Oh it’s Nicholas Wade again

I see Nicholas Wade has a new book out. I reviewed a book of his, The Faith Instinct, for Free Inquiry in 2010; I disliked it quite a lot. It was full of windy speculation about the putative evolutionary advantages of religion, which I had zero confidence in because he’s a journalist rather than a biologist and also because his speculation was so speculative. Also his claim didn’t even make much sense – the idea was that religion is good for group cohesion, so people who do religion have an advantage so they win all the wars. Huh. Really? What about the way group cohesion can lead to fights with those outside the group? Maybe they’d all have been better off with mild hostility to everyone, ingroup and outgroup alike. It was a simple-minded claim, and argued simple-mindedly. It was a science reporter taking on a subject that needs a lot more academic expertise than he brought to it. It was Dunning-Krugerish.

So I’m not surprised to see that his new book apparently includes a lot of blather about genetics and that he gets it all wrong.

Eric Michael Johnson has a scathingly witty review at Scientific American.

Nicholas Wade is not a racist. In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, the former science writer for the New York Times states this explicitly. “It is not automatically racist to consider racial categories as a possible explanatory factor.” He then explains why white people are better because of their genes.

Pause for laughter

In fairness, Wade does not say Caucasians are better per se, merely better adapted (because of their genes) to the modern economic institutions that Western society has created, and which now dominate the world’s economy and culture. In contrast, Africans are better adapted to hot-headed tribalism while East Asians are better adapted to authoritarian political structures. “Looking at the three principal races, one can see that each has followed a different evolutionary path as it adapted to its local circumstances.” It’s not prejudice; it’s science.

Well at least he took on a tidy, discrete, small subject, that can be deal with without huge amounts of knowledge and theoretical understanding. No biting off more than he can chew there, hell no.

What makes Wade’s book so troublesome is that he offers no scientific evidence to support his racial hypothesis. None. In fact, Wade acknowledges himself that his ideas on this topic are “leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.” Nevertheless, because he thinks academics have suppressed the importance of genetics and race in human history for political reasons, Wade charges ahead and concludes, confidently, that Western civilization is a Darwinian success story.

Some people can do good work at places like “the interface of history, economics and human evolution” – but they are very, very few. It takes a lot of knowledge and it takes a very sharp mind. Nicholas Wade does not have a very sharp mind. Not at all.

People who try to do sharp mind stuff when they don’t have sharp minds make me tired. It’s a particular form of Dunning-Kruger that really gets on my nerves.

Wade argues, essentially, that in the last 12,000 years, Europeans evolved beyond our early tribal heritage but other races did not. In Africa and the Middle East, for example, Wade says that tribal systems of government, in which allegiance to family and clan is paramount, continue to this day. In both Africa and the Middle East, therefore, the “failure to develop modern institutions” must have a deeper explanation than centuries of colonialism, a post-World War II economic model centered in Europe and the US, Western support for regional dictators, degradation of the local resource base, limited access to quality education, poor sanitation, lack of a public health system, inequality, patriarchy, or differences in culture, religion, history, economics, law, and geography. Wade doesn’t consider any of these other factors, but he doesn’t need to; genetic biology trumps history and culture. For Wade, tribalism is in their nature and it will take a long time before those people are ready to join the civilized West.


Tribal behavior is more deeply ingrained than are mere cultural prescriptions. Its longevity and stability point strongly to a genetic basis…The break from tribalism probably requires a population to evolve such behaviors as higher levels of trust toward those outside the family or tribe.


That’s downright creepy – it’s racism in its purest form.

Of course, the question about the historical rise of Europe in world affairs is certainly not a new one, nor is it unimportant. Perhaps the most well known explanation in recent years is that by UCLA biologist Jared Diamond in his 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond argued that geography, not biology, was the key to understanding the fates of human societies. Up to 12,000 years ago all humans lived as hunter-gatherers. But different regions around the globe had different plant and animal species to draw from when some societies turned towards domestication as a survival strategy. Those societies that lived in regions accidentally containing species more suitable for domestication ultimately had a head start over other, less fortuitous societies. Europe’s rise to dominance, Diamond argued, was a coincidence of geography.

The geographic explanation in Guns, Germs and Steel is, in many ways, the antithesis of Wade’s race-based narrative, so it is telling that he submits Diamond’s book to special scorn. According to Wade, “Diamond’s argument seems designed to distract and confuse,” and “its anti-evolutionary assumption that only geography matters, not genes…is driven by ideology, not science.” There are certainly reasons to challengethe all-encompassing explanation presented in Diamond’s book, but it is strangely inconsistent for a journalist who admits his scientific argument is not based on evidence to charge a trained biologist with being anti-scientific.

The accusation of being driven by ideology not science is strange, too. Does Wade take “Tribal behavior is more deeply ingrained than are mere cultural prescriptions. Its longevity and stability point strongly to a genetic basis” to be science? And not ideology?

A Troublesome Inheritance has been roundly criticized by scientists and journalists alike. Biologists such as H. Allen Orr and Jerry Coyne have pointed out its many scientific problems. Statistician and political scientist Andrew Gelman has identified the “naivete” in Wade’s eagerness to assume a genetic cause for any change in social behavior. Following their debate, the anthropologist Agustin Fuentes observed, “Wade ignores the majority of data and conclusions from anthropology, population genetics, human biology and evolutionary biology.” Even Wade’s former newspaper, the New York Times, carried a review panning the book. Unfortunately, readers lacking a background in science or journalism may not so easily spot Wade’s many errors. This could lead to even more troublesome issues given the excitement the book has generated among those predisposed to accept its conclusions.

