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Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, & Human History

a-troublesome-inheritance-genes-race-and-human-history [1]4,498 words

Nicholas Wade
A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History [2]
New York: Penguin Press, 2014

Anti-Darwin, — As regards the celebrated ‘struggle for life’, it seems to me for the present to have been rather asserted than proved. It does occur, but as the exception; the general aspect of life is not hunger and distress, but rather wealth, luxury, even absurd prodigality — where there is a struggle it is a struggle for power. . . One should not mistake Malthus for nature.”– Friedrich Nietzsche [1]

 Hello! Have you heard the good news . . . about race? 

It’s real, you know. Yes, it is. Race is real. And powerful.

Science tells us that race it real. Race is another name for recent human evolution because we are still evolving and adapting in order to survive just as our ancestors did as they earned their race by survival when they journeyed around the world for so many generations. Race comes from deep down within us, deeper down that even our bones and blood. It comes from our genes. It is the digital river of information [2] flowing from our ancestors through us to the future. And these genes affect our behavior. All our social behaviors shape the institutions that our race has created so you can say that our genes and culture are interlocked. 

So what do we do now, you ask? 

We apply its teachings to everything we can from history to economics. 

Wait, I know. You are afraid to talk about race openly in public. I have something for you though. Here, Nicholas Wade wrote A Troublesome Inheritance in order to eliminate the fear of discussing race. He has written a book for someone like you – the general reader – so that once the fear is dispelled we can discuss the evolution of the races. 

But what about the evolution of morality, you ask? What about values? 


Hmmm. Well you take care now. Goodbye.

Cambridge-educated freelance journalist and former deputy editor of Nature magazine and editorial science writer for the New York Times Nicholas Wade is, in a way, a missionary for the spread of science understanding among the general public.

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History is part of a trilogy of popular science books that Wade has written on human evolution. Both A Troublesome Inheritance and his 2009 book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures [3] are offshoots of his 2006 Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors [4]. Reporting on the latest research on the evolution of the races of man and his religions are not normally the pursuits of someone who is afraid of controversy.

As a result of writing his newest book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, the polite Mr. Wade can look forward to being attacked by both the anti-evolution religious Right and the pro-evolution atheist fundamentalists, having his career possibly ruined by the anti-racist Leftists, or just plain ignored by the anti-evolution, illiterate, innumerate, apathetic US public.

So, you can see that he has his work cut out for him.

Chapter 1: “Evolution, Race and History”

Decoding the human genome has led to a new view of human evolution that is dynamic, continuous, and extensive. Human evolution has been “recent, copious and regional” (p. 2). The result of this at the continental level has been the three major races of mankind: African, East Asians and Europeans. Genetically-based human social behavior has created social structures among the races. Social structure is the “point at which human evolution intersects with history” (p. 10).

But there has been opposition to research of this type that has existed since WWII. The new findings challenge the reigning view of human evolution among academics: the Social Science Creed. The official views of academic organizations like the American Anthropological Association and American Sociological Association are not only that race does not have a biological foundation and that evolutions stopped during the Paleolithic but that the very concept of race itself is a dangerous one with devastating social consequences.

Resistance to the latest scientific breakthroughs among academics is due both to the inertia of the academic world but also to the current reign of leftist political ideology in the university system.

Wade believes that we can now discuss race because racism is not a threat any longer in the Western world. Science changes, therefore it cannot be the bedrock of values. We all know that racism is wrong in principle, but still academics fear discussing race due to the threat of a belief in IQ differences. Wade dispels any notions of superiority or license to dominate others that might result from investigating our human differences. Wade wants to demystify the biological roots of race and use the latest findings to help explain historical and economic developments including trying to answer the question of why some countries are rich and others persistently poor.


Like any good guide Wade starts us off by stating his argument and giving us road map of how it will unfold throughout his book. He warns us up front about the intellectual terrain we will encounter on our journey. We will navigate through the lowland swamps of the pre-WWII intellectual debates on race to the foothills of certainty underpinning the findings on human social behavior in chapter 3 to the peaks of scientific rigor that shape the intellectual core of his book (chapters 4 and 5) to the most speculative border regions (chapters 6 to 10) in which these recent findings are applied to history and economics.

Like a reporter from the front lines Wade paints a picture of an intellectual war.

This war is over our identity and our future.

Who are we?

Where do we come from?

Where we are going? [3]

Just because we are not going to get answers about these questions from religion and philosophy but instead from empirical science does not mean that these fields have nothing to contribute. This is because, as Wade states: “Science is about what is, not what ought to be. Its shifting sands do not support values, so it is foolish to place them there” (p. 7).

