White Rabbit

White Rabbit

In a guise of scientific seriousness, Nicholas Wade’s new book revives the discredited ideas of history’s most notorious racists.


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.

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.”  Indeed, Wade so underplays the relation of scientific racism to the Holocaust that he even muses upon aspects of the work of Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau (the 19th century eugenic philosopher who came up with the idea of an Aryan “master race”) as “defensible” because, unlike Hitler, Gobineau admired Jews almost as much as his beloved Aryans, what with their being a “free strong and intelligent people, and one which…had given as many learned men to the world as it had merchants.”

For Nicholas Wade, “racism is a surprisingly modern concept, the word first appearing in the Oxford English Dictionary only in 1910.” (Janelle Ambrosia would doubtless appreciate this convenient sociology since racism didn’t exist for her until some random black guy in a parking lot invented it.)  And if racism—not just the word but the “concept”—didn’t exist until 1910, then it’s a short leap to Wade’s conclusion, that “ fears that the evolutionary understanding of race will promote a new phase of racism or imperialism are surely exaggerated.  The lessons of past abuses are vivid enough…This interpretation of Darwinism has been so thoroughly repudiated that it is hard to conceive of any circumstance in which it could be successfully resurrected.”

But resurrection is precisely what Wade does.  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. That move alone reinscribes the convoluted, shape-shifting social baggage of racial division onto our biology. 

To understand how Wade muddles the science of genetics, using it to create his major and minor “races,” let us consider the example of a genetically-inflected condition that we never attribute to race.  Suppose we found a genetic predisposition that might contribute to a greater frequency of dyslexia within certain kinship groups, and that statistical data located such groupings in Northern Finland, Eastern Nebraska and a small corner of Namibia.  Dyslexia is heritable and therefore variable in small population clusters. But it exists throughout the human population. Would it make any sense to call it “the Finnish gene” or a “Nebraskan deficit” or a “Namibian trait?” 

Dyslexia would be no more “obviously Nebraskan” than it is “obviously Namibian.”  Yet this is the sort of generalization that Wade makes about characteristics like industriousness and generosity and proclivities for trade or warfare. And he goes further when he draws world-historic conclusions. It is as if he were to look only at the cluster from that small corner of Namibia, name it the “black-African-can’t-read” gene and “infer” or “surmise,” (some of his favorite words) that because of “the gene for illiteracy” it is just “common sense” (he uses that term a lot, too) that all Africans have been naturally selected for the pre-modern—melted into a singular culture, no less, that can’t adapt to the civilized world.

By the same token, conditions like enzyme deficiencies, tolerance for altitude, the ability to metabolize certain proteins or construct nucleic acids, or the susceptibility to certain diseases are distributed throughout our species.  Humans are susceptible to a whole range of diseases we often delude ourselves into thinking of as the property of “only” particular ethnicities or races, such as Tay-Sachs or Kawasaki Disease or sickle-cell anemia or skin cancer.  But even high stochastic frequency is no substitute for actual diagnosis: mere correlation is not the same as cause and effect. And it is not only those who identify as Jewish or Japanese or blacks or whites who succumb to these diseases.

Thus, adaptations to varying ecological conditions (like altitude or famine) are best thought of as variations on a common human theme. To deconstruct one of Wade’s examples, the mere fact that the red blood cells of some Tibetans who live in the Himalayas have developed an ability to oxygenate efficiently at extreme heights does not or should not be used to mark Tibetans as a race “distinct” or apart from Han Chinese—any more than it would make Tibetans “the same as” Peruvians who’ve adapted similarly in response to Andean altitudes.  To even think of this kind of human adaptation as “racial” rather than as the myriad adjustments of living human biology is to think in categories that are overlaid with social attitudes and mythology.   

Nevertheless, Wade relentlessly pushes human variability into big socio-linguistic boxes of “difference.” Raced difference.  Just small variations he says out of one side of his mouth.  Small variations that he then weaves 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.

Wade’s turn to “nature” is an old one.  Auguste Comte, the so-called “father of sociology” proposed in the early 19th century that human thought could be summarized by three progressive stages of contemplation about the physical world: first, child-like religious explanation; second, metaphysical or “naturalized” explanation; and third, scientific or highest-order thinking, by which he meant positivism, aligning his quest for truth with observation and quantification.  In some ways, Nicholas Wade represents an odd throw-back to Comte-ian descriptions of the second order, and sometimes even the first.  Using his best Heart of Darkness primitivizing gaze, Wade describes religion in hunter-gatherer societies as utterly devoid of any aspect of ritual or order, instead simply “centered around communal dances.  The dances are long and vigorous and extend far into the night.  There is something about rhythmic movement in unison that instills a sense of belonging to a group.” “Nature,” meanwhile, becomes an active agent in Wade’s rhetoric, repeatedly situated like a goddess, a ghost, an invisible spirit of eugenic redemption.  

With “nature” underwriting social traits like Western production efficiencies, East Asian autocracies, and “the success of Jews” in economic affairs, Wade is washed comfortably clean of political motivation.  It is not Wade but “nature,” who goes about dropping a “a genetic anchor” hither and yon for traits like thrift, industry, honesty, conformity and innovation, thereby explaining why “expatriot English populations throughout the world have behaved like one another…and why the same is true of the Chinese abroad…and why Malay, Thai or Indonesian populations…are strangely unable to copy it.” Nature, not Wade, declares that “social behavior, of Chinese and others, is genetically shaped.”

If I were more biologically prone to snarkiness, I might suggest that it’s just the gene for arrogance emboldening Wade to make claims like “No one can yet say exactly what patterns in the neural circuitry predispose European populations to prefer open societies.” Or, “Western culture has achieved far more than other cultures…” Or, “It was Europe that discovered the world, not the other way around.” Or, that because of England’s “long peaceful history” which he charts as having begun in the year 1200, “the English” (not, mind you, the Irish, Welsh or Scots) naturally selected themselves for non-violence, literacy, “the propensity to save,” and “the propensity to work.” 

