A Troublesome Inheritance

[Amazon Link]

Yet another book obtained for me through the Interlibrary Loan feature of the University Near Here; so thanks to them, and thanks to the Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library for shipping it up here.

The subtitle is: "Genes, Race and Human History". The author, Nicholas Wade, puts forth a provocative and (he admits) somewhat speculative hypothesis at odds with most "enlightened" present-day thinking: human genetics influence social behavior, and (hence) different genetics, including those genes specifying racial differences, might help explain different modes of social behavior, and (hence) help explain different historical paths taken by different cultures.

There you have it. Sensitive souls should avert their eyes.

Wade's arguments are plausible enough to me, especially since tentative words and phrases, such as "probably", "most likely", and "perhaps" appear throughout. He's most definite when refuting the "race is merely a social construct" assertion lacking biological basis (apparently an Official Position of the American Sociological Association). That just isn't reality-based.

Wade's book recalled my feelings when reading Thomas Sowell's works on worldwide culture, race, and history: a lot of this stuff is just the workings of dumb luck. And when explicating the "dumb luck" success and/or dysfunction of historical and current societies, you shouldn't ignore or dismiss anything. There are the various components of culture: religion, philosophy, public morality, custom, family and social structures. Set these against geography, climate, and (peaceable or violent) interactions with other cultures. Obviously, nearly all of this is beyond anyone's conscious control.

But Wade argues, again plausibly, that genetics and evolution is just another factor in this mix. (And, speaking of "dumb luck", the workings of evolution are as dumb as you can get.) And (furthermore) there are no simple explanations: everything interacts with everything else. (For example, obviously, family structure can have profound effects on which genes get preferentially transmitted to future generations.)

Put that way, and especially in the explicitly-speculative way Wade puts it, you might say: yes, so what's the big deal? Ah, but for some folks, Wade is treading on dangerously heretical ground. One shot across his bow was fired on the WSJ op-ed page back in June: "Race in the Age of Genomics" by David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr. which specifically referred to Wade's book as an "unfortunate development", and implied it was engaging in "rampant speculation and biased arguments". Altshuler and Gates are both Harvardites, and Altshuler is a well-known researcher in human genetics.

Apparently unsatisfied with that, Altshuler went on to co-sign an anti-Wade letter with "more than 100 faculty members in population genetics". They accused Wade of "misappropriation of research" and "guesswork". (Wade responded, again plausibly, that their letter was "driven by politics, not science.")

Of course, in an area so driven by "peer review" for publication, promotion, and funding, the mass-denunciation letter is a clear signal to would-be researchers: your "peers" will not look kindly upon any work that might support Wade's speculations. Venture into certain areas at your professional peril.

(Scientific American also fired a blogger who was complimentary toward Wade's book, although that might not have been the proximate cause.)

Ironically, I was irked by a different part of Wade's book. Right at the get-go, he takes pains to distance himself from the bad old racism of the bygone days, when the menace of "Social Darwinism", as invented by Herbert Spencer, stalked the land. Wade's intellectual history here is straight from the Gospel of the tendentious Richard Hofstadter. If you've read Jonah Goldberg or E.M. Johnson on "Social Darwinism", you'll know a more accurate story.


[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A decent movie; it could have been an utter tearjerker, but (no doubt thanks to writer/actor Steve Coogan) it's also pretty funny in spots. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a Brit whose career is on the downswing. An uppercrust ex-journalist who went to work in Tony Blair's Labour government, he's just been canned on hazy charges of inappropriate language in a memo. He's moping around, looking for something to do. And he hears about Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse (played by Judi Dench) who gave birth to an illegitimate son a half-century ago, and (due to circumstances of extreme Catholicism) was forced to give him up while toiling for nuns in a home for wayward girls.

Philomena and Martin form an alliance of convenience: she wants to satisfy her curiosity about what happened to her son, and Martin senses a saleable story which could either warm hearts or break them. His investigatory talents take them both to America, where Philomena's son was adopted back in the 1950's. The story is full of twists and surprising revelations. And (of course) Philomena's and Martin's odd-couple relationship is the source of both humor and "growth". (Neither one has "all the answers", you see.)

Dame Judi is wonderful as always (she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar), and Steve Coogan does pretty well up against her. It's based on a true story, but indications are it was punched up to give it more of an anti-Catholic and (hey, why not?) an anti-Republican spin. Still a decent flick, though.