Genetics professors unite in criticism of Nicholas Wade’s book.

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In a series of recent posts I and several others have strongly criticized Nicholas Wade’s recent book “A Troublesome History”, which purports to show that human races are biologically meaningful categories, characterized by different behavioral tendencies (which have resulted in different degrees of socio-political success). Now 139 professors with expertise in genetics, human biology, biological anthropology, and evolution have added their voices to this discussion, criticizing Wade’s book in a strongly worded letter that appears in the New York Times today. The full text of their letter can be found here. Organized by Grahm Coop, Michael Eisen, Rasmus Nielsen, Molly Przeworski, and Noah Rosenberg, the signatories include many of the leading researchers in human genomics (a full list of signatories and their affiliations can be found here).

Several of the authors are people whose research Mr. Wade cited approvingly in his book as supporting his thesis, such as Dr. Sarah Tishkoff, Dr. David Reich, and Dr. Noah Rosenberg (lead author of the 2002 paper that Mr. Wade uses as the primary evidence for his conception of genetically distinct races).

According to Michael Balter in an article appearing today in Science:

The letter was spearheaded by five population geneticists who had informally discussed the book at conferences, says co-organizer Rasmus Nielsen of the University of California, Berkeley. “There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.”

The authors don’t mince words:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.

This letter is highly inconvenient for Mr. Wade, making it clear that the senior researchers in the fields from which he’s trying to marshal support categorically reject his storytelling and bad science. Nor can he continue to make the (untrue) argument that critiques of his book are largely politically based, and conducted mainly by social scientists. A strong blow has been dealt to scientific racism today.

 

For further reading, check out the Nature blog on the subject: http://blogs.nature.com/news/2014/08/geneticists-say-popular-book-misrepresents-research-on-human-evolution.html, and Jeremy Yoder’s post: http://nothinginbiology.org/2014/08/08/population-geneticists-to-nicholas-wade-you-know-nothing-of-our-work/

 

UPDATE: Mr. Wade has issued a statement responding to the letter.  He starts out reasserting the position I claimed above that he can’t continue to hold:

“This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers.

As no reader of the letter could possibly guess, “A Troublesome Inheritance” argues that opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on the anti-evolutionary myth that there is no biological basis to race.  Unfortunately many social scientists have long denied that there is a biological basis to race. This creed, prominent throughout the academic world, increasingly impedes research. Biologists risk damaging their careers if they write explicitly about race.

 

In yesterday’s post on the subject, Mr. David Dobbs described who several of the authors are:

Those signers include

  • Noah Rosenberg, the lead author of a 2002 paper that Wade leans on especially heavily, ”Genetic Structure of Human Populations,“ as well as at least two other authors of the paper.

  • Yale’s Kenneth Kidd, who is one of the world’s most respected population geneticists, a central figure in establishing the field, and another co-author on the 2002 Rosenberg paper.

  • Stanford’s Jonathan Pritchard, another co-author on that paper and the researcher whose lab designed the ”Structure“ genetic analysis software that created the ”clustering“ data Wade says supports his argument.

  • Sarah Tishkoff, lead author of a 2009 paper on ”The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African-Americans“ that Wade cited extensively as crucial support.

  • Jun Li and Richard Myers, the lead and senior authors of a 2008 paper, ”Worldwide Human Relationships Inferred from Genome-Wide Patterns of Variation,” that, as I noted in my review, Wade misrepresented as supporting his argument.

 

These and the other signatories of the letter are the leaders in the field of human population genetics. They do not shy away from research and writing about human genetic variation. Mr. Wade is wrong to imply that they are being intimidated by cultural anthropologists. The fact that they agree on a single statement (on anything) is extraordinary and should be treated seriously.

Further, I suspect that more people on that list have read his book than he believes, simply because I’ve talked to them. In fact, Jerry Coyne, one of the signers of the letter has read it twice. (I encourage you to read his thoughts on the subject at the link above).

Disturbingly, Mr. Wade appears to be adopting the methodology of his “HBD” followers in claiming that evolution requires acceptance of his view of race. The data do not support that position, and saying so doesn’t make any of us anti-evolution, no matter how loudly he says it.

