Nicholas Wade’s Troublesome Inheritance: A Critical Review

Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance”: A Critical Review

In his latest book, Nicholas Wade, a well-known science journalist, argues three points: 1) That human races are real, 2) that differences in human behavior, and likely cognition, are genetically based, and 3) that there are likely subtle but nonetheless crucial behavioral differences among races which are also genetically based. Wade is well aware that these are extremely controversial ideas, that they overturn politically correct notions that human behavior and social structures are purely cultural, yet he is confident that developments in genetics support his view.

In the early chapters of this book, Wade gives clear explanations of how genes work. He explains alleles, natural selection, genetic drift, and other concepts in a way that even a reader unfamiliar with these terms can understand. He also gives an overview of early human evolution and establishes that there are at least physical differences among the major races (African, Caucasian, Asian, and Native American), such as facial features, skin color, lactose tolerance, wet or dry earwax, and so forth. These, and other physical traits such as the wide distribution of the genes for sickle cell anemia among Africans, are well known to scientists and forensic anthropologists, as are the functions of many of these traits. In this section of his book, there isn’t a lot of room for disagreement.

However, it is a trickier task to show that things like behavior and mental function are genetically based. This is largely, as Wade admits, because the genetics of behavior and cognitive ability and so forth are at this point simply not known, so he must resort to analogy and deductive rather than inductive reasoning to support his views. For example, he cites the very interesting experiments conducted in Russia by Dmitriy Belyaev and colleagues on silver foxes and Siberian gray rats. Over many generations of breeding, Belyaev was able to create extremely tame foxes and rats, so tame that they could be kept as pets. He accomplished this by mating the most docile animals with each other, then selecting the tamest of the offspring for the next generation, and so forth. After 60 generations of rats and 40 years of fox breeding, he arrived at fully domesticated animals. (Conversely, he was able to increase the ferocity of both creatures by also mating the least tame with each other.) This experiment is relevant to Wade’s thesis because it shows in a quite starkly explicit way that personality traits are heritable and that those that dominate in a population do so because of selective pressure—in this case, by human intervention. Thus, Wade suggests, we can safely assume that personality traits, for example degrees of aggression, are also heritable in humans and also responsive to selective pressure.

It is difficult to deny that he has a point. After all, the human brain, the seat of our behaviors and intelligence (whether narrowly or broadly defined), is a physical organ, and like any other organ is constructed according to the instructions of our DNA. Logically, then, it must be that not only the physical structure but the functions of the brain are genetically determined. Studies of infants and toddlers indicate that personality traits such as timidity vs. boldness appear very early in life, before there is much influence from culture, and studies of brain damaged individuals confirm that key mental functions originate in the brain. I once had a student, an intelligent and articulate individual, who could not focus sufficiently to write a short freshman composition, no matter how much he tried; he had lost his ability to focus after a terrible freeway automobile crash in which he sustained serious brain damage. The work of Oliver Sacks constitutes a catalog of brain-based weirdnesses resulting from trauma and other causes. There are also the well-known inherited brain anomalies, such as Down’s syndrome and dyslexia, as well as the strong evidence that manic-depression, Schizophrenia, and language disabilities are heritable.

It is also hard to deny that the abilities and functions of the brain affect societies. Regardless of whether language is an innate ability or an invented one, language processing occurs in the brain and nowhere else. Our ability to “see” color is the basis for the arts of painting and interior decoration. And our ability to reason is of the brain, not of a soul or homunculus or whatever. So our literatures, our philosophies, our arts and crafts, and political theories, are all dependent on having a brain of certain minimal capacities.

So far, so good for Wade’s thesis. But remember that Wade is not concerned in this book with the individual human being. Nor is he concerned with specific societies as such, other than as supporting examples for his thesis. He is concerned with race. (He does, however, often muddle “society” and “race.”) And here he runs into trouble.

By his own frequent admission, the genes for specific human behavior patterns and
mental function, unlike those for obvious physical traits such as skin color, have not been identified—we not only do not know how those genes work, we do not even know what they are—or even if they are. Yes, there are a few identified alleles that correlate with, for example, a tendency towards aggression, but we do not know if they are ramped up or damped down by other genes located somewhere else on the genome, nor do we know whether or not certain cultural practices might direct such tendencies in harmful or beneficial directions; and we don’t know if, in certain societies, such tendencies might lead to great bravery in warfare while in others to great risk taking in financial investments. If the aggressive person is stupid or lacking in opportunities, maybe he will be a bully and criminal; if he is intelligent and gets an MBA, maybe he will triumph on Wall Street. “Killer Clowns” vs. “Snakes in Suits.”

