Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)

Editor’s note:
Regular readers of Genotopia will be familiar with Dick Dorkins, a genomicist, faculty member of Kashkow University, and founding President of the Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON). Given the forceful nature of some of Dorkins’s opinions, we hesitated when he offered to review this book. But we acceded to his wishes, because we do indeed love our daughter and would, in fact, hate for something to happen to her. One can find a two-part interview with Dorkins here and here

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (New York: Penguin) 2014, 288 pp.

Dorkins profile picIt really is a bloody shame that India just had yet another free and fair election, because Nicholas Wade’s new book is so bally good it makes me want to dig out the old pith helmet and mustache wax and jolly well troop off and colonize her again. Since I can’t conquer India, I itch to conquer Mrs. Dorkins and spread my genes, via more little Dorkinses. Alas, Wendy says she has a headache (again!), so the next best thing is to dab my favorite plume into grandfather Dorkins’s inkpot and, in my best public-school hand, pen this little squib on behalf of Wade’s latest. Perhaps I can prompt the some of you lot to do your Darwinian duty and either have or not have more children, depending on your race.

Let me begin by stating that I haven’t read such a stirring work since the sixth form, when our English Master (jolly good word, “Master.” Woody.), Old Man Donglethwaite, cracked the whip and put us through our paces on Lord Acton’s History of Freedom and Herbert Spencer’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other. For what Wade manages in this book is to resurrect bally old triumphalist English history and social Darwinism, girding them with modern-day genomics. One sincerely hopes that modern science can provide those gallant traditions with a foundation strong enough to last.

Wade, a journalist whose previous books include Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors and The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, has composed an argument so elegant, so accessible, so unassailable that it might have been written by Spencer himself—had Spencer known the genetics that supports his ideas. Wade’s fundamental question is not original but rather classic: Why is the West superior to the East—or, god help us, the global South? The truth of this axiom is undeniable: we have the best of everything. The most money, the most freedom, the best science, the neatest gadgets, the finest music and art (never mind Justin Bieber), the strongest militaries, and the most money. Granted, in sports we sometimes lose, and you have to include North America in Europe even though many of the Americans’ achievements are by ethnic Africans and Asians, so it gets a little messy if you examine it too closely. But those are fine points. In the War of the Continents, it’s Europe all the way—and mostly Great Britain—if you look at it right.

Bleeding-hearts such as the anthropologist Jared Diamond have feebly explained the Rise of the West as accidents of geography and climate. Social “scientists” such as Ashley Montagu and the population geneticist Richard Lewontin (honorary social scientist, because he’s so political) have tried miserably to erase the very question of race, as if denying that the term has meaning could make it go away. Burlap-clad, politically-correct academics have even strapped on their Birkenstocks and paraded around the quads, protesting entire fields of inquiry that bear crucially on this question. Only an ideologue would deny the freedom of science to merely ask the question, for example, why white people are smarter than blacks. But Wade—whose peer-reviewed scientific articles have never been called into question—points out that such arguments are disqualified because those wuzzle-headed liberals have an ideology, something that of course has no place in modern science. No, Wade staunchly insists, true science must be blind to values and morals. It must deal exclusively with facts. Wade selects his facts brilliantly, using the latest and best of Western science to explain why Western science is the latest and best. The answer, he courageously concludes, is that we Westerners have better genes.

He argues irrefutably that behavior is shaped by genes, as demonstrated by an Everest of evidence in animals and in humans. Evolution did not stop when the first African hunter-gatherer stepped from his dugout onto the mighty shores of Europe to begin the painful process of civilization; nor did it cease when some enterprising Mesopotamian plucked a leathery handful of wild wheat seeds and poked them purposefully into the Fertile Crescent; nay, nor did it halt even at the coronation of James II in 1633, as he began his campaign to rein in Parliament in the name of liberty. Natural selection is still with us, ruthlessly but efficiently plucking society’s fittest, sweeping the best alleles across the land like so much seed corn. Though it pains one to say it, really it does, the result is that in the genetic lottery some are winners and others are losers. The winners, self-evidently, are those who have been globally dominant these last seven centuries or so: we Westerners, and most especially—here I lower my eyes, reflecting the humility that is my birthright—the British. And, alright, the Americans, who are, or at least were, mostly British. Okay and the Jews. Who, one notes, Britain and America welcomed with open arms after the war, ensconcing them in our finest universities as much as our quotas would allow.

History is not made by individuals, insists Wade. It is made by peoples. Peoples with the finest qualities. Qualities such as patience, thrift, innovation, openness, nonviolence, and civility. Demonstrating those very qualities himself, Wade acknowledges that there have been minor blips along the way, such as colonialism and the Third Reich. One might add slavery, the Columbian Exchange, and the Crusades. But these are mere trifles compared to the wise stewardship with which we have managed the planet over much of the preceding millennium. The practically invisible hand of the free market has brought untold riches to literally hundreds of people worldwide. It has rendered arable vast trackless wastelands of rainforest, making it possible to raise beef cattle for millions of our beloved Big Macs. For much of this period, our oceans and rivers teemed with plump and tasty fishes; likewise the skies with birds and the plains and tundra with wild game. And today, the climate is becoming ever more interesting and will, within a few short decades, bring the luxury and tranquility of coastal life to millions of people now toiling their lives away inland. All this and of course much more constitute the fruits of these peoples. Our peoples. Your peoples. But not their peoples.

