for various groups. For example, researchers find that 70 percent of people living in populations whose ancestors have been farming for a long time tend to have six copies of the gene for the protein amylase, which helps to digest starches, whereas only 37 percent of those whose ancestors depended more on meat consumption have that many copies. Surely farming shifted the frequency of various gene combinations that affect behavior as well. Wade argues that farming and urbanization were the selective sieves through which European and East Asian populations have passed differentially selecting allelic variants for various behaviors.

This is where the argument starts getting shaky. Wade spins out speculations that genetic variants encouraging trust, propensity for hard work, and innovation became more frequent among Europeans; that variants for authoritarianism and social conformity became more frequent among East Asians; and that because Africans' ancestors were less subject to farming and urbanization, they retain alleles that incline them to fractious tribalism. But researchers have not yet identified gene variants that would account for such behavioral shifts. Until they do, it's an open question how much such genetic variants help explain social, economic, and political institutions. Wade comes perilously close to flirting with a kind of genetic determinism.

Wade asserts several times that it should be easy for other groups to adopt the prosperity-producing combination of Western social, economic, and political institutions—markets, rule of law, democratic governance, and so forth. The fact that so many groups have not done so is, he argues, evidence that the "core social behaviors of each civilization have an evolutionary foundation" that evolution consequently "exerts an unseen collar on the pace of history." He argues that genetic changes among Europeans loosened that collar over the past few centuries. 

Wade's singular focus on genes causes him to ignore the fruitful hypothesis that a different form of natural selection operates on human institutions. Institutions might be thought of as memes, variants of which arise more or less randomly, like genetic mutations. These variants, again like alleles, may or may not enhance the reproductive fitness of their carriers. The economist F.A. Hayek suggested that human evolution and history is a trial and error search through time in which thousands of societies and billions of people tested different religious, political, family, and economic institutions. Over time, some groups out-reproduced and out-competed other groups. The institutions that helped some groups succeed against other groups can be thought of as embodying an ever better understanding of our human natures.

Wade does admit that "rapid change must be due to culture, not genetics." Just so. And what does he think has been happening over the past two centuries? Once the set of institutions that more or less define open societies came into existence, they began out-competing societies that did not have those institutions. In his 1991 book The World Revolution of Westernization, the Yale historian Theodore von Laue describes how the spread of Western institutions by means of both arms and intellectual seduction has provoked resistance but is displacing other economic and political arrangements. And Western institutions—with fits and starts—have been spreading and adopted by other human groups.

For example, according to the Fraser Institute's economic freedom calculations, the "average level of economic freedom…has increased from 5.30 in 1980 to 5.76 in 1990 to 6.71 in 2000 and finally to 6.83 in 2010." Freedom House similarly reports that the percent of free countries has risen from 25 percent in the 1970s to 46 percent today, and that the percent of not-free countries has correspondingly fallen from around 40 percent to 24 percent. Clearly genetic changes do not account for these significant shifts.

Wade concludes that his book is an attempt to "dispel the fear of racism" and to "begin to explore the far-reaching implications of the discovery that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional." Undoubtedly future researchers will more finely detail how cultural and genetic evolution have mutually reinforced one another to shape human behaviors. And perhaps the implications of their findings will be "far-reaching." But Wade simply hasn't the data to back up his speculations.  

In any case, whatever those future genetic findings might be, they will not be nearly as far-reaching in their implications as the discovery of the institutions of liberty.

NEXT: What's it Gonna Be, GOP? A Rand Paul Foreign Policy, or More of Cheney's Dickishness?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. He also makes the uncontroversial claim that natural selection doesn’t just work on the genes that determine characteristics such as skin color or lactose tolerance but also on the genes that shape brains. If genes shape brains, then they also shape behaviors.

    Not so sure the liberal creationists (TNR, io9, etc) accept this claim.

