Nicholas Wade Interview – A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History

I spoke by phone today for 45 minutes with the famous genetics reporter. He retired from the New York Times staff two years ago but still contributes articles to the paper.

This is an edited transcript.

Nicholas: “[The book] is based on about a dozen articles I’ve written for the New York Times covering advances in genetics and in the course of that, I speak to the authors of the research, supporters and critics and get a feel for what scientists think in the field, and I supplement that with my further reading, and that is the background of the book.”

“I retired from the Times about two years ago. There’s a blogosphere story today that the Times didn’t like the book and fired me, but the writer invented the whole thing based on his having seen the words ‘former Science editor’ in the piece I did in Time.”

Luke: “What were the biggest challenges in writing this book?”

Nicholas: “I think the biggest challenge was that I had so few scientific sources to guide me in interpretation because this is an area where academics cannot tread for fear of being accused of racism and seeing their careers destroyed. The scientific literature has the basic facts but few people try to draw them together. So I found the lack of guidance difficult, and even more so when I came to the second part of the book. Historians and economists just never consider human evolution as a possible explanatory variable. They just assume that all the populations they are dealing with are interchangeable and that natural selection never need be an explanation to even consider. So there again, there was no guidance for someone trying to figure out the possible consequences of the fact that human evolution has continued and has never come to a stop.”

Luke: “You will be writing future articles for the New York Times?”

Nicholas: “I assume so. I write for them quite regularly on a contract basis but I am not on their staff any longer.”

Luke: “Are there certain scientists who are brave enough to go into these areas?”

Nicholas: “There are just a few, yes.”

Luke: “Who would you say are the most important ones?”

Nicholas: “The clearest statement that races exist is from a population geneticist named Neil Risch, who you will see referenced in the book. That is the only article I can think of that says well of course populations cluster into groups that correspond into continental populations and to every day concepts of race.”

Luke: “Journalists tend to be a clannish lot. We meet up at pubs and talk. How have your peers in journalism related to you?”

Nicholas: “I have nothing out of the ordinary to report there. I haven’t had any reactions. As far as they’re concerned, I’m just writing a book that springs out of my daily reporting work, which journalists often do.”

Luke: “You have been writing on this for 10-15 years, do any of the other reporters at the New York Times notice? The ones covering other beats? Do they ever ask you questions about it?”

Nicholas: “I’ve seen several articles on the web suggesting that I was pursuing some agenda of my own at the New York Times. This is completely untrue. I was doing my job and reporting what people were saying about the human genome. There’s nothing unusual about any of my articles. You can look them up and read them. They are standard, straight-forward reporting just as any other reporter covering this beat would have written.”

Luke: “And yet it seems to make no impact on other reporters and the way they cover their beats. And your work does have a profound impact on all sorts of things that are generally taken for granted among academics, economists and newspaper reporters.”

Nicholas: “That’s true. If you draw out the consequences, then they should effect other fields and that’s what I try to do in the book but it would not have been appropriate for me in a news story just reporting the facts to try to delineate all the consequences that I do in the book. The book is more interpretative than one could or should write in the news article.”

Luke: “Was there a particular moment when your interests in this were born?”

Nicholas: “No. I think it all developed gradually. I recognized in just reporting the stories that there was a great reluctance on the part of researchers to talk about race. With almost any question that referred to race, they would clam up. It seems to me that there was a lot of work in interpreting the human genome that academics should have been doing but were not and so this seemed an opportunity for me to fill in the blanks and write the missing manual that they had failed to provide.”

Luke: “Is this book risky to your social standing?”

Nicholas: “I very much hope not. As far as I can see, I’m pushing on an open door. The two main themes of the book are first that race is biological and second that human evolution is continuous. Both of these statements seem to me to be so obvious and innocuous that I hope that people will just accept the arguments I am putting forward.”

Luke: “Would you have written such a potentially risky book in your youth or perhaps do you feel more freedom to venture into risky areas in age?”

Nicholas laughs. “I don’t know how to answer that. This book is dictated by the timing in the findings it reports on. It’s all very recent and this is the time to write about it. If I had still been with the Times [as a staffer], I would have written the same book.”

Luke: “What is tribalism?”

Nicholas: “It is a society in which people are organized into kinship-based groups, or extended families or lineages that combine for or against each other in particular issues.”

