Reestablishing the Significance of Race: Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” rebuts the pseudoscience of race denial
Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance is the latest setback for the pseudo-scientific claim that race is meaningless. In lucid prose, Wade establishes the validity of race from converging lines of scientific inquiry. The gist of A Troublesome Inheritance is that races are biological formations, race differences are genetically based, and human evolution didn’t end with the ice age. Wade’s conclusions rest on a mounting volume of evidence, much of it only recently available since the sequencing of the human genome in 2003.
Wade’s perspective flies in the face of current orthodoxy in the social sciences. For several decades, radical ideologues in the scientific community have insisted that race is strictly a “social construct” — a vague, worthless concept that is biologically insignificant. Spearheading the race denial movement have been professors at elite universities, such as Franz Boas, Ashley Montagu, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin among others.
In their 1984 book, Not In Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature, Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin argue that race is a “fuzzy concept.” The authors note that “differences between major ‘racial’ categories, no matter how defined, turn out to be small. Human ‘racial’ differentiation is, indeed, only skin deep. Any use of racial categories must take its justifications from some other source than biology.”
In a 2012 article Lewontin claims, “‘Race’ is a term of uncertain etymology and many meanings.” He notes that it is often used interchangeably with “people,” “tribe,” “nation,” “ethnicity,” the “human race,” etc.—presumably an attempt to undermine its utility. But words often have multiple meanings or can be used rather loosely as a slang expression. This isn’t unique to the concept of race nor does it invalidate its use as a taxonomic category. This obfuscation reveals deliberate deception on Lewontin’s part. (Ullica Segersträle examines Lewontin’s political agenda and sketchy scientific arguments in her book Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond; Lewontin also has a starring role in Chapter 2 of Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique, p. 40ff)
The concept of race never disappeared from the biological sciences. The Dictionary of Genetics (fifth edition, Robert C. King and William D. Stansfield, Oxford University Press, 1997) defines race as “a phenotypically and/or geographically distinctive subspecific group, composed of individuals inhabiting a defined geographical and/or ecological region, and possessing characteristic phenotypic and gene frequencies that distinguish it from other such groups.”
Essential works on the subject, such as John R. Baker’s landmark Race (Oxford University Press, 1974), clarify the meaning of race and address much of the repetitive slipshod arguments that race deniers often make. Race as invoked in common parlance has been broad and vague at times, but to conclude that it has no specific meaning is simply a fallacy.
For example, University of Texas genetics professor Jennifer Raff faults Wade because computer programs designed to find genetic clusters in human populations can be programmed to come up with different numbers of clusters. But the number of races is a trivial issue. Obviously there are many meaningful human genetic clusters—a fine enough clustering would separate out Japanese and Chinese while a broader clustering would place them with other East Asians.
But this hardly makes the clusters arbitrary. A convincing argument for the arbitrariness of race would be if the computer program which was designed to find genetic clusters and used in the research cited by Wade found that the Japanese cluster just as easily with Africans or Europeans as they do with other Asians. But of course, that can’t happen.
Wade notes that if race is biologically insignificant how can physical anthropologists and criminal forensic investigators identify the race of victims and perpetrators with 80 percent accuracy? Also, if race is a “fuzzy” biological classification, why is there a strong interest in racial and ethnic ancestry, particularly among minorities? Several genealogical services, such as Oxford Ancestors, use DNA to track human origins, trace ancestral migrations, and pinpoint racial pedigrees.
Races are biological descent groups. They are real.
The second part of A Troublesome Inheritance provides an evolutionary interpretation of comparative civilizations based on the assumption that genetic differences between races contribute to differences in human cultural achievements. Thus Wade argues that racial differences contributed to the rise of the West (see Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization) and the stagnation of other civilizations.
