A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History
Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story
Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.
Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years—to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.
Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits—thrift, docility, nonviolence—have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These “values” obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.
Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.
each female’s region is and the more fruit trees it contains, the more children she can bear. To maintain and increase the size of their territory, male chimps conduct regular patrols around its perimeter, with occasional forays into their neighbors’ territory. Male chimps are unremittingly hostile to strange males and if possible will kill them on sight. Their favorite tactic on invading enemy territory is to surprise and kill any male whom they find alone. If the raiding party senses that
obstacles were not daunting enough, the people moving northward encountered armed opposition as well. An earlier wave of humans had left Africa some 500,000 years before and now occupied the Eurasian continent. These humans, called archaic to distinguish them from modern people, included the Neanderthals in Europe and Homo erectus in East Asia. Both disappeared about the time that modern humans entered their territories. In the case of the Neanderthals, the archaeological record makes clear that
scientists must have devised some convincing explanation for this substantial and enduring inequality? “Not so,” say Acemog˘lu and Robinson: “Most hypotheses that social scientists have proposed for the origins of poverty and prosperity just don’t work and fail to convincingly explain the lay of the land.” 47 Their thesis is that there are bad and good institutions or, as they term them, extractive and inclusive institutions. The bad, extractive institutions are those in which a small elite
high and low values in a population, is due to genetics. If the parents of each generation have an IQ of just 1 point above the mean, then average IQ increases by 0.8% per generation. If the average human generation time in the Middle Ages was 25 years, then in 20 human generations, or 500 years, Ashkenazi IQ would increase by 20 × 0.8 = 16 IQ points. There were of course Christian moneylenders who required the same cognitive skills as Ashkenazim. But the Christians married into a much larger
use the telescope to explore the heavens. But the designers of astronomical instruments in the Mughal empire did not make telescopes, and the scholars created no demand for them. “In the end, no Mughal scholars undertook to use the telescope for astronomical purposes in the seventeenth century,” Huff reports.4 The telescope fared no better in the other Islamic empire of the time. Telescopes had reached Istanbul by at least 1626 and were quickly incorporated into the Ottoman navy. But despite