A Troublesome Inheritance book cover by Nicholas Wade

It's expected that a book about genetics and race will elicit extreme reactions. Just look at all the passionate 1-star reviews on A Troublesome Inheritance. I enjoyed reading them because they make good points. Nicolas Wade's book has flaws, which I'll tackle first.

Race may be a troublesome inheritance, but better to explore and understand its bearing on human nature and history than to pretend for reasons of political convenience that it has no evolutionary basis.

7 Problems with A Troublesome Inheritance

1. I was unconvinced by his arguments that genes played much of a role in helping the UK lead the Industrial Revolution. Had the Industrial Revolution and general global leadership happened in China, I suspect he would have written, "It was obvious that the Industrial Revolution would occur in China because East Asians evolved to have the highest IQ among all the races. It's Chinese genes, which favor high IQ, that ultimately resulted in their race/culture being the winning/dominant one on the planet."

2. I would have preferred he spend less time talking about Francis Fukuyama's analysis of the rise and fall of empires and spend more time on the latest genetic research on racial differences.

3. In the conclusion, he wimps out and gives in to the politically correct orthodoxy which he claims to defy.

For example, after spending much of the book explaining how the West (and to some extent China) have produced superior/stronger civilizations than other races/societies, then he backtracks. He says, "There is no assertion of superiority." (Loc 3761 on Kindle). And later, "All human races are variations on a common theme. There is no basis from an evolutionary perspective for declaring any one variation superior to any other."

4. Despite being written in 2014, he never uses the word "epigenetics" in the book. This fast-moving field is critical to understanding how quickly evolution can move. It would vastly support his argument (or at least give it another dimension). However, it fails to enter his radar.

5. He becomes annoying by how often he repeats this phrase: "New analyses of the human genome establish that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional." He bangs that drum at least four times.

6. East Asian are intellectual superstars, but then why was South Korea and Taiwan equal to Ghana 60 years ago?

Why are some countries rich and others persistently poor? Capital and information flow fairly freely, so what is it that prevents poor countries from taking out a loan, copying every Scandinavian institution, and becoming as rich and peaceful as Denmark? Africa has absorbed billions of dollars in aid over the past half century and yet, until a recent spurt of growth, its standard of living has stagnated for decades. South Korea and Taiwan, on the other hand, almost as poor at the start of the period, have enjoyed an economic resurgence.

Wade will say that genes are a factor, but then why were East Asians so far behind back in 1960?

7. Wrong fact. He writes: "The homicide rate in the United States, Europe, China and Japan is less than 2 per 100,000 people, whereas in most African countries south of the Sahara, it exceeds 10 per 100,000, a difference that does not prove but surely allows room for a genetic contribution to greater violence in the less developed world." 

First, the US homicide rate is twice as high as he claims, according to the UN. 
Second, he's focusing on Africa, whereas he ought to be focused on Latin America, which has the highest homicide rate.
Third, the way to prove that genes play a role isn't to do a simple analysis like he's doing. What they need to do is to take South Americans (and Africans) out of their countries and place them in rich, peaceful countries (like Northern European ones). If, after a couple of generations, the desendents of those non-Europeans are still more violent than the mean, then you have an argument that genes play a role. 

What's good about A Troublesome Inheritance

Despite these shortcomings, I admire the courage he has to crack the door of this debate open. Wade is taking on the politically correct orthodoxy: “Race is a recent human invention,” proclaims the American Anthropological Association. “Race is about culture, not biology.”

Really? So biology hasn't made black skin and East Asian eyes? There's no DNA behind that? 

Knowledge advances, funeral by funeral. Economist Paul Samuelson

As you can see from all the 1-star reviews on Amazon, people (especially academics) try to destroy Wade's ideas, largely because they feel it's dangerous to explore them and debate them. You can give this book two or three stars, but one shows that you've got an ax to grind.

He states his thesis at the beginning of the new edition: "The new findings from the genome make ever clearer that evolution and history are intertwined, perhaps not intimately but enough to allow genetics at least some small role in the shaping of today's world."

Is that idea really that unreasonable? Granted, the careless reader may think he's arguing that genes play a "big role" and not a "small one" because he devotes a whole book to genes and not to culture and other factors. He's exploring that small role because nobody else is.

