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The intellectual explosion that didn’t happen

A few years ago, we discussed the book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History,” by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade.

Wade’s book was challenging to read and review because it makes lots of claims that are politically explosive and could be true but do not seem clearly proved given available data. There’s a temptation in reviewing such a book to either accept the claims as correct and move straight to the implications, or conversely to argue that the claims are false.

The way I put it was:

The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.

I reviewed Wade’s book for Slate, we discussed it on the blog, and then I further discussed on the sister blog the idea that racism is a framework, not a theory, and that its value, or anti-value, comes from it being a general toolkit which can be used to explain anything.

I recently came a review essay on Wade’s book, by sociologist Philip Cohen from 2015, that made some interesting points, in particular addressing the political appeal of scientific racism.

Cohen quotes from a book review in the Wall Street Journal by conservative author Charles Murray, who wrote that the publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance” would “trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen for a few decades.”

This explosion did not happen.

Maybe one reason that Murray anticipated such an intellectual explosion is that this is what happened with his own book, “The Bell Curve,” back in 1995.

So Murray’s expectation was that A Troublesome Inheritance would be the new Bell Curve: Some people would love it, some would hate it, but everyone would have to reckon with it. That’s what happened with The Bell Curve, and also with Murray’s earlier book, Losing Ground. A Troublesome Inheritance was in many ways a follow-up to Murray’s two successful books, it was written by a celebrated New York Times author, so it would seem like a natural candidate to get talked about.

Another comparison point is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which, like Wade, attempted to answer the question of why some countries are rich and some are poor. I’m guessing that a big part of Diamond’s success was his book’s title. His book is not so much about guns or steel, but damn that’s a good title. A Troublesome Inheritance, not so much.

So what happened? Why did Wade’s book not take off? It can’t just be the title, right? Nor can it simply be that Wade was suppressed by the forces of liberal political correctness. After all, those forces detested Murray’s books too.

Part of the difference is that The Bell Curve got a push within the established media, as it was promoted by the “even the liberal” New Republic. A Troublesome Inheritance got no such promotion or endorsement. But it’s hard for me to believe that’s the whole story either: for one thing, the later book was written by a longtime New York Times reporter, so “the call was coming from inside the house,” as it were. But it still didn’t catch on.

Another possibility is that Wade’s book was just ahead of its time, not scientifically speaking but politically speaking. In 2014, racism seemed a bit tired out and it did not seem to represent much of a political constituency. After 2016, with Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. and the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe, racism is much more of a live topic. If Wade’s book had come out last year, maybe it would be taken as a key to understanding the modern world, a book to be taken “seriously but not literally” etc. If the book had come out when racism was taken to represent an important political constituency, then many there would’ve been a more serious attempt to understand its scientific justifications. At this point, though, the book is five years old so it’s less likely to trigger any intellectual explosions.

Anyway, the above is all just preamble to a pointer to Philip Cohen’s thoughtful article.

38 Comments

  1. RAD says:

    Perhaps another point of reference is Matt Ridley’s 2003 book “Nature via Nurture” which covers much of the same ground as Wade’s book but Ridley’s publisher decided that the American release required a new title “The Agile Gene”. I’m not sure being a science writer for the NY TImes automatically gives you great sway with its non-STEM oriented progressive readership.

    I think the underlying problem is that complex and gloomy topics are only visited once in popular culture and then avoided like foods that give indigestion. “The Bell Curve” was attacked by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin as a modern racist guidebook. The public cat fight was probably more important than the content of the book.

    • Steve says:

      I don’t think anything about Murray’s Bell Curve or Wade’s book is complex. The theses of both books is extremely simplistic, as is racism in general. Indeed, any theory that tries explain complex social phenomena by explaining it to in terms of the individual characteristics without reference to interactions between those individuals is bond to be wrong.

  2. Eliot J says:

    It’s more than possible that you’re giving too much credence to Murray’s prediction.

    • Ben says:

      Yeah, this.

      Would Jordan Peterson fit the mold? He was some sort of pseudo-science, academic, book wielding, gotta-fight-that-political-correctness type, right? Maybe he’s more known for YouTube stuff, and I guess he’s self-immolated at this point.

      Also at this point the idea of an intellectual explosion seems more like the galaxy brain meme than anything.

      • Anonymous says:

        Yeah gee, I mean Peterson turned to be completely wrong, just barking up the wromg tree right?

        Maybe Murray’s book caused a controversey because the battle wasn’t won yet. As it is now, there’s no need to validate any contrary view and let it become a threat.

  3. jim says:

    “Hands up don’t shoot” was August 2014, so that’s when racism exploded back into American consciousness. How that fits into the equation I don’t know.

    The whole racial discussion is a joke. Prominent White Men have divided the world into four categories: White, Black, Asian and American Indian. These categories are fake. Even the physical differences within the groups are much greater than the physical differences between them, and that’s before the cultural differences.

