What would you do if you were told that something you believe is not true? It would depend on who was telling you, I guess. It would also depend on how important the belief was to you, and on the strength of the evidence offered, wouldn’t it?
Suppose the belief in question had shaped your career and your view of how the world works. What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?
Would you look at it?
In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade takes the position that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” Put that way, it sounds rather harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, the book has caused quite a ruckus.
What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?
The following is not a review of Wade’s book. It is, instead, more a look at how the book was received and why. There are six parts: a story about Galileo, a summary of what I was taught about evolution in college, a sharper-edged rendering of the book’s hypothesis, an overview of some of the reviews, an irreverent comment on the controversy over Wade’s choice of a word, and, finally, an upbeat suggestion to those engaged in the ongoing nurture vs. nature debate.
1. It is the winter of 1609. In a courtyard of the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei closes one eye and peers at the moon through his recently improved telescope. As he observes the play of light and shadow on its surface, there comes a moment when he realizes that he is looking at the rising and setting of the sun across the mountains and valleys of another world. He is stunned.
Galileo hurries to tell his friend and colleague, Cesare Cremonini, then drags him to the courtyard, urging him to view this wonder. Cesare puts his eye to the scope for just a moment, then pulls his head back, pauses, frowns, and says, “I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen . . . and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this.”
What a thing to say.
A little context might help. Cesare taught the philosophy of Aristotle at Padua. Aristotle held that the moon was not a world but a perfect sphere: no mountains, no valleys. Furthermore, the Inquisition was underway, and a tenured professor of philosophy who started rhapsodizing about “another world” would have been well advised to restrict his comments to the Celestial Kingdom. The Pope, you see, agreed with Aristotle. To him, and, therefore, to the Roman Catholic Church, the only “world” was the earth, the immobile center of the universe around which everything else moved. Any other view was taboo. Poor Cesare! Not only did he not want to look through the telescope; he did not want there to be mountains on the moon at all.
The question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?
It would get worse. Soon Galileo would point his scope at Jupiter and discover its moons, heavenly bodies that clearly weren’t orbiting the earth. Then he would observe and record the astonishing fact that Venus went through phases as it orbited not the earth but the sun. So: Ptolemy was wrong, Copernicus was right, and Cesare Cremonini would go down in history as the epitome of willful ignorance. Galileo, of course, fell into the clutches of the Inquisition and became a hero of the Renaissance.
To be fair to Cesare, the story has been retrospectively streamlined into a sort of scientific morality tale. While the part about Galileo’s discovery is probably more or less right, Cremonini’s remark wasn’t made directly to Galileo. It was reported to him later in a letter from a mutual friend, Paolo Gualdo. The text of that letter is included in Galileo’s work, Opere II. And while those jagged borders of light and dark on the moon, imperfectly magnified, were certainly thought-provoking, to say that the case against Ptolemy was closed on the spot, that night in Padua, would be too neat.
It makes a good story, though, and a nice lens for viewing reactions to scientific breakthroughs. Changing our focus now from the moons of Jupiter to the molecular Rubik’s cube we call the human genome, the question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?
2. In an undergraduate course, taken decades ago, I was taught that human evolution had more or less stopped when the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. Evolution had been driven primarily by natural selection in response to a changing environment; and, as such changes had, for the time being at least, halted, so too had the evolution of man.
I was taught that races exist only as social constructs, not as meaningful biological categories, and that these constructs are only skin deep. They told me that the social behavior of an individual is not genetic, that behavioral and cognitive propensities just aren’t in our genes.
I was taught that the differences among social organizations are unrelated to the genetic differences of the populations that comprise those various organizations, and that social environments have no influence on human evolution.
3. To show how Wade’s book stirred things up, I will present his central hypothesis with an emphasis on the controversial parts. I’ll avoid scientific jargon, in an effort to make the meaning clearer to my fellow nonscientists.
Wade believes that humanity has been evolving rapidly during the past 30,000 years and continues to evolve rapidly today. It is not just our physical characteristics that continue to evolve. The genes that influence our behavior also evolve. (Yes, that’s what the book says, that our behavior is influenced by our genes.)
is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer is “yes.”
He also believes that humanity has evolved differently in different locations, most markedly on the different continents, where the major races evolved. (Yes, the book calls them races.)
These separately evolved genetic differences include those that influence behavior. (Yes, the book says that race is deeper than the skin.)
Furthermore, these genetic differences in behavioral propensities have contributed to the diversity of civilizations. The characteristics of any given civilization, in turn, influence the direction of evolution of the humans who compose it.
We now know that the earth goes around the sun. But is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Does the particular set of alleles in an individual’s genome influence how that person behaves? Does the particular frequency of alleles in the collective genetic material of the people who compose a civilization influence the characteristics of that civilization? Do the characteristics of a civilization influence the direction of the evolution of the humans that compose it? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer to all these questions is “yes.” While he does not claim that all of this has been proven, he is saying, in effect, that what I learned in college is not true. Am I now to be cast as Cremonini?
4. There are those who disagree with Wade.
In fact, lots of people didn’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all. I’ve read about 20 reviews, few of them favorable. Even Charles Murray, writing in theWall Street Journal, seemed skeptical of some of Wade’s arguments.Most of the others were simply unfavorable, among them reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, the New York Times, The New Republic, and even Reason. Slate and The Huffington Post piled on. While Brian Bethune’s review in MacLean’s was gentler than most, it was gently dismissive.
