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May 8, 2014 / JayMan

First Mainstream Notice of A Troublesome Inheritance

At Slate magazine – Andrew Gelman has a review of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. It is titled “The Paradox of Racism.” Go there to check out. Hardly as scathing as one might imagine, indeed, it was (overall) pretty fair. I left a comment there with my thoughts (my review of the review 🙂 ). Here it is:

A pretty fair and intellectually honest review. I am pleasantly surprised, and commend you for that.

That said, there are important errors here, many of which borne out of innocent ignorance, which I will try to correct here.

For the record, let me say that I am one of more prominent bloggers in “human biodiversity.” This may be in part due to the fact that I am of part African descent (via Jamaica) and on the political Left.

The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right.

Yes. Interesting isn’t it? In fact, when we’re talking long enough time scales for natural selection to work its (completely scientific) magic it is not only possible, it is essentially a given.

Rapid changes over short time scales indicate that the large-scale environment can matter, but I deal with the nature of that on my blog.

Why HBD | JayMan’s Blog

But one might just as well ask why can’t Buffalo, New York, take out a loan and become as rich (per capita) as New York City. Or, for that matter, why can’t Portugal become as rich as Denmark? After all, Portuguese are Caucasians too!

But the Portuguese aren’t Danes. In fact, I made a post addressing this very topic using Portugal as an example. See

Welcome Readers from Portugal! | JayMan’s Blog

One could of course invoke a racial explanation for Portugal’s relative poverty, but Wade in his book generally refers to Europe or “the West” as a single unit.

A mistake (an oversimplification) on Wade’s part, apparently.

Indeed, ALL human groups are genetically distinct from others. This includes ethnic groups within a country, examples here in our own country being Mormons and the Amish. Asking “why can’t Buffalo … become as rich (per capita) as New York City” is the same asking why can’t the White residents of the U.S. Deep South become as liberal as their Yankee and allied compatriots of New England. The reason is the same: genetic differences between the two groups.

Racial explanations for inequality are just too easy and too convenient. Differences between Czechs and Slovaks, Hutus and Tutsis, English and Irish, northern and southern Albanians, and so forth—all these have been explained by locals as arising from inherent differences between the competing groups. From the perspective of the United States, though, such comparisons don’t seem so compelling—how different can the Flemish and the Walloons be, really?

Quite, actually. Any two groups that have remained isolated enough to be genetically distinct today and have endured even the tiniest difference in selective pressures over the ages will have recognizable behavioral differences today. This is true for White Americans in the North vs. those in the South (see Albion’s Seed or American Nations). This is true for Eastern and Western (and for that matter Northern and Southern) Germans. It is true for Northern and Southern Italians. Each ethnic group – or even regional group – has its own unique differences, even though they have similarities to related groups through the hierarchical tree of relationship.

How can an explanation be too easy? Indeed, as Albert Einstein once noted, that is the goal of science (“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience”). As long as the explanation can account for all the facts, simplicity isn’t a problem; indeed, it is a virtue.

Wade does not characterize himself as a racist, writing, “no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race.” But I characterize his book as racist based on the dictionary definition: per Merriam-Webster, “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Your review was fair up to this point, that is. Are you sure that’s the road you want to go down? What if inherited behavioral and intellectual differences between human groups are in fact the case (and they are)? Then it would be racist merely to believe in something which is true. Is that proper? Does the term “racist” have any utility then? I would argue not.

For a primer on all this for interested parties, and to correct many basic misconceptions, of which I’m sure you’ll hear, see:

JayMan’s Race, Inheritance, and IQ F.A.Q. (F.R.B.)

My above post “Why HBD” is also a good introduction. Though I recommend reading my About Me page first.

Gelman’s review didn’t really seem to argue much with Wade’s main point. Indeed, as a friend put it:

It’s an argument by analogy rather than an attempt to engage the details, which should tell you something. He’s more or less saying that this situation reminds him a lot of some previous occasions when people were wrong, which is not much of a refutation.

Maybe that’s out of exasperation on Gelman’s part; perhaps he simply couldn’t argue much with Wade’s point. Or maybe, that’s by design. The tone of Gelman’s review sounds overall approving of Wade to me, that final bit about it being “racist” notwithstanding. Maybe this is a Trojan Horse endorsement? In any case, it’s out there. We will see if the chatter builds or dies down.


