A Troublesome Inheritance: Wading in the Zeitgeist

Apparently like everybody who can read, still a probable majority in the US, I have just finished Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance, which deals with the genetics of human behavior, race, intelligence, how they came about, and related things about which one must never, ever state the obvious. It is a fine book: cogent, well informed, devoid of political propaganda. Anyone interested in the foregoing matters should read it. If you are a Democrat, have it shipped in a package marked Weird Sex Books to protect your reputation.

It is creating a great disturbance among professors, the right-thinking press, those college students who have heard of it, race panders, and related herbivores. This is curious. Reduced to a sentence, Wade says that genetics has a lot to do with human outcomes. Its major conclusions have been accepted or suspected forever in every blue-collar bar in the country. Yet they are a shock in faculty lounges. It is interesting to consider the pattern of views:

The Lounge: Race is a social construct. It doesn’t biologically exist.

Wade: Yes it does. (He demonstrates this with things like base-pair repeats and single-nucleotide polymorphisms, a bit messy to go into here.)

Joe’s: Sure, race exists. Just look.

(If it doesn’t, then everyone who has received benefits based on race should repay them, and face fraud charges.)

The Lounge: No genetic or group differences in intelligence exist.

Wade: Yes they do, they are measurable, and came about through natural selection.

Joe’s: Sure, everybody knows Jews are smart, blacks aren’t, and the Chinese and Japanese must be too because look at what they’ve done.

Now, races are genetic subspecies, slightly blurred at the edges, of Homo (doubtfully) sapiens, just as Dobermans and Chows are subspecies of dog. Any dog breeder will tell you that Chihuahuas and Great Danes are not social constructs. Only a professor could think otherwise. The breeder will also say that Border Collies are smarter than beagles. This is genetic, not due to Border Collie Privilege.

He will further assert from experience that much of behavior is genetic. If you think the personalities of pit bulls and cocker spaniels are equally warm and fuzzy, you probably need to stay away from dogs.

It is also clear to inhabitants of the real world that genetic differences in behavior exist between sexes. Raise a heifer (for readers under thirty, that’s a little-girl cow) and a little-boy cow completely apart from other cows, so they learn nothing from cow culture. After they reach puberty, go into their field, throw rocks at them, and observe the differences in their reactions. (Put me in your will before doing this.)

Genes count. It’s how things are.

Much more interesting, because less obvious, is the case Wade makes for a genetic element in differences in behavior between genetically distinct groups. For example, East Asians consistently come out ahead of Caucasians on tests of intelligence, yet Caucasians dominate by a wide margin in inventiveness. Why is this? Wade asserts, somewhat speculatively but with a lot of evidence, that natural selection has shaped the Chinese and Japanese to form collectively-oriented, hierarchical societies, not favorable to independent thought.

While the collectiveness of East Asians might be argued, it fits a lot of observation. I am reminded of the Asian proverb, “The nail that stands up will be driven down,” and Johnny Paycheck singing, “You can take this job and shove it.”

In the US, Asians way outperform Caucasians in the hard sciences. For example, CalTech is perhaps the most demanding technical school in the country, and does not practice affirmative action. It is 1% black, 8.3% Hispanic, and 40% Asian. Yet a list of founders of high-tech firms shows very few Asians.

How did we get where we are? Through natural selection, says Wade. It is indisputable that selection can alter a species or subspecies. The unnatural selection which we call selective breeding produces animals of different sizes and shapes, and temperament. Why would we think that human animals are different? If flu regularly killed those susceptible to it, presumably those genetically resistant would come to predominate. This is both reasonable and observable.

However, the thoughtful may be uneasy with some of this. Boilerplate evolutionary theory holds that when a beneficial mutation accidentally arises, its possessor has an advantage in the struggle for survival, has more children, and thus passes on the new trait. This makes sense, at least if the mutation does something really desirable.

But.

Wade points out that certain Asians, due to a mutation, have hair with thicker hair shafts. One is hard pressed to see how slightly coarser hair would promote survival so efficaciously as to result in having more children. It is not clear why it would be an advantage at all. In the absence of reason or evidence, various solutions may be adduced: thick hair cushioned the blows of clubs, or girls thought it was sexy and said yes, or…something. It smacks of desperation.

While traits conferring very small or no advantage spread through populations, many that would seem to offer great advantage in surviving and reproducing do not. No mutations are needed to produce the phenomenal eyesight of Ted Williams, the brains of Stephen Hawking, the body of Muhammad Ali, or the phenomenal running endurance of the Tarahumara Indians: The genes already exist. Would not these things, at least in the pre-modern world, have produced much more advantage than coarse hair, or some slight tendency toward collectivism, and thus have become general?

And it has always seemed curious to me, though not necessarily inexplicable, that a brain which evolved to make pointed sticks for hunting, and crude clothes, should just happen to be able to produce Mozart’s music, Renoir, tensor calculus, and Mars landers. Such minds existed 2500 years ago, as for example Euclid, Archimedes, and Plato. It looks like evolutionary overkill.

A minor defect of the book, understandable since Wade works for a very PC newspaper and may want to keep his job, is that he dances away from the conclusions to be drawn from what he says. Differences among people are actually small, he asserts, and only in cumulative effects on societies do they really count. Yet he puts the mean IQ of Sub-Saharan Africans at 67, of Europeans at 100, and of Jews at 115. He also says that four of every thousand Europeans have IQs in excess of 140, but 23 Jews. These are huge differences and, if real, have equally huge implications.

Which would surprise no one at Joe’s Bar.

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• Category: Race/Ethnicity

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