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Although my own academic background is in theoretical physics, I’m the first to admit that field seems in the doldrums these days compared with human evolutionary biology.
The greatest physics discoveries of the last couple of years—the Higgs Boson and strong evidence for Cosmological Inflation—merely confirm the well-established beliefs that physicists have had since before I entered grad school. It’s nice that such experimental evidence means that individuals such as Peter Higgs, Alan Guth, and Andrei Linde, whose names have been prominent in the standard textbooks for decades, have received or will surely soon receive their long-deserved Nobel Prizes, but little new has been learned. Or so is the impression of a lapsed theoretician who left that field over twenty-five years ago and who mostly follows it through the pages of the major newspapers.
Meanwhile, human evolutionary biology has been on a tear, partly due to the full deciphering of the human genome over the last couple of decades and our increasing technical ability to effectively read archaic DNA from thousands or even tens of thousands of years in the past. In recent years we have seen shocking discoveries that most humans possess small but probably significant Neanderthal ancestry and that important genetic changes have regularly swept through our genome. On the theoretical side, it was long assumed that human genes had changed little since Cave Man days, but we now understand that in some respects human evolution may have actually accelerated during the last ten thousand years as our rapidly growing population provided a much larger source of potentially favorable mutations, while agriculture and civilization were simultaneously applying strong selective pressures.
Although my other projects have prevented me from following these developments except through newspapers, blogs, and books, such evolutionary issues have long fascinated me. During the early 1980s I even participated in the field, studying under Harvard’s E.O. Wilson and felt that if physics had not been an option, evolutionary biology would have been my next choice. I remember telling all my skeptical friends in 1979 that Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene was probably one of the most important books of the decade, and I stand by that opinion today.
Yet although our understanding of the origins of modern humans and their biologically-influenced behavior has grown by leaps and bounds over the last couple of decades, these world-changing developments seem to have received extremely scanty coverage in the mainstream press, meaning that many of them have probably not penetrated into the public consciousness of those who are not academic specialists. The assumptions and world-views of most American intellectuals and journalists often seem stuck in the 1980s, clinging to ideas that are almost completely outmoded and incorrect, much like Soviet biology into the 1960s was still crippled by the Stalinist legacy of Trofim K. Lysenko, who had argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics and purged all those biologists who disagreed.
America’s own Lysenko is surely the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, whose platform in the prestige media and widely assigned books have massively influenced entire generations of college students and thinkers. Unfortunately, just like his Soviet counterpart, Gould promoted ideologically motivated misrepresentations of reality, sometimes backed by outright scientific fraud, and people who read his books are regularly absorbing falsehoods.
In a further parallel to the Soviet case, Gould and his Marxist circle of friends and allies, including Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and several others, regularly sought to purge or otherwise silence their most honest and courageous colleagues. During the 1970s, Harvard’s Wilson became their particular target for daring to publish his landmark book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, and their wild ideological charges led radical student demonstrators to demand the university fire one of its brightest tenured stars and even to physically assault the mild-mannered Wilson at a meeting of the American Academy of Sciences. Although Gould seems to have been a rather mediocre scientist, some of his radical allies such as Lewontin were first-class researchers, but also ideologues who allowed their politics to dictate their science.
While I was a graduate student at Cambridge University during the mid-1980s, these events occasionally came up in casual discussions across the dining tables. On one such occasion, a former grad student of Lewontin’s said that during the height of the sociobiology controversy he had asked his mentor why he was leveling such ridiculous accusations against a colleague, with the reply being that those accusations were admittedly scientific nonsense, but they served the political interests of Marxism, which was far more important. Meanwhile, given Gould’s strength in words but his weakness in thinking, I find it reasonably likely that he simply believed many of the absurdities he was spouting.
As the years and the decades have gone by, I’ve always assumed that Gouldism was about to lose its grip on American intellectual life, but that assumption has always proven wrong. The totally absurd notion that genetics plays a relatively small role in influencing most human behaviors represents a zombified doctrines, absorbing endless seemingly fatal scientific wounds at the hands of prominent scholars but remaining almost unkillable, more like a religious dogma than a scientific doctrine.
For example, in 2002 Harvard’s Steven Pinker, one of America’s most prominent evolutionary psychologists, published The Blank Slate, an outstanding critique of this incorrect reigning dogma, which specifically included a lengthy debunking of Gould, Lewontin, and their circle. Not only was the book a huge seller and glowingly discussed throughout the MSM, but I was stunned to read an equally favorable review in The Nation, pole-star of America’s political Left. I naturally assumed that the full collapse of Gouldism was underway, an impression enhanced once the august New York Times later published an article describing an important instance of Gould’s scientific fraud.
But a year or two ago, when I heard smart intellectuals still citing Gould, I asked a prominent academic how that would possibly be the case. He explained that whereas in the 1990s, probably 99% of intellectuals believed in Gould, the massive revelations of recent years had merely reduced that support to 95%, leaving Gouldism almost as entrenched as ever. Whereas worldwide support for Stalinism substantially collapsed following Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech” Gouldian nonsense seems to have largely avoided that fate.
But perhaps that is now about to change.
One of the oddities of American intellectual life is that although a full-fledged scientific revolution in human genetics and evolution has been taking place for the last couple of decades, very little of this has been reported in the mainstream media, perhaps because the findings so totally contradict the numerous falsehoods that so many senior editors presumably imbibed during the introductory anthropology courses they took to satisfy their science distributional requirement as undergraduates.