The qualities that have made these developments possible, Wade shows, are probably genetic. At least partly. Wade, a journalist, has for decades covered the genetics beat for a little paper you might have heard of called The New York Times. He has extraordinarily broad secondhand knowledge of the arcane panoply of research coming out of Western laboratories published in English; which is to say, the most important, reliable, cutting-edge, and objective facts in the world. So when he says that the traits that underlie the rise of the West are probably at least partly genetic, you know he has read some papers in reliable major journals that seem to suggest this. In addition, Wade cites a wealth of objective, ideology-free facts by leading thinkers such as Charles Murray (co-author of The Bell Curve), Arthur Jensen—whose bold article of 1969 (pdf) demonstrated that compensatory education must fail, because objective, ideology-free science shows that blacks are simply not as intelligent as whites—and Richard Lynn, a British—note—distinguished psychologist and eugenicist who sits on the board of the objective, ideology-free Pioneer Fund, as well as that of the Pioneer-Funded journal Mankind Quarterly, which soldiers on as an objective, non-ideological stronghold of classical eugenics, social Darwinism, and white supremacy in an academic world that has moved leftward in lockstep, as if manipulated by a socialist puppeteer. Murray’s, Jensen’s, and Lynn’s writings, it must be observed, are controversial, an objective fact that may be partly explained by an occasional propensity toward language that can be taken the wrong way—as racist, social Darwinist, or eugenic. Wade, then, has become a cheerful cheerleader for a network of fearless scholars associated with what some have uncharitably branded “scientific racism,” but which I prefer to call “racial scientism.”

In short, if the West has won—and anyone who says otherwise is asking for a drone strike—it is because we are an intelligent, gentle, open, and creative people, and also because we have, as the Americans would say, a Big Gulp of Whoopass in the cup-holder of our figurative Escalade. Genetics suggests that genes underlie social traits such as intelligence, gentleness, creativity, and whoopass. Western populations must therefore have higher frequencies of the alleles for these traits. And so, little ones, we prevail not because might makes right, but because right makes might. We are on top because this is the natural order of things. As the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner so aptly put it, “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be.” One might add that an upper-class Briton running over that drunkard in a mint-condition 1970 Aston Martin is just where he ought to be.

One quibble, to reinforce my objectivity: the book’s only serious problem is the title. This inheritance isn’t troublesome at all. It’s marvelous—for someone with the good taste to be born upper-class, C. of E. (Church of England, sod it), and Oxbridge-bred, like Wade and me, anyway. And yes, you marmots, in fact I was born Oxbridge bred: if five generations of Dorkins Firsts doesn’t breed it into you then epigenetics is a joke. What could be troublesome about my inheritance? I closed the cover of this pioneering work of retrograde science writing with a wink and a plummy little smile, lit my pipe, and reflected on how good it is to be rich, brilliant, tall, and English. On top of the world, dominant in every way that matters, and here not by force but by right, dammit, Mother. Did you hear my fist—beknuckled with a light pelage, masculine but not atavistic—pound my oaken desk? The cats lit’rally jumped off the divan.


32 thoughts on “Hail Britannia! (Dorkins Reviews Wade)”

  1. Simply brilliant, I had no idea how to approach writing temperately let alone hilariously about the work.

  2. I believe this is what I once heard called “attacking a strawman.” I guess if you make the strawman a veritable mountain of straw, and have enough dismissive attitude, you get to be called clever and bathe in adulation.

    • If you’re referring to Wade, then I agree. He sets up the straw man of an opponent who thinks there is absolutely zero genetic component to behavior…into which he inserts the Trojan horse of “ideology-free facts” about human evolution…in whose belly is an astonishing chimaera of social Darwinism and Whig history.

      It’s a rhetorical Turducken!

  3. It could be because I’m not familiar with your writing or politics, but I really don’t get this review. the entire tone of this review is mocking and ironic, yet the actual substance doesn’t really indicate why it should be considered absurd.
    For example:
    “So when he says that the traits that underlie the rise of the West are probably at least partly genetic, you know he has read some papers in reliable major journals that seem to suggest this.”
    Tone aside, this seems like a pretty fair point.
    “Though it pains one to say it, really it does, the result is that in the genetic lottery some are winners and others are losers. The winners, self-evidently, are those who have been globally dominant these last seven centuries or so.” Im not sure what is so obviously absurd about this statement?

  4. Brilliant: omnibus review and satirical demolition in one swell foop. Should be in the Omnivore’s Hatchet Job annual review.

    • Thanks. I tweeted that to The Omnivore and they retweeted it, so who knows?
      Btw, double bonus points for “one swell foop.” Among my favorite spoonerisms. I once saw a single-masted sailboat named “One Fell.”

  5. As Beijng Genomics Institute’s Steve Hsu notes, the second half of Wade’s book is speculative, but the hypotheses are testable. You can use known methods that are used to detect changes in frequencies of alleles for height (eg. Northern Europeans have a different frequency to Southern Europeans.