    • Anonymous says:

      “These categories are fake.”

      That’s just insane.

      • Anonymous says:

        All models of some aspect of the universe leave much out, and most aspects of the universe can be modeled in more than one way. If the goal of “these categories are fake” is to emphasize that then there’s no objection, and indeed, wholehearted agreement.

        But if the goal is to foist the bizzare idea that those categories have no underlying connection to reality, in an Orwellian attempt to shut down empirical investigations, on the grounds that your ideology already gives you the right answers, then “hard no” on that insanity.

      • jim says:

        If that’s what you think you need to travel! Humanity is, like color, a continuous spectrum. Describe an “Asian”. What does an Asian look like?

        • Anonymous says:

          When you said “Prominent White Men have divided the world into four categories …” I think you meant say:

          “Prominent Men, who could have been Asian, or Pygmies, or Eskimos, … who knows? we can’t tell! science proves it’s impossible! No-sir-ee, there’s no way to figure it out. None.”

          While we’re at it, how did you know they were “Men”? Because they had male genitalia? Because they wore pants? Haven’t you heard that gender is a continuous spectrum?

          • jim says:

            Anonymous says: ” I think you meant say:..”

            Not at all.

            • Steve says:

              Anonymous is a troll. Stop treating him like he is interested in an intellectual conversation.

              • Anonymous says:

                Genetics is advancing so rapidly we can tell that at some point in prehistory there was a return flow of Native Americans back to Siberia. In the last few years we’ve learned that white people have measurable amounts of neanderthal DNA but black people without a white ancestor basically have none.

                Yet some guy jumps on here claiming categories like “white”, “asian”, “black”, and “american indian” are fake, with no connection to reality, with the explicit goal of shut down any conversation on the topic.

                I think it’s OK to point out how deeply Orwellian that is and push back against it a little.

              • Anonymous says:

                Oh, and Jim, just so you know, I believe the latest research indicates that different sets of genes are responsible for lighter skin of Caucasians versus the lighter skin of some Asians, despite the “continuum” to which you refer.

          • somebody says:

            You seem to be under the impression that people are claiming that classification of individuals into one of these categories based on genetic evidence is impossible. That’s absolutely not what is being claimed. You’re jumping at shadows.

            From the linked paper: “That race is a “social construction” does not imply that it does not exist”

            What is being claimed is that these categories are not a canonical classification. Pointing out obvious deficiencies in American concepts of race as a genetic classification scheme:

            1. East Asians and South Asians shouldn’t be one race
            2. the Mediterranean is not obviously the same race as Northern European Anglo Saxons (and indeed until recently the mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East would have been a separate race)
            3. The Mestizos population cluster was created in the last 400 years and doesn’t obviously fit in anywhere, etc.

            The list could go on. The claim is not like “you can’t tell red from blue” and more like “dividing up all colors into either mostly red or mostly blue is an arbitrary line that isn’t terribly useful.”

            • M says:

              >>The list could go on. The claim is not like “you can’t tell red from blue” and more like “dividing up all colors into either mostly red or mostly blue is an arbitrary line that isn’t terribly useful.<<

              We have a lot of categories like that. "Usefulness" is one of them: different things are useful in different places, dividing line between "useful" and "not useful" often seems arbitrary in the sense that it shifts in all kinds of ways. Doesn't prevent you or anyone else from using the notion of "usefulness", does it?

              • somebody says:

                Yes, but I don’t pretend that the notion of usefulness is objective or scientific. The notion of race was useful for the political interests of the European property owning classes during the age of exploration and the slaveowners in antebellum south, but large numbers of people insist that it is objective and scientific. Hence the declaration that the categories are “fake”, as in “they aren’t what people think they are.” Capiche?

              • M says:

                >>”I don’t pretend that the notion of usefulness is objective or scientific.”

                I dont understand. You want us to listen to your critique of the notion fo “race” when you yourself admit that your critique is based on something that is neither objective nor scientific? Apparently you dont believe that being “objective and scientific” matters all that much.

                Someone could say: “concept of race is as useful as the concept of usefulness itself. it is no more absurd or incoherent than concepts like “discrimination” or “oppression”, it can be used as widely and as freely as them – just remember that people will be entitled to ask you to be more specific in every particular case when you draw practical conclusions from applications of these concepts “

                >>”The notion of race was useful for the political interests of the European property owning classes during the age of exploration and the slaveowners in antebellum south, but large numbers of people insist that it is objective and scientific. “

                Fascinating speculation. Thanks. Alternative explanation: the notion fo race was useful when Europeans started to massively interact with people who look very different from them. In many case the striking difference in looks was accompanied by a vast difference in intellectual accomplishments. “race” – like biological concept of “species” – is an early attempt to describe the objective pattern anyone with two eyes would notice.

