Yet more responses to scientific racism


In recent weeks, Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance has been soundly criticized on the basis of his misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the statistical methods used to study human genetic variation (see Jeremy Yoder’s critique here, Chris Smith’s here, Joseph Graves’ here, and mine here ), his misunderstanding of evolution (see Michael Eisen’s critique here, and Eric Michael Johnson’s here ), and his misunderstanding of human biological variation (see Greg Laden’s critique here,  Agustin Fuentes’ critique here, and Jon Marks’ here ). These criticisms–all from biologists and biological anthropologists– can be boiled down into a single statement: Mr. Wade’s book is scientifically unsound.

His responses thus far (to those of us who published in the Huffington Post) have failed to engage any of the substantive issues that have been raised. Instead, he dismissed our standing for discussing this issue, calling me a “postdoctoral student” (A science journalist should be aware that postdocs aren’t students), and dismissing Dr. Fuentes’ and Dr. Marks’ research background and credentials (as if biological anthropologists were not scientists). I have not seen any response yet to the numerous other critiques from biologists that have appeared elsewhere (many listed in the previous paragraph), which raise many of the same concerns.

Mr. Wade may feel that he can ignore the substantive critiques of his book by scientists. But can he do the same for fellow science journalists? David Dobbs’ review of Mr. Wade’s book appeared in the New York Times Book Review this past Sunday (the online version can be read here). It is not favorable.  Mr. Dobbs calls the book “deeply flawed, deceptive, and dangerous.”

In discussing the study (critiqued by most of us above) that Mr. Wade claims supports the genetic basis for three (or is it five?) “continental races”, Mr. Dobbs notes that the paper itself

“directly contradicts Wade’s argument. Yet he baldly claims the study as support.  And he does this sort of thing repeatedly: He constantly gathers up long shots, speculations and spurious claims, then declares they add up to substantiate his case. The result is a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book.”

Mr. Dobbs elaborates on this in the companion piece on his blog:

“Wade demonstrates how a lucid, well-written, selective presentation of evidence — eloquent, elegant cherry-picking — can convince smart people of pernicious ideas that seem scientific, but which science does not support. Much of the sleight of hand in this book will not be evident to people who don’t know the field. In some cases one has to read a specific paper cited by Wade to recognize that he thoroughly misrepresents its findings.”

I encourage you to go read both of Mr. Dobbs’ critiques. It will be interesting to see how Mr. Wade responds.

Update: Here are a few other critiques worth mentioning:

A Troublesome Ghost by Dr. John Edward Terrell

In addition to the post I cited above, Dr. Chris Smith also takes on Wade’s mischaracterization of
the genetic basis for violent behavior in different populations.

He also discusses in detail Wade’s repeated assertion that human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional”.

And if you’d like to listen to an interesting discussion on race, genetics, ancestry testing, and human biology, here’s an appearance by Agustin Fuentes on the Center for Environmental Health podcast.


12 thoughts on “Yet more responses to scientific racism

  1. Anonymous July 15, 2014 / 3:55 pm

    Cool Dog

  2. Mr. Evolution July 15, 2014 / 5:48 pm


    You are committing a major logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many races there are for race to be real. Accounts of the number of races can vary and race can still be real. Think about it.

    What this debate is really about is whether you come down on the side of Darwin or not.

    The New Creationists have clearly made it known that they despise Darwin:

    Although I don’t agree with Nicholas Wade on every single point, I’m afraid I cannot follow you people down the path you’re going. At the end of the day, I side with Darwin and against the New Creationists.

  3. Reader July 15, 2014 / 6:25 pm

    The best part of the whole Nicholas Wade saga is watching all the Cultural Marxists scramble about trying to salvage their sacred “race is a social construct” religion. Heaven forbid that someone like Wade actually take Darwin seriously!

  4. Anna. C. Roosevelt July 15, 2014 / 6:49 pm

    Mr. Evolution thinks with a broad brush indeed. To criticize Wade’s poorly supported hypotheses is no indictment of evolutionary theory. What he is doing isn’t evolutionary theory.

    • Mike Steinberg July 16, 2014 / 6:29 am

      @ Anna,

      Really? There are phenotypic differences and there’s nothing theoretically difficult about them – natural selection naturally takes a different course in different circumstances, nor does it take very long to generate differences of the kind and magnitude we see around us.

      While you can’t say with high confidence group differences are partially genetic I can’t see why they can be ruled out either.

      In theory there is no reason differences couldn’t have arisen in part due to evolutionary factors.

