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Genes, Race, and Human History

by Nicholas Wade

Pub Date: May 6th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-59420-446-3
Publisher: Penguin Press

Deploying his natural science background, New York Times journalist Wade (The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, 2009, etc.) strides into the political minefield of genetic influence on racial differences.

The author would be the first to admit that the classification of humans into races—and the possibility of there being a genetic component to the variations—has been hijacked to propagate invidious policies, from racism to eugenics to the Holocaust, which in turn has made further study of how genetics may play a role in the history of the races taboo. Nonetheless, Wade asks, is it inevitable that comparing races foments racism? Why wouldn’t one look to genes for traits: literacy, nonviolence, thrift, numeracy, etc.? In a fluid tone, the author dusts the fingerprints of “natural selection as it molded and reworked the genetic clay.” First, he examines the less-contentious material of social behavior—cooperating with the group, following norms, punishing violators—as well as elements of fairness and reciprocity within the group, intuitive morality and “genetically influenced behaviors, the expression of which is shaped by culture.” Is it really a stretch, as Edward Wilson was pilloried for suggesting, that “[h]armful cultural practices may lead to extinction, but advantageous ones create selective pressures that can promote specific genetic variants.” Following evolutionary theory and history, Wade also tackles some time-worn curiosities. Why did the Industrial Revolution happen where it did? Because the rich, with more surviving offspring, infused their values throughout English society and a critical mass was reached in the human economic behavior that had evolved over the previous 10,000 years. What force shaped the nature of Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence, their skill with words and numerals? It is possible that their engagement in moneylending, which was cognitively demanding but also rewarding, “was important because it enabled Jews to secure a considerable degree of reproductive success.”

A freethinking and well-considered examination of the evidence “that human evolution is recent, copious, and regional.”