How, one might ask, did “nature” accomplish all this felicitous selection? Until industrialization, claims Wade, “the wealthy had more surviving children than the poor.  As many of the children of the rich fell in status, they would have spread throughout the population the genes that support the behavior useful in accumulating wealth.” Of course another way to read this is as the ontology of an unreconstructed colonial coot with an Etonian retelling of Upstairs Downstairs, something just short of an outright celebration of impregnating all the maids and slaves you can push into a closet.    

Perhaps it would help to review exactly who Nicholas Wade is and where he fits into the hierarchy of his own theories.  Wade has never published a peer-reviewed paper in any subject; does not have a doctorate or a master’s degree, only a bachelor’s in natural sciences. He is, however, a graduate of Eton and Cambridge, and his self-presentation in this book is that of one convinced he is the pinnacle of Wordsworth-ian fairest flowering. His vocabulary is stuck in an imaginary upper class reliquary, where words like “stock” and “breeding” may be applied to human beings, like the Irish.  The careless British diction of animal husbandry-applied-to-humans litters the pages of this book.  Human behavior is cheerfully compared to foxes, dogs, cows, chimps, and rats.  The deep history of how this sort of Mendelian over-simplification enabled the rise of “chattel” (the archaic word for cattle) slavery is, of course, elided. Not to mention that if “breeding” served human uplift, as Wade implies, then the British royals would all be gentle geniuses.

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.”

* * *

A question looms as one slogs through this book. How did Wade, with all his flawed reasoning, careless privilege, and unsupported ideas, get published by Penguin Press, endorsed by Kirkus reviews, end up near the top of Amazon book sales before the book is even released, and, most unforgivably, occupy prime real estate in the New York Times for years upon years? Wade’s popularity seems to rest not only on the exploitation of sensational ideas for sales, but on the fact that his work looks scientific and is very hard for a lay reader to check or criticize.

We could start with the conspicuous endorsement from none other than James Watson, prominently featured on the jacket cover–not something whose legitimizing effect can be easily dismissed by the average lay reader.  (For former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s similarly enthusiastic endorsement, you’ll have to go to Duke’s website.) But while Watson may have a Nobel prize for his scientific work, he was recently dismissed as head of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory precisely because he has, as he approaches slurry dotage, so often spoken like an anti-scientist.  Of the great geneticist Rosalind Franklin (from whose pivotal work he borrowed heavily, without acknowledgment), Watson once wrote not only that she ought to wear lipstick, but that she “had to go or be put in her place. The thought could not be avoided that the best home for a feminist was in another person's laboratory.” He has expressed a desire to genetically render “all girls pretty.”  He won’t hire “fat people”; thinks the Irish are “ignorant”; wants to cure “the disease of stupidity” by eliminating the bottom ten percent of humanity; has hypothesized that extra melanin gives “Latin lovers” extra libido; and is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours” – whereas “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true.”

Endorsements notwithstanding, Nicholas Wade’s book suffers from serious problems of citation. I tried to follow his footnotes for a study in which Wade discusses Russian breeder Dmitriy Belyaev’s attempt to “domesticate” foxes. But I found only references to short journalistic pieces written by…Nicholas Wade.  So I looked up Belyaev on Wikipedia.  There too, the first citation describing Belyaev’s work was written not by Belyaev but by none other than Nicholas Wade.  Of course I’m an academic as well as a lawyer:  I can continue my search in the great libraries of my university. Most casual readers will not. 

A similar thing happened when I looked at the documentation grounding Wade’s overstated assertions about “the violence-promoting…MAO-A gene.”  The precise mechanical and epigenetic expression of monoamine oxidase-A is a very much-discussed topic in genetics as well as law.  It is a topic I address in a seminar I teach.  What was surprising was the absence of reference to some of the major studies in the area that might challenge his assertion that natural selection “could have favored particular behavioral traits in the various ethnicities, whether more or less aggressive…” For, oh yes indeed, there’s the insinuation that African American men are more inherently disposed toward violence.

In short, the project of refuting this book will not be easy for the average reader.  Not only does one need a fairly sophisticated interdisciplinary background to see through some of his claims, the promotion of the book is designed to cut off criticism.  The most obvious–and cheapest–of those ways is Wade’s silly insistence that anyone who disagrees is a “politically correct Leftist,” only a few of whom (though he simultaneously sees them as legion) can “cow a whole campus.” 

A deeper problem is that Wade’s legitimacy depends upon a closed loop of credibility–as well as a close-minded one–that has little to do with science or process or caution or inquiry, and every thing to do with the sweetly seductive pheromones of profit. Wade recently dismissed, among other seriously credentialed dissenters, a powerful critique by Jennifer Raff, a seasoned and respected research fellow at UT Austin with a dual doctorate in genetics and anthropology, as the work of a “postdoctoral student” whose reputation is “not exactly outsize.”  He tends to respond, in other words, to thoughtful critiques by disparaging the status or qualifications of those who dare challenge him. Or maybe it’s just that Wade despises 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.”  Worst of all, he abjures the scientific process itself in his dismissal of standards of replicability, research controls, or tested results as the product of researchers who “do not act independently but rather as communities of scholars who constantly check and approve one another’s work.”

In no way do I intend to suggest that journalists should want or need degrees or even expertise 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 and sheer fiction in its name. Nicholas Wade—just like Janelle Ambrosia–will need to search harder for taxonomies beyond the lazy cultures of thought that keep leading us down the same fantastical rabbit holes.


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