A Troublesome Inheritance

  • by Nicholas Wade
  • Narrated by Alan Sklar
  • 10 hrs and 49 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.
Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.
Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years - to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.
Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits - thrift, docility, nonviolence - have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These "values" obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.
Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.


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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

This is NOT Racism!...

For decades, feminists railed against the very idea that there were any fundamental biological differences in males and females that would influence basic behavior and social roles (despite clear knowledge about the roles of testosterone and estrogen on behavior!), and along came brain science and showed that yes, there are differences in the male and female brains that lead to different behavioral and social tendencies. And now the same for race. Here is the simple fact, PC or not, like it or not: the closer you are to any group genetically, the more you are going to be like that group. Don't like it? Complain to God or the Big Bang or Darwin. Genetics are genetics. Now, does this excuse things like prejudice, social engineering, genecide? Of course not. Does this mean that there is NO role that envirornment plays in development? Of course not. Does this mean that every woman is the same as every other woman and that every black person is exactly the same as the next? Of course not. It does mean that biology plays a big role in behavior and that the closer you are to someone genetically, the more of their behavioral tendencies you will inherit. That's science. Live with it.
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- Douglas "College English professor who loves classic literature, psychology, neurology and hates pop trash like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey."

Racist - but thought provoking

I purchased this audiobook because, as a geneticist in a multiracial household, I'm very interested in recent human evolution. For instance, the recent discoveries that non-African people have DNA from other species, such as Neanderthal and Denisovans is very interesting, but popular science (including professional journals) won't broach the potentially difficult implications that real genetic differences exist between people from different parts of the world. Nicholas Wade does mention this fact, and other uncomfortable facts such as different genes, including brain specific genes, appear show different hallmarks of selection difference human populations.

However, there are two major problems with the book.
1 - Wade appears to discount the possibility that candidly mentioning differences between races can lead to negative outcomes, even if everything said is true. There are merits to both openness and censorship, but Wade discounts the possibility the truth might lead to negative consequences, even if racial disparities were uncovered.

2 - Wade is British. He appears to think that British society is the pinnacle of humanity. He ends the book with a defense of British/European influence in the world as stemming from racial superiority (although he tries to get out of this by claiming that Europeans are not "superior", just genetically poised for success and domination). In his view, Africans are not genetically capable of governing themselves in a modern way (otherwise why has African and Haitian society resisted modernizing over the last centuries) and Asians (at least Koreans, Japanese and Han Chinese) are genetically predisposed to being book smart, but not creative. Otherwise why would Japan be so incapable of innovation despite heavy investment (what?), and why would the Chinese steel American trade secrets (because they can?). The final chapter really is quite bizarre, and left a very bad taste in my mouth, like I was ready a racist propaganda pamphlet.

A few closing thoughts.
1 - A thesis of this book is that human societies have continued to be under selection for intelligence up until today. Central to this thesis is that smart European people tended to be wealthy, and wealthy people tended to have more children. However, due to the centrality to the premise of this book, I would have expected more data to back these points up. He seems to just think it is self evident.
2 - A lasting thought from this book is that a society is made up of a population of individuals, who have a certain set of genes. Almost all of these genes are present in most human populations, but with very different distributions. This book claims (and I think twin studies have born out) that much of personality is genetic, so it lets you see your own and other's quirks not necessarily as personal shortcomings, but as the result stochastic pairing of genetic traits, which happened to exist in your parents.
3 - Reading this book is a weird experience, because it is full of thought provoking concepts, but discussing them amongst friends makes you feel like a racist. Probably because reading this book tends to make you more racist.

In conclusion - This book will either make you gag, or make you more racist. However, some of the racism is thought provoking. But it is still racist, and do you really want to mull over the merits of being racist? If so, then this book is for you.
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- A Synthetic Biologist

Book Details

  • Release Date: 05-06-2014
  • Publisher: Penguin Audio