Races are pitstops on the way to becoming a new species

Hominids during the last 7 million yearsOne of the interesting arguments Wade puts forth is that "Races are a way station on the path through which evolution generates new species." What he means by that is that before a new species branches out of an existing species, differentiation within the species must occur. In other words, for a new species to be created, a new race/sub-species/breed must evolve. 

For example, chimps and humans shared a common ancestor 6 million years ago. At least one tribe of our common ancestor must have separated geographically and, with environmental pressures, created some different characteristics, yet while remaining part of the same primate species. 

Maybe that group started walking more than others. Or maybe its nose became slightly different. Some tiny change happened that would have made us say, "It's still the sub-species (or a new race) within that species." With continued geographic isolation and environmental pressures, that race would branch out to become a new species.

Whites and Asians are a sub-species of the standard homo sapien, which is an African. If Eurasians had remained isolated from Africans for 500,000 years, then it's most likely that a Eurasian hominid would have evolved that would be incompatible with the African hominid. You'd have Homo sapiens (Africans) and Homo Eurasians. They would be sufficiently different that they might not be able to breed reliably (which is the standard measure we use to determine if you are the same species). Such a world would be quite normal, since for most of the last six million years several types of hominid species have co-existed on the planet.

Different breeds of dogs look far more different from each other than homo erectus does from homo sapiens, but different breeds of dog can reliably reproduce, whereas it's unlikely that homo erectus and homo sapiens would be able to reliably reproduce. We do know that homo Neanderthanlensis was able to mate with us because 2-5% of non-Africans DNA is from the Neanderthals. 

The reason homo Eurasian never came to be is that their geographic isolation has ended. Globalization has encouraged mixing. Human evolution proceeds, but with less alacrity and differentiation.

Observations on Africa

I'm always intrigued when Wade mentions Africa. For instance, "bushmen of the Kalahari Desert divide the world into Ju|’hoansi, or 'real people,' such as themselves, and !ohm, a category that includes other Africans, Europeans and inedible animals such as predators." (p. 17)

On page 98: "Within races, the Rosenberg-Feldman study showed that different ethnicities could be recognized. Among Africans, it is easy to distinguish by their genomes the Yoruba of Nigeria, the San (a click-speaking people of southern Africa) and the Mbuti and Biaka pygmies. Many populations are not highly mixed, and the Rosenberg- Feldman survey confirmed the remarkable extent to which people throughout history have lived and died in the place where they were born."

Page 106: Wade notes that "four genes were under selection in Africans and two each in East Asians and Europeans. What these genes do within the brain is largely unknown. But the findings establish the obvious truth that brain genes do not lie in some special category exempt from natural selection. They are as much under evolutionary pressure as any other category of gene."

Just in case you still don't believe there are biological differences between races:

There's a species of malarial parasite known as Plasmodium vivax, once endemic in parts of Africa, learned how to use the DARC protein to gain entry into red blood cells. A mutated version of the DARC gene, the Duffy null allele, then became widespread because it denies the parasite access to the blood cells in which it feeds and thus provides a highly effective defense. Almost everyone in Africa carries the Duffy null allele of DARC, and almost no one outside does. Many other mutations have arisen to protect people against current strains of malaria, such as those that cause sickle-cell anemia and the thalassemias. Sickle-cell anemia occurs with high frequency in Africa, and beta-thalassemia is common in the Mediterranean, but neither has attained the universality of the Duffy null allele within a population. Another widespread but fairly exclusive allele is associated with skin color. This is an allele of KITLG (an acronym for KIT ligand gene) which leads to lighter skin.

Three more remarkable facts:

  • About 22% of African American genes come from Europeans ancestors; the rest come from Africa.
  • "The West has spent some $2.3 trillion in aid over the past 50 years without managing to improve African living standards significantly."

  • The World Bank has estimated that 40% of Africa’s private wealth is held offshore.

Tribalism, which still dominates African society, has some strengths and weaknesses, as Wade points out:

Tribalism has a bleak reputation because tribal organization is incompatible with that of a modern state. That aside, it is an amazingly ingenious way of securing a rough degree of social order without a government, courts, police force or law books. The tribal system is egalitarian, individualistic and secures redress of wrongs with a minimum of bureaucracy.
Despite these outstanding merits, it has grave flaws. It depends on force and group loyalty, not on law. Children are taught from the earliest age that their group is always right and must be supported no matter what. Adults follow the ancient rule: support the nearest group of relatives against the more distant groups. In terms of national politics, the spirit of tribalism leads to “monopoly of power, ruthless oppression of opponents, and accumulation of benefits,” writes Philip Salzman, an anthropologist at McGill University who studies nomadic tribes. “In short, it is a recipe for despotism, for tyranny.”