He goes on:

These attacks have included repeated assertions that the book is scientifically inaccurate, a charge for which I have seen no basis. In the same vein, this letter issues general charges without supporting evidence.

True, the letter doesn’t go into a detailed scientific refutation of his book. But there’s hardly space in the letter section of the NY Times to document his numerous errors, and many of us have done that already (For example “The troublesome ignorance of Nicholas Wade” by Agustin Fuentes, “How A Troublesome Inheritance gets human genetics wrong” by Jeremy Yoder, “The genes made us do it: The new pseudoscience of race” by Jon Marks, “A guide to the science and pseudoscience of ‘A Troublesome Inheritance’” by Chris Smith, “A Troubling Tome” by Greg Laden, “On the origin of white power” by Eric Michael Johnson, and “The fault in our DNA” by David Dobbs). If you take a look at the various reviews of his book, you’ll see that they tend to cover many of the same points. Mr. Wade has consistently ignored all of them. His only responses to critics (myself, Agustin Fuentes, Jon Marks, and later Pete Shanks), has been to dismiss our credentials without seriously engaging with the substance of our points, calling us “incoherent with rage”. He’s ignored many other detailed critiques. Given all of this, I’m fairly certain that there are no terms in which 139 professors could couch a critique that would satisfy Mr. Wade. Who is actually being political here?

 

You might find this American Anthropological Association-sponsored debate between Agustin Fuentes and Nicholas Wade illuminating:

 

 

ETA (8/10/14): I mistakenly listed only Dr. Coop as the organizer of the letter. I’ve edited to add the names of the other professors who organized and wrote it. My sincere apologies for the oversight.

31 thoughts on “Genetics professors unite in criticism of Nicholas Wade’s book.

  1. Jonathan Kaplan August 9, 2014 / 10:47 am

    Nice post!

    What I find most striking in Wade’s continued responses is his insistence that researchers in genetics, in biomedicine, etc., who claim that racial categories are (in some interesting sense) biologically real “risk damaging their careers.” This claim is, as far I can tell, completely unfounded.

    There is enormous disagreement about whether the results of modern genomic clustering techniques support the division of the human species into biologically coherent populations that deserve to be called ‘races.’ Some researchers have argued that these techniques do so-support some ‘race-like’ divisions; other reject this conclusion. Some authors have argued, in print, that race-like divisions are so-supported and further that the population structure revealed might explain e.g. some differences in health outcomes or responses to pharmacological treatment regimes (Neil Risch, one of the signatories to the above-referenced letter, has in fact defended this position! ). Other researchers have argued that such conclusions are at best premature. Members of both groups have been well-represented at conferences I’ve attended, had their talks well-attended, and the discussions after their talks have been spirited, but civil. I see no evidence whatsoever that “[b]iologists risk damaging their careers if they write explicitly about race,” and plenty of evidence that biologists writing explicitly, but carefully, about race have broadly undamaged careers.

    What (nearly) everyone involved in the actual genetics and/or biomedical arenas rejects are Wade’s completely unfounded “speculations” on the role of ‘race’ in e.g. national economic success and the like, and the unsophisticated way in which he moves from claims about genetic differentiation to claims about ‘major’ races. This is not because geneticists are afraid to talk about race (they aren’t — Wade simply ignores the vast literature in which these arguments have been playing out!). It is because Wade is making claims for which there is no even remotely good evidence, and giving grossly facile (and sometimes simply mistaken) accounts of complex research while ignoring the complexities required to properly interpret that research in the contexts in which he wants to use it. Opposing that isn’t being guided by “political” concerns — it’s being careful and responsive to the available evidence.

    • Paul August 11, 2014 / 6:22 am

      If you, like Harpending, call “you are basing your claims on our scientific work and we affirm that our work does not support your claims” inquisition, political correctness or witch hunt, I think you should seriously consider reading the definition of these words.