Luke: “I grew up a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant in Australia and then a few years ago, I converted to Orthodox Judaism and I converted to a tribal identity and it is very different from the identity I grew up with. As I look around America today, it seems to be much more tribal than it was even 30 years ago.”

Nicholas: “That’s a very fascinating conception. It could certainly be true. Tribalism never disappeared. We still have lots of nepotism. It’s just that other political systems get imposed on top of [tribalism]. I can certainly buy the thesis that tribalism is still there and latent.”

Luke: “In some ways, the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon experiment is the most dramatic distinction from the tribal approach to life.”

Nicholas: “I think that’s too hard of a question for me to comment on.”

Luke: “A dozen years after Stephen Jay Gould‘s funeral, he is still widely cited as the expert on many of the matters you write about in this book. What do you think about that?”

Nicholas: “I think lots of his views were very mistaken but he certainly had a wide audience because of his many books and popular essays so I can understand why his influence would linger.”

Luke: “He knew how to capture the conventional wisdom and express it in a certain kind of pleasing prose. That the scientific validity of his statements don’t stand up doesn’t seem to have done his reputation much harm.”

Nicholas: “Right.”

Luke: “Much of your work seems driven by a concern for improving humanity’s health?”

Nicholas: “I’m very much interested in improving people’s understanding of science and trying to explain what is happening at the forefront of science. I guess some of that includes health as well.”

Luke: “That touches on many of the themes in your book because a doctor, if he is to do his job, does need to take race into consideration because different medications will have different effects on different races and different races will be differently susceptible to different diseases.”

Nicholas: “The whole effort to find the roots of disease in the genome has in effect to be duplicated in each of the races because as you say, each race has a different susceptibility to disease. If we don’t wish to leave anyone out, we should do this with all races.”

Luke: “How much has your thinking been influenced by your upbringing in Britain? Have you noticed that there is a different attitude towards these matters say in Britain when you were growing than say in America today?”

Nicholas: “That’s an interesting question. Maybe yes. In Britain [then], there was almost no civic virtue more highly prized than tolerance and if people thought differently, you just let them be, while in America today, there’s a great tendency to stamp out any heretical thoughts and make everyone think alike, particularly in controversial issues like this.”

Luke: “There’s a long British history of interest in eugenics from the ancestors of Charles Darwin…”

Nicholas: “That’s right. Britain was quite quick to move away from eugenics. The Americans did so much later, but not until after they had sterilized some 40,000 people and the Germans ran the whole idea into the ground in a horrible way. Britain’s record happens to be a little better than that of others. [Francis] Galton‘s eugenics was of the positive kind, he favored people with what he regarded as good genes marrying each other. In no way did he advocate negative eugenics, meaning sterilization of those whose genes were thought to be inferior. That was an American idea that was then taken up by the Germans.”

Luke: “Would it be fair to say that many of the principal ideas in your book were taken for granted as commonsense wisdom say 70-80 years ago?”

Nicholas laughs. “I think a lot of that is true. People took it for granted that races existed and had a biological basis. And then of course there was a whole reaction against that… Many social scientists now say they don’t think that races exist and the fact that the genome says otherwise is, as you say, a throwback to the wisdom of 70 years ago.”

Luke: “How have your ideas on race changed over the course of a lifetime?”

Nicholas: “I suppose they’ve changed quite a lot because growing up in England, I didn’t know anyone of a different race, but when I came to the U.S. in 1970, then American life was much more mixed, so I had the opportunity of meeting people of other races. So I guess one goes through the experience of assuming people are different until you know a person well and then you just forget that they belong to another race. That’s been my general experience.”

Luke: “It’s kind of humorous that a former National Football League star Reggie White, and a black preacher, was more wise about these matters than most of the scientists opining on them. He gave a famous sermon in [1998] and he says, why did God create us differently? When you look at the black race, black people are gifted at certain things. White people are gifted at certain things. Hispanics are gifted at certain things. Asians are gifted at certain things. And when you put it together, it creates a complete image of God.”

Nicholas: “That’s a very nice way of putting it.”

Luke: “Have you noticed a difference in the way scientists talk to you about these matters when they are speaking off-the-record?”

Nicholas: “No. Whether you are speaking to them on or off the record, they are just very reserved in speaking about these subjects.”

Luke: “Did you ever read J. Philippe Rushton‘s book, Race, Evolution and Behavior?”

Nicholas: “Yes.”

Luke: “And what did you think of that book?”

