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.