      More or less as much as Wade should seriously consider taking off his blinders when reading scientific material, instead of being outraged when most the people he cites in support of his claims join to say: no, we did not say this, and no you are not right when citing us in support of what you propose.

    • tyelko August 14, 2014 / 4:35 am

      “Help, help, I’m being suppressed” has always been the call of quacks and ideologues, claiming everyone was motivated by ideology BUT them. And you underscore that by referring to “an inquisition”, evidently oblivious to the fact that the Inquisition historically was a step forward in judicial procedures. It was called “inquisition” because it conducted actual inquiries into a case instead of just taking the word of the socially higher ranking party as fact.

      When racists accuse others of witch hunts, it gets really absurd.

    • Anonymous August 9, 2014 / 7:42 pm

      You are my favorite racist lol.

    • Randy Wright August 10, 2014 / 11:27 pm

      I was hoping you were engaging in some sarcasm with that silly straw man attempt, but I’m terrified because I believe you were entirely serious.

      DNA science didn’t even exist in Darwin’s day, and he never even learned of Mendel’s work involving dominant and recessive genes. I’m not sure even Wade would want you as a defender.

    • tyelko August 14, 2014 / 4:37 am

      No, you are doing just that -you are promoting creationism and rejecting Darwin. You and wade are suggesting intrinsic, god-given characteristics that as per Darwin can readily develop based purely on geography, regardless of ancestry.

  2. Randy Wright August 10, 2014 / 4:47 pm

    Nicholas Wade:

    “This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers.”

    There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance on display here, and more than a touch of paranoia.

    And Jennifer, I messed up and entered information in the wrong blocks. Would you edit them, please, so my e-mail addy doesn’t appear (but feel free to drop me a note anytime although I know you’re busy). Or possibly you could delete the first (and this one if you can’t edit it; I’ve encountered software limits in the past, and I don’t know the situation)

  3. Aut August 12, 2014 / 4:51 am

    Wade must slowly be realizing what he has done to himself. I actually think he’s not a bad guy, rather a naive fool like the Homer Simson of science reporting.

  4. JCollins August 12, 2014 / 2:31 pm

    Thanks for an interesting post! It surprises me that he managed to get this book past his editors and published after misinterpreting his academic references so egregiously. Everything I’ve read recently regarding the Human Genome Project and topics of epigenetics seems to suggest that race exists as a spectrum rather than as an evolutionarily delineated reality. Has there been any comment from Penguin Press regarding the issue?

    • tyelko August 14, 2014 / 4:42 am

      Why, that’s a time-honored technique: Things you would never get past peer review are published in mass-market books in hopes of being declared right by public acclamation. Penguin Press is not precisely a scientific publisher, and even the latter do not necessarily hold monographs to the same standards as journals.

  5. Enrique Cardova August 16, 2014 / 12:47 am

    Dr. Raff has done a service in publicizing this. Hereditarians or “HBDers” are experts at playing their own “race card.” It takes 2 forms:

    1) THE VIRTUOUS MEN OF SCIENCE TACTIC: This involves vociferous claims to be objective, fact-finders, anchored in scholarship. What they don’t say is that too often much of the scholarship they present like that of much touted leading hereditarian Professor JP Rushton, or open racialist Richard Lynn is dubious, or highly distorted, or conveniently cherry-picked to exclude contrary scholarship.

    2) THE PERSECUTED “RACIAL REALIST:” This tactic involves posturing as a noble “teller of truth” saying “what no one else dare say” – heroic figures, beset by the dastardly forces of “political correctness” and traitorous “liberals.” Alack and alas, too often this is a convenient dodge for not engaging hard questions based on hard data and scholarship. Is testosterone for example really a significant determiner of violence in ethnic groups? If so, why have lower testosterone Germans perpetrated the worse genocide in human history? And how about those mild-mannered Chinese- racking up body counts in the tens of millions under “the thought of Chairman Mao?” My, my.. “Politically correct liberals” seem to have the bad habit of pointing out such contradictions using hereditarians own data, and exposing the sweeping claims of hereditarians both factually and logically. Obviously this is “unfair” to self-servingly styled “tellers of uncomfortable truths.”

