A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

by Nicholas Wade


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Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years—to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits—thrift, docility, nonviolence—have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These “values” obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143127161
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 289,238
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nicholas Wade received a BA in natural sciences from King’s College, Cambridge. He was the deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journal’s Washington correspondent. He joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and a science editor.

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Excerpted from "A Troublesome Inheritance"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Nicholas Wade.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1 Evolution, Race and History 1

2 Perversions of Science 16

3 Origins of Human Social Nature 39

4 The Human Experiment 67

5 The Genetics of Rage 95

6 Societies and Institutions 123

7 The Recasting of Human Nature 150

8 Jewish Adaptations 198

9 The Rise of the West 215

10 Evolutionary Perspectives on Race 239

Acknowledgments 253

Notes 255

Index 267

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

The Wall Street Journal:
“It is hard to convey how rich this book is….The book is a delight to read—conversational and lucid. And it will trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven't seen for a few decades….At the heart of the book, stated quietly but with command of the technical literature, is a bombshell….So one way or another, A Troublesome Inheritance will be historic. Its proper reception would mean enduring fame.”

Ashutosh Jogalekar, Scientific American:
"Extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued…. The real lesson of the book should not be lost on us: A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically incendiary….Ultimately Wade’s argument is about the transparency of knowledge."

Publishers Weekly: “Wade ventures into territory eschewed by most writers: the evolutionary basis for racial differences across human populations. He argues persuasively that such differences exist… His conclusion is both straightforward and provocative…He makes the case that human evolution is ongoing and that genes can influence, but do not fully control, a variety of behaviors that underpin differing forms of social institutions. Wade’s work is certain to generate a great deal of attention.”

Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor Emeritus, Harvard University:
“Nicholas Wade combines the virtues of truth without fear and the celebration of genetic diversity as a strength of humanity, thereby creating a forum appropriate to the twenty-first century.”

Reading Group Guide

1. Do you agree with Wade’s theories about race and social behavior? What aspects of his arguments did you find the most convincing? Most troubling?

2. Despite the fact that it bears his name, Charles Darwin did not believe in Social Darwinism, the theory that in human societies “just as in nature the fittest survived and the weak are pushed to the wall” (p. 24). He instead believed that “the aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is part of our social instincts” (p. 25). Why then does the idea of Social Darwinism still hold so much traction today?

3. During the first half of the twentieth century, the eugenics movement gained strength in both America and Europe. If Hitler had not decided to replace “sterilization with mass murder” (p. 37) do you think some societies would have continued with the enforced sterilization of those it deemed unfit to reproduce?

4. Studies have shown that oxytocin administered to men “dampens down the distrust usually felt toward strangers and promotes feelings of solidarity. . . .  (The same is doubtless true of women too but most such experiments are performed only in men because of the risk that oxytocin might make a woman miscarry if she were unknowingly pregnant)” (p. 51). Based on Wade’s arguments, why might a surge of oxytocin be socially disadvantageous for women, but not for men? Why or why not?

5. Economic historian Gregory Clark “documented four behaviors that steadily changed in the English population between 1200 and 1800. . . . Interpersonal violence, literacy, the propensity to save, and the propensity to work” (p. 156). Do you agree with Wade that these are accurate signifiers of a genetic shift in the population?

6. Wade writes, “Intelligence is almost certainly under genetic influence but none of the responsible alleles has yet been identified with any certainty, probably because each makes too minute a contribution to show up with present methods” (p. 190). Do you think further research should be done to uncover the genetic roots of intelligence?

7. “Africa and much of the Middle East remain largely tribal societies” (p. 173). Does one region appear to have a greater chance than the other of escaping tribalism’s grip? If so, which one, and why?

8. “If inclusive institutions are the only thing that matters in achieving prosperity, it follows that foreign aid is useless unless it begins with institutional reform” (p. 195). Discuss an instance in which the truth of this statement is borne out.