As more information unravels about our evolutionary origins, Wade argues, scientists need to face the realities of race and come to terms with the broader implications of racial differences. But what’s particularly upending for the liberal establishment is that the author of A Troublesome Inheritance is not some tobacco-chewing redneck or heel-clicking skinhead advocate of White nationalism — far from it. He happens to be one of the most respected science writers in his profession. For some 30 years, Wade covered the science beat as a correspondent and editor at the New York Times, offering concise, well-written articles on a wide range of scientific topics. The viewpoint from the media establishment is that he’s expected to know better than to delve into the radioactive mix of race and genes.
Unnecessary Apologetic Tone
Upfront Wade briefly reviews early attempts to classify human races. He summarizes the work of Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and Gobineau. (Baker provides a more detailed account of the work of these pioneers.) Wade tries to distinguish his thesis from early race scientists and eugenicists, such as Madison Grant and Charles Benedict Davenport.
Any open-minded liberal science editor ideally should be able to write candidly about race differences without invoking yoga-twisting maneuvers to dodge the barbs of the ideologues. But then again these are not ideal times. Wade isn’t making the case that race differences are genetic in order to provide a rationale for oppressing or enslaving Blacks. Far from it, he describes himself as an egalitarian liberal. Wade grasps the fact that careers can vanish from the wrath of the new “blacklist” for what the New York Times headlined in its review as “charging into the minefield of genes and racial differences.”
What Wade describes as the “perversion of science” is based largely on biased secondary sources. Missing from his references on “eugenics” is Richard Lynn’s benchmark Eugenics: A Reassessment, which should be the reference volumes for writers exploring this history rather than distorted screeds such as Daniel Kevles’s In the Name of Eugenics and Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak. (Also related: Richard Lynn’s Dysgenics: Genetic Deterioration in Modern Populations.)
Wade’s apologetic and at times defensive tone is quite likely a preemptive inoculation against charges of “racism.” The rite of passage for authors who write on taboo subjects is to denounce “odious” and “ugly” beliefs in order to establish their credentials and their claim to objectivity. It is a common practice for authors who seek to avoid labels such as “far right,” “fascist,” “White supremacist,” or “racist.”
Bias, Objectivity, and Political Double Standards
For some strange reason the apologetic stance doesn’t apply to egalitarians, race deniers, and others on the left. Wade notes, “The fact that antecedents for the ideas that led to the Holocaust can be found in the American and English eugenics movements of the 1920s and 1930s does not mean that others share responsibility for the crimes of the National Socialist regime. It does mean that ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas.”
However, race isn’t the only thing that can be misused for political agendas. Extreme political movements parading under banner of equality and aimed at creating “the New Man” ushered in labor camps, torture, artificial famines, mass executions, and genocidal extermination. Other manifestations of brutality cannot rival communist regimes when it comes to an overall body count. (In Death by Government, R. J. Rummel calculates over 97 million killed by the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Communist China.) Liberal scholars never feel any compulsion to admonish others about the political misuse of radical egalitarianism. Where’s the concern for the excesses of unbridled egalitarianism the likes of which could foster slippery-slope policies which rival the brutality of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea, or Castro’s Cuba? Left-wing ideologues never seem accountable for views that could lead to comparably dangerous “political agendas.”
Writers like Wade must be pure as the driven snow when it comes to exploring the genetic basis of race differences. Media elites notoriously scrutinize authors for bias and ulterior motives whenever they skewer the sacred cows of the left. Some are ostracized by colleagues, or, in the case of Jason Richwine, tossed out of work at the Heritage Foundation for work on IQ and race differences.
In fact, when it comes to the study of race, leftists can openly embrace radical causes, flaunt their membership on the political fringes, and receive glowing endorsements for their work by cultural and political elites.
Consider the largely defunct Science for the People — a major force behind the race denial movement beginning in the early 1970s. Their current website contains some revealing artifacts from the organization’s formative days. A recent conference, “Science for the People: The 1970s and Today,” which featured Alan Goodman, professor of Biological Anthropology at Hampshire College, received major funding from the National Science Foundation. (Imagine the uproar if an American Renaissance conference received “major funding” from a National Science Foundation grant.) Goodman teaches a course titled, “Human Variation: Race, Science, and Politics.” The course description reads:
This course focuses on the science of human genetic and biological variation. … How are individuals grouped, how are differences studied, and to what purpose? How did the idea of “natural” races arise and how and why, despite key scientific flaws, does it persist?
