On the Origin of White Power

Nicholas Wade is not a racist. In his new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, the former science writer for the New York Times states this explicitly. “It is not automatically racist to consider racial categories as a possible explanatory factor.” He then explains why white people are better because of their genes. In fairness, Wade does not say Caucasians are better per se, merely better adapted (because of their genes) to the modern economic institutions that Western society has created, and which now dominate the world’s economy and culture. In contrast, Africans are better adapted to hot-headed tribalism while East Asians are better adapted to authoritarian political structures. “Looking at the three principal races, one can see that each has followed a different evolutionary path as it adapted to its local circumstances.” It’s not prejudice; it’s science.

Wade believes that in the 50,000 years since humans began leaving Africa in migratory waves different racial lines have evolved different social behaviors and that this explains the inequality between races today. Much like the old hypothesis that scales, feathers, and hair each evolved from a common root along the branches that became reptiles, birds, and mammals respectively, Wade argues that genetic adaptation can explain the behavioral and societal differences we observe in human racial groups.

Wade’s hypothesis faces a distinct challenge since, unlike the evolution of hair, few complex social behaviors — especially in humans — have identifiable genetic components. Genes are certainly involved in complex behavior, but no one knows which genes or how, and untangling the influence of genes from other possible factors such as interuterine hormones, environmental stress, epigenetics or even culture is a serious problem. This means that observable differences, such as behavior, could have a completely different explanation from the genetic story that Wade proposes. For example, the advance of genetic analysis has since revealed that the old story explaining the origin of hair was incorrect. Behavior, especially human behavior, is much more complicated and requires a high standard of evidence.

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Scientific American, May 2014