Editor's note: Patricia Williams also discussed A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History by Nicholas Wade in her column “Diary of a Mad Law Professor.”
“And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall, tell ’em a hookah smoking caterpillar has given you the call…”
Late last month, a woman named Janelle Ambrosia went to pieces when a man in a parking lot turned on his motor, scaring her two young children. The car didn’t move; it was the sound of the motor that startled them. But the woman became so unhinged—threatening to throw her coffee at him and get her husband to kill him–that the man locked himself in, took out his cell phone and filmed her screaming at him at great and noisy length, calling him a “nigger! Nasty fucking nigger!” His video of that confrontation went viral; in response, Ambrosia took to the radio to explain: “If you look it up, ‘nigger’ means an ignorant person. It has nothing to do with race.”
I heard that radio interview as I was plowing my way through Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade is a science editor who has stirred controversy before, during his tenure at Nature and The New York Times. “Capital and information flow fairly freely,” he declares in the oft-quoted statement driving his book, “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?”
His book begins to answer this question with the basic premise that there are five “independent” races, three of which Wade deems “major.” He argues that cultures grow out of “instinctual social behaviors, such as the propensity to trust others, to follow rules and punish those who don’t, to engage in reciprocity and trade….” These behaviors, he claims, are developed separately through evolutionary biology.
What prevents so-called minor cultures from learning from major ones? Wade’s answer is incoherent. Sometimes the problem is structural, as in North Korea, where poverty, he argues, is caused by “bad institutions.” In this case, the problem can’t be genetic because “the people are the same” as in South Korea. But sometimes Wade blames genes. “Africa” (not a specific country) is tribal and warlike and resistant to innovation because of “natural selection,” a “fact” that supposedly explains why the continent has “absorbed billions of dollars of aid over the past half century and yet, for decades its standard of living has stagnated.”
Wade gets all kinds of things stunningly wrong, confusing the idea of race with the fact of genetics, and using race as a proxy for continental migration, skin color, disease, haplotype and other human variation. One of the most interesting of Wade’s indulgences is his endless, unsubstantiated hypothesizing about race as underwritten by imaginary genetic forces he confesses have not been found “yet,” and then shamelessly transforming those fictions into “common sense” and present-tense “fact.” As with Janelle Ambrosia, whether Nicholas Wade is a racist depends on the dictionary you are using. And like Janelle Ambrosia, Wade insists that he is not.