As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, Wade discusses the South Korea vs. Ghana example, which is remarkable: 

In the early 1960s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some thirty years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated, and GNP per capita had fallen to one fifteenth that of South Korea. “It seemed to me that culture had to be a large part of the explanation,” the political scientist Samuel Huntington remarked in pondering this divergence of economic fates. “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.”

I'm married to a Cameroonian and I love what this Cameroonian economist said:

“Seen from the inside, African societies are like a football team in which, as a result of personal rivalries and a lack of team spirit, one player will not pass the ball to another out of fear that the latter might score a goal. How can we hope for victory? In our republics, people outside of the ethnic ‘cement’ . . . have so little identification with one another that the mere existence of the state is a miracle. . . . Because of the rapport that the African maintains with time, saving for the future has a lower priority than immediate consumption. Lest there be any temptation to accumulate wealth, those who receive a regular salary have to finance the education of brothers, cousins, nephews, and nieces, lodge newcomers, and finance the multitude of ceremonies that fill social life."
- Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, a Cameroonian economist.

You can't have high income without urbanization:

“No country or region,” say two World Bank economists, Shantayanan Devarajan and Wolfgang Fengler, “has ever reached what the World Bank regards as high-income status with low levels of urbanization. African populations have traditionally been mostly rural, but the cities of sub-Saharan Africa are growing at astonishing rates.” Their projection is that in another 20 years, most of the region’s population will be urban, as is the case in the rest of the world.

So Africa must not only urbanize, but also transition away from tribalism if it wants material wealth: 

The break from tribalism probably requires a population to develop such behaviors as higher levels of trust toward those outside the family or tribe. A second required change is the transformation of a population’s social traits from the violent, short-term, impulsive behavior typical of many hunter-gatherer and tribal societies into the more disciplined, future-oriented behavior seen in East Asian societies.

The population of Africa in 1500 was only 46 million. However, it was extremely fragmented. Probably like Europe. "There were still around 1,000 political units in Europe by the 14th century. Nation-states began to develop in the 15th century. By 1900, Europe consisted of 25 states."

More interesting ideas

Here are some more thought-provoking excerpts from A Troublesome Inheritance. For instance, it's remarkable that "at least 8% of the human genome, according to one estimate, has changed under this recent evolutionary pressure." An example is "that variant genes favoring light skin, blue eyes and lighter hair colors have been under selection within the last 5,000 years," which is quite quick. Think about this:

If human societies have continued to evolve within the last few thousand years, such a process would shed considerable light on many aspects of history and the modern world. Notably it would help explain why institutions, which beneath thick layers of culture rest on human social behavior, tend to differ from one society to another in long-term patterns. To conjecture that a small evolutionary component has contributed to the rich diversity of human societies does not seem strikingly implausible. Indeed it is far more likely than the alternative, that evolution has played no role whatever in shaping present-day societies. But prevailing dogma in the social sciences has held for decades that all differences between human societies are purely cultural, and any questioning of this view provokes considerable agitation. (Loc 101)

If aliens were studying humans along with other mammals, don't you think they would categorize us into various groups/races, just like we categorize dogs into various breeds? And just like there are dog mutts, there are human mutts (like Obama and me). Aliens would also notice that some groups have some obvious advantages.

Because of genetic variants, Tibetans and Andean highlanders are better than others at living at high altitudes. At every Olympic games since 1980, every finalist in the men’s 100-meter race has had West African ancestry. It would be no surprise if some genetic factor were found to contribute to such athleticism. (p. 8)

Lactose tolerance is another trait that evolved in a group of humans, mainly northern Europeans. 

Today, most people are still thinking about genes like we thought of them in the 20th century. They believe they're immutable. For instance, I love how he describes the problem with racists: "Besides superiority, racism also connotes the idea of immutability, thought once to reside in the blood and now in the genes. Racists are concerned about intermarriage ('the purity of the blood') lest it erode the basis of their race’s superiority."

Moreover, genes are not destiny.

