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A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human Historyby Nicholas Wade
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Science journalist Wade (Before the Dawn) ventures into territory eschewed by most writers: the evolutionary basis for racial differences across human populations. He argues persuasively that such differences exist and that they have been 'ignored by academics and policy makers for fear that such inquiry might promote racism.' But, Wade argues, the essence of racism is an assertion of superiority of one race over the others, while the recognition that genetic differences lead to behavioral tendencies provides no such value judgment. His conclusion is both straightforward and provocative: 'the most significant feature of human races not that their members differ in physical appearance but that their society's institutions differ because of slight differences in social behavior.' Ignoring genetic diversity has meant that culture has been viewed as the sole factor determining societal differences. Empirically, Wade asserts, this unilateral explanation has failed and that only by bringing evolutionary factors into the mix will we be able to understand the major social changes that have occurred since modern humans evolved. He makes the case that human evolution is ongoing and that genes can influence, but do not fully control, a variety of behaviors that underpin differing forms of social institutions. Wade's work is certain to generate a great deal of attention." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Nicholas Wade received a BA in natural sciences from Kings College, Cambridge. He was the deputy editor of Nature magazine in London and then became that journals Washington correspondent. He joined Science magazine in Washington as a reporter and later moved to The New York Times, where he has been an editorial writer, concentrating on issues of defense, space, science, medicine, technology, genetics, molecular biology, the environment, and public policy, a science reporter, and a science editor.
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