This semester we will focus on the idea of race as a genetic construct versus a variously lived, social reality (how we are raced and racism) and, in particular, how race is used historically and today in biomedical research to explain health differences among races. The main paper for this course will explore a health condition (or other pertinent variation) that differs by race and compare genetic and socio-political explanations.
Goodman and other Marxists, such as Lewontin and Gould (notable members of Science for the People), are “true believers.” They are quintessential activists who promote race denial regardless of any evidence that substantiates the validity of race. They simply don’t let the facts get in the way of an ideological agenda. Wade mentions that it was Gould who was mismeasuring Samuel Morton’s study that compared anatomical measurements and brain volume of skulls from different races. An independent team of researchers reanalyzed Gould’s bogus assessments of Morton’s data and concluded that Morton had been fairly accurate all along and definitely not biased. It was Gould who fabricated his research to advance a political/ethnic agenda, not Morton.
Another case of a wolf guarding the hen house arises in two separate reviews (!) by Jonathan Marks (one for the Huffington Post and another for In These Times — neither one exactly pillars of objective reportage). Needless to say, he accuses Wade of “racism.” He begins with an outrageous dose of chutzpah, criticizing Americans for their rejection of science!
Segregationists in the early 1960s, for example, maintained that the American public was being led astray by a cabal of Communists, anthropologists and Jews, who were busily subverting the minds of students with insidious ideas about human equality.
Hmmmm … now let’s see … who would devise subversively insidious ideas about human equality? What could these misguided simpletons possibly have in mind? Perhaps they have in mind Science for the People. … Just a thought.
The Science for the People website features a large cache of FBI surveillance records from Freedom of Information Act requests. The roll call of Science for the People “activists” who were identified with these monitored events, some of them in collusion with the Socialist Workers Party, includes a long list of mainly Jewish radicals, including Jerry Freidhein, Seymour Melman, Joseph Shapiro, Herb Fox, Glen Seaborg, Frank Rosenthal, William Zimmerman, Bob Cahn, Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin, Len Radinsky, Mel Rothenburg, Leslie Gelb, Morton Helperin, Milton Rosenberg, Gordon Katz, Bella Abzug, Daniel Ellsberg, Malvin Ruderman, Leon Lederman, Ted Goldfarb, George Salzman, Allen Weinrub, David Westman, Rick Pollack, Bonnie Blustein, and Deborah Katz.
Not exactly Nordic Presbyterians!
Marks describes Wade’s book as a “paranoid, anti-intellectual screed about how scientists are misleading you about race in order to set their own egalitarian political agenda” — a wonderfully Orwellian phrasing that implies that science is entirely on the side of ideologues like Marks. Dishonesty and deception permeate Marks’s review. The idea that genes as well as culture contribute to differences in populations, that populations have adapted to a unique set of evolutionary pressures, and that over time these forces produced vastly different civilizations and cultures is anathema to the pseudo-scientific outlook of these rabid egalitarians. All human differences are exclusively the product of culture, and the main environmental influences are “racism” [by Whites], “discrimination” [by Whites], and “capitalist oppression” [by Whites].
Wade likely had academics like Marks in mind when he wrote that
the idea that there could be meaningful genetic differences between human groups is fiercely resisted by many researchers. They cling to the idea that the mind is a blank slate on which only culture, not genetics, can write, and dismiss the possibility that evolution could have effected any recent change in the human mind. They reject the proposal that any human behavior, let alone intelligence, has a genetic basis. They make accusations of racism against anyone who suggests that cognitive capacities might differ between human population groups. All these positions are shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma, not by science. Nonetheless, most scholars will not enter this territory from lively fear of being demonized by their fellow academics.