                >>Hence the declaration that the categories are “fake”, as in “they aren’t what people think they are.” Capiche?

                Every single category is “fake” in that sense. Looks like you are simply trying to confirm your bias by imposing ridiculously stringent requirements on views you happen not to like. Capiche?

              • somebody says:

                > Fascinating speculation. Thanks. Alternative explanation: the notion fo race was useful when Europeans started to massively interact with people who look very different from them. In many case the striking difference in looks was accompanied by a vast difference in intellectual accomplishments. “race” – like biological concept of “species” – is an early attempt to describe the objective pattern anyone with two eyes would notice.

                You’re claiming obviousness when it isn’t there. Anyone with two eyes would notice that Inuits looked very different from Plains Indians, and both looked obviously different from the Incans. The scales of their civilizations and the technologies they used were also massively distinct. Incans built massive terraced farming, sophisticated mathematics with a zero, and calendar astronomy. Inuits were closer to a hunter-gatherer tribal society. That these two should be in one category is really not that obvious.

                To cap it off, when they showed up, the explorers thought they were in India, as-in-Asia, and that the people were Indian. And some of them, I presume, had two eyes. Following the visual pattern really ain’t as easy as you say.

                > Every single category is “fake” in that sense. Looks like you are simply trying to confirm your bias by imposing ridiculously stringent requirements on views you happen not to like. Capiche?

                Yes, categories are all socially constructed for a purpose. As you say, it was an early “attempt.” But I don’t think “Chinese and Indian people are not the same category” is a “ridiculously stringent” requirement. I don’t see a reason that we should continue to use these categories for the sake of continuity with legacy; I think we can massively improve the usefulness of human classification with pretty minimal effort if we let go of them.

                All I’m saying is that these 4 categories have obvious limitations that can be easily improved, and those improvements are acceptable because they’re not some immutable biological rule with clear genetic brightlines. If you don’t disagree with that, and it seems that you don’t disagree with that, why are you so angry? Why are you so inflamed about me criticizing the pervasive and stubborn use of these 4 categories in particular? Or do you disagree with that; i.e., do you think that we should keep using these 4 categories in perpetuity, despite their limitations, for some reason?

                Your bit about usefulness is total word salad by the way. I get the point you’re trying to make about an infinite recursive loop of subjectivity. Please read Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein to put your ability to follow a semantic debate on solid ground. Otherwise you can make the same argument about any word and get trapped never learning anything.

  4. Martha (Smith) says:

    From Cohen p. 5:
    “Despite occasional caveats about the relative importance of culture, he repeatedly returns to the idea of “genes governing social behavior” (2014a, 46), and “social behavior … under genetic control” (p. 47)”)

    Cohen seems to “get it”; Wade doesn’t. Genes don’t “control” or “determine” behavior or anything else.

    • Bob says:

      Be careful that’s what he actually said, not just the words his critics put in his mouth. Pinker gave a lot of examples in ‘The Blank Slate’ of critics like Gould accusing others of ‘biological determinism’ or whatnot. This is an intermediate step to accusing someone of being a facist.

    • Anonymous says:

      According to the Icelandic sagas, the people who settled Iceland were phenomenally violent, even by the standards of their day. Violence appeared to most observers to be an inherent part of their nature. Yet Iceland today with the same genetic makeup (presumably) is one of the least violent places on earth.

      On the other hand, the genes of the Pygmies do seem to have “determined” the absence of Pygmies in the NBA.

      • Martha (Smith) says:

        Anon said, “On the other hand, the genes of the Pygmies do seem to have “determined” the absence of Pygmies in the NBA”

        Point well taken.

      • Anonymous says:

        I don’t think there’s been much immigration to Iceland over the past 1000 years (since the time of the sagas) except possibly from Scandinavian countries themselves. So the dramatic change between then and now is either purely cultural or cultural plus some kind of population selection for less violent people (assuming ~50 generations is enough time for that to happen)

        It would be cool if it were possible to determine if Icelandic society over the past 1000 years tended to select for more violent, less violent, or neither people. Any result is going to be interesting. What if the society selected more violent people for the first 500 years and then had no effect after that?

      • Jake says:

        According to the Icelandic sagas, the people who settled Iceland were refugees from Troy.

  5. Philip Cohen says:

    Thanks, Andrew!

    I hate to think Wade was ahead of his time. Maybe we’ll see when Charles Murray’s new book comes out.

  6. Etoile says:

    Here is another possible take.