      The simplest model would be that time since development of agriculture varies between groups, and this variation leads to different levels of selection for traits which might be more useful for agriculturalists than for hunter gatherers. Other factors could be the influence of family structure (polygamy vs monogamy), demands for paternal investment, state societies and rule of law for example.

      0) Behavioural traits are partially heritable.

      1) there is plenty of extant genetic variation, probably due to a large number of genes of individually small effect – no additional mutations are required.

      2) selection can act if reproductive rates are impacted by these genes (i.e., conscientiousness, impulsivity,propensity to violence, etc).

      3) simple estimates suggest that 50,000 could have been enough time to produce .5 SD (genetic) group differences.

  5. Mike Steinberg July 16, 2014 / 6:14 am

    can be boiled down into a single statement: Mr. Wade’s book is scientifically unsound.

    @ Jennifer

    That and Wade is raising unpopular hypotheses that conflict with sacred dogma. As Jonathan Haidt has written:

    “The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”

    “If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.”

    As Professor Steve Hsu reasonably notes, Wade does a decent job of explaining population structure with too much speculation in the second part.
    Nonetheless, the ideas are ultimately testable in the same way as North and South Europena height differences:

    “But what about more complicated traits, such as height or cognitive ability or personality? All of these are known to be significantly heritable, through twin and adoption studies, as well as more modern methods.

    We can’t answer the question without understanding the specific genetic architecture of the trait. For example, are alleles that slightly increase height more common in one group than another? We need to know exactly which alleles affect height… But this is challenging as the traits I listed are almost certainly controlled by hundreds or thousands of genes. Could population averages on these traits differ between groups, due to differences in allele frequencies? I know of no argument, taking into account the information above, showing that they could not.

    In fact, in the case of height we are close to answering the question. We have identified hundreds of loci correlated to height. Detailed analysis suggests that the difference in average height between N and S Europeans (about one population SD, or a couple of inches) is partially genetic (N Europeans, on average, have a larger number of height increasing alleles than S Europeans), due to different selection pressures that the populations experienced in the recent past (i.e., past 10k years).

    Many who argue on Montagu’s side hold the prior belief that the ~ 50k years of isolation between continental populations is not enough time for differential selection to produce group differences, particularly in complex traits governed by many loci. This is of course a quantitative question depending on strength of selection in different environments. The new results on height should cause them to reconsider their priors.

    It is fair to say that results on height, as well as on simpler traits such as lactose or altitude tolerance, are consistent with Wade’s theme that evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.

    Further extrapolation to behavioral and cognitive traits will require more data, but:

    1) The question is scientific — it can be answered with known methods. (I estimate of order millions of genotype-phenotype pairs will allow us to extract the genetic architecture of complex traits like cognitive ability — perhaps sometime in the coming decade.)

    2) There is no a priori argument, given what we currently know, that such differences cannot exist. (Cf. Neanderthals!) Note this is NOT an argument that differences exist — merely that they might, and that we cannot exclude the possibility.

    An honest Ashley Montagu would have to concede points 1 and 2 above.

    The second part of A Troublesome Inheritance covers controversial topics such as genetic group differences in behavioral and cognitive predispositions, and their societal implications. Wade is mostly careful to present these as speculative hypotheses, but nevertheless his advocacy leaves him vulnerable to easy attack. What I have summarized above are the incontestable (albeit, in some circles, perhaps still controversial and poorly understood) new results that have accumulated through the last decade of genomic research…

    Another point, for the cognoscenti: Wade does a good job explaining the difference between soft and hard sweeps. Orr notes that small adjustments of allele frequencies is one of the primary mechanisms for evolutionary change (so nothing new in Wade’s discussion; goes all the way back to Fisher), but many many readers, even biologists who aren’t in population genetics, don’t understand this point very well. So reading that section in the book would increase understanding for a large number of people.”

  6. MDrees July 16, 2014 / 7:19 am

    I love how your detractors are so incredibly condescending and prattle on about the death of “cultural Marxism” (nice buzzword) and yet still feel the need to write veritable articles in the comments section to tell you they disagree. Maybe they should start a consortium of “real” science blogs, where everyone can rehash the stereotypes of race, nature v. nurture, gender essentialism, and other tone deaf, oversimplified ideas. Funny how those corners of the internet always seem to support the prejudices and interests of a certain group of people. Thank you for all that you do, Jennifer, I imagine it gets tiresome.

    • Rudolph Elkhanna November 15, 2014 / 10:30 pm

      Yes, I too hate it when people aren’t quick to the point, and complicate things with long, sophomoric arguments, no matter how sincere.

  7. Samantha July 16, 2014 / 8:16 am

    Geeez, Jenn, seriously, stop being such a hater. Let’s celebrate human biodiversity.

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