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

The state of the universe.
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.

One of Wade’s key data points is the rapid economic growth of East Asia in the past half-century: “In the early 1950s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some 30 years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated.” Wade approvingly quotes political scientist Samuel Huntington’s statement, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.” And Wade attributes these attitudes toward thrift, investment, etc., to the Koreans’ East Asian genes.

This all fits together and could well be true. But ... what if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.

In any era, racism is typically supported by comparing two groups that are socially unequal and with clear physical differences. But both these sorts of comparisons are moving targets.

Wade offers social and biological facts on his side. The key social fact is the persistence of social inequality, both within and between countries. Whereas a leftist might see such inequality as evidence of unfair social structures within a country and unequal economic arrangements among countries, Wade takes these as evidence for the devastating combination of genetic differences and genetically reinforced cultural differences. The key biological fact is that ethnic groups do differ genetically in many ways, not merely in those genes directly connected to physical appearance.

Racial explanations for inequality are just too easy and too convenient. Differences between Czechs and Slovaks, Hutus and Tutsis, English and Irish, northern and southern Albanians, and so forth—all these have been explained by locals as arising from inherent differences between the competing groups. From the perspective of the United States, though, such comparisons don’t seem so compelling—how different can the Flemish and the Walloons be, really?—and so racism is commonly supported by comparisons between countries.

As Wade puts it, “many countries with no resources, like Japan or Singapore, are very rich, while richly endowed countries like Nigeria tend to be quite poor. Iceland, covered in glaciers and frigid deserts, might seem less favorably situated than Haiti, but Icelanders are wealthy and Haitians beset by persistent poverty and corruption.”

As Mr. Pilkington said in Animal Farm, “If you have your lower animals to contend with, we have our lower classes.”

Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Wade’s repeated comments about creativity, intelligence, tribalism, and so forth seem to me to represent views of superiority and inferiority.

Wade writes, “academics, who are obsessed with intelligence, fear the discovery of a gene that will prove one major race is more intelligent than another. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon.” So far, no problem. Labeling scientific or political disagreement as “obsession” or “fear” is not the most polite debating tactic, but Wade is entitled to his opinion. But later on he writes, “The populations of China, Japan and Korea have consistently higher IQs than those of Europe and the United States,” and he characterizes this as a difference in intelligence.

That said, I can’t say that Wade’s theories are wrong. As noted above, racial explanations of current social and economic inequality are compelling, in part because it is always natural to attribute individuals’ successes and failures to their individual traits, and to attribute the successes and failures of larger societies to group characteristics. And genes provide a mechanism that supplies a particularly flexible set of explanations when linked to culture.

Despite Wade’s occasional use of politically conservative signifiers (dismissive remarks about intellectuals and academic leftists, an offhand remark about “global cooling”), I believe him when he writes that “this book is an attempt to understand the world as it is, not as it ought to be.” If researchers ever really can identify ethnic groups with genetic markers for short-term preferences, low intelligence, and an increased proclivity to violence, and other ethnic groups with an affinity for authoritarianism, this is something that more peaceful, democratic policymakers should be aware of.

Wade could be right in his conclusions—maybe it’s true that Afghans and Iraqis are genetically distinct, compared with people of Western European descent, as a result of their adaptation to their “tribal societies.” Maybe East Asians really are, on average, intelligent but not creative. Maybe the famous cultures of poverty in the United States and elsewhere are associated with genes involved in impulse control, violence, and short-term thinking. Wade has very little discussion of the implications of his theories for race relations within the United States. I assume that in an attempt to avoid this aspect of controversy, he talks about the poor economic performance of Haiti but not about the lower incomes and social class of blacks and Hispanics within U.S. borders.

Wade’s arguments aren’t necessarily wrong, just because they look like various erroneous arguments from decades past involving drunken Irishmen, crafty Jews, hot-blooded Spaniards, lazy Africans, and the like.

But I think the themes of a book like Wade’s are necessarily contingent both on the era when it is written and the audience to which it is addressed. At the start of his last chapter, Wade speaks to his readers: “Imagine you, as an English speaker of European descent ...” In the spirit of modern ideas in theoretical physics, one might imagine a multiverse of possible Nicholas Wades, writing in all possible epochs and for all possible audiences, dividing up humans into groups at different levels of coarseness and focusing on different economic and social outcomes. The racial explanation tuned to our social group and our time period will look oh so reasonable, while all the others will just look silly, like either historical relics or desperate attempts to shore up the status quo.

I feel awkward giving this conclusion because it seems so relativistic, it makes me feel like such a social scientist. And I certainly don’t want to say that all racial arguments are equally valid. The theories of the book under discussion, for example, seem much more plausible than various crude racisms of the past. But that returns us to the paradox that today’s racism seems plausible in comparison to what came before. At any given time, racial explanations are a convenient and natural way to explain social economic inequality. Then, as relations between and within societies change, the racial explanations change alongside. The terms of race are simply too flexible given the limited information we have regarding the connections between genes and behavior.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University and author of several books, including Bayesian Data Analysis, Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks, and Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.

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