This is why we need an elite cultural vanguard creating new values to help shape our future evolution. Since cultural evolution shapes biological evolution we need the bridge-makers to the future (politicians, philosophers, artists, and futurists) to guide us via religion and myths based on the reality of Nature. This top-down morality should take into consideration the bottom-up morality that comes from our genetically-based human nature.

Chapter 2: “Perversions of Science”

What is racism?

Wade believes that racism is a belief in the hierarchy of races which supports racial superiority coupled with a belief in the immutability of racial differences. A scientific effort to classify the races, Social Darwinism, and eugenics were all used to justify racism.

Wade traces the history of the classification of the races by describing the work of Linneas, Johann Blumenbach, Joseph-Arthur Comte de Gobineau, and Samuel Morton.

Stephen Jay Gould’s influential 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man was an attack on Morton’s misuse of evidence but has since been undermined by charges of scientific misconduct itself.

Herbert Spencer’s “Social Darwinism” promoted the political application of Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” to human societies. However, Darwin himself believed that one of our human social instincts is the desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton coined the term eugenics for the promotion of favorable breeding among the most eminent in order to propagate the desirable qualities into the next generation. Galton could not predict that the flip side of positive eugenics, negative eugenics, would be used to coercively cull the mentally unfit and the “degenerate” from society via sterilization.

The eugenics movement would take off in the USA under the leadership of Charles Davenport, who applied negative eugenics to the immigration debate of his time. A belief in eugenics was so popular at the time that philanthropies like the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation promoted it through grants and the American elite spread its message within the pillars of society from academia to the Supreme Court.

New York lawyer and conservationist Madison Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race influenced Adolf Hitler. In 1933 Hitler and the National Socialists applied eugenic thinking at a period in which the idea was in decline in both the USA and England.

The reaction against racial theories set in after the Second World War and has dominated academia and society ever since.


This is an unsatisfactory chapter mainly due to its incompleteness and lack of balance. It is as if our guide, after saying that he wants to “demystify the genetic basis of race” (p. 9) and free us from the fear of race, sees a taboo-mongering witch-doctor, starts chanting with him, and temporarily falls into an opioid trance.

I wanted more in this chapter about the historical rise of the anti-race taboo-enforcers of the Great Reaction. But to be fair, Wade does continue the history later on in the book when he describes the reaction of Marxist blank slaters to E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology (p. 59), the suffocating influence of anthropologist Ashley (“The very word race is itself racist”) Montagu on the post WWII discussion on race (p. 68), the arguments against the existence of race put forth by Jared Diamond and Richard Lewontin (p. 117), and oppressive Marxist political dogma silencing debate on human diversity (p. 201).

Chapter 3: “Origins of Human Social Nature”

Human anatomical features like the white of the eye and the blushing response are both indicators of our sociality as are language and other social behaviors like rule following, punishing transgressors, our innate sense of right and wrong, and our in-group/out-group dynamics.

Human social behavior evolved along with our bodies and to better understand earlier stages a comparison with chimpanzees can be made since we both derive from a common ancestor around 5 million years ago. Chimps are selfish, sexually promiscuous, arrange themselves in separate male and female hierarchies, engage in warfare, and have limited understanding of their own kinship structure beyond knowing their own mothers and near siblings. The ancestors of the human lineage developed male-female pair bonding, cooperation, a theory of mind or shared intentionality, and a desire to follow the norms of the group.

Oxytocin is the hormone of social trust. In the brain it promotes social cohesion within the in-group and facial recognition.

Aggression can be genetically controlled as demonstrated by the experiments done by Dmitriy Belyaev on rats. Belyaev bred two strains of rats based on their toleration of humans. He created one group of rats that sought human contact and another group of rats that wanted to attack humans.

The gene MAO-A is associated with aggression. Its role is in creating the clean-up enzyme monoamine oxidase in the nervous system which breaks down neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are kept from accumulating and therefore keeping neurons in an active state. The MAO-A gene promoter varies among human populations with some people having two, three, four, or five copies of it. Those with two copies of the promoter demonstrate more criminal behavior.

The interaction between the genome and society has led to gene-culture evolution. The best example so far of gene-culture evolution is the mapping of lactose tolerance among present day Europeans with the map of the Funnel Beaker Culture in north central Europe from 6,000 to 5,000 years ago. The cultural practice of drinking raw cow’s milk among this ancient population led to the persistence of lactase production among populations who gained a selective advantage.

