“Race” in 2015: Myth or Reality?

[Notable New Media]

by Kenneth W. Krause.

Kenneth W. Krause is a contributing editor and “Science Watch” columnist for the Skeptical Inquirer.  Formerly a contributing editor and books columnist for the Humanist, Kenneth contributes regularly to Skeptic as well.  He may be contacted at krausekc@msn.com.

I have no reason to believe that Nicholas Wade, long-time science columnist for The New York Times and author of Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of our Ancestors (2006), is a racist, if “racist” is to mean believing in the inherent superiority of one human “race” over any other.  In fact, he expressly condemns the idea.  But in the more limited and hopefully sober context of the science of “race” (that’s the last time I’ll put it in quotation marks), Wade is a veritable maverick, to put it most diplomatically.  Indeed, his conclusions that biological human races do exist, and conform generally to ancestral continental regions, appear remarkably more consistent with those of the general public.


In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade immediately acknowledges that the vast majority of both geneticists and anthropologists deny the existence of biological race.  “Race is a recent human invention,” according to the American Anthropological Association, and a mere “social construct,” per the American Sociological Association.  First to decode the human genome, Craig Venter was also quick to announce that “[t]he concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”

But academics especially are resistant to biological race, or the idea that “human evolution is recent, copious, and regional,” says Wade, because they fear for their careers in left-leaning political atmospheres and because they tend to be “obsessed with intelligence” and paralyzed by the “unlikely” possibility that genetics might one day demonstrate the intellectual superiority of one major race over others.

According to Wade, “[s]ocial scientists often write as if they believe that culture explains everything and race [indeed, biology] explains nothing, and that all cultures are of equal value.”  But “the emerging truth,” he insists, “is more complicated.”  Although the author sees individuals as fundamentally similar, “their societies differ greatly in their structure, institutions and their achievements.”  Indeed, “[c]ontrary to the central belief of multiculturalists, Western culture has achieved far more” than others “because Europeans, probably for reasons of both evolution and history, have been able to create open and innovative societies, starkly different from the default human arrangements of tribalism or autocracy.”

Wade admits that much of his argument is speculative and has yet to be confirmed by hard, genetic evidence.  Nevertheless, he argues, “even a small shift in [genetically based] social behavior can generate a very different kind of society,” perhaps one where trust and cooperation can extend beyond kin or the tribe–thus facilitating trade, for example, or one emphasizing punishment for nonconformity–thus facilitating rule-orientation and isolationism, for instance.  “[I]t is reasonable to assume,” the author vies, “that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior.”

But what profound environmental conditions could possibly have selected for more progressive behavioral adaptations in some but not all populations?  As the climate warmed following the Pleistocene Ice Age, Wade specifies, the agricultural revolution erupted around 10,000 years ago among settlements in the Near East and China.  Increased food production led to population explosions, which in turn spurred social stratification, wealth disparities, and more frequent warfare.  “Human social behavior,” Wade says, “had to adapt to a succession of makeovers as settled tribes developed into chiefdoms, chiefdoms into archaic states and states into empires.”

Meanwhile, other societies changed far less dramatically.  “For lack of good soils, favorable climate, navigable rivers and population pressures,” Wade observes, “Africa south of the Sahara remained largely tribal throughout the historical period, as did Australia, Polynesia and the circumpolar regions.”

Citing the work of University of California, Davis economist Gregory Clark, Wade then postulates that, during the period between 1200 and 1800 CE–twenty-four generations and “plenty of time for a significant change in social behavior if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense,”–the English in particular evolved a greater tendency toward “bourgeoisification” and at least four traits–nonviolence, literacy, thrift, and patience–thus enabling them to escape the so-called “Malthusian trap,” in which agrarian societies never quite learn to produce more than their expanding numbers can consume, and, finally, to lead the world into the Industrial Revolution.

In other words, according to the author, modern industrialized societies have emerged only as a result of two evolved sets of behaviors–initially, those that favor broader trust and contribute to the breakdown of tribalism, and, subsequently, those that favor discipline and delayed gratification and lead to increased productivity and wealth.  On the other hand, says Wade, Sub-Saharan Africans, for example, though well-adapted to their unique environmental circumstances, generally never evolved traits necessary to move beyond tribalism.  Only an evolutionary explanation for this disparity, he concludes, can reveal, for instance, why foreign aid to non-modern societies frequently fails and why Western institutions, including democracy and free markets, cannot be readily transferred to (or forced upon) yet pre-Industrial cultures.

So how many races have evolved in Wade’s estimation?  Three major races–Caucasian, East Asian, and African–resulted from an early migration out of Africa some 50,000 years ago, followed by a division between European and Asian populations shortly thereafter.  Quoting University of California, San Francisco statistical geneticist, Neil Risch, however, Wade adds Pacific Islanders and Native Americans to the list because “population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry.”

To those who would object that there can be no biological race when so many thousands of people fail to fit neatly into any discreet racial category, Wade responds, “[T]o say there are no precise boundaries between races is like saying there are no square circles.”  Races, he adds, are merely “way stations” on the evolutionary road toward speciation.  Different variations of a species can arise where different populations face different selective challenges, and humans have no special exemption from this process.  However, the forces of differentiation can reverse course when, as now, races intermingle due to increased migration, travel and intermarriage.

Wade’s analysis has been widely criticized by many esteemed geneticists and anthropologists, yet defended by a few others.  And one wonders if the real battle is one over mere semantics, if not politics.  But, as always, Wade weaves an interesting argument into a truly engrossing and, of course, informative narrative built on the rock-solid foundations of both history and science.


2 thoughts on ““Race” in 2015: Myth or Reality?

  1. Baxter, J.

    Does anyone else see some of Wade’s argument as partial and probably qualified vindication for Ben Carson’s idea that at least some Muslims should not run for president of the US? Not that I’m a Carson fan–I feel the Bern.



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