Monday, July 28, 2014


The book is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History in which Wade argues that differences in genes have played a big role in the different social behaviors and institutions of each race. Below is the review I posted on Amazon (July 23), with a few sentences I have added here and there for the sake of greater clarity. I gave the book one star for primarily one reason: It is a very deceptive book. He mixes honesty and dishonesty in such a way as to cover himself from the charge of making overstatements, but leaving you with the impression that everything he says about genes is probably true. He wants to be nice and objective, but ends up being subjective and biased against other cultures. Here is the slightly expanded review:
There is a lot of speculation in this book, as Wade admits early on, and he does not prove his thesis, as he himself tells us at the end. Despite these admissions, he pushes very hard to establish genetics as the key to explaining why races have developed along different paths. Yet he constantly acknowledges how important culture is. He accomplishes nothing more than to say that human societies result from the effects of a combination of genes, culture, and environment. He admits we don’t know what the precise mix is (241), but he clearly wants a bigger role for genetics.
To get to the central controversy: Will Wade’s speculations about genes and race lead to increased racism? He tries to reassure the reader they will not. He has a subtle point to make and a naïve point.
The subtle point is that we have learned that all human beings are essentially the same with only slight differences in genetic make-up. Because of this, Wade argues that no group of individuals can claim superiority over other individuals. That should make ideas of superiority untenable. Many people have already made this point. If that was all there was to this book, why write it?
Wade continues that though individual differences are very small, they lead to big differences on the social level. He believes genes can explain why the Industrial Revolution happened in England and why western civilization has been far more materially successful than any other culture. This only translates the problem of racism from the biological level to a combination of biology and culture. Wade probably believes that if you took an infant from any race and raised it in another society, it would turn out to be just as capable as any individual native to that society. But adult human beings are reflections of their cultures, so if Wade argues that western culture is superior to any other, then that means its adults are superior.
Words like ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ do not appear in Wade’s book, but there is an unmistakable celebration of western civilization here. Wade makes it very clear that the west is at the top of the heap and deserves to be. He is not above using words like ‘ingrained’ and ‘inbuilt’ to describe social behavior (see 177, 189), implying that western social behavior and institutions are innately better. He argues that it is not accident or luck that the west has outpaced other societies (196, 238).
This brings me to his naïve point: Since we have established anti-racism as a matter of policy, no science can undo that. “The lessons of past abuses are still vivid enough,” he says (249). Apparently, he has never heard of how prone we are to repeating our mistakes. What makes it so ironic in Wade’s case is that he repeats many of the same things 19th century scientific racists gave us.
They indulged in ranking societies, with hunter-gatherers at the bottom, agricultural societies above them, and western civilization at the top. So does Wade. No surprise that Wade puts Australian Aborigines at the bottom just as they did (64). Though he never uses the word ‘savages’, he constantly draws the same distinction between civilized and savage, using ‘tribal’ and ‘hunter-gatherer’ as his preferred terms for the latter, and though he would never stoop to using ‘inferior’ as they did in the 19th century, he constantly trumpets the greater economic success of the west; ‘ingrained behaviors’ (189) is just a euphemism for innate superiority and inferiority. That is the central message of the book, delivered in a very dishonest way.
Worst of all, his insistence that we in the west may have slightly better social genes (with only speculation to support this) is just a repetition of the 19th century claim that God favored us or blessed us. What is the difference between believing that evolution has blessed us and God has blessed us? Both lead to the same arrogance – for who does not believe that evolution is not a whimsical, arbitrary god? Wade claims that evolution has no purpose or goal (178, 249), but his belief that the rise of the west is no accident belies that. He clearly believes that western civilization is the outcome of what the evolution of man has been headed for all along.
Wade of course will not proclaim that inferior cultures (e.g., the less economically successful tribal cultures) must be exterminated in this process, as 19th century scientific racists were all too happy to announce, but he says essentially the same thing when he says that tribal culture and modern, western society are incompatible (173, 178). He leaves no doubt that other cultures have to disappear under the onslaught of the west. He is just too polite to say they must become extinct.
Evolution (the idea of species descending from a common progenitor) is basically a sound science, but I don’t think any science has been as misused as evolution. Recently, I saw an old film, “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” with Barbara Stanwyck and Kirk Douglas. After the District Attorney has an old friend beaten up by detectives and thrown out of town (he is paranoid that the friend may be intending to blackmail him about an unsolved past murder), the friend is determined to head back, despite the pleadings of his girlfriend. He says something like: “I don’t like being pushed around. I don’t like seeing anyone pushed around.”
This protest against getting pushed around is the anti-natural selection mantra. Natural selection is the validation of pushing others around. But what I’d rather say is that pushing people around represents not natural selection, but the most common misuse of natural selection. This was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which Wade often mentions, and Darwin was as guilty as anyone else of misusing the theory in this way. He insisted on the inferiority of savages and their inevitable extermination by western civilization. Humanity, he said, would only rise higher when the lower races were all gone. Wade treads the same path when he insists that tribal societies are incompatible with modern society.
Like many other writers, like Niall Ferguson in Civilization, Wade has a strong bias to select only evidence that puts western civilization in the best light possible. He never presents any evidence for the rapacity of the west. When Wade discusses western economic success, he does not point out how much of this depended on outright theft. He never considers that all the gold and silver Europe took from the new world was used to finance its growth, nor the way Europe dispossessed natives of land and resources.
He never asks at what cost to others this success was achieved, how many people were killed so that Europeans could take it all. He looks at studies that might reveal there are genes for trust and cooperation and even aggression and violence which we highly value. But he does not look to see if there are genes for bullying, ruthlessness, bloodthirstiness, hypocrisy, or in general, scumbagginess. What if the west succeeded because Europeans have a set of genes for being a scumbag towards the Other?
I offer this for the pure, wild speculation that it is, only to make the point that our values show up in the things we choose to look for. There is a bias in the studies that Wade cites. No one wants to discover anything that would detract from the greatness of western civilization, so we don’t look for it, though it may well be there. Genes for excessive greed and bullying—for winning by any means necessary, by fair means or foul—are just as speculative and plausible as anything Wade is looking for. But no one will look for such genes because it would be too demoralizing to find them. It may turn out, as many 19th century humanitarians complained, that we are just polished savages.
© 2014 Leon Zitzer