    3) THE PLAUSIBLE DENIAL TACTIC: This tactic involves 3 methods:

    (a) The stacked deck pullback- insinuation of the racial subtext, but pulling back just enough to permit “plausible denial” that race or a particular racialist approach or conclusion is being pushed.

    (b) The “mere” thought experiment- in this dodge. a “thought experiment” is invoked- mere speculation and wondering- they say. Building on the stacked deck, the reader is asked to indulge this speculation. What if genes were discovered that were the primary determinants of violence? Could this explain rates of black criminality? Could this gene be “associated” with other things like IQ. childbearing, hell, even rap music? The “thought experiment” allows the stacked deck data to be used widely to insinuate all sorts of distortions, but since it is “not real” but “merely” or “only” a “thought experiment” – then “plausible denial” is preserved.

    (c) The back-handed diss – The back-handed diss disparages targeted racial others via use of distorted or inaccurate commentary on what appears they claim to be a “factual” matter. downplays and denies African achievements within Africa, such as the Nile Valley?

    4) THE SPADE IN THE SHADOWS TACTIC: The bread and butter of hereditarianism is the black bogeyman- the sinister, looming OTHER- the ‘spade in the shadows’. This figure is the foremost driver. Part of the “HBD” enterprise is of course anchored in segregationist justifications of Jim Crow, an enterprise heavily steeped in scientific racialism, and handsomely financed by organizations such as the Pioneer Fund and individual donors. As under Jim Crow, the ominous, inferior, brutish, threatening negro is the central subtext. Another picture of Tiger Woods chaps for the obligatory “Two Minutes of Hate”?

  6. cshooter September 1, 2014 / 11:02 am

    There’s no better flame war than one involving the eloquent outrage of a big group of scientists. It’s maddening that people can get book deals out of gleefully misinterpret data to fit their own agenda, but reading all the scientific take-downs of the work of people like Wade is hugely enjoyable!

  7. John September 8, 2014 / 12:27 pm

    Much of the discussion comes down to race and IQ. Are any of the above commentators, including Jennifer Raff and Nicholas Wade, aware that intelligence-enhancing alleles have begun to be discovered? And that the alleles are NOT evenly distributed across ethnic groups? There are bombshells here for both Left and Right. Ethnic Europeans vs. sub-Saharan Africans: ethnic Europeans have an advantage in terms of intelligence-enhancing alleles of about 1.5 standard deviations, depending on whether you use ALFRED or 1000 GENOMES data. Han Chinese have about a 1 standard deviation advantage over ethnic Europeans, and about a 2.5 standard deviation advantage over sub-Saharan Africans. Finns have an advantage over the French. On the other hand, despite differences in average IQ scores, indigenous people from North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia have little or no disadvantage vs. Europeans. The lowest scoring group?–Pygmies and Bushmen, who are more than 1/2 standard deviation below ethnic sub-Saharan Africans. Amongst sub-Saharan Africans, there is little difference between Nigerian and Kenyan ethnic groups in terms of intelligence-enhancing alleles. Of course, there is much more research to be done.

    • Grim Reaper September 10, 2014 / 10:30 am

      They haven’t discovered any intelligence enhancing alleles. Only associated very few out of 3 billion and replicated even fewer IE: 3 in that study and another 3 apparently in the newest study.

      Piffers polygenic score uses alleles that are unreliable especially the ones from teeny tiny sample sizes.

      Either way GWAS is questionable, underlying assumption of how those genes work is questionable. What they do (or even if they do anything at all) is still not properly understood.

      http://www.independentsciencenews.org/health/still-chasing-ghosts-a-new-genetic-methodology-will-not-find-the-missing-heritability/

      Look at your latest bit of data. Or should I say the latest study. What happened to all the previous associations? Not found. Huge sample size and only 3 are worth mentioning?

      You realize that this is just same old same old right?

      Look how all over the place association studies are and have been:
      http://people.duke.edu/~echar/4-gene-predict-everything/Gene_Associations_copy.pdf

      The fundamental notion or understanding of how genes work is now changing. These studies use the same old dogma in regards to genes that are incompatible with modern molecular evidence of how genes work. IE: Those alleles being associated can and most likely mean absolutely nothing.