Nicholas: “It made me a little uncomfortable in that he just rushes so quickly to the conclusion that some races are inferior to others. I think that a lot of the facts he gathers are very interesting, but he’s just so quick to reach his conclusion that I just sort of wondered about the overall validity of the book. Although I did read Rushton some time ago, I just put his book out of my mind while I was writing this one.”

Luke: “One thing that is fascinating in the book is that he lists 60 life history results where each one falls out on the same continuum with East Asians on one end and Blacks on the other and Whites in between, so whether it is brain size or the age at which the baby begins to crawl or to walk, reaches menstruation, has first sexual intercourse, first has children, lifespan, it’s interesting that in these life history results, they fall out in the same basic continuum.”

Nicholas: “Yes, I remember that argument, and it seemed very convincing in the book because he had so much data. What I then wanted to know was whether other people agree with his [thesis], and I just don’t know the answer to that.”

Luke: “Japan and sub-Saharan Africa seem to be as opposite as societies can be and their descendants, wherever they live in the world, [reproduce the qualities of their homelands]. There are Japanese neighborhoods here in Los Angeles and they are immaculate. Their gardens are so intricate. They take great care with their lawn. And it seems to tell me something about the people and the type of society they are going to create.”

Nicholas: “Right. The argument of my book is that evolution, in shaping human social behavior, shapes human societies. We survive not as individuals but as social groups. Natural selection is in no way indifferent to the structure of our societies and has indeed shaped them. Each population is going to have a different type of society depending on the social behavior of its members. So it’s not surprising that societies should have distinctive features. It may be an error to attribute everything to culture. There may be some room for genetics in there.”

Luke: “African-Americans have a disproportionate share of popular culture superstars.”

Nicholas: “I don’t think I have any useful opinions on that.”

Luke: “Do you think that we will see in our lifetime the American Anthropological Association issuing a statement to the effect that of course race is real?”

Nicholas laughs. “I hope they would. Why not? Why not be on the side of science instead of fighting it? They’ve had these statements [that there’s no such thing as race] since the 1950s and just haven’t revised them. If they were to update them in the light of modern scientific knowledge, then they would surely wish to break this unfortunate link between science and the fight against racism. I think one should say that racism is wrong as a matter of principle, not of science, and let the science develop freely without this interference.”

Luke: “Can you tell me anything about your attitude to your reader? I notice you don’t pander to your readers like a Malcolm Gladwell.”

Nicholas: “I just assume that my reader is the average intelligent person who’s got an interest in this subject. So all I need to do is to define unusual terms and otherwise just explain things as clearly as possible.”

Luke: “When you see acclaimed intellectuals such as Jared Diamond running away as fast as they can from genetic explanations and making a lot of money and receiving a lot of social status for saying the comfortable things that people want to hear, what do you think about that?”

Nicholas: “If one is going to present oneself as a writer about science, then one should try to exclude political considerations. One shouldn’t have a hidden political agenda, which I think Jared does Germs, Guns and Steel.”

Luke: “What have been the most interesting forms of feedback you’ve received on this new book?”

Nicholas: “The book only came out Tuesday. There have been a number of reviews from what one might describe as the right-wing which have been mostly favorable, though some seem tinged with disappointment that I didn’t go further in characterizing racial differences. The reviews from the Left have been surprisingly absent so far, so I don’t know if people are ignoring the book because they disagree with it, or, as I hope is the case, because I’m pushing on an open door.”

Luke: “And yet a thinker like Steven Pinker says that the human brain has not changed in the last 10,000 years because it would be inconvenient if that happened.”

Nicholas: “Part of the doctrinal basis of evolutionary psychology is…that the human mind has adapted to the conditions of 10,000 years ago when we were mostly hunter-gatherers, and it hasn’t changed since, but I can’t see any evidence for that. The doctrine assumes that evolution halts for some reason or at least it halts with respect to the mind, but we know that’s not true from simply looking at these scans of the human genome. These show that brain genes are not in some category exempt from evolution.”

Luke: “Do you follow sports at all?”

Nicholas: “No, I don’t.”

Luke: “Oh because there racial differences are so obvious.”

Nicholas: “Right.”

Luke: “In the last five Olympics, all eight finalists in the 100 meter dash have been of West African [descent].”

Nicholas: “So it would be hardly surprising to find some genetic influence there.”

Luke: “You don’t go into IQ a great deal in your new book and racial statistical differences in IQ. Is there a reason?”