    “Europe was much more diverse before the WW2. WW2 changed that. Many years later diversity is increasing again. In addition to that, the more we know about genetics and the more diverse datasets we acquire, the better we can pinpoint genetic differences between races and other populations. Increased diversity, increased financial demands by various underperforming groups, normalization of racist and sexist college admission and hiring practices, combined with more people experiencing group differences in intellectual performance means differences becoming more, not less, noticeable. ”

    David Reich was “on time” with his simple observation that Type 2 diabetes is racist.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/23/opinion/sunday/genetics-race.html

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I didn’t find anything in Etoile’s link about Type 2 diabetes being racist, but this quote from it makes a good point:

      “In the United States, historically, a person is “black” if he has any sub-Saharan African ancestry; in Brazil, a person is not “black” if he is known to have any European ancestry. If “black” refers to different people in different contexts, how can there be any genetic basis to it?”

      • Renzo Alves says:

        It is said in Brazil that if you have money you can be as white as you want to be (or, “money whitens”).

      • R-Anon says:

        I dont know what Etoile had in mind with that diabetes business, it’s not in the article. I found another quote though:

        “Did this research rely on terms like “African-American” and “European-American” that are socially constructed, and did it label segments of the genome as being probably “West African” or “European” in origin? Yes. Did this research identify real risk factors for disease that differ in frequency across those populations, leading to discoveries with the potential to improve health and save lives? Yes.”

        I dont think your objection is very compelling, because what you are pointing at appears to be a linguistic problem. Do they actually use English word “black” in Brasil? If not, translation to English will have to take into account the difference of meaning. the fact that extension depends on context does not make a concept useless. For instance, in the US, people often say that “blacks” (or “women”, or “people of color”) are “under-represented” or “over-represented” and imply that it is due to racist discrimination. Instead of engaging in philosophical discussion about word usage in other countries, languages and historical epochs, you can ask them what is the population they have in mind. Once they told you, you can measure other characteristics that population has. For instance, if it will turn out that the population they specified (whatever that population is) has one SD lower average IQ, you can say that one has to eliminate an obvious confounder: it is possible that under-representation is not a result of inappropriate discrimination based on race, but rather of a very appropriate discrimination based on IQ.

        I suspect that any subset of mankind is going to be somewhat different genetically, claim of “no difference” will always be false. If that arbitrarily selected subset will, for whatever reason, be reproductively isolated to even a slightest degree (for instance, because of the culture or location) that difference will be somewhat persistent, and, in a very straightforward sense, “genetic”.

  7. oncodoc says:

    There are about 1.3 billion people in India and 1.4 billion in China or more than the EU plus the USA. India and China surely have scientists and thinkers interested in the genetics of human potential. I don’t read their literature. I wonder what they think about correlations of intelligence and race/ethnicity/nationality. They might have some interesting perspectives.

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      Good point.

      • somebody says:

        > I dont think your objection is very compelling, because what you are pointing at appears to be a linguistic problem. Do they actually use English word “black” in Brasil? If not, translation to English will have to take into account the difference of meaning. the fact that extension depends on context does not make a concept useless.

        A mixed person would share a racial group with people with purely European ancestry in Brazil, while they will not in America. That cannot be simply accounted for in translation. The concept is certainly locally useful, especially for political organizing, but cannot be universalized and care should be taken to explain how it changes across cultures.

    • Steve says:

      I’m sure it depends on whether they are star-bellied Sneetches or plan-bellied Sneetches. The whole idea of scientific racism is comically stupid, but there is no point in pointing out that superficial differences in appearance are used as status signals to those whose own sense of identity depends upon believing in those signals.

      • Anonymous says:

        Clearly Steve you’re a virtuous person who only thinks goodly thoughts (unlike those naves who disagree with you). And thank you for that fine example of how not to troll.

        But do you really believe, to take an example, the question of whether IQ differences between Ashkenazi Jews and Arabs played a role three successive miraculous Israeli victories is “comically stupid”?

        I could accept that it didn’t. Or that cultural difference were mostly to blame. Or that culture and IQ can’t be practically separated. Or that there is something to IQ, but it’s too ill specified to be useful. Or we’re mistaken about there being any IQ differences. Or any number of other things.

        I’m just having trouble with the idea that the question is “comically stupid” a-priori.

      • Alex says:

        Humans have evolved along different evolutionary paths, along some lines for 500k years (neanderthal / denisovan), and along most lines for ~60k years (out of africa).

        The claim that the only difference results from hundreds of thousands of years of differential selection is appearance seems hard to believe, especially when the causal structures that control appearance and non-appearance traits are not well separated. For example, testosterone effects both behavior and the shape of the face.

        I share your goal of allowing all races to advance themselves and thrive, but promoting pseudoscience isn’t the right way to do it. If anything, it pushes people towards racial stereotypes which are much more destructive than the differences that can be understood through rational scientific inquiry.

  8. pwyll says:

    Speaking of Murray’s new book, Steve Sailer’s accessible and insightful review is now up here: https://www.takimag.com/article/charles-murray-goes-meta/

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