Leave a Comment
  1. pseudoerasmus / May 8 2014 3:34 PM

    Francis Galton was pretty prescient about the Chinese in 1873 ( ) which would kind of argue against Andrew Gelman’s view that NEAsians were uniformly viewed as permanently backward a century ago….

  2. contemplationist / May 8 2014 3:40 PM

    The piece uses the clever meta argument just in the way the book ‘This Time is Different’ uses it. He can’t find anything wrong, but he thinks ALL PAST RESEARCH WAS BUNK (of course this is also wrong. We now know about Morton’s skull measurements and Gould’s lying), so he’s asking, Why would this be right? Not a logical argument, but more of a fool-me-once thing.

  3. Patty Fatty / May 8 2014 4:47 PM

    It’s now on Tyler Cowen’s blog too, which is essentially mainstream media –
    Tyler didn’t like the book, but there are some good/smart comments there (I hardly dare look at the comments on the Slate site).

  4. amac78 / May 9 2014 8:50 AM

    If I’m going to make the effort to read a review of “A Troublesome Inheritance,” I expect the reviewer to have the intellectual integrity to inform me of his or her stance on Wade’s central thesis. Fortunately, Wade makes that easy. The topic sentence of the second paragraph of Chapter One:

    It is now beyond doubt that human evolution is a continuous process that has proceeded vigorously within the past 30,000 years and almost certainly… throughout the historical period and up until the present day.

    And from paragraph two:

    Ever since the first modern humans dispersed from the ancestral homeland in northeast Africa some 50,000 years ago, the populations on each continent have evolved largely independently of one another as each adapted to its own regional environment. Under these various local pressures, there developed the major races of humankind, those of Africans, East Asians, and Europeans, as well as many smaller groups.

    Wade’s statements are clear and straightforward.

    Andrew Gelman: Before putting fingers to keyboard, did you think about these issues? Do you agree or disagree with Wade? Why? What’s your evidence, what’s your reasoning?

    Gelman skips past these basics. He seems more interested in figuring out who’s rracist and, by implication, who are the good folks who are not (Our Team!).

    Slate commenters’ responses to your remarks are in line with this approach, only more so.

  5. Staffan / May 9 2014 9:46 AM

    “how different can the Flemish and the Walloons be, really?”

    How different can Slovenians and Italians be? Hint: your eardrums will let you know.

    “Your review was fair up to this point, that is. Are you sure that’s the road you want to go down? What if inherited behavioral and intellectual differences between human groups are in fact the case (and they are)? Then it would be racist merely to believe in something which is true. Is that proper?”

    He is positioning himself. He can’t applaude this book but he can’t dismiss it altogether and end up on the same garbage heap where SJ Gould is lying. Still, it’s nice that the times are a changing.

  6. pseudoerasmus / May 9 2014 10:04 AM

    Walloons & Flemings may not be super-hyper-different, but small differences in population frequency of some trait may matter. I offer an historical example of ethnic selection/attrition to illustrate.

    One of the most enduring myths about European economic development is that the riches of the Americas or the East Indies were crucial to it. Thus the Dutch East India Company is frequently cited as a contributor to (and, by sillier people, the primary determinant of) Dutch wealth in the Golden Age. Never mind there is a problem with timing for this thesis, and that spices were a small part of the overall Dutch industrial mix. Far more important than spices was the influx of people fleeing the Counterreformation. After Antwerp fell to the American-bullion-fattened armies of the Holy Roman Emperor, Protestants in Flanders were given the choice of exile or recantation. As it so happened, Flemish Protestants were disproportionately merchants and craftsmen, and the loss of the future Belgium was the glory of the Netherlands. (Likewise, the Huguenots fleeing France and many of the Sepharadim who had already fled Spain for parts various also showed up eventually in Dutch cities. It’s not coincidental that France’s industrialisation was slower than Germany’s, and Spain’s even slower)

    Back to Belgium : the loss to Belgium was felt differentially. The Flemings remained much more agricultural than the Walloons into the early 20th century. And where was the first industrial area of continental Europe outside the English North and Midlands, in the early 19th century ? The Sillon industriel of Belgium — in the French-speaking Catholic Wallonia.

  7. Joël Cuerrier / May 9 2014 10:04 AM

    Reblogged this on joelcuerrier.

  8. Anthony / May 11 2014 3:36 PM

    Apparently, Nicholas Wade is no longer with the NYT.

    First question: really? It’s not actually certain from the story.
    Second question: because of his views, or is he hoping to make more money elsewhere?


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