9. In his chapter “Jewish Adaptations,” Wade points out, “Jews constitute 0.2% of the world’s population, but won 14% of Nobel Prizes in the first half of the 20th century, despite social discrimination and the Holocaust, and 29% in the second. As of 2007, Jews had won an amazing 32% of Nobel Prizes awarded in the 21st century” (p. 198). Aside from Wade’s thesis, how else might the Jewish peoples’ disproportionate success be explained?

10. How might the increased rates of birth control and abortion in developed countries eventually affect the social behavior of those countries’ citizens?

11. Have you read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel? If so, compare Diamond’s ideas with Wade’s interpretation of how western European nations rose to become the world’s socioeconomic powerhouses. Were you aware of the flaws in Diamond’s arguments when you first read his book?

12. Are there cultural traits that Wade does not discuss that you suspect might have a genetic basis? Which ones, and why?

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A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
waltzmn More than 1 year ago
This book is extremely controversial -- though I fear that many of those who pan it haven't bothered to read it. In fact, most of the information here is well-known and scientifically accepted. The first point is that there are gene variations that affect behavior, just as there are genes that affect health. The second is that genes are not evenly distributed -- that some genes are more common in certain populations than in others. The third is that these genes could be said to run in groups. So, for example, the gene for sickle-cell anemia is common in people of African origin, rare in those not of African origin. The gene for lactose tolerance is common in Europeans, rare elsewhere. These are basic facts. And it is also fact that there are many genes which cluster in that same way. So there are groups of genes found typically in Europeans, in Africans, in people in the far east. This is fact. It is also fact that, using these genetic traces, it is possible to identify where a person's ancestors came from. Also, because genes influence behavior, it means that certain behaviors are more common in some populations than others. That's the nice way to put it. The hot-button way of expressing it is that "Race means something." It is perhaps unfortunate that Nicholas Wade chose to use the word "Race," because it frankly leads people to assume things that Wade does not assume. Saying that "race is real" is not the same as saying that (for instance) ALL Whites are more/less intelligent than ALL Blacks, or that ALL Blacks are faster/slower than ALL Whites, or any such thing. It just means that there are statistically measurable differences, in some areas, between peoples from different parts of the world. Of course there are. Tibetans can breathe at higher altitudes than most people. Inuit can handle colder temperatures than inhabitants of Kenya. But use the word "Race" and... it all goes crazy. So forget that Wade used the word "Race" and concentrate on what he has to say. And that is VERY interesting. He makes arguments about how genes could affect history, society, and culture. About where we might go in the future. Tremendously important ideas, if they can be verified. That is not to claim that everything in this book is correct. Wade reaches some conclusions I think dubious, and he fails to see some obvious logical consequences of the ideas he presents. It is not a perfect book. Rather, it is the starting point for what could be a tremendously fruitful discussion. If, and only if, people will actually read the book, and not read what they think it is about.
DomSaxum More than 1 year ago
Wade has taken a fascinating and potentially incendiary issue and explored it with facts, sensitivity and candor. IF your interests lie in philosophy, genetics, race, anthropology or behavioral economics, this book is very worth reading.
JimInManhattan More than 1 year ago
This is a book that mixes enlightened insights into recent science of genetics with bias and political opinions, and does not seem to know which is which. The result is a book dangerous to those with a passing or cursory knowledge of the recent science of genetics and what it means, for whatever good it does. Some of the ideas seem driven toward political anger on the way in some cases to racist points. This is too bad because I closely followed the author when he wrote for the New York Times Science section, and I could see he would understand when the latest studies had revolutionary implications, but in this case, perhaps he flew too near the sun. He needed a good editor, or perhaps a good friend, to show him how he misreads some of the evidence. He is probably not a racist, and seems driven to say he is not, but some of the incorrect conclusions are.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You mean race is not a social construct? You can tell someone's race by analyzing their genome? Preposterous! Actually the book is a bit long winded and the author leaves some obvious conclusions unstated, but hopefully will get some people thinking.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Racist, unscientific BS. Pass it by.