Slate on NYT writer’s book, defending Darwinian race theory
|May 19, 2014||Posted by News under Darwinism, News|
Nicholas Wade’s résumé is such that critics who find his ideas uncomfortable cannot simply dismiss him as a racist. Indeed, he told the Spectator podcast that only one review of A Troublesome Inheritance so far had done so.
Nonetheless, entrenched hypersensitivities persist. Journalists are often silent—or, worse, resort to name-calling—when they encounter research they find uncomfortable. Ian Steadman, a science writer for the British New Statesman, admitted he had not read Wade’s book when he referred on Twitter to extracts from it as “pretending racism is science.”
“[I’ve] read enough reviews to know what it’s pushing,” he told me later.
Steadman declined to answer further questions, but he did say he has since read A Troublesome Inheritance and intends to review it at some point in the future.
Jason Pontin, publisher of MIT’s Technology Review, wrote yesterday: “I can’t imagine what compelled a science journalist of Nicholas Wade’s stature to take on the subject of race. We don’t know much right now, and while genomics will tell us much more, it can’t yet. For a journalist to go wading speculatively into the subject is asking for career-ending trouble.”
Pontin almost certainly didn’t mean for “career-ending trouble” to sound as sinister or threatening as it does. But his choice of words is instructive: even though the jury is still out on whether race can be said to have any meaningful biological basis, only the social construct side of the argument is considered acceptable in public.
It’s pretty remarkable that the Breitbart London writer Milo Yiannopoulos thinks it would be unusual for a person’s science career to be ended because they offered a politically incorrect opinion. He sure needs to get out more.
As a statistician and political scientist, I see naivete in Wade’s quickness to assume a genetic association for any change in social behavior. For example, he writes that declining interest rates in England from the years 1400 to 1850 “indicate that people were becoming less impulsive, more patient, and more willing to save” and attributes this to “the far-reaching genetic consequences” of rich people having more children, on average, than poor people, so that “the values of the upper middle class” were “infused into lower economic classes and throughout society.”
Similarly, he claims a genetic basis for the declining levels of everyday violence in Europe over the past 500 years and even for “a society-wide shift … toward greater sensibility and more delicate manners.” All this is possible, but it seems to me that these sorts of stories explain too much. The trouble is that any change in attitudes or behavior can be imagined to be genetic—as long as the time scale is right. For example, the United States and other countries have seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward gay rights in the past 20 years, a change that certainly can’t be attributed to genes. Given that we can see this sort of change in attitudes so quickly (and, indeed, see large changes in behavior during such time scales; consider for example the changes in the murder rate in New York City during the past 100 years), I am skeptical of Wade’s inclination to come up with a story of genetics and selection pressure whenever a trend happens to be measured over a period of hundreds of years.
Well, Gelman, welcome to the world of evo psych (evolutionary psychology). There is very little that can’t be explained with reference to a theory about spreading one’s genes. In fact, if you look a little further down in the pile, you’ll find that some enterprising persons have Darwinized being gay.
N.W.: The principal criticism of the book so far is that my arguments for the impact of evolution on human social behavior are speculative. Since I point this out prominently in the introduction, I find it hard to see what these critics think they are adding to the discussion. Nor does it seem unreasonable to give the reader one’s best guess as to the likely consequences of recent human evolution. Critics of the book seem to accept that human evolution has indeed continued to the present day, but none has said what the consequences might be, if different from those that I suggest. So far I see no reason to have written the book differently.
Finally, reading the responses, the picture is coming in. In the social hierarchy of political correctness, it is okay to say things that sound like racism again as long as one professes faith in Darwinian evolution. Daring, but the guy is probably right. That might help explain why disparate people who are obviously not creationists are attacked for being “creationists” only because they disagree with the book’s thesis.
Wonder how or if the Darwin in the schools lobby will deal with this? Or are they so PC that they get a special pass from dealing with the contradictions?
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