Since he lacks evidence from genetics, Wade must turn to other strategies to persuade his readers. In addition to questionable analogies, he resorts to deductive errors, begging the question, and muddling his words. For an analogy to work, that is to legitimately illustrate or clarify a point (analogies never prove a point), there have to be genuine points of comparison. The fewer the points of comparison, the less useful and logical the analogy is. Some of Wade’s analogies are clear and useful, as in the already cited cases of the silver foxes and Siberian rats; both are mammals, as are humans, so they are at least distantly related to us. The analogy is helpful in making his point about the heritability of a behavioral trait, though not sufficient to prove his thesis about race.

Indeed, it is not possible to argue from the premise that certain kinds of individual human behavior and personality types are strongly determined by genetics to Wade’s central premise that social behaviors and social institutions as associated with particular races (societies, nations, regions—again, Wade is imprecise in his use of these terms) are so determined. There is no genetic evidence for such an assertion. And each social unit, from the family to the nation to the race, is composed of people who vary widely in their behaviors and personalities—the bigger the social unit, the more variety there is. One could argue that social institutions (such as the rule of law) are invented in order to dampen these individual differences in order to achieve goals that are larger than the desires and impulses of individuals—not as expressions of them.

Far less useful are his analogies between one society and its institutions and another’s—which is a serious problem because his argument depends on the idea that a society’s institutions reflect the genetic profile of that society’s people: “[W]hen a civilization produces a distinctive set of institutions that endures for many generations, that is a sign of a supporting suite of variations in the genes that influence human social behavior” (p. 150). One example of this notion which Wade provides (thrice) is a comparison between the United States on the one hand (good institutions) to Iraq and Afghanistan (tribal, i.e., bad institutions): “[I]f institutions were purely cultural, it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another. But American institutions do not transplant so easily to tribal societies like Iraq or Afghanistan” (p. 127; see also pp. 148 and 241). Never mind that Iraq (Mesopotamia) has been colonized by the West for many decades; never mind that “Iraq” is the creation of Gertrude Bell and the British (acting through the League of Nations); never mind that therefore “Iraq” is a figment of the Western imagination. It is little wonder that the people of Iraq have expressed doubts as to the efficacy of Western institutions. Similar points could be made about the history of Afghanistan, but suffice to say that the Afghan experience with the United States (under Bush I and Bush II) is not of the kind that would kindly dispose the Afghans to Western values and institutions. History is more than sufficient to explain the situations of both countries. A genetic explanation is quite unnecessary, and given Wade’s own admission that any relevant supposed genes are unknown, both superfluous and dangerously misleading.

Because there is no direct evidence of a genetic basis for social institutions, Wade makes use of deductive (rather than inductive) reasoning to reach his conclusions. The exemplum of deductive reasoning is the syllogism, the classic example of which dates back to the Greeks:

All men are mortal. (Major premise)
Socrates is a man. (Minor premise)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (Conclusion)

Note that both major and minor premises must be true in order for the conclusion to be true:

All birds fly.
Ostriches are birds.
Therefore, ostriches fly.

Although the minor premise is true, the major premise is not; consequently, the conclusion is false.

Now, an example of Wade’s questionable deductive reasoning process:
[I]t is reasonable to assume that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior, and hence the very different kinds of society seen in the various races and in the world’s great civilizations differ not just because of their received culture—in other words, what is learned from birth—but also because of variations in the social behavior of their members, carried down in their genes. (p. 41)

Laid out in the format of a syllogism, the argument would look something like this:

Physical traits like skin color have evolved.
Evolution occurs as the result of genetic changes.
Social behavior has evolved.
Therefore, social behavior has evolved genetically.

The first two elements of the argument are manifestly true. If the third element were true, then the conclusion would be true. At first glance, the third element appears to be true. Archaeology, anthropology, and history have all well established that societies and the behaviors of their citizens have “evolved” in the sense that they have changed over time and generally have changed in the direction of increasing size, complexity, and technological improvements. But have societies “evolved” in the broad sense of “changed over time” or in the narrow sense of “evolution” as used by biologists? (Here, by the way, is an example of muddled words.) It can be the latter only if there is evidence of a genetic basis for social (not just individual) behaviors, and by Wade’s own admission, no such evidence presently exists. Thus, the third element of the argument is at this time false, and therefore the conclusion is also false. (Perhaps at some later time, the required evidence will be found—but then again, maybe it won’t; we cannot reach the conclusion Wade wants to reach absent the required evidence. At the present time the conclusion is useless.)

Because the evidence does not exist, Wade resorts to prevaricating language. The book is peppered throughout with such expressions as “it is tempting to assume,” “every reason to suppose,” “may,” “may be true,” “it is reasonable to assume,” “probably,” “most probably,” “as seems highly likely,” and so forth. This does not inspire confidence. Scientists are supposed to have some facts to back up their theories, not a pile of suppositions. They are also not supposed to beg the question (i.e., assume that which is to be proven), yet Wade does exactly that; the entire book can be seen as an exercise in question begging. It is perhaps for that reason that he is so cavalier about the absence of evidence to support his thesis.