    1. I wonder how Wade feels about evolution among squirrels. Red, gray, does it matter?

      1. Should I change my handle to the Squirrel Whisperer? I am having zero problems posting. Which probably isn’t a good thing.

        1. *squints at Gill suspiciously*

          1. its awesome,,, Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.

        2. Hi Marshall,
          Whisper to me, whisper to me… Ah AMS the SQRLSY One… Ah will flick my SQRLSY tail for you if you ONLY whisper to me in the RIGHT kind of way, and tell me That Which Ah Wants to Hear… Kinda like voters world-wide… Just do NOT tell me painful truths, that’s all Ah asks…

  2. // Africans’ ancestors were less subject to farming and urbanization

    sorghum, millet, guinea hens, cattle, rice, yams etc. am I missing something? Africa was just as agriculturalist as anywhere else in the world, though indeed it did spread to them/get invented by them a bit later (they got some crops from neighoring regions and domesticated a few of their own)

    1. Archaeologists are like the drunk who looks under the street light for his keys because that’s where the light is. There is very little archaeology in Africa, and the climate itself is not good for preservation. The mideast is excellent for preservation, and thus is likely to have a better record than most places.

      1. Yup. Those pyramids in Africa are about to topple over any day now.

        1. Must be why archeologists have avoided that area..

        2. OK, yuh got me, I meant tropical Africa, the wet parts.

    2. A statement like that needs a lot of clarification.

      ‘Africa’ is a big place – its certainly true that parts stayed in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle even until today, but that’s also true in North America, except that no-one would say that the NA’s didn’t have extensive agriculture/ranching/aquaculture societies all over the continent.

      1. Right. There were many nomadic tribes in the Americas, but there were also many gigantic civilizations as well before Europeans arrived.

    3. He said, “less subject to”, not, “were not subject to”

    4. ‘ground nuts’ (peanuts), only the best food in the world…

    5. They never needed to farm and store food until Whitey brought quinine and other meds to sub sahara Africa. Tropical diseases kept the populations so low that single moms could feed any kids that survived with low hanging fruit.

  3. Not sure why it took the author of this article so long to get to his “bridge too far”.

    The genome and exegenome are so complex that exactly opposite hypotheses/results could be extrapolated from it (from the 5th paragraph on).

    Turns out genes overlap, can be read backwards. Perhaps we know the letters of genetic information, but just a few rudimentary words, little context and little grammar.

    But that is how the science industry works: publish or die – even if it turns out to be incorrect a couple of years later – as long as you get your grant, that’s all that matters.

    1. Exactly. Look at how climate science is so loaded up with leftist bullshit and bad math.

    2. it appears the title could have just as easily have been ‘why different races don’t exist’…
      being an extension of our natural tribalism, of course we want to ‘other-ize’ others; but we are all the same dog…
      some dogs like to pretend their shit don’t stink, so *of course* they are -you know- purebreds, and the others are mongrels…
      as it turns out, we are all the same mutts sniffin’ butts…

      1. Ok I will let a Chihuahua attack me if you let a pit bull attack you.

  4. Is white-Hispanic discussed in the book?

  5. Race, shmace: there’s less physical difference between “races” of humans than there is between breeds of dog, or horse, or cat. There’s less difference between a 4′ African Pygmy and a 7′ African Watusi than there is between a Chihuahua and a Great Dane, and they both evolved in Africa, dealing with the same hunting/gathering economies and diets. If 30,000 years of evolution made no more difference than that in their bodies, why should we think that it made any greater difference in their brains, therefore behavior? Humans being both social and intelligent animals, they’re much more likely to alter their cultures than themselves. Culture is a far more powerful cause of differences in behavior than genetics is.

    1. I guess you never looked at the difference between the pit bull shot on video repeatedly attacking a porcupine vs. smarter dogs. That’s like saying a team with a .260 batting average is the same as one with a .17 because the individual team members have a greater gap.

  6. why is there still article and book about race difference today ? It should be about cultures and ideals.

    thi?t k? n?i th?t chung c?