Indeed, when I consider the major news stories on evolutionary breakthroughs I have read in our MSM over the last dozen years, the overwhelming majority seem to have been written by a single individual, Nicholas Wade of The New York Times, who recently retired after twenty years as a editor and reporter at our national newspaper of record, following previous decades of work at top scientific publications such as Nature and Science.
When I asked around a little, my impression was confirmed. Our nation of over 300 million may be in the forefront of evolutionary discovery, but Wade has long been almost the only reporter seriously covering these fascinating developments in the mainstream print media. Meanwhile, the weekly New York Times Science Section seems to be moving in the direction of People Magazine, with so much of the coverage seemingly focused on phone apps, dieting, and phone apps to assist with dieting. For example, fully half of the Letters page in this morning’s print edition was devoted to a heated debate on the “Science of Overeating.”
But while his former colleagues often focus on the transient and the trivial, Wade has spent the last couple of years producing an outstanding book to bring awareness of the revolutionary discoveries of modern genetic research to a broader American audience. Generations of Soviets had been taught the inheritance of acquired characteristics in their universities, and I assume they must have been shocked to discover it was all an ideologically motivated hoax. I suspect that many complacent American intellectuals may have a similar reaction to Wade’s book, which focuses on the highly touchy subject of the genetic nature of our distinct human races and the implications for society and history, bearing the descriptive title A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. I’d certainly rank Wade’s book as the most important popular presentation of these ideas at least since Pinker’s Blank Slate. In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I was also very pleased to see him substantially cite my own major articles from the last couple of years on race, IQ, and wealth and the Social Darwinist roots of modern China.
All too many socially-conditioned Americans have absorbed the Lewontin-Gould mantra that “Race Does Not Exist” which from a scientific perspective is roughly similar to claiming that “Teeth Do Not Exist” or perhaps “Hills Do Not Exist,” with the latter being an especially good parallel. It is perfectly correct that the notion of “hill” is ill-defined and vague—what precise height distinguishes a pile of dirt from a hill and a hill from a mountain?—but nevertheless denying the reality or usefulness of such a concept would be an absurdity. Similarly, the notion of distinct human races—genetic clusters across a wide variety of scales and degrees of fuzziness—is an obviously useful and correct organizing principle, and one which was probably accepted without question by everyone in the history of the world except for deluded Americans of the last fifty years.
Anyway, let us suppose that the Gouldians rising up to denounce the heretic, such as anthropologist Agustin Fuentes, are given their way and the common term “race” is purged from our scientific vocabulary as being meaningless. Well, large-scale genetic population clusters obviously continue to exist in the real world and are an important element in ongoing research, both medical and evolutionary. So it would make sense to conveniently replace an overly cumbersome multisyllabic phrase with a short single-syllabic word now suddenly gone unused, namely “race.”
Indeed, I would suggest that one of the sources of present-day confusion is that the very term “race” has undergone an unfortunate metamorphosis over the course of the 20th century. Today, when people speak of “races” they are almost invariably referring to the continental-scale mega-races such as Asians, Africans, and Europeans. These “races” certainly exist and are highly meaningful and distinct in genetic terms, with blogger Steve Sailer slyly noting that the cover of Prof. Luca Cavalli-Sforza definitive tome on human genetic diversity displays a colored worldwide map looking much like what Sen. Strom Thurmond in his dotage might have drawn on a napkin with crayons.
But I would argue that restricting the term race to merely that small handful of huge groupings is extremely wasteful and we are far better off also applying the term to its traditional meaning, typically aimed at much smaller population groups. One hundred years ago, every educated individual casually used phrases such as “the Anglo-Saxon race,” “the Hungarian race,” and “the Chinese race,” and this is exactly the usage to which we should restore. To be sure, these particular genetic population clusters are naturally grouped into higher-level clusters as well—with Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles all being branches of the larger Slav race, itself a component of the European mega-race, but the word can remain flexible in scale without producing any serious confusion. All these groups are exactly the sort of natural statistical clusters that regularly appear during genetic population analysis, and we might as well use the traditional popular term for them rather than inventing an entirely new one.
As for the full contents of Wade’s book, several reviews have already noted a few small glitches here and there and I myself certainly took issue with some of his arguments. For example, I think he is much too accepting of Gregory Clark’s influential 2007 book arguing that the Industrial Revolution occurred in Britain because the British had undergone nearly a thousand years of uniquely strong selection for economic success, a thesis I find extremely doubtful. I also think Wade should have given far more attention to the seminal Cochran-Harpending theory that the rapid growth of human population after the development of agriculture has produced an equally rapid acceleration in mutation-driven evolution during the last ten thousand years, and Wade’s omission surely explains why the notoriously arrogant and irascible Gregory Cochran published such an unfriendly review on his own blogsite. Certainly everyone should explore all sides of the ongoing debate and a small racialist website has conveniently gathered together annotated links to the dozens of reviews across the web, favorable, unfavorable, and mixed. But reading the book itself is essential for anyone interested in the current state of human evolutionary science.
I’d originally intended to publish my own perspective several weeks ago and was delayed by other pressing matters. But I have been very pleased to see that Wade’s book is beginning to receive the major attention it so greatly deserves. American intellectuals must begin shedding a half-century of lies and dishonesty based on the dismally unscientific dogma of Stephen Jay Gould and instead start to discover what modern evolutionary biologists and genetic researchers have all known for years or even decades. A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times may represent a huge step forward in achieving this important goal.