This New York Times Writer’s Book on Genes, Race, and Culture Is Both Plausible and Preposterous

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May 8 2014 11:19 AM

The Paradox of Racism

Why the new book by the New York Times’ Nicholas Wade is both plausible and preposterous.

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Racist views of Germans as warlike and subhuman seem preposterous now but plausible at the time.

The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.

I’ve been thinking about this recently after reading the new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade, who writes about the big differences in economic success between whites, blacks, Asians, and other groups and offers a sophisticated argument that racial differences arise from genetic differences that are amplified by culture.

Wade’s argument has three parts: First, along with the divergence of physical traits such as skin color and types of earwax, racial groups have genetically evolved to differ in cognitive traits such as intelligence and creativity. Second, Wade argues that “minor differences, for the most part invisible in an individual, have major consequences at the level of a society.” Third, he writes that his views are uncomfortable truths that have been suppressed by a left-wing social-science establishment.

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The word “inequality” does not appear in the book’s index, but what Wade is offering is essentially a theory of economic and social inequality, explaining systematic racial differences in prosperity based on a combination of innate traits (“the disinclination to save in tribal societies is linked to a strong propensity for immediate consumption”) and genetic adaptation to political and social institutions (arguing, for example, that generations of centralized rule have effected a selection pressure for Chinese to be accepting of authority).

Wade is clearly intelligent and thoughtful, and his book is informed by the latest research in genetics. His explanations seem to me simultaneously plausible and preposterous: plausible in that they snap into place to explain the world as it currently is, preposterous in that I think if he were writing in other time periods, he could come up with similarly plausible, but completely different, stories.

As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”

Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift ... toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.

Wade’s attitudes toward economics also seem a bit simplistic, for example when he writes, “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?” The implication is that the answer is racial differences. But one might just as well ask why can’t Buffalo, New York, take out a loan and become as rich (per capita) as New York City. Or, for that matter, why can’t Portugal become as rich as Denmark? After all, Portuguese are Caucasians too! One could of course invoke a racial explanation for Portugal’s relative poverty, but Wade in his book generally refers to Europe or “the West” as a single unit. My point here is not that Haitians, Portuguese, and Danes are equivalent—obviously they differ in wealth, infrastructure, human capital, and so forth—but that it is not at all clear that genetic differences have much of anything to do with their different economic positions.

Wade contrasts his model with various other explanations of the rise of the West, most notably Jared Diamond’s idea, expressed in his influential book Guns, Germs, and Steel, that European countries had a series of geographical advantages, including regular trade and exchange of ideas with other cultures, challenging terrain that made it difficult for a single government to rule the continent, and a low level of parasites. Wade expresses dissatisfaction with Diamond’s “pretty arguments,” which he thinks are “designed to drag the reader away from the idea that genes and evolution might have played any part in recent human history.”

But in many ways, I think a better comparison would be to global historians such as Arnold Toynbee, who in his massive 12-volume Study of History traced the rise and fall of different world civilizations over the centuries. Toynbee’s work in turn is a response to traditional history that is based on considering individual countries as units.

In his book, Wade moves somewhat uneasily between racial groups and smaller entities, at first writing about distinctive characteristics of Caucasians but then later focusing on Europeans and “the West” as being distinct from Caucasians of the Middle East and India. Similarly, he moves away from considering East Asians as a race and instead focuses on Japan, China, and Korea, with other nationalities in the region being excluded from the favored club:

The Malay, Thai, or Indonesian populations who have prosperous Chinese populations in their midst might envy the Chinese success but are strangely unable to copy it. ... If Chinese business success were purely cultural, everyone should find it easy to adopt the same methods. This is not the case because social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped.

I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans.

Nowadays, though, Europe seems more like a single culture, and China, Japan, and Korea don’t seem so different either, which allows for this sort of generalization:

Japan and China, two of [the West’s] chief economic rivals, show no present sign of being better innovators. ... No one can yet say exactly what patterns in the neural circuitry predispose European populations to prefer open societies and the rule of law to autocracies, or Chinese to be drawn to a system of family obligations, political hierarchy, and conformity. ... There is clearly a genetic propensity for following society’s rules and punishing those who violate them.

Indeed, Wade writes, “Without Western production efficiencies, the countries of East Asia might still be locked in stagnant autocracies.” Maybe, but I don’t think Toyota got where it is today by copying the production efficiencies of General Motors.

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