Saturday, 9 August 2014

The spat over "A Troublesome Inheritance"

It seems as though writing a book about the science of race differences is a fast track to fame.

In the latest chapter of Nicholas Wade's marketing triumph, a bunch of 139 scientists have recently signed a letter critical of hiss book, saying:

Wade juxtaposes an incomplete and inaccurate account of our research on human genetic differences with speculation that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results, political institutions and economic development. We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not.

As far as I can make out, this declaration is a stupid one. It is, in fact, very likely that recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in the traits they describe. To describe this as "speculation" and "guesswork" goes contrary to practically everything we know about the extent to which natural selection contributes to variation in observed traits.

So, why would so many scientists publicly put their name to such a daft declaration?

The answer is probably political correctness. As Wade responds:

This letter is driven by politics, not science. I am confident that most of the signatories have not read my book and are responding to a slanted summary devised by the organizers. As no reader of the letter could possibly guess, “A Troublesome Inheritance” argues that opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on the anti-evolutionary myth that there is no biological basis to race. Unfortunately many social scientists have long denied that there is a biological basis to race. This creed, prominent throughout the academic world, increasingly impedes research. Biologists risk damaging their careers if they write explicitly about race.
I've seen some of the negative commentary on Wade's book. A lot of that commentary is tripe. I don't know if Nicholas Wade's book is any good. It seems to be rather DNA-centric. However, Wade does know enough about meme-gene coevolution to argue that cultural variation between groups arises rapidly, creates different selective environments for human DNA genes - which accelerates divergent evolution of human DNA in different areas. This argument is factually correct.

Wade seems to have managed to obtain the substantial publicity he has received mostly by writing a controversial science book on a taboo topic. That this has happened seems to be essentially a good thing. Probably other science writes will pick up on Wade's obvious success - and we'll see more books on "unmentionable" topics. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this will be a good thing.

Update 2014-08-12: Jerry Coyne in particular comes across as confused about this issue:

The book was about the genetics of ethnic and cultural differences, and while it made a valid point that ethnic groups do show small but significant genetic differences across the globe, there was no evidence for Wade’s main thesis: that differences in behavior among groups, and in the disparate societies they construct, are based on genetic differences. While that might in principle be true, we simply have no evidence for that conclusion, and it was irresponsible of Wade to suggest that such evidence existed.
This is surely an extreme and inaccurate position. Genetic lactose intolerance is one example of genes influencing human behaviour differently in different geographic groups - affecting dairying behaviour.

Of course there are genetically-based behavioural differences between different human groups! I think we have to label those opposing this idea as "race denialists".

For reasonable comments in response to the book, I would recommend Matt Ridley and Larry Moran.

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