Montagu and UNESCO Statement on Race: The Far Left Origins of the Race Denial Movement
Wade briefly mentions Ashley Montagu (aka Israel Ehrenberg and a protégé of perhaps the most important Jewish academic ethnic activist of them all, Franz Boas) and his role as rapporteur in formulating the UNESCO “Statement on Race” in the middle half of the twentieth century. He accurately summarizes a pivotal development in the annals of race denial:
The politically driven distortion of scientific views about race can be traced to a sustained campaign from the 1950s onward by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who sought to make the word race taboo, at least when referring to people. Montagu, who was Jewish, grew up in the East End district of London, where he experienced considerable anti-Semitism. He was trained as a social anthropologist in London and New York, where he studied under Franz Boas, a champion of Racial Equality and the belief that culture alone shapes human behavior. He began to promote Boas’s ideas with more zeal than their author. Montagu developed passionate views on the evils of race. “Race is the witchcraft, the demonology of our time, the means by which we exorcise the imagined demonological powers among us,” he wrote. “It is the contemporary myth, humankind’s most dangerous myth, America’s Original Sin.”
This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. There’s more to the story of the origins of race denial than meets the eye. In “The Story of UNESCO’s Statement on Race Problems,” an introduction to the 1951 edition of the Statement on Race, Montagu acknowledges the instrumental leadership of the Director-General of UNESCO, Dr. Jaime Torres-Bodet, “a distinguished poet,” for his role in this project. An article on Diego Rivera — the Mexican-born communist artist, born to a Jewish mother who converted to Catholicism — in the Los Angeles Times, May 24, 1999, described a “radical salon” which among others included “poets Jaime Torres Bodet and Salvador Novo.” This tight clique “would hold dinner parties, eat and drink in vast quantities and argue about communism, about the function of art and about the politics of their time in an era still reeling from World War I and the Russian and Mexican revolutions…. This created a perfect breeding ground for communists eager to expand their revolution. Among the ‘radical salon’ members, some belonged to the Communist Party, and all were believers in leftist causes. During the ’20s, Rivera played a leading role in the Mexican Communist Party.” According to Rivera’s Wikipedia entry, “Leon Trotsky lived with Rivera and [Frida] Kahlo for several months while exiled in Mexico.” (Kahlo was Rivera’s second wife.)
Montagu also recognizes the role of the “distinguished” Brazilian anthropologist Arthur Ramos, “who was deeply interested in racial problems.” Wikipedia mentions that Ramos “fought against imperialism and racial prejudice.” Yet another academic activist “passionately” involved in the preliminary work on the “Statement on Race” until his death in October 1949.
The war on the concept of race has been a project of the intellectual activist left from the beginning.
When authors on the flip side of the political spectrum write on deeply contentious issues, leftists throw routine tantrums about collusion among the “far right” — networks of fascists operating with each other. But when the tables are turned and leftists are exposed for their political and ideological motivations, there is a veritable roar of charges of “McCarthyism.”
The point is that the unsuspecting reader knows virtually nothing about the radical affiliations and ideological influences that have propelled race deniers from the beginning. Nor do they know the full story of how much leverage the radical left has on our cultural and political institutions.
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Although A Troublesome Inheritance will have its critics across the political divide, it may be contributing to a small but important shift in how our elites view race. Scientific American has a review by Ashutosh Jogalekar, a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science (although obviously not a member of Science for the People!). He notes:
It’s worth noting at the outset that at no point does Wade downplay the effects of culture and environment in dictating social, cognitive or behavioral differences — in fact he mentions culture as an important factor at least ten times by my count — but all he is saying is that, based on a variety of scientific studies enabled by the explosive recent growth of genomics and sequencing, we need to now recognize a strong genetic component to these differences.
It’s encouraging that at least some sane moderate scientists and public intellectuals (e.g., Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal) have accepted Wade’s book as an important contribution. But don’t expect much from National Public Radio and establishment “conservative” talking heads. As far as they are concerned, at least thus far, the book doesn’t exist — testimony of the continuing power of the far left in dictating the terms of mainstream political discussion in America.
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