    • lovell smith March 23, 2015 / 8:46 pm

      Still waiting for that Moonshot from Gabon and Benin’s Nuke Sub…

  8. John September 8, 2014 / 7:41 pm

    An important paper is:

    Piffer, D. Factor analysis of population allele frequencies as a simple, novel method of detecting signals of recent polygenic selection: The Example of Educational Attainment and IQ (downloadable).

    A less important paper is:

    Piffer, D.
    ANTHROPOLOGICAL
    SCIENCE
    Vol. 121(3), 161–171, 2013. What is most noteworthy about this paper is that Anthropological Science agreed to publish it.

    There will be much more to come, and not just by Piffer.

  9. John September 8, 2014 / 11:59 pm

    Here’s another paper: It won’t be too long before cross-racial results will start being tabulated:

    Common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance identified using the proxy-phenotype method

    Cornelius A. Rietvelda,b,
    Tõnu Eskoc,d,e,f,
    Gail Daviesg,h,
    Tune H. Persc,d,
    Patrick Turleyi,
    Beben Benyaminj,
    Christopher F. Chabrisk,
    Valur Emilssonl,m,
    Andrew D. Johnsonn,
    James J. Leeo,p,
    Christiaan de Leeuwq,r,
    Riccardo E. Marionig,j,s,
    Sarah E. Medlandt,
    Michael B. Millerp,
    Olga Rostapshovav,
    Sven J. van der Leew,
    Anna A. E. Vinkhuyzenj,
    Najaf Aminw,
    Dalton Conleyx,
    Jaime Derringery,
    Cornelia M. van Duijnw,z,
    Rudolf Fehrmannaa,
    Lude Frankeaa,
    Edward L. Glaeseri,
    Narelle K. Hansellbb,
    Caroline Haywards,cc,
    William G. Iaconop,
    Carla Ibrahim-Verbaasv,dd,
    Vincent Jaddoeb,ee,
    Juha Karjalainenaa,
    David Laibsoni,
    Paul Lichtensteini,
    David C. Liewaldg,
    Patrik K. E. Magnussonff,
    Nicholas G. Martinu,
    Matt McGuep,
    George McMahongg,
    Nancy L. Pedersenff,
    Steven Pinker,
    David J. Porteousg,s,
    Danielle Posthumaq,hh,ii,
    Fernando Rivadeneirab,jj,
    Blair H. Smithkk,
    John M. Starrg,ll,
    Henning Tiemeierb,hh,
    Nicholas J. Timpsonmm,
    Maciej Trzaskowskinn,
    André G. Uitterlindenb,jj,
    Frank C. Verhulsthh,
    Mary E. Wardgg,
    Margaret J. Wrightbb,
    George Davey Smithmm,
    Ian J. Dearyg,h,
    Magnus Johannessonoo,
    Robert Plominnn,
    Peter M. Visscherj,pp,
    Daniel J. Benjaminqq,1,2,
    David Cesarinirr,ss,1, and
    Philipp D. Koellingera,b,tt,1,2
    

    Author Affiliations

    Edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, and approved August 14, 2014 (received for review March 12, 2014)
    
    Abstract
    Authors & Info
    SI
    Metrics
    Related Content
    PDF
    PDF + SI
    

    Significance

    We identify several common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance using a two-stage approach: we conduct a genome-wide association study of educational attainment to generate a set of candidates, and then we estimate the association of these variants with cognitive performance. In older Americans, we find that these variants are jointly associated with cognitive health. Bioinformatics analyses implicate a set of genes that is associated with a particular neurotransmitter pathway involved in synaptic plasticity, the main cellular mechanism for learning and memory. In addition to the substantive contribution, this work also serves to show a proxy-phenotype approach to discovering common genetic variants that is likely to be useful for many phenotypes of interest to social scientists (such as personality traits).
    Abstract

