Sunday, August 10, 2014

Nicolas Wade’s troubling ideas

Among the popular myths about human genetics left over from the era of eugenics, social Darwinism and racism, two are especially relevant to Nicolas Wade’s recent book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.”  The first is that natural selection has stopped due to advances in health and medicine, and that, as a result, the unfit are now contributing more to each succeeding generation. Early in his Book, Wade disagrees, stating that “human evolution has been recent, copious and regional”, and much of the first part of the book is devoted to this claim. I think this statement is well-supported by modern genetics. Wade goes further, arguing that in fact, selection favors those who are economically successful. Here, demography and historical records have more to say than genetics, and Wade relies heavily on the work of Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis, especially the book “A Farewell to Alms” which he reviewed favorably for the New York Times in 2007. I am skeptical about the connection between affluence and Darwinian fitness; I don’t think there are genetic data either way.

Wade gets into trouble when he tries to find support in modern human genetics for a second major myth, which is that humanity can be meaningfully divided into a small number of types (races), and that these types have biologically meaningful differences in things such as intelligence and moral character. Virtually all practicing human population geneticists, including those whose work he cites, are in agreement that this speculation is unsupported, and today’s New York Times carries a succinct statement signed by many of them, featuring a simple message:

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

The letter is here.  The list of signatories, here, contains 139 names, including every prominent human geneticist that I thought to look for.

Why the outcry? People who devote their scientific lives to the study of human genetic variation think about race and popular misconceptions all of the time. They care that their work is accurately represented.

For those who wish to read a more detailed rebuttal of Wade’s arguments, I recommend Jeremy Yoder in the Los Angeles Review of Books, but there are many other good ones. 
The original New York Times book review, by David Dobbs, is here.

For those who want to read less, I leave you with one very brief quote.

He’s claiming to be a spokesperson for the science and, no, he’s not.
- Sarah Tishkoff (David and Lyn Silfen University Professor in the Departments of Genetics and Biology at the Universisty of Pennsylvania, quoted in a Nature News Blog)

Postscript (additional commentary):
- Nicolas Wade's reply (New York Times, Aug. 22)
- Marcus W. Feldman in the Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics at Stanford blog.
"Echoes of the Past: Hereditarianism and A Troublesome Inheritance" Marcus W. Feldman is the Burnet C. and Mildred Finley Wohlford Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford and a Founding Director of CEHG.