The basic human social structure until 15,000 years ago was the hunter-gatherer society which is characterized by leaderless egalitarianism. The evolution to a sedentary society and eventually the adoption of agriculture, the city-state, and its religious and military hierarchies demanded a change in human social behavior. Genetically-based human social behavior helped shape the social institutions of a particular population.


At the core if Wade’s argument is the theory of gene-culture coevolution. Wade quotes E. O. Wilson: “The genes hold culture on a leash [. . .] The leash is very long but inevitably values will be constrained in accordance with their effects on the human gene pool” (p. 59). Wade might want to follow up on the work of Stanford anthropologist William H. Durham, who collected and critiqued the various gene-culture coevolution models.[4]

Durham categorized the theoretical models that had been put forward by scholars like E. O. Wilson and Charles Lumsden, Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, and Marcus Feldman since the beginning of the sociobiology debate in the 1970s into three groups:

  1. Models without dual inheritance
  2. Models with dual inheritance and trait units
  3. Models with dual inheritance and ideational units.

He describes five modes of relationship between genes and culture:

  1. Genetic mediation (example: color terms)
  2. Culture mediation (lactose tolerance) [5]
  3. Enhancement (the incest taboo)
  4. Neutrality (sound-concept correspondence in language)
  5. Opposition (the cultural practice of cannibalism and diseases like kuru)

As for oxytocin and morality, Wade’s coverage of the research done by Dutch psychologist Carsten De Dreu on oxytocin as the molecule of in-group trust is a much needed antidote to economist (and media darling) Paul Zak’s research on oxytocin as the universal “lovey-dovey” moral molecule.[6] Zak, who is Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has done interesting research showing that nations with high levels of trustworthiness are wealthier and have less poverty. After all, Adam Smith was a moral philosopher who included a consideration of moral sentiments in his analysis of human motivation and markets. The rise of “greed is good” hypertrophic capitalism and selfishness has been one long misunderstanding.

Chapter 4: “The Human Experiment” and Chapter 5: “The Genetics of Race”

The anthropologist Ashley Montagu is partially responsible for the current taboo on studying race and it was his book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race that influenced the 1950 UNESCO statement on race and a generation of researchers, except forensic anthropologists who can assign a skull to a particular race with a high degree of accuracy based on a combination of diagnostic features.

All human races have the same genes. It is the relative frequency of gene variants, or alleles, which can be used to assign an individual to a continental race. The big three continental races are: Caucasians, East Asians, Africans.

Caucasians and East Asians both have light skin, but this quality developed independently in both populations whose ancestors possibly separated 30,000 years ago.

East Asians carry the EDAR-V370A allele which causes thick hair, more eccrine sweat glands, and smaller breasts, as well as the characteristic dentition of sinodonty.

Genetics supports the division of humans into five continental races: Africans, East Asians, Caucasians, American Indians, and Australian aborigines. Genetics can also recognize smaller groupings such as ethnicities within the continental races and populations in which admixture took place.

Population genetic studies have repeatedly supported the apportionment of human diversity to clusters that correspond to continental races based on single-nucleotide repeats (SNPs) and tandem repeats, both of which are neutral variations ignored by natural selection. Evidence of natural selection at the regional level can also been seen in the genes for brain function, skin color, diet, and disease resistance.


Wade picks apart the famous arguments against the reality of race including Guns, Germs, and Steel author Jared Diamond’s geographic determinism and Richard Lewontin’s position that racial classification had no taxonomic significance, which figures prominently in Ashley Montagu’s book Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race.

Chapter 6: “Societies and Institutions”

Genetics and culture both influence social institutions. The transition from hunter-gatherers to sedentism and later the adoption of agriculture both required a new set of human social behaviors and took place independently around the globe.

The default state of human societies is tribalism which favors family and close kin. Wade relies on the work of Francis Fukuyama to trace the emergence of the modern state and the importance of biologically-based institutions on human history. In Fukuyama’s opinion nations are poor when they lack effective institutions.

Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson reach the same conclusion in their book Why Nations Fail. They believe that nations fail due to extractive institutions and succeed due to inclusive institutions. Extractive institutions are created by selfish elites who seek to exclude others in the society from reaping the benefits of the economy.


One notices in reading this chapter the ongoing theme of the wealthy elite spreading their behavior down the social hierarchy by having more surviving children. Whether it is within the context of the first settled societies (p. 129) or the English before the Industrial Revolution (Chapter 7) it seems conscious breeding (vs. controlled breeding or eugenics) among the elite with the goal of passing on “their advantages of wealth and rank” (p. 129) can have unanticipated consequences for all of society.

