Subtitled Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade’s book has managed to get itself denounced by 144 geneticists in a letter to the New York Times Book Review. How has Wade managed this feat? He has a long and distinguished career as a science writer which includes a stint as Science Editor for the same paper that was the vehicle for his public scourging.
When examined by a dispassionate scientist (assuming one could be found) the book has not much in it that should arouse paroxysms of anger. Basically, Wade’s argument is that human evolution is a continuous process that has shaped and still molds behavior. He commits the sin of arguing that humans are divided into at least three races. The American Anthropological Association and the American Sociological Association have declared race not to exist and if it does to reflect culture rather than biology. By going against received wisdom Wade certainly knew that he was going to be the target of bricks – either real or symbolic.
Wade’s three races comprise Europeans and Indians, East Asians, and Africans. He admits there might be more. The vagueness of the difference among these three or more races which has been used as an argument against their existence is used by Wade as support that there are distinct races. If the disparity among them were greater, he says, we would be talking about speciation rather than race.
Genes affect the function of every organ in the body, but when the brain is included among them scientists get the willys and declare such a possibility, at least as far as behavior is concerned, terra incognita, a land where any right thinking scientist is forbidden to enter. Wade, who is in his seventies, likely feels that he has little to lose at this point in his career and fearlessly enters the forbidden territory. He defines what he thinks are essential distinctions among the races and then posits that there is a genetic component to human behavior even if it is small.
For example, he cites China as a land that has always been authoritarian and has stifled innovation, even those that it invented. The West, for reasons that he elaborates such as never being under unified leadership, is more open to innovation and was not surprisingly the site of the Industrial Revolution which again not surprisingly started in England the most open of Western countries. Wade concedes that neither he nor anyone else knows what genes if any played a role in the different societies that emerged after humans invented agriculture and mostly abandoned the hunter gather life. But since genes play a major role in just about everything alive, Wade argues that they must play a role, however ill defined, in human behavior as well.
Wade knows that any variations in genes that affect behavior in different human races or societies, or ethnicities – whatever you wish to call them – must be small. But small differences when added to dissimilar cultural milieus may add up to a very big change that significantly distinguishes distinct societies. Wade emphasizes how individuals who move to a new environment easily adapt to the prevailing norms that differ from those in which they were previously immersed. A small genetic difference can easily be discarded when circumstance so requires and still be of great importance to the world in which it evolved.
Obviously, this positing of genetic variation affecting behavior in different races is all speculation. But enlightened science should not proscribe such speculation. Eventually we should have evidence that affirms or rejects important genetic patterns that explain societal behaviors. Modern science should not play the role of the renaissance church in shutting down Galileo when it comes to genes and human behavior. Wade’s arguments are the subject of legitimate dispute and should be settled by data not dictum.
Now to the book itself, independent of cant and orthodox ridicule, it’s too long and diffuse. Wade could have made all of his arguments in a long essay rather than a 251 page book. It’s repetitive and makes the same argument many times in different parts of the volume. And there’s the Belyaev error. Dmitry Belyaev (1917-58) was a Soviet geneticist who ran afoul of Lysenkoism which persecuted adherents of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics. He was fired from his job in Moscow and ended up, voluntarily, in Siberia where he worked for the remainder of his life for the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences. He became Director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk.
Starting in 1958 he began experiments that continue to this day and which are the greatest studies in the biology of behavior done anywhere in the last century. Belyaev’s work only became known in the West less than 20 years ago. What he did was take Siberian Silver Foxes and selectively breed them for tameness. This was assessed by seeing how close a gloved hand could be brought to a caged fox before it bit the hand. He then selectively bred the “tamest” foxes. After only eight generations the foxes became noticeably tamer and developed changes to their body habitus. Their tails became longer, their coats changed color, their ears became floppy, their faces gracialized, they began to bark and wag their tails on the approach of humans. As the generations passed, now more than 40, they in essence became dogs.
The last common ancestor of a fox and a dog lived 5 million years ago. The fox is a much more distant relative of the dog than is the grey wolf which shares a common ancestor with dog that goes back only 15 to 30 thousand years. The changes that Belyaev and colleagues caused are entirely genetic. They could raise a “tame” fox cub with a wild mother and the pup would still be tame. The genetics of Belyaev’s tame, he called them elite, foxes is currently being worked out. Belyaev telescoped the environmental changes that converted wolves to dogs to decades rather than centuries or millennia.
Wade says that Belyaev worked on Siberian gray rats obviously confusing the Russian’s work with the latter experiments of Frank Albert at the Leipzig Max Planck Institute. He repeats the error 100 pages later only to get the species right a paragraph lower on the same page. My copy of the book is a later reprint with a new introduction. The error should have been found and corrected as Belyaev’s work is too important to get wrong. There’s much more to Belyaev’s experiments than I have presented here. You would be well rewarded if you sought them out. YouTube has several programs devoted to the subject.
The above criticisms aside, this book is well worth the time it takes to read it. It is well written and offers a view of human behavior that is off the laboratory table of almost all scientists who deal with behavior and genetics. It’s verboten not because it is unequivocally wrong, but rather because it does not suit the bias of scientists whose allegiance to the scientific method is overwhelmed by dogma. More than half a century of daily exposure to scientists has convinced me that most are no more wedded to data than the mailman, maybe less so. The mailman doesn’t cast judgement on the content of the mail he delivers nor does he discriminate against either the sender or recipient.