A Troublesome Inheritance

The New York Times in their Sunday Book Review slammed the New York Times’ own Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance,” in which the science writer argues that there is a link between race and genetics, and that such a link contributes to underlying differences among different peoples.

That the Times would have an issue with such a book on its face may not be surprising — the overview of Wade’s book itself states:

“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.”

But what really irked the Times was Wade’s “most pernicious conceit…that it’s finally safe to talk of racial genetics because ‘opposition to racism is now well entrenched.’”

The paper of record strongly disagrees with Wade’s sentiment, writing:

“The daily news — a black teenager’s killer walks free in Florida; a former Ku Klux Klansman shoots up a Jewish community center; and tearful survivors observe the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, in which 100 days of mass murder rose from ethnic distinctions pressed on the populace by European colonists a century before — says otherwise.”

In their review the Times argues that the book is “deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous,” because in the Times’ reading “[Wade] constantly gathers up long shots, speculations and spurious claims, then declares they add up to substantiate his case.”

Libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, author most recently of “The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead,” (review, interview) — who earned the scorn of many on the left for his “The Bell Curve” which talks in part about race and intelligence – predicted just such a reaction when he reviewed Wade’s book in May.

Charles Murray discusses "Coming Apart" during an episode of Book TV on CSPAN. (Image Source: CSPAN)

Charles Murray discusses “Coming Apart” during an episode of Book TV on CSPAN. (Image Source: CSPAN)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Murray noted:

“Mr. Wade explicitly warns the reader that these latter chapters [in which Wade speculates on the link between genes, human behavior, evolution, race and social institutions], unlike his presentation of the genetics of race, must speculate from evidence that falls far short of scientific proof. His trust in his audience is touching: “There is nothing wrong with speculation, of course, as long as its premises are made clear. And speculation is the customary way to begin the exploration of uncharted territory because it stimulates a search for the evidence that will support or refute it.”

I fear Mr. Wade’s trust is misplaced. Before they have even opened “A Troublesome Inheritance,” some reviewers will be determined not just to refute it but to discredit it utterly—to make people embarrassed to be seen purchasing it or reading it. These chapters will be their primary target because Mr. Wade chose to expose his readers to a broad range of speculative analyses, some of which are brilliant and some of which are weak. If I had been out to trash the book, I would have focused on the weak ones, associated their flaws with the book as a whole and dismissed “A Troublesome Inheritance” as sloppy and inaccurate. The orthodoxy’s clerisy will take that route, ransacking these chapters for material to accuse Mr. Wade of racism, pseudoscience, reliance on tainted sources, incompetence and evil intent. You can bet on it.”

Unsurprisingly, Murray took a far more positive view of the book than the Times, arguing:

“It is hard to convey how rich this book is. It could be the textbook for a semester’s college course on human evolution, systematically surveying as it does the basics of genetics, evolutionary psychology, Homo sapiens’s diaspora and the recent discoveries about the evolutionary adaptations that have occurred since then. The book is a delight to read—conversational and lucid. And it will trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen for a few decades.

…Discoveries have overturned scientific orthodoxies before—the Ptolemaic solar system, Aristotelian physics and the steady-state universe, among many others—and the new received wisdom has usually triumphed quickly among scientists for the simplest of reasons: They hate to look stupid to their peers. When the data become undeniable, continuing to deny them makes the deniers look stupid. The high priests of the orthodoxy such as Richard Lewontin are unlikely to recant, but I imagine that the publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance” will be welcomed by geneticists with their careers ahead of them—it gives them cover to write more openly about the emerging new knowledge. It will be unequivocally welcome to medical researchers, who often find it difficult to get grants if they openly say they will explore the genetic sources of racial health differences.

…”A Troublesome Inheritance” will be historic. Its proper reception would mean enduring fame as the book that marked a turning point in social scientists’ willingness to explore the way the world really works. But there is a depressing alternative: that social scientists will continue to predict planetary movements using Ptolemaic equations, as it were, and that their refusal to come to grips with “A Troublesome Inheritance” will be seen a century from now as proof of this era’s intellectual corruption.