Fiery Debate Over New Book’s Views On Genes And Race

Oof. Berkeley biologist and oft-outspoken blogger Michael Eisen writes perhaps the most vehement book review by a scientist I’ve ever read here, in his verbal firebombing of “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.

The new book, written by longtime New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, had already kicked up controversy. Last week, the Huffington Post ran his defense against three separate critics, in which he counter-attacked “the social science position that there is no biological basis to race.”

This latest offensive seems all the more powerful because it comes from a lab-type scientist, who accuses Wade of veering into “racist claptrap.” And it seems all the more noteworthy because Eisen is so persuasive when he talks about the limits of what science now knows, and the verboten storytelling territory beyond:

In making the leap from the broad to the specific – from signature of natural selection in the human genome to explanations of the industrial revolution, Jewish Nobel Prizes and political turmoil in Africa and the Middle East – Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way.

In spending the first half of the book rooted firmly in modern evolutionary genetics, Wade is doing more than just trying to educate his readers. He is trying to give the ideas that he presents in the second half of the book the authority of science. This is crucial to his entire mission. What separates Wade’s theories – in his own mind – from those of a garden variety racist is that they are undergirded by genetics.

Wade weaves a bunch of yarns about how natural selection could have affected some phenotype using the language of modern genetics. But genetics is a science, not a series of fairy tales. Wade ignores the the fact that geneticists have developed a sophisticated set of approaches and tools designed specifically to answer the kind of questions he is raising – approaches and tools that have failed to uncover evidence for the kind of things Wade is trying to convince us must have been true. He can not have it both ways – he can not wear the mantle of a geneticist, but reject its precepts when they are inconvenient.

My concern about this runs deeper than annoyance at someone for failing to use the tools of my trade, or for cleaving to our authority. The scientific method arose as a way to understand the world because the kind of just-so storytelling that Wade is engaging in is useless. Is it a surprise that Wade just happens to find evolutionary explanations for the most pervasive racist attitudes of the day? Of course not. Because unmoored from data and logical rigor, one can make up an evolutionary explanation for anything.

As I said, oof. Readers, if you read “A Troublesome Inheritance,” please let us know what you think.

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  • Ernie Sarro

    Though I do not have the capacity to agree or dispute what Wade has written, I do know that historically, biologists tread very softly when discussing race in evolutionary terms. E.O. Wilson, my friend and mentor, came under a hailstone of criticism from his Harvard piers and other contemporaries with just one chapter in his book, “Sociobiology”, in which he suggested that the human brain comes pre-disposed to many behaviors and is not a blank slate as was commonly believed. The biological community was so fearful that this would give fodder to racists who believe that blacks are born with inferior brains, that they beat mercilessly on Mr. Wilson who’s biological eminence was unquestioned before that. Fortunately, Ed Wilson fought back by writing, “On Human Nature”, which explained his position to succinctly that he won a Pulitzer Price for non-fiction. Still, followers of Mr. Wilson’s assertions were careful enough not to refer to the word, Sociobiology, and thus the branch of evolutionary biology now called, “Evolutionary Psychology, was born and continues to grow as new findings in genetics and the workings of the brain substantiate Ed Wilson’s findings many decades ago. I do not know if Nicholas Wade will become the new E.O. Wilson as only time and research will tell; but I hope that his book will be critiqued on it’s scientific merits and not an institutional bias within the scientific community.