Has it? Oh good grief. I thought The Faith Instinct was hack-work (and very ideological, by the way), but this is some levels worse than mere hack-work.

“Wade says in this book many of the things I’ve been saying for the last 40 years of my life,” said David Duke, the white nationalist politician and former Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, on his radio program on May 12, 2014. “The ideas for which I’ve been relentlessly villified are now becoming part of the mainstream because of the irrepressible movement of science and genetics.” Duke devoted his “blockbuster” show to a discussion of A Troublesome Inheritance and celebrated how Wade bravely took on the “Jewish Supremacists” and their “blatant hypocrisy over race and DNA.” There have also been multiple lively discussions about the book atStormfront.org, the online forum Duke created and one of the most visited white supremacist websites on the net with about 40,000 unique users each day.

Over at The American Renaissance, which the Anti-Defamation League identifies as a white supremacist online journal, dozens of articles have been published about the book over the past two months. “People who understand race are clearly rooting for this book,” wrote Jared Taylor, founder and editor of the publication. Other white power advocates see the book’s arrival as a call to battle. John Derbyshire, a self-described white supremacist and former columnist for the National Reviewwrote triumphantly, “Wade’s calm, brave assault on the enemy’s lines will likely be repulsed, but not without enemy losses, making the next assault more likely to break through.”


…when a thesis is known to be politically incendiary it is the responsibility of both scientists and journalists alike to ensure that the evidence is, in fact, valid before it is presented to the public. False scientific conclusions, often those that justify certain well-entrenched beliefs, can impact peoples lives for decades to come, especially when policy decisions are based on their findings. For more than 30 years Wade worked for the New York Times, an institution whoseStandards and Ethics states:

[I]t is imperative that The Times and its staff maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns. This means that the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach.

Nicholas Wade has failed spectacularly. A Troublesome Inheritance is wrong in its facts, sloppy in its logic, and blatantly misrepresents evolutionary biology. If the white power movement views this book as a triumph it is a sad reflection on the state of their ideas. Instead of providing a Darwinian success story, Wade’s thesis deserves a quick extinction.

Why did the NY Times have this guy on the staff for 30 years?



  1. Artor says

    Gosh, it’s a good thing we never see tribalism among the enlightened Europeans. Otherwise we might see things like Nazi Germany or the BNP, and that would be terrible! Yay for highly-evolved white people!

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    We are all human dammit!

    No races, No such flippin’ thing ‘cept for firmly rooted and destructive myth like gum tree roots in a sewer .

    Just people.

    Prick us do we not bleed.

    Wrong us, does it not mess us up?

    Individual humans who laugh, cry, love and think and feel.

    Whatever their genes, whatever their background ,whatever their place and time and abilities.



    Can we not just finally accept this flippin’ obvious truism and treat each other with kindness and respect?

    Is that so dangnabbed hard to do?

    We are supposed to be thinking humans right?

    Capable of empathy and intelligence after all.

    For pity’s sake!

    Racism still .. this century.

    When we can send men to the Moon , rovers to Mars and craft to Pluto.

    We’re still gonna have apologists for the nonsense that is flippin’ racism?

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Yoiking parts of Shylocks speak from ‘Merchant of Venice’ because, yeah, Shakespeare was a fliippin’ genius and spot on in many ways when it comes to humanity.

    There may be an anti-Semitic element to the characterisaton but dang what a great speech that sums so much up, so well in so many respects.

  4. Shatterface says

    We stopped sending men to the Moon.

    Which is a shame, because from up there you can see there’s only one human race.

  5. quixote says

    Unfortunately, what science has to say on the topic doesn’t matter because of “those predisposed to accept [Wade’s] conclusions.” But scientists have to keep banging on the same old drum anyway, because it’s the right thing to do.

    Evolutionary biology is my profession, and, yes, Wade is total bunk. Just one tiny field test that happens everywhere all the time: adopted newborns have the same culture as their adopting parents, not their biological ones. If culture was in any way genetic, that wouldn’t happen.

    Which isn’t to say that culture is easy to change. St. Bernards were bred from “ordinary” dogs over a couple of hundred years. But the Western belief in Western supremacy among those predisposed to accept that conclusion has been ongoing for some two thousand years.

    It would actually be a big improvement if culture was as easy to change as the expressions of genes.

  6. RJW says

    I haven’t read Wade’s book and have absolutely no interest in doing so.

    “Those societies that lived in regions accidentally containing species more suitable for domestication ultimately had a head start over other, less fortuitous societies. Europe’s rise to dominance, Diamond argued, was a coincidence of geography.”

    That’s a gross oversimplification of Diamond’s thesis.

    In fact most of the continent’s domesticated plant and animal species originated in the Middle East, so other societies had access to domesticated species much earlier than Europeans and were millennia ahead in development, so Europe never had a “head start” over other societies.

    “Some people can do good work at places like “the interface of history, economics and human evolution” – but they are very, very few.”

    Yes, indeed, I doubt that Diamond with GG&S successfully manages the synthesis either as he really doesn’t address the cultural and historical factors properly, geography might be a necessary condition, however, it’s certainly not a sufficient condition for the West’s brief and recent dominance.

    Certainly geography or just plain luck could be the explanation.

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