  7. PLuralism, multiculturalism, diversity, racial integration, mass immigration, all these are FACTION generators.

    Factions are bad. Bad for the people. You are of the people. Therefore, be on the side of the people.

    Factions make it harder for the people to unite against the elite in the battle for control of the government.

    I compare apples to apples, and so I deal strictly with white western nations here. America, western european nations, etc.

    Compare Iceland vs America–the two ends of the spectrum. Large vs small. Parliamentarian vs federalist, separation of powers, checks and balances. Homogeneous vs heterogeneous racial mix.

    Large means more factions. Large nations make it hard for the people to discover their common interests and unite against the elite.

    Parliamentarian govt puts the power of the govt in the hands of politicians elected from small voting districts. Smaller== fewer factions, more united. The USA on the other hand has large voting districts which are MORE faction-ridden, and so therefore the people are less able to unite and discover their common interests and thus are not very able to control their elected representatives.

    Race — Heterogeneity is factionalization. More factions, less able to unite, and so the elite are better able to control the govt and use it against the people.

    Now, roll out the same old memes/talking points. Print out the discussion on this thread on your printer, and then roll it up and shove it up your motherfucking ass!

    1. Shut the fuck up American

      1. I dunno, it sounds more socialist than murcin usually does.

        Flemur below sounds more like murcin

        Maybe a new thought stumbled into that vacum WI has between his ears?

  8. As the debate warms up, allele is going to break loose.

  9. So What?

    Since differences in cognitive ability and the “big five” personality factors are mostly genetic, and brain evolution has been recent, rapid and localized, the races – however you care to define them – differ in significant ways.

    So Reason’s assumptions that “immigrants” are fungible, that NAM schools are “bad”, etc, etc, are false. That’s what.

  10. So What?

    “Mr. Copernicus, so Ptolemy is wrong? So what?” “No, Professor Galileo, we will not look through your telescope. What difference could it make?” “Mr. Darwin, you say we’ve descended from apish ancestor. We, sir, are on the side of the angels.”

    This is simply sublimely obtuse. Not to recognize that populations of any species separated over tens of thousands of years will develop differences strikes at the heart of evolution. It’s taking the side of the angels–or this case the silly creationists, even if these creationists are liberals/progressives.

  11. “Wade, a former science reporter for the New York Times, wants to gore the ox of the political correctness when it comes to the topic of race… Wade spins out speculations that genetic variants encouraging trust, propensity for hard work, and innovation became more frequent among Europeans; that variants for authoritarianism and social conformity became more frequent among East Asians; and that because Africans’ ancestors were less subject to farming and urbanization, they retain alleles that incline them to fractious tribalism…”

    Compare: In 2006, a website for Seattle public schools stated (among other things) that favoring individualism over collectivism is racist.…

  12. So what?

    We spend hundreds of billions in schools pretending “race is a social construct” and “you can be anything you want to be”. Extras money for Head Start, tutors, special programs, and then topped off by handing out undeserved slots through affirmative action.

    What if all of it is a waste since there are genetic differences?

  13. Kind of sorry this didn’t get more comments. Maybe because it was one of the “lost” post on Friday afternoon. Or maybe because some Libertarians don’t want to confront the facts.

    1. MMB: The site crashed at almost precisely the moment this review went up. Conspiracy?

  14. Ron- I have not read the book, but does Wade define what he means by race?

    What Venter means by no biological basis for race pertains to a theory proposed by Carleton Coon in the 1960s. His theory outlined in The Origin of Races states that five groups of humans evolved separately. Genomics informs the categorization of humans discussion by tracing everyone back to the Kung Bushmen and showing that we are one group.

    Cultural and historical definitions of race, one drop etc., are a different discussion, which really do not relate to biology.

  15. why is there still article and book about race difference today ? It should be about cultures and ideals.
    B?p gas h?ng ngo?i

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.