Nicholas: “The main reason is that I think that academics have paid far too much attention to IQ. At the level of societies, IQ does not seem so important. East-Asians have an average IQ of 105, higher than the Europeans of 100, but East-Asian societies, despite their many virtues, are not generally better able to provide for their members than European societies, so IQ cannot be making much difference. I’m sure it makes some, but it is hard for us to pinpoint what it is. Although IQ tests can be very accurate when applied to individuals in a specified population, there are many environmental factors that can affect IQ, so it can be very tricky comparing two very different populations because you can never be sure you’ve got the environmental factors evened out. So for that reason, I think many discussions about race have ended up causing a lot of acrimony and dissension because they have used these very precise numbers for evaluating a whole population and arriving at invidious answers. People get very upset and not much light is shed on the issue. Therefore, it seemed to me best to skip over the whole IQ issue. Not because I am ignoring something important that is there, but because it does not seem to shed a great deal of light on the issues I was interested in.”

Luke: “Have you visited Japan?”

Nicholas: “Yes, I have.”

Luke: “There are some amazing differences between Japan with its high social capital and Western countries like Europe and the United States. It’s amazing how little trash, how little crime, virtually no looting, all sorts of things we almost take for granted in America and England occur much less frequently in Japan.”

Nicholas: “I remember noticing a whole stack of bicycles piled up outside the Osaka rail station and not a single one had a lock on it. That would be an unbelievable sight in any American or European city.”

Luke: “One of the arguments for the predictive power of IQ is that the higher one has it, the more it enables abstract thinking, so that you can think, if I do this, how will it affect other people? You can put yourself into other people’s place. The higher the IQ, the more people cooperate… So that would seem to bear on the themes in your book.”

Nicholas: “That’s a very interesting line of thought but I best not comment on it because I haven’t considered it before.”

“It’s hard to see anything in the genome that would substantiate anyone’s fears about racial differences.”

“The whole point of this exercise is to learn more about our evolution, but as all of our recent evolution has been as different races, because we’ve been distributed across all the continents of the globe, you inevitably have to study evolution in each race separately. And because of the fear of studying race, this study has been inhibited. Perhaps if we can lift this taboo, we can start to explore our past.”

Luke: “You mention the silence of the Left so far on your book, do you suspect that they are just going to shut you out and ignore you?”

Nicholas: “That certainly would be one possibility. The other, of course, is that they will be persuaded by it.”

Luke: “Do you think there’s a chance of the latter?”

Nicholas: “It depends upon how divisive this subject really is. What I am trying to say in the book is that there is no need for it to be divisive. We should just accept the facts as they are and move on.”

Luke: “How divisive has your reporting been on these matters in the New York Times?”

Nicholas: “It hasn’t been divisive at all. I just reported on the stories that bear on race in exactly the same way as I or any other reporter would report a story. Most of the studies I describe in the book are ones I covered in the New York Times in fact-based articles that raised no more controversy than any other.”

Luke: “Are you surprised that these articles haven’t had more of an impact on our culture?”

Nicholas: “Many things take a long time to seep into the national consciousness, particularly things to do with the genome… I hope my book will help that process along.”

“If everyone ignores the book, that’s fine. I’ve done my best. I don’t have any secret agenda. This is not a subject I’m devoting my life to. I’m just as happy to go on to some completely different subject.”

Luke: “I look on many of your New York Times articles on race as grenades and I’m just shocked that they haven’t exploded. You haven’t thought of them that way?”

Nicholas laughs. “No. Articles in the New York Times go through a fairly elaborate editing process. None of the editorial hands through which they passed would have thought they were grenades or they would never have made it to the paper.”

Luke: “When you read economists who treat everybody as exchangeable, do you have a voice in your head that says, ‘You bloody fool! Look at the genetics!’?”

Nicholas: “I know the way economists and historians think. They are not going to change their views until someone shows them why it would be of advantage to do so. I hope my book will indicate to young historians, people just starting out in the field, that here is a new explanatory variable that their elders have never applied, and there may be some situations that it might be helpful for, particularly situations for which there is no good explanation now. The same would apply to economists. So if race and recent human evolution does turn out to be a useful explanatory variable and there really are genetically-based differences between societies, this will be a useful tool that will seep into the explanatory literature.”

Luke: “But if this doesn’t happen in your life-time, it won’t terribly affect your happiness?”

Nicholas: “No, it won’t.”

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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