A confession: I have long disliked Nicholas Wade’s science journalism. He has often written about biology in the NY Times, and every time he seems to make a botch of the reporting, because he actually doesn’t understand biology very well. For example, in his very last article for the NYT, he described some work that identified 12 genes found on the Y chromosome that are globally expressed — they aren’t just involved in testis development, for instance. This is no surprise. There are genes required for sperm differentiation found on autosomes, for instance, and the Y chromosome is not a gentleman’s club with “No Girls Allowed” tacked on the door. But Wade turned it into a phenomenon that explained the differences between men and women.
Differences between male and female tissues are often attributed to the powerful influence of sex hormones. But now that the 12 regulatory genes are known to be active throughout the body, there is clearly an intrinsic difference in male and female cells even before the sex hormones are brought into play.
I can sort of see his thinking: if there are genes that are found only on the Y chromosome that are expressed in all the cells of the body, then maybe they confer a non-sexual difference on only male behavior and physiology.
But that’s all nonsense. Those genes aren’t found only on the Y chromosome: they have homologs on the X chromosome. They aren’t “male” genes at all! As Sarah Richardson explains:
The 12 genes residing on the Y chromosome exist to ensure sexual similarity. The genes are “dosage-sensitive,” meaning that two copies are needed for them to function properly. We’ve long known that those 12 genes exist on X chromosomes. Females have the 12 genes active on both of their X chromosomes. If males, who have just one X, didn’t have them on the Y, they would not have a sufficient dosage of those genes. Now we know they do. Just like women.
You see what I mean? I’ve never trusted Wade’s science reporting, because it’s always been grossly wrong on the subjects I know well. I wouldn’t want Wade defending evolution education, either, especially since he argues for an evolutionary ladder. I’m not very interested in his ideas about the origin of life, which are rather bogus.
So you can imagine how I groaned when I heard that Wade was coming out with a new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade doesn’t understand genes, so now he’s going to misapply his incomprehension to a hot-button issue like race? Great. Expect all the ‘scientific racists’ to come out cheering. Steve Sailer, the racist ignoramus who likes to cloak himself in pseudoscience, considers it another shot in Wade’s long-running war with liberals. John Derbyshire, the guy who was too racist for the National Review because he wrote a grossly bigoted screed (published on the same site that published Sailer’s review!), who also serves up large dollops of sexism, thinks it is a significant step for race realism.
Oh, a hot tip: these new racists really hate being called racists, so they’ve been struggling for years to come up with a new label. “Scientific Racism” and “Academic Racism” didn’t test well; they’ve still got “racism” in the name. For a long time they called themselves “Race Realists”, which I always read as “really racist”. That’s gone by the wayside now, mostly. The term of art you’re looking for now is “Human Biodiversity”, or “hbd” for short. Notice — “race” isn’t in the label any more. But don’t be fooled, hbd really is just the slick new marketing term for modern racism.
A good (but too generous) review of Wade’s book by Andrew Gelman notes that racism never really seems to change — it’s just that the targets always shift to reflect current stereotypes.
I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans.
We don’t even have to go back a century — racial presuppositions have changed within my lifetime.
One of Wade’s key data points is the rapid economic growth of East Asia in the past half-century: “In the early 1950s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some 30 years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated.” Wade approvingly quotes political scientist Samuel Huntington’s statement, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.” And Wade attributes these attitudes toward thrift, investment, etc., to the Koreans’ East Asian genes.
This all fits together and could well be true. But … what if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.
Isn’t that convenient? Somehow, the reality of race realists — excuse me, hbd proponents — always seems to mirror our prejudices. And most strangely, when asked for evidence, they always simply point to current trends or current sweeping characterizations of whole groups as supporting their contentions…never mind that we see rapid shifts in the overall behavior or status of those cultures that cannot be explained by genetics.
Noah Smith has an excellent explanation of the pseudo-scientific strategem of the hbd crowd. It’s all about overfitting.
Here’s how academic racism generally works. Suppose you see two groups that have an observable difference: for example, suppose you note that Hungary has a higher per capita income than Romania. Now you have a data point. To explain that data point, you come up with a theory: the Hungarian race is more industrious than the Romanian race. But suppose you notice that Romanians generally do better at gymnastics than Hungarians. To explain that second data point, you come up with a new piece of theory: The Romanian race must have some genes for gymnastics that the Hungarian race lacks.
You can keep doing this. Any time you see different average outcomes between two different groups, you can assume that there is a genetic basis for the difference. You can also tell "just-so stories" to back up each new assumption – for example, you might talk about how Hungarians are descended from steppe nomads who had to be industrious to survive, etc. etc. As new data arrive, you make more assumptions and more stories to explain them. Irish people used to be poor and are now rich? They must have been breeding for richness genes! Korea used to be poorer than Japan and is now just as rich? Their genes must be more suited to the modern economy! For every racial outcome, there is a just-so story about why it happened. Read an academic-racist blog, like Steve Sailer’s, and you will very quickly see that this kind of thinking is pervasive and rampant.
There’s just one little problem with this strategy. Each new assumption that you make adds a parameter to your model. You’re overfitting the data – building a theory that can explain everything but predict nothing. Another way to put this is that your model has a "K=N" problem – the number of parameters in your model is equal to the number of observations. If you use some sort of goodness-of-fit criterion that penalizes you for adding more parameters, you’ll find that your model is useless (no matter how true or false it happens to be!). This is one form of a more general scientific error known as "testing hypotheses suggested by the data", or "post-hoc reasoning". It’s a mistake that is by no means unique to academic racism, but instead is common in many scientific disciplines (cough cough, sociobiology, cough cough).
Wade continues in this fine tradition. I considered reading his book, just to tear it up, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort, from the reviews — it’s just another collection of anecdotes dressed up with Wade’s sloppy understanding of genes.