Friday, May 30, 2014

Nicholas Wade's Tough Guy Darwinism

Nicholas Wade is the stupidest interpreter of science in the world. I am simply baffled that he keeps getting articles in the New York Times and book deals from major publishers, since he has been totally wrong about every important question he has ever written about. (See here, here, and here.)

So I am hardly surprised that Wade's new book on race and human evolution has been panned by all the serious scientists. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History purports to tell us what the new science of genomics says about the old problem of race. In pursuing this goal Wade engages in two authorial tactics that I despise. First, he insists that this new science is overturning an established consensus that race is a social construct with no connection to genetics. When he presents data showing that the genes of Africans are different from the genes of Europeans, he cries "Eureka!" as if he were now due the Nobel Prize. Allen Orr:
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. sends a sample of his DNA off to find out how much is of African versus European origin—and then acts as host of a PBS miniseries in which he broadcasts the results—it seems hard to maintain that educated people deny that DNA sequences differ among continents.
Right. Everybody knows that there are genetic differences between races, and if certain liberals like Stephen J. Gould go around insisting that those genes influence nothing but skin color and hair type, that hardly makes their beliefs a universal consensus.

Second, Wade poses as a bold truth-teller who will expose the science that everyone else is afraid to mention for fear of being called a racist. Here is Allen Orr again, showing how Wade uses selective quotation and ignorant bluster to establish his tough-guy credentials:
In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker considers the idea that different groups may behave differently—say, more or less violently—for genetic reasons. He notes that, if true, the idea “could have the incendiary implication that aboriginal and immigrant populations are less biologically adapted to the demands of modern life than populations that have lived in literate state societies for millennia.” This sends Wade into paroxysms of righteous indignation and he declares that “whether or not a thesis might be politically incendiary should have no bearing on the estimate of its scientific validity.” What Wade doesn’t tell you is that this is what Pinker himself says in his very next sentence: “The fact that a hypothesis is politically uncomfortable does not mean that it is false, but it does mean that we should consider the evidence very carefully before concluding that it is true.”
Is is easy to make other people look like fools when you report what they said falsely.

Wade's argument, in case you haven't guessed by now, is that genetic differences between races account for much of the observed cultural difference between people who live in different places. For all I know this might even be true -- my readers know that I am interested in the theory of "self domestication" and other speculations about how living in densely populated agricultural societies has changed us. The thing is, I don't know if this is so, and you don't, and Nicholas Wade certainly doesn't, because there is no data whatsoever showing that important cultural differences have a genetic basis. Wade even concedes this himself:
Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution.
But, being Nicholas Wade, he then engages in yet a third irritating authorial strategy, veering back and forth between bold conclusions and careful qualifiers. He admits that he has no data on his subject -- since there isn't any, it is hard for anyone with scientific pretensions to avoid admitting this -- but then he goes on to act as if there were, spinning lots of just-so stories about all the things about our cultures that might have a genetic basis. He points out, for example, that it is often difficult to transfer cultural practices from one group of people to another, like, say, democratic elections from America to Afghanistan. Surely, he insinuates, this must be because of genetic differences. Any cultural anthropologists who read this far must have hurled their copies at the wall on encountering this argument, since they could easily have supplied Wade with about a thousand reasons why this sort of thing seldom works, none of them having anything to do with genetics. For his bold claims about the importance of race, writes evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, "Wade offers virtually no evidence, because there is none." He continues:
We know virtually nothing about the genetic differences (if there are any) in cognition and behavior between human populations. And to explain how natural selection can effect such rapid changes, Wade posits some kind of “multiplier effect,” whereby small differences in gene frequencies can ramify up to huge societal differences. There is virtually no evidence for that, either. It is a mountain of speculation teetering on a few pebbles. . . . . It is an irresponsible book that makes insupportable claims.
In other words, typical Nicholas Wade.

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