Chapter 7: “The Recasting of Human Nature”

Thomas Malthus described the situation in which an increase in productivity led to a population increase which consumed the surplus and brought everyone (except the wealthy) back down to starvation level existence. This Malthusian trap afflicted agrarian societies for generations but the Industrial Revolution allowed a way of escaping its effects.

Economic historian Gregory Clark looked to a change in human nature to explain the impact of the Industrial Revolution. Clark used copious historical records from 1200 to 1800 to show that four human behaviors had evolved: interpersonal violence, literacy, the ability to save, and the work ethic.

The genetic mechanism was the so-called ratchet of wealth, the fact that the wealthy had produced more children than the poor. Most of these children of the wealthy descended into the lower social classes, thereby infusing the qualities that had made their families successful among the lower classes.

Tribal societies still exist in Africa and the Middle East and this explains their current poverty. This explains why just importing Western-style institutions to these nations will fail, as will pouring in over $2 trillion in foreign aid.

Wade next plunges into the global IQ and wealth debate summarizing the work of Lynn and Vanhanen and their critics.

Wade critiques the work of Acemoğlu and Robinson because at the root of their explanation for why particular institutions emerge only in certain societies are random processes and luck.


Man is the self-domesticated ape. Bourgeois values are a result of a self-taming process. But bourgeois values should not be the only values within a society. They are values appropriate only to one part of society and should not dominate the entire culture.

Chapter 8: “Jewish Adaptations”

As a case study of recent human evolution Wade focuses on the Jews. Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group and have demonstrated such disproportionately high levels of achievement and excellence in so many fields of scientific and artistic endeavor.

Genetics reveals the three main populations of Jews (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahim) to be a distinct population that shows both Near Eastern ancestry and local admixture.

Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending argue that there is a causal connection between the uniquely high Ashkenazi IQ and the unique suite of Mendelian diseases that afflict that population. Their high IQ is abnormally skewed towards the verbal and mathematical skills demanded by urban occupations and not towards a visuo-spatial range of skills. In the Middle Ages, Jews gravitated towards cognitively demanding and risky occupations like moneylending, tax farming, and international trade. They became wealthy and had more children as a result. Since intelligence is heritable and the Ashkenazi Jews practiced endogamy their IQ rose. They take the argument one level deeper in their explanation of how these changes took place at the genetic level. Mutations relating to four sphingolipid diseases occurred around 1,000 years ago among the Ashkenazim. One of the effects of these diseases is that they all increase intelligence by causing neurons to make more connections.

The counterargument Wade provides is the research done by economic historians Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein who believe that the rise of Jewish cognitive abilities goes back to the 1st century AD and the push for universal male literacy in order to study the Torah and Talmud. Those who could not abide by the strict rules could switch over to Judaism-for-the-illiterate-country-folk: Christianity. Jews had the advantage over other populations in certain occupations due to their tradition of literacy and international ethnic networks. Jewish populations expanded and thrived because they were pre-selected for the demands of a capitalist society.


When I read this chapter I thought of Amy Chua’s “Triple Package” of behavioral traits that are responsible for success: a superiority complex, impulse control, and a deep sense of inferiority.[7] Jews have it as do Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mormons (“gods in embryo”), Iranian-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Nigerian-Americans. These traits are a counter-cultural complex of wealth-promoting behaviors in response to the modern Idiocractic American values of slacker egalitarianism.

The Triple Package can break down after three generations. Groups can rise and fall based on the possession of these traits. (WASPs had the Triple Package but lost it. Jews have it but are in the process of losing it.) The Triple Package is open to all to take up and try on like a fine suit. According to Chua these are strictly cultural traits and are not biologically based.

Wade’s counterargument is more convincing, though. It is this: if the culture-only explanation of human achievement is true, then how come we cannot just transplant one culture’s winning institutions to another and get the same outcome? In other words, humans “are highly imitative, and if the Jewish advantage were purely cultural, such as hectoring mothers or a special devotion to education, there would be little to prevent others from copying it” (p. 199).

Chapter 9: “The Rise of the West” and Chapter 10: “Evolutionary Perspectives on Race”

Wade then tries to explain the rise of the West vs. the Rest. It was not an accident. The West created an open, innovative and dynamic civilization that created science, the rule of law and booming economies. Europeans evolved and adapted to their particular ecological habitat.

