Recently, a woman named Janelle Ambrosia went to pieces in a parking lot when the sound of a man starting his car scared her two young children. She became so unhinged that the man locked himself in his car, took out his cellphone 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.
How convincing you find him also depends on the history book you’re using. Heaven knows, if you can publish 250 pages rationalizing racial inequality as biologically driven without ever mentioning the global impact of the slave trade (except for referencing how Europeans’ genetic endowment of “empathy compelled the abolition of slavery”), well, welcome to Wade’s world. In Wade’s world, there will be no mention of German and British colonial adventure to explain the “puzzling” decline in Chinese civilization during the 1800s. There will be no discussion of World War I in his genetic theory of the demise of the Ottoman Empire (it just happened “for reasons that defy scholarly consensus”). And despite stating repeatedly that “no genetic variants that enhance intelligence have yet been found,” Wade spends an entire chapter advancing unsubstantiated geneticized theories of “Jewish intelligence.”
Wade pins the label of “race” on phenomena that are, by his own admission, either nonexistent or do not at all correspond to known genetic functions, relentlessly converting human variability into raced difference. Just small variations, he says out of one side of his mouth. He then weaves these small variations into huge narrative tapestries of “genetic” social difference—differences so immensely powerful that empires are built or collapse because of them. They rise, they fall because, well, it’s just in their nature.
Now, ordinarily I would hesitate to insinuate a connection between individual behavior and family proclivity, but Wade inspires me to throw caution to the winds and note that his grandfather was Lawrence Beesley, who wrote a book about surviving the sinking of the Titanic by launching himself into Lifeboat Number 13, since “there were no women or children” apparently in need. Following this ancestral destiny, Nicholas Wade has launched himself into a genetic lifeboat labeled not “13” but rather “English,” “Western,” “Caucasian,” as well as “innovative,” “monogamous,” “peaceable,” “literate” and “wise.”
This blessing is almost the limit of Wade’s qualifications for writing about genetics. He is a prolific reporter, without doubt, but also one about whom complaints have been made by the scientific community for decades—though he dismisses all criticisms as ignorant. And he hates academics—they “won’t touch the subject of human race for fear their careers will be ruined. Only the most courageous will publicly declare that race has a biological basis.” Yet Wade has never published a peer-reviewed paper in any subject and holds only a bachelor’s degree in natural science. He does not have a master’s degree. He does not have a doctorate.
Journalists should not need degrees in all the subjects upon which they report, but if Wade truly respects the ethics of journalism—a profession central to the democratic civilizations he so loves—he cannot publish falsehoods. Nicholas Wade, just like Janelle Ambrosia, will have to search harder for taxonomies beyond the lazy cultures of thought that keep leading us down the same fantastical rabbit holes.