Take for example, as a kind of question begging, his assumption that a behavioral trait that has persisted for many generations must therefore be genetic in origin: “[W]hen a civilization produces a distinctive set of institutions that endures over many generations, that is the sign of a supporting suite of variations in genes that influence human social behavior” (p. 150). That a comet streaked across the sky just before a revered ruler died was a sign of his impending death. There are signs and portents everywhere. At least astrologers had the advantage of an actual correlation: a comet really did streak across the sky; the ruler really did die shortly thereafter. Wade has one half of the astrological equation (institutions persist over many generations), but he does not have the other half—he has no evidence of “a supporting suite of variations in genes”—so his reasoning, alas for a man who prides himself on being a scientist—is actually worse than that of an astrologer!

This problem persists in his extended example (drawn from the work of Gregory Clark) of the supposed effects of the aristocracy on English social behavior. According to Clark, prior to the industrial revolution, the rich had more surviving children than the poor; because there was limited room in the rich or aristocratic class, the non-inheriting scions of the rich descended the social scale, landing in the poorer classes. But Clark asserts (and Wade agrees) that these losers carried with them the genetic predispositions of their aristocratic lineages and, through intermarriage with their new social peers, infused the lower classes with the tendency to the social behaviors of the rich, thus accounting for the improved social institutions of the British populace as a whole. Not to worry that the requisite genes have not been revealed. That this spread of desirable social behaviors occurred over several centuries is sufficient evidence that it was “an evolutionary change [rather] than a cultural change.” But again, given the absence of evidence for any such genetic change or for any “suite” of genes that predispose the British populations to such institutions as thrift, literacy, and non-violence, the only logical and valid conclusion one can reach from this fact (if it is one) is that cultural change takes a long time to spread throughout a population. And there is no reason to believe that, as the loser scions of the rich descended the social ladder, they didn’t carry with them the culturally inculcated habits of their class and pass them on, through example and learning, to their lower-class offspring. Learning is a well-known phenomenon among humans and is sufficient to explain the changes in British social behavior.Learning is a well-known phenomenon among humans and is sufficient to explain the changes in British social behavior. We also know that the only way to become literate is through education; the ability to read is not passed down in the genes in some sort of quasi-Lamarckian way.

Clark’s thesis would raise an interesting series of questions for Americans: Were Southern whites different from Northern whites (to explain why slavery persisted in the south but not in the north)? Was Lyndon Johnson gifted with more socially benevolent genes than Jefferson Davis? Are, for example, the economic explanations of Southern slavery not sufficient to explain its persistence? Is Southern white resentment at losing the Civil War, memed forth over the generations in song and legend, not sufficient to explain the persistence of racism and segregation for a century after the Emancipation Proclamation?

In addition to all these errors of commission (of which the above is only a sampling), there is a major error of omission: There is no mention of thought. Whatever one may say about the structures of the brain and the genetic determinants of the brain’s construction, and whatever we cannot at present say, one thing we all know because we do it all the time is that the human brain thinks. Wade could not have written this book if he could not think. Whatever else the history of human societies may be, it is the history of human thought. It may be true that by taking thought we cannot add a cubit to our height, but it is true that by taking thought we can invent ceramics, steel, computers, and aqueducts, and there is no reason to suppose that we cannot by taking thought devise social institutions, political theories, theologies and philosophies, literacy, and all the other cultural artifacts and institutions so characteristic of human beings and so absent in all other animal species.

Given its lack of a factual foundation and the rickety structure of its argument, as well as the fact that the development of and differences in social institutions are already accounted for by historians without the need for genetic explanations, one must ask, what is the real purpose of this book? Its bias toward the West’s institutions hint that A Troublesome Inheritance is yet another in a recent series of books that attempt to rescue the Western tradition at a time when many people perceive the West, and particularly its most representative nation the United States, as in decline. The series includes but is not limited to the works of Francis Fukuyama, Niall Ferguson, Charles Murray, Samuel Huntington, Steven Pinker (especially in The Better Angels of Our Nature), Rodney Stark, and many others. Wade couches his ideological motive in the terms of a genetic science framework, thus rendering it, in superficial appearance, respectable and perhaps even unassailable, at least in some readers’ minds. More gravely, doing so carries the danger of shifting our focus from the likely real causes of the West’s decline. If in fact it is declining, i.e., actually getting worse, rather than merely being caught up to by other regions. I am not convinced that the West needs an apologetics, nor do I feel threatened by the likelihood that China or India or Brazil might one day be equal partners to the United States and Europe rather than subordinates. Besides, it was the West that created the current globalized world—so we should learn to live with the consequences of our invention.



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