In the final chapter Wade compares the dominant culture-only position versus his gene-culture thesis. Although they are both unproven conjectures, Wade’s argument is more plausible, rests on knowledge from the latest scientific findings, and explains the facts of reality better.


Social institutions — not the individual — are where a race’s bio-culture and history interact in Wade’s argument (“History has little coherence when analyzed in terms of individuals or even nations,” p. 135). I feel that Wade is missing a very important element that should be factored in: the West’s unique view on the existence and value of the individual.

Lessons for the New Right

What saves Wade’s book from being just a “human history-as-a-branch-of-zoology” exercise in reductionism is his openness to a separate track for values. Man is an animal but not just an animal. Even if our genes have culture on a leash that does not mean we do not have the responsibility to at least try to shape our future evolution in a positive direction through techno-science (nanotechnology, biotechnology, AI, space exploration), religion, philosophy and the arts. Although evolution has no goals or higher purpose we have the freedom to aim higher than mere survival and adaptation.

Universal Nationalism

A dynamic intellectual current whose ideas are in sync with science has a better future that one that is based on inhuman abstractions or on a reliance on supernatural revelation. The findings in Wade’s book like the research on oxytocin should be incorporated in any serious world-view of how a society should be ordered.

In a recent interview, Australian political scientist Frank Salter describes the negative effects of multiculturalism within a nation: discrimination, group conflict, and injustice towards the majority population which has legitimate ethnic genetic interests.[9]

In contrast, more ethnically homogeneous nations are more democratic, less corrupt, have higher productivity, less inequality, are more trusting, care more for the disadvantaged, develop social and economic capital faster, have lower crime rates, are far more resistant to external shocks, are better global citizens by giving more foreign aid, and are less prone to civil war.

What is needed in his view is a non-chauvinistic form of nationalism would have as its aim to help everyone achieve the proliferation and preservation of these authentically progressive values.


Nicholas Wade has written three readable and fascinating science books for the general reader — Before the Dawn, The Faith Instinct, and now A Troublesome Inheritance — that should be read as a trilogy. If one does not mind a high dose of plausible speculation mixed in with popular science reporting, then I recommend that you read A Troublesome Inheritance. In a nation like ours that seems smug and comfortable with its dismal levels of evolution literacy,[10] even among our best and brightest,[11] Wade’s efforts to dispel fear and demystify race will be rewarded if more scientists and scholars engage in research in light of the reality of race.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 85.

[2] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

[3] Edward O. Wilson, The Social Conquest of Earth (New York: Liveright, 2012), 7.

[4] William H. Durham, Coevolution: Genes, Culture and Human Diversity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), 437.

[5] Ibid., 270.

In order to support his cultural mediation hypothesis Durham analyzed Indo-European (IE) mythology (the Creation Myth of the First Sacrifice) and found a correspondence between latitude and the importance of cattle and milk drinking within the basic elements as they evolved in myths of the daughter branches.

The most lactose tolerant IE-speakers (Germanic, Celtic) in the northern latitudes had the consumption of raw milk and the sacrifice of a cow at the center of this shared myth while those IE-speakers in the southern latitudes (Indic and Iranian) had no mention of raw milk consumption.

IE-speakers in the Mediterranean (Roman and Greek) had evolved myths that were intermediate between the two.

[6] See Paul Zak, The Moral Molecule (New York: Penguin, 2012).

[7] Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, “What Drives Success?” New York Times, January 25, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/opinion/sunday/what-drives-success.html?_r=0 [5]

[8] As in Number Six’s battle cry from The Prisoner: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, de-briefed, or numbered. My life is my own.”

Ultimately, Number Six had to resort to violent revolution in order to protect his identity.

[9] Frank Salter, “War on Human Nature, Replacement Level Migration in the West & Crime of Diversity,” Red Ice Radio, June 4, 2014, http://www.redicecreations.com/radio/2014/06/RIR-140604.php [6] (accessed June 5).

[10] Jon D. Miller et al. “Public Acceptance of Evolution,” Science 313 (2006): 765.

“The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States.”

[11] In an online course on “Darwin’s Legacy” William Durham quotes a survey that highlights the ignorance surrounding evolution even at elite universities like Stanford.

“Which of the following best agrees with your conception of the modern theory of evolution?”

36% of the respondents said: “Strong eventually eliminated weak.”

22% of the respondents said: “Purposeful striving toward higher forms.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fysSblKjjvA [7] (see Chart 2 at minute 11:51).