The reactions run from disdain to anger to mockery. Nathaniel Comfort’s satirical review Hail Britannia!,in his blog Genotopia, is the funniest. Donning the persona of a beef-fed, red-faced, pukka sahib at the height of the Raj, he praises Wade’s book as a self-evident explanation of the superiority of the West in general and the British in particular. (I once saw a retired British officer of the Indian Army being told by an Indian government official that he had to move his trailer to a remote area of a tiger preserve to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. He expressed his reluctance with the words, “I’m trying to be reasonable, damn it, but I’m not a reasonable man!”)
There’s some pretty heated language in these reviews, too. That the reviewers are upset is understandable. After all, they have been told that what they believe is not true. And the fellow doing the telling isn’t even a scientist.Sure, Nicholas Wade was a science writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades, but that doesn’t makehim a scientist. Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.
Of course they’re angry. Some of these guys are professors who teach, do research, and write books on the very subject areas that Wade rampages through. If he’s right, then they’re wrong, and their life’s work has been, if not wasted, at the very least misguided.
The consensus is that Wade has made a complete hash of the scientific evidence that he cites to make his case: cherry-picking, mischaracterizing, over-generalizing, quoting out of context, that kind of thing.
Another common complaint is that, wittingly or not, Wade is providing aid and comfort to racists. In fact, the animosity conveyed in some of the reviews may spring primarily from this accusation. In his review in the New York Times, David Dobbs called the book “dangerous.” Whoa. As I said, they don’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all.
So, is Nicholas Wade just plain wrong, or are his learned critics just so many Cremoninis?
5. While the intricacies of most of the disagreements between Wade and his critics are over my head, one of the criticisms is fairly clear. It is that Wade uses the term “race” inappropriately.
The nub of the race question is that biologists want the word “race” as it applies to humans to be the equivalent of the word “subspecies” as it applies to animals. As the genetic differences among individual humans and the different populations of humans are so few, and the boundaries between the populations so indistinct, biologists conclude that there are no races. We are all homo sapiens sapiens. We are one.
Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.
Just south of Flathead Lake in Montana is an 8,000-acre buffalo preserve. One summer day in the mid-’70s, I walked into its visitors center with my wife and father-in-law and asked the woman behind the counter, “Where are the buffalo?” She did not hesitate before hissing, “They’re bison.” Ah, yes: the bison-headed nickel, Bison Bill Cody, and, “Oh, give me a home where the bison roam . . .” You know the critter.
Put it this way: to a National Park Ranger, a buffalo is a bison; to a biological anthropologist, race is a social construct. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a buffalo.
I don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve studied the printouts that graph and color-code populations according to genetic variation. I’ve studied the maps and charts that show the differences in allele frequencies among the groups. I’ve squinted at the blurry edges of the clusters. I get all that, but this much is clear: the great clusters of genetic variation that correspond to the thousands of years of relative isolation on the various continents that followed the trek out of Africa are real, and because they are genetic, they are biological. In any case, we are not in a biology class; we are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.” To criticize Wade’s use of the term “race” seems pedantic. Whether to call the clusters “races” or “populations” or “groups” is a semantic dispute.
Put it another way: If you put on your “there is no such thing as race” costume for Halloween, you’ll be out trick-or-treating in your birthday suit, unless you stay on campus.
Besides, use any word you want, it won’t affect the reality that the symbol represents. The various “populations” either have slightly different genetic mixes that nudge behavior differently, or they don’t. I mean, are we seeking the truth here or just trying to win an argument?
6. While Wade offers no conclusive proof that genes create behavioral predispositions, he does examine some gene-behavior associations that point in that direction and seem particularly open to further testing. Among them are the MAOA gene and its influence on aggression and violence, and the OXTR gene and its influence on empathy and sensitivity. (The symbols link to recent research results.)
What these have in common is that the biochemical chain from the variation of the gene to the behavior is at least partly understood. The chemical agents of the genes in question are L-monoamine oxidase and oxytocin, respectively. Because of this, testing would not be restricted to a simple correlation of alleles to overt behaviors in millions of people, though that is a sound way to proceed as well. The thing about the intermediate chemical triggers is that they could probably be measured, manipulated, and controlled for.
We are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.”
The difficult task of controlling for epigenetic, developmental, and environmental variables would also be required but, in the end, it should be possible to determine whether the alleles in question actually influence behavior.
If they do, the next step would be to determine the frequency of the relevant allele patterns in various populations. If the frequency varies significantly, then the discussion about how these genetic differences in behavioral propensities may have contributed to the diverse characteristics of civilizations could be conducted on firmer ground.
If the alleles are proven not to influence behavior, then Wade’s hypothesis would remain unproven, and lots of textbooks wouldn’t have to be tossed out.
Of course, it’s not so simple. The dance between the genome and the environment has been going on since life began. At this point, it might be said that everything in the environment potentially influences the evolution of man, making it very difficult to identify which parts of human behavior, if any, are influenced by our genes. Like Cremonini, I have no wish to approve of claims about which I do not have knowledge.
But the hypothesis that Wade lays out will surely be tested and retested. The technology that makes the testing possible is relatively new, but improving all the time. We can crunch huge numbers now, and measure genetic differences one molecule at a time. It is inevitable that possible links between genes and behavior will be examined more and more closely as the technology improves. Associations among groups of alleles, for example, and predispositions of trust, cooperation, conformity, and obedience will be examined, as will the even more controversial possible associations with intelligence. That is to say, the telescope will become more powerful. And then, one evening, we will be able to peer through the newly improved instrument, and we shall see.
That is, of course, if we choose to look.