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“Jews are adapted to capitalism”, and other nonsenses of the new scientific racism

Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance argues that the genetic differences between racial groups explain why the West is rich and Africa is poor - but beneath the new science lies an old, dangerous lie.

J L Barr, a phrenologist, demonstrates how to read someone’s personality from the bumps on their head, 27 January 1937. Photo: Getty Images
J L Barr, a phrenologist, demonstrates how to read someone’s personality from the bumps on their head, 27 January 1937. Photo: Getty Images

Before getting into quite why Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance - a book which argues, among other things, that Jews possess a genetic “adaptation to capitalism” - is racist,  it may be worth thinking back to the summer of 2012. Viewers of the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics on 10 August would have been surprised, between heats in the 200 metres, by a short video explaining how the slave trade made black people into better athletes:

For those of you unable to watch, the argument (as cheerily introduced by John “you’re never going to be, you know, a looker” Inverdale) goes like this:

  • The slaves of the Caribbean and American plantations predominantly came from a select group of west African ethnic groups
  • Only the fittest slaves survived the horrors of transportation to, and working on, plantations
  • Their descendants overwhelmingly make up the best professional sprinters in the world
  • African-Americans and Afro-Caribbean people are genetically predisposed, through evolution, through survival of the fittest, to be sprinters

Spot the problem? Congratulations - you’re better at this than Nicholas Wade, former deputy editor of Nature, writer for the New York Times and Washington Post, pop-sci author and pusher of the hypothesis that: a) there is a biological basis for race, and b) racial differences explain cultural and societal differences.

In this, he is partly correct - at least, in the way he defines “race” - but in oh-so-very-many other ways he is not. Frankly, it may well be that A Troublesome Inheritance is most useful as an illustration of the gap between the popular understanding of racism and the reality of how it operates. Wade very clearly does not consider himself, or his conclusions, to be racist, writing that "no one has the right or reason to assert superiority over a person of a different race". Yet this book is ultimately racist, because it does exactly that.

This is most obvious during the (numerous) sections of the book where Wade uses language that can best be described as “unfortunate”. We are told that, as a consequence of genetic analysis, “an individual can be assigned with high confidence to the appropriate continent of origin”. Furthermore, it is “perfectly reasonable” to classify all humans into one of five “continental based races”, while “classification into the three main races of African, East Asian and European is supported by the physical anthropology of human skull types and dentition”.

Here’s some more:

If running a productive, Western-style economy were simply a matter of culture, it should be possible for African and Middle Eastern countries to import Western institutions and business methods, just as East Asian countries have done. Though it was justifiable at first to blame the evils of colonialism, two generations or more have passed since most foreign powers withdrew from Africa and the Middle East, and the strength of this explanation has to some extent faded.”

Then there’s the money shot:

Populations that live at high altitudes, like Tibetans, represent another adaptation to extreme environments. The adaptation of Jews to capitalism is another such evolutionary process.”

And lest you be in any doubt that this isn’t a political tract disguised as science writing, Wade believes that the current scientific consensus is “shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma”. (Plus, he’s been given the cover feature in this week’s Spectator to argue his position, which is always a science writing red flag.)

A Troublesome Inheritance begins with a history of Darwin and the theory of evolution, an overview of how natural selection works, and an explanation of how eugenics was the “perversion” of  Darwinism (including a shout out for New Statesman founders and eugenics fans Sidney and Beatrice Webb - always appreciated). As an opening, it comes across as an attempt to make clear that this new, scientific conception of race isn’t the same, but it’s a bit like saying Father Christmas and your dad aren’t the same person. They both get to screw your mother.

Wade is keen to argue that humans, like all animals, are subject to evolutionary pressures, and that this evolution continues to happen. There are discussions of studies showing how different human populations carry certain genes more than others (for example, Finns disproportionately carry the HTR2B gene, linked with a tendency towards violent behaviour when drunk), but between the science there are bizarre asides where he attacks those he perceives as suppressing these findings - like Marxists, “who wish government to mold socialist man in its desired image and [who] see genetics as an impediment to the power of the state”. (These statements are not given citations.)

He explains that these pockets of genetic difference happened because pre-historic peoples spread out across the world from Africa, rapidly, to fill almost every available ecological niche - yet they remained tribal societies, which meant “the mixing of genes between these populations” was rare. How does he square the contradiction between eager human migration with a reluctance for societies to mix with each other? Why, for reasons of “warfare, [which] was probably incessant”. The book is full of these dismissive anthropological assumptions, which, combined with warm citations of neoconservative thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, often gives the book the feel of the Empire, and the 19th century.

Regardless, the meat of his argument comes when he cites a study from 2006 which found that there were 412 genes under the influence of natural selection in humans, and that there are three broad groupings of humans where there is minimal overlap between them in terms of which of the 412 genes they hold. That’s the basis of “the three main races”. Further studies have shown other evidence that different populations have evolved separate gene clumps, where you can be roughly sure about dividing two groups of people based on which of the clumps they tend towards.

The key thesis of the book, then, is this: once you’ve proven that there are distinct biological divisions between people which could have evolved and spread through a population over only a few hundred years, and that those genetic differences can take the form of genes that influence behaviour, it must then follow that the social and cultural characteristics of human societies are changed and shaped by changes in the genes of their people.

That is, the Industrial Revolution started in England because the English spent the medieval period evolving to respect private property and the rule of law. The Chinese are predisposed to authoritarian rule. Africans are stuck with tribalism because that’s what their genes tell them to do. Jews are good with money because they evolved to be better at banking, their socially-acceptable niche.

Andrew Gelman, at Slate, is very good here in his review on quite how arbitrary and - I'm just going to say it - stupid this is:

I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans."

