Ideology disguised as science is bad, bad, bad. That is the chorus-line of the most incisive critics (here, here, and here…there are many others) of Nicholas Wade’s latest publication, A Troublesome Inheritance.

Mr. Wade has dunked himself into a boiling, seething pot of hot water by putting “race” and “science”—or better yet, “race” and “genetics”—in the same sentence. More fodder for controversy since the grudging duo—science and race—is the subject of his book.

I want you take away three things. First, I do agree with Mr. Wade that we need to get over our hang-ups about discussing or exploring the concept of race in relation to biology or genetics. With that said, I do not think Wade is embracing “scientific racism.”

Second, we need to be vigilant about the misuse or abuse of scientific research pertaining to race. And third, science ought to be severed from politics. Our squeamishness about race seems to stem from the horrid misuse and abuse of science in the past, especially in the area of genetics, and the political sphere has been and still seems to be the hotbed for the abuse or misuse of science in general.

In A Troublesome Inheritance, Wade attempts to undercut the prevailing view among social scientists that race is merely a social construct (one that has had serious social, cultural, and political ramifications, of course). He catalogs this stance as one among many cultural and intellectual barriers which, ostensibly, have been erected to combat racism, but “now stand in the way of studying the recent revolutionary past.”

The controversial part of his thesis seems to be that different political, economic and social institutions (endemic to different regions) stem from social behaviors that can be partly explained by genes (however paltry the genetic variation among humans is). My very brief summary does not do any justice to the thesis, so either read the book for yourself or read Wade’s encapsulation of it here.

Uh-oh! I spy a racist! Nothing earns you the moniker “David Duke-wannabe” like suggesting that there is some genetic basis for perceived, racial differences. Well, no one has outright dubbed Wade a him that yet, but some may as well go there.  

I may sound like a total, racial realist protégé  by saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with inquiring about the possibility that there is a genetic basis for perceived, physical and social-behavioral differences among  and within the (admittedly fuzzy) primary racial groupings (again, according to Wade): East Asians, Africans, and Caucasians (which includes the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, Middle East, North Africa, and Europe). Whether or not Wade succeeds in proving his case is not the issue here (I don’t think he does). The point, again, is that merely exploring or asking questions about the biological basis of race (if any) is not an inherently racist or problematic enterprise.

So what’s my verdict after reading the book?: Wade is not a racist, a white nationalist, or in cahoots with some of the overt racialists of the Dark Enlightenment and Human Biodiversity movements (not everyone  in those communities is a supremacist of any kind, case in point). Yes, Southern Poverty Law Center, the book has been a confirmation-bias-goldmine for the  Grand Wizard and his ilk, but this does not mean that the book is an unwitting embrace of “scientific racism” as this one review you published suggests.

What I would like to do is to flesh out a little more is the concern voiced by Wade himself: we should not allow our political agendas or sensibilities to thwart the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Science, as I see it, is a morally and politically neutral, ever-evolving instrument. But it is the neutrality itself, perhaps, that renders science susceptible to nefarious and benign ends. To top that off, it’s also so darn hard to free science from the clutches of political partisans enmeshed in public policy debates. And public policy debates are basically clashes between political agendas and sensibilities. Partisans (on the right and left) have misinterpreted, misused, or cherry-picked scientific data to bolster their hallowed policy goals or, more simply, erect the scaffolding for a precious world-view.

Wade’s book is resplendent with “ideas about race are dangerous when linked to political agendas” and the-West’s-economic-and-political-ascendance-in-the-last-several-hundred-years-does-not-mean-that-the-West-is-the-best-or-that-Caucasians-are-the-Master-Race type disclaimers. So yes, he is aware of the possibility that someone may misuse and abuse the there-is-some-biological-reality-to-race thesis for twisted ends.

In Chapter 2 of his book, entitled “Perversions of Science,” Wade gives a few examples of what the perversion of science has looked like. He gives the reader a tour of science-gone-bad-and-evil a la eugenics research and programs in the US and, more infamously, Nazi Germany.

I think the bigger lesson is that we should sever political interests from scientific research (to the extent that it’s feasible). I think Wade could have (or should have) added this point and highlighted it in bold yellow. He does not seem to think that we need to keep scientific research and discussion entirely separate from public policy discussion.  This is what he says in the concluding paragraph of the book:

“Knowledge is usually considered a better basis for policy than ignorance. This book has been an attempt, undoubtedly imperfect, to dispel the fear of racism that overhangs discussion of human group differences and to begin to explore the far-reaching implications of the discovery that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.”

He seems to be saying that what we now and will eventually know about human group differences should inform public policy decisions. I agree, but not in the way I think he is suggesting. No group is interchangeable with another. No individuals are interchangeable. So yes, one-fits-all policy solutions are unwise on both levels.

  • Andrea Castillo

    Nice write up. To be honest I found the book pretty tame, even restrained, on my first read.

    It is one of the best summaries of the impending consilience in social science (“recent, copious, regional” folks!) I’ve read yet, and entertains some interesting conjectures about gene-culture evolution. Basically a good aggregation of some of the cutting-edge work in genomics, anthropology, psychology, and economics in the past two decades.

    And then I saw the public reaction. Hoo boy, have most of the reviews been intentionally dishonest and pathetically incendiary. Truthfully, I think your review gave them too much deference. Religious antagonism towards positive scientific inquiry is nothing new. I see no reason to defer more to moral sensibilities of adherents of egalitarianism than to those of, say, Christianity, but that’s the reality of the existing power structure. It would be as if you could not even discuss the topic of abortion without dedicating the whole article first to how you “don’t hate fetuses” and “realize how this information could be used by the horrible fetus killers in Sodom” or whatever.

    Anyways, I suppose this is about the most that can be mustered. At least it starts a long-overdue conversation.

    • Gina O’Neill-Santiago

      Here is my long-overdue response, Andrea!

      I also found the book pretty tame (perhaps “underwhelming” is a better descriptor).

      I think you’re right– the post may have been too deferential given that the message was, in essence, “no, it is not racist to talk about this stuff!” (as if I am conceding the point that their concerns are legitimate). But sadly, it needs to be reiterated that scientific knowledge should not be encumbered by moral sensibility– any moral sensibility as you point out.