Geneticists condemn new book claiming there is biological basis for racial differences in behaviour
Author Nicholas Wade’s controversial thesis has provoked a storm of outrage from some of the world’s leading geneticists
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Tuesday 12 August 2014
Some of the world’s most eminent geneticists have condemned a new book claiming there is a biological basis for race and for racial differences in behaviour.
The book, written by science writer Nicholas Wade, has incensed the very scientists on whom the author has based his thesis arguing that economic success can, at least in part, be attributed to racial differences with a genetic foundation.
Nearly 150 population geneticists, who study how genes collectively contribute to physical and behavioural attributes, have now signed a letter criticising Mr Wade for his latest book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, published in the US by Penguin Press.
They claim that Mr Wade, a former science editor on the New York Times who emigrated from Britain to the US in 1970, has “misappropriated” research from their field to support his arguments about inheritable differences among human societies – epitomised in a biological basis for race.
“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 IQ test results, political institutions and economic development,” the letter says.
“We reject Wade’s implication that our findings substantiate his guesswork. They do not. We are in full agreement that there is no support from the field of population genetics for Wade’s conjectures,” it says.
In his book, Mr Wade attacks the “longstanding orthodoxy” among social scientists that human races are a social construct with little or no basis in biology and genetics, along with the idea that human evolution effectively stopped long ago in the distant past.
The research into people from different racial groups has found no distinct boundaries when it comes to behaviour (Rex Features)
He states that the latest research on the human genome establishes beyond doubt that there is indeed a biological basis for race, and that the human population can be broadly divided into three main racial types: sub-Saharan Africans, Caucasians and East Asians.
In addition to obvious physical differences – notably skin colour – natural selection on the main continents has resulted in marked differences in some aspects of brain function, which has in turn influenced the kind of economic success enjoyed by some countries, and missed out by others.
Britain, and specifically the English, pioneered the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century because since the Middle Ages the rich had more surviving children than the poor and this meant that the values of the upper middle classes – nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience – spread as genetic traits within the population, according to Wade, an old Etonian.
Europe benefited early on from industrialisation because their people were more genetically predisposed to being open and tolerant, unlike the Chinese, while the Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ because the more intelligent among them were richer and therefore able to afford more children, he says.
“Conventionally, these social differences are attributed solely to culture. But if that’s so, why is it apparently so hard for tribal societies like Iraq and Afghanistan to change their culture and operate like modern states?” he writes.
“The explanation could be that tribal behaviour as a genetic basis. Human social structures change so slowly and with such difficulty as to suggest an evolutionary influence at work.”
Mark Stoneking, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in Germany, who signed the letter to the New York Times, said that Mr Wade is wrong to say that modern genomics shows there is a biological basis for race.
“How to define the concept of race biologically is not easy, but to me one prediction is that not only should one be able to define discrete clusters of people that correspond to races, there should be distinct boundaries between them,” Dr Stoneking said.
“And if you look at patterns of genetic variation in human populations, you find they are distributed along geographic ‘clines’ with no distinct boundaries,” he said.
“It's like a rainbow. Sure, I can identify parts of a rainbow that are different –red, yellow, blue, and so forth – but there are no sharp boundaries between them; a rainbow is a gradient of colours.”
Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago, said that Mr Wade should be deeply embarrassed because his propensity to “make up” stories resembles a theologian more than a science journalist.
“For Wade to write a whole book resting on this speculative house of cards – the idea that genes and natural selection are everything in explaining culture – is simply bad popular science,” Professor Coyne said.
Mr Wade, meanwhile, has issued a statement saying that the protest letter is driven by politics rather than science and that most of the signatories have not read his book but are responding to “a slanted summary devised by the organisers”.
“As no reader of the letter could possibly guess, A Troublesome Inheritance argues that opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on anti-evolutionary myth that there is not biological basis to race,” Mr Wade said.
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