It’s not even like the hypothesis is internally consistent. Wade often strays from his taxonomy - Caucasians sometimes stand equal alongside Africans and East Asians, while at other times “the West” is treated as separate to both the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. Modern nation-states are frequently talked about as if ethnically homogenous, and what discussion there is of internal variation (say, class difference) is waved away as irrelevant. Quite why the Jews benefited from being kicked around Europe for hundreds of years while other persecuted ethnicities didn't is unclear - the inevitable, unpleasant implication of this is that we can just as easily decide that the Roma are predisposed to petty crime, for example.

Never mind that there are plausible social, historical and economic analyses, with substantial evidence, that also explain the trends Wade has identified - his view is almost fatalistic in attributing everything to genes, based on nothing more than a correlation between the time it takes for the human genome to be shaped by environmental pressures and the time it takes for societies to undergo significant change. He does not pinpoint the genes he suspects cause social change - he merely deduces they must be there, because it fits the pattern.

And that's so, so weird. Nobody - nobody - denies that there is genetic variation between distinct groups of people. This is visible in the colour of our skin, in our different heights and hair colours, in the higher rates of sickle cell disease among Africans and higher rates of obesity among Pacific Islanders.

What Wade is arguing for, though, is a definition of race that is at once dangerous and useless. Fine, define and separate people into groups based on one definition of genetic similarity. Even if we allow that evolution could cause a society’s social structures to change over the course of only a few hundred years - and I’m not saying we should - it’s such a flaccid, facile argument. What of gay rights? What of communist revolutions? What of anything that happens on a shorter, or longer, scale than evolution? There’s nothing here to explain them, but plenty of counterfactuals. To go back to the BBC's "slavery had surprising benefits!" film - you might as well ask if white people are more genetically-adapted to sailing and dressage thanks to the "evolutionary pressure" of colonialism.

The fundamental flaw is that Wade has identified a way of defining humanity into sub-groups, and then misunderstood this as a justification for doing so. Scientific racism is dangerous because it assumes its subjective interpretation of a single fact or set of facts to be synonymous with objective reality, ignoring the social consequences of what that interpretation may be. You can see that in Wade’s casual references to “skull types and dentition” - but phrenologists weren’t wrong to group people by skull shape, they were wrong to think that those groups meant anything beyond the ability to group humans by skull shape.

(A side note: It’s incredible how often this mistake is made in other areas, like, for example, when trying to talk about biological sex as being a matter of XX or XY chromosomes. Sure, it's technically correct, but it's useless in a practical sense when "female" and "male" are fuzzy categories that different societies decide are defined by a range of changeable physical characteristics like genitals, body shape, hair coverage, etc. - and, for that matter, nobody gives a shit what your chromosomes are when they’re kicking in your ribcage on a piss-streaked pavement for being “a bloke in a dress” or whatever. But I digress.)

In the second chapter, Wade defines racism:

The central premise of racism, which distinguishes it from ethnic prejudice, is the notion of an ordered hierarchy of races in which some are superior to others. The superior race is assumed to enjoy the right to rule others because of its inherent qualities.”

As far as definitions go, this is a pretty shabby one, and indicative of the general tone of the book when it comes to understanding the “social sciences” it is so dismissive of. (And let's not even start on the astonishing claim that “both religion and race are essential but strangely unexplored aspects of the human experience," which appears in the acknowledgements.) This definition of racism misses that it can be, and most often is, a structural thing. Institutions can be racist even if no one person within them holds the sincere belief that black or Asian people are somehow inferior. Intent is not a necessary condition of racism, but even without the intent it's clear A Troublesome Inheritance does conclude that some races are superior to others. It satisfies Wade's own definition of racism.

I couldn't help but think of A Troublesome Inheritance when reading Gary Younge's superb piece in the Guardian about the popular misunderstanding of what racism is, and how dangerous it is that the persistent prejudices of Ukip are judged only by a withered definitiion, one of "old white men using the n-word". He writes:

And so the perception – on both sides of the Atlantic – takes hold that racism is not a system of discrimination planted by history, nourished by politics and nurtured by economics, in which some groups face endemic disadvantage – it's about ignorant old people getting caught saying mean things. By privileging these episodes – outrageous as they are – racism is basically reduced to the level of a private, individual indiscretion made public. The scandal becomes not that racism exists but that anyone would be crass enough to articulate it so brazenly.

The reality of modern racism is almost exactly the opposite: it's the institutional marginalisation of groups performed with the utmost discretion and minimum of fuss by well-mannered and often well-intentioned people working in deeply flawed systems. According to a recent US department of education report, black preschoolers (mostly four-year-olds) are four times more likely to be suspended more than once than their white classmates. According to a 2013 report by Release, a UK group focusing on drugs and drug laws, black people in England and Wales are far less likely to use drugs than white people but six times more likely to be stopped and searched for possession of them. In both countries black people are far more likely to be convicted, and to get stiffer sentences and longer jail time.

This is the soporific, statistical drumbeat to which black children march through our institutions and to which society as a whole has become inured. You are unlikely to find many of these preschool teachers throwing around the N-word or judges reminiscing about slavery. Apparently, until you do, there will be no big story here. It's just the way we do things. The problem is no longer that it's brazen, but that it's banal.

Regardless of its intent, A Troublesome Inheritance is scientific racism precisely because of that banality, that casual divorce from the consequences of its conclusions. By all means, protest that you aren't dividing humanity into a hierarchy of intelligence, impulsiveness and creativity based on an arbitrary criteria - but always be aware that the psuedoscience of far-right pamphlets and clock tower gunmen has to come from somewhere.