    We identify common genetic variants associated with cognitive performance using a two-stage approach, which we call the proxy-phenotype method. First, we conduct a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in a large sample (n = 106,736), which produces a set of 69 education-associated SNPs. Second, using independent samples (n = 24,189), we measure the association of these education-associated SNPs with cognitive performance. Three SNPs (rs1487441, rs7923609, and rs2721173) are significantly associated with cognitive performance after correction for multiple hypothesis testing. In an independent sample of older Americans (n = 8,652), we also show that a polygenic score derived from the education-associated SNPs is associated with memory and absence of dementia. Convergent evidence from a set of bioinformatics analyses implicates four specific genes (KNCMA1, NRXN1, POU2F3, and SCRT). All of these genes are associated with a particular neurotransmitter pathway involved in synaptic plasticity, the main cellular mechanism for learning and memory.
    Footnotes

    1D.J.B., D. Cesarini, and P.D.K. contributed equally to this work.
    2To whom correspondence may be addressed. Email: daniel.benjamin@gmail.com or p.d.koellinger@uva.nl.
    
    Author contributions: D.J.B., D. Cesarini, and P.D.K. designed research; C.A.R., T.E., G.D., T.H.P., P.T., B.B., V.E., A.D.J., J.J.L., C.d.L., R.E.M., S.E.M., M.B.M., O.R., S.J.v.d.L., A.A.E.V., N.A., D. Conley, J.D., R.F., L.F., C.H., C.I.-V., J.K., D.C.L., P.K.E.M., G.M., D.P., M.T., M.E.W., M.J., P.M.V., and D. Cesarini analyzed data; C.A.R., T.E., P.T., C.F.C., D.L., D.J.B., D. Cesarini, and P.D.K. wrote the paper; C.F.C., C.M.v.D., E.L.G., W.G.I., V.J., D.L., P.L., N.G.M., M.M., N.L.P., S.P., D.P., J.M.S., H.T., F.C.V., M.J.W., G.D.S., I.J.D., M.J., and R.P. performed data collection; J.J.L., M.B.M., C.M.v.D., N.K.H., P.K.E.M., D.J.P., B.H.S., J.M.S., H.T., N.J.T., M.J.W., I.J.D., and M.J. performed phenotyping; and G.D., M.B.M., C.M.v.D., C.H., V.J., D.C.L., P.K.E.M., N.G.M., D.J.P., F.R., N.J.T., and A.G.U. performed genotyping.
    
    See SI Appendix for further details.
    
    The authors declare no conflict of interest.
    
    This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
    
    Data deposition: Genetic summary data on which our work is based are posted on the website of our research consortium (www.ssgac.org).
    
    This article contains supporting information online at www.pnas.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1404623111/-/DCSupplemental.
    

    Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.

    • Grim Reaper September 10, 2014 / 10:36 am

      Those alleles are similar across populations.

      • Grim Reaper September 10, 2014 / 10:36 am

        Not like it would matter though.

  10. InvisibleInk October 14, 2014 / 4:37 pm

    I would argue that the real interest in HBD and pseudoscientific racism comes in exploring the folk taxonomy inherent in their ideology. It can almost be akin to “trolling” when you slowly, but surely, tease out the various hierarchies they posit based on genetics but expressed solely in cultural capital.

    I mean, obviously their “science” is flawed, unsupported by the data, based on erroneous and selective interpretations of certain scientists… but I’ve seen that discussion played out a hundred times a thousand ways a million incarnations.

    That said, I’m a bit surprised Wade’s book even got traction with Penguin Press. Who even decides to publish this kind of tripe?

  11. Enrique Morata June 9, 2015 / 11:55 am

    Nicholas Wade is right, genetics show that the causes of the differences among races and individuals are far more complex than what we believed until recently, it doesn’t matter if 150 stupid geneticists complain about it.

  12. Curious December 16, 2015 / 8:44 am

    I see a lot of political criticism here, but not a scientific refutation of the Wade thesis. We can justify different responses to medical treatment using genetics and the concept of race without problem (to cite one). But, the brain?. No!. This organ is outside the influence of evolution.

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