    “But what about more complicated traits, such as height or cognitive ability or personality? All of these are known to be significantly heritable, through twin and adoption studies, as well as more modern methods.

    We can’t answer the question without understanding the specific genetic architecture of the trait. For example, are alleles that slightly increase height more common in one group than another? We need to know exactly which alleles affect height… But this is challenging as the traits I listed are almost certainly controlled by hundreds or thousands of genes. Could population averages on these traits differ between groups, due to differences in allele frequencies? I know of no argument, taking into account the information above, showing that they could not.

    In fact, in the case of height we are close to answering the question. We have identified hundreds of loci correlated to height. Detailed analysis suggests that the difference in average height between N and S Europeans (about one population SD, or a couple of inches) is partially genetic (N Europeans, on average, have a larger number of height increasing alleles than S Europeans), due to different selection pressures that the populations experienced in the recent past (i.e., past 10k years).

    Many who argue on Montagu’s side hold the prior belief that the ~ 50k years of isolation between continental populations is not enough time for differential selection to produce group differences, particularly in complex traits governed by many loci. This is of course a quantitative question depending on strength of selection in different environments. The new results on height should cause them to reconsider their priors.

    It is fair to say that results on height, as well as on simpler traits such as lactose or altitude tolerance, are consistent with Wade’s theme that evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.

    Further extrapolation to behavioral and cognitive traits will require more data, but:

    1) The question is scientific — it can be answered with known methods. (I estimate of order millions of genotype-phenotype pairs will allow us to extract the genetic architecture of complex traits like cognitive ability — perhaps sometime in the coming decade.)

    2) There is no a priori argument, given what we currently know, that such differences cannot exist. (Cf. Neanderthals!) Note this is NOT an argument that differences exist — merely that they might, and that we cannot exclude the possibility.

    An honest Ashley Montagu would have to concede points 1 and 2 above.

    The second part of A Troublesome Inheritance covers controversial topics such as genetic group differences in behavioral and cognitive predispositions, and their societal implications. Wade is mostly careful to present these as speculative hypotheses, but nevertheless his advocacy leaves him vulnerable to easy attack. What I have summarized above are the incontestable (albeit, in some circles, perhaps still controversial and poorly understood) new results that have accumulated through the last decade of genomic research.”


    • I have no quibble with any of the science. Wade is a good reporter and has covered the genetics beat for years. His knowledge is superficial–I doubt he would deny that; it’s the nature of journalism–but broad. As far as I can tell, he is basically accurate though uncritical. On the science, he’s a well-informed layman.

      My quarrel is with the interpretation. Wade maintains the fantasy that he is presenting value=free facts. But the essential insight of scholarship in the history of science of the last 30 years is that facts *all* have a history. Wade selects some facts and not others, and those he selects support a point of view held by *deeply* (and more honestly) ideological figures such as Murray, Lynn, and Jensen. Wade’s tapping into a particular scientific ideology and he’s either being disingenuous or he’s naive and over his head.

      He may know his science, but he doesn’t know his history. His work is an absolutely classic example of “Whig history,” or history by the winners. And then he weds that Whig history to the cultural authority of genomics. He takes it as self-evident that he is the pinnacle of evolution and marshals carefully chosen scientific facts to prove his case.

      You can’t wave all that away by just saying “It’s speculative.” It’s the primary thesis of the book. Yes, it’s vulnerable to attack–not because it’s speculative, but because it’s disingenuous, wrong-headed, and, as history shows, potentially dangerous.

    • Just remember to forget to add that average height and that other thing you call intelligence has been changing by sometimes more than the actual differences now. Also don’t forget TO forget to mention that the height difference now “may” be due to selection.

      Also forget to mention that height is not like intelligence. It might be controlled(or not) by many different alleles but, thats still doesn’t make it the same.

      Those are all facts by the way.

  6. Damn fine show, Carruthers! Pass the port. I particularly enjoyed the turducken rejoinder. And the quibble. Not to mention the selection of facts.

  7. Simply brilliant! And made me laugh to tears…thanks! 🙂

  8. I have dry ear wax and that means I’m smarter than folks with wet ear wax. I know it’s a bit insulting to folks with wet ear wax. But bite the bullet on this one. It’s in our genes 🙂 — As for body odour. I don’t like garlic and onions, so I don’t have stinky sweat, I’m not sure its my genes, I hope that makes you feel better 🙂

  9. I laughed. I cried. It became a part of me. I’ll read it again and again. It was better than Cats.

    The only flaw is that you fail to fully appreciate that you Oxbridge types are being stomped by us freeway-speed Californians, that our Escalades are about to crush your Aston Martins. But I know, as you feel my giant tires crush in your delicate little roof, that you will be praising Spencer, celebrating to the last that you have been selected out for the betterment of future generations.

  10. As my father always told me between innings at Ebbets Field, “Those limey bastards wouldn’t let your grandfather into the country club, so he had to found his own. That proves all that Darwin stuff is just a bunch of WASP schmucks trying to look down their ski-chute noses at us. Avenge me, son!”

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