Genes do not determine human behavior; they merely predispose people to act in certain ways. Genes explain a lot, probably far more than is at present understood or acknowledged. But their influence in most situations is or can be overwhelmed by learned behavior, or culture. To say that genes explain everything about human social behavior would be as absurd as to assume that they explain nothing. Social scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value. (p. 9)

One of the most eye-opening ideas was when Wade describes one trait that humans have that other primates lack: white in the eyes. "The whites of the eyes are the mark of a highly social, highly cooperative species whose success depends on the sharing of thoughts and intentions." 

Primate Eyes
Humans are the only primate that has whites in the eyes, which could have evolved that way to help with empathy and communication.

Another way that culture and values manifest themselves in our DNA is blushing: "Social norms and punishment of deviants are behaviors embedded so deeply in the human psyche that special mechanisms have arisen for punishing oneself for infractions of social norms: shame and guilt, which are sometimes physically expressed by blushing." (p. 49)

Wade argues that our disposition to be trusting can be inherited.

Besides trust, another important social behavior that is clearly under genetic influence is that of aggression, or rather the whole spectrum of behaviors that runs from aggression to shyness. The fact that animals can be domesticated is proof that the trait can be modulated by the selective pressures of evolution. 

Interesting facts

The book is filled with interesting facts, such as:

  • I didn't know that when you domesticate animals, their skeletons and bones become lighter and thinner, a process known as gracilization. What's fascinating is that the skeletons of homo sapiens have experienced the gracilization. So who has domesticated humans? We've domesticated ourselves. It's all part of the long-term decline of violence.
  • "A likely signal of the fact that people today are so much tamer than their forebears is that their shrinking jaws don’t now have room for all the teeth that are programmed into them, so the wisdom teeth must often be removed."
  • What's clear is that "over a period of generations, genes and culture interact. 'The genes hold culture on a leash,' Wilson writes. 'The leash is very long but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool.'"
  • Africans "developed dark skin to protect a vital chemical known as folic acid from being destroyed by the strong ultraviolet light." 
  • "Pale skin evolved independently in the Caucasian and East Asian populations, showing that the two populations have remained substantially separate since their split [up to 30,000 years ago]. This is known to be the case because pale skin in Caucasians is caused by a largely different set of genes than those that cause pale skin in East Asians. The independent but parallel evolution of pale skin in the two halves of the Eurasian continent came about because each was exposed to the same stress—the need to protect vitamin D synthesis." p. 86.
  • "By 1994 the 36 million Chinese working overseas produced as much wealth as the 1 billion people in China." p. 194.
  • "After the devastation of the Jewish communities in Iraq and Persia and the expulsion of European Jews from England, France and many regions of Germany, their total population fell to fewer than 1 million in 1500 AD." p. 212.
  • "Jews constitute 0.2% of the world’s population, but won 14% of Nobel Prizes in the first half of the 20th century, despite social discrimination and the Holocaust, and 29% in the second. As of 2007, Jews had won an amazing 32% of Nobel Prizes awarded in the 21st century." p. 197.

Jared Diamond summarizes his own book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, in a single sentence: “History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.”

I agree with Wade's response to Diamond's thesis: "Geographic determinism, however, is as absurd a position as genetic determinism, given that evolution is about the interaction between the two." p. 220.

He touches on the Australian aboriginals:

Australian aborigines still lived in tribal societies without towns or cities. Their technology differed little from that of the Paleolithic hunters who reached Europe at the same time their ancestors arrived in Australia. During the 46,000 years of their isolation, they had invented neither the wheel nor the bow and arrow. They lived in a state of perpetual warfare between neighboring tribes. Their most conspicuous cultural achievement was an intense religion, some of whose rituals lasted through day and night for months at a time. 

Finally, he concludes on page 244:

To assert that evolution has played some role in human history does not mean that that role is necessarily prominent, let alone decisive. Culture is a mighty force, and people are not slaves to innate propensities, which in any case only prompt the mind in a certain direction. But if all individuals in a society have similar propensities, however slight, toward greater or less social trust, say, or greater or lesser conformity, then the society will tend to act in that direction and to differ from societies that lack such propensities. 

Wade states near the end: "Difference between populations undoubtedly exist but they are quite subtle."

The book is imperfect, but it's worth reading. Scientists ought to be able to research race without being punished or ostracized by their academic communities. It reminds me of the Copernican Revolution. Just because we don't like the answer doesn't mean we ought to stick our head in the sand or demonize those who proclaim it. A Troublesome Inheritance is a good step in that direction, which is part of the reason why I am giving it a high rating.

VERDICT: 9/10.

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