A Troublesome Response: Nicholas Wade Still Avoids the Debate About Race and Genetics

Nicholas Wade has taken to The Huffington Post to respond to criticism of his book. In his response to comments by me, Jon Marks (also here) and Jennifer Raff, he does not take on any substantive aspect of the debate; rather, he misrepresents the science again and takes a shot at our credentials as scholars. Wade is wrong when he says that “opposition to racism should be based on principle, not on science.” The study, understanding and assessment of race must involve science.

Here is a very quick response to Wade’s comments, in hopes of correcting the record and getting this debate back to the science.

1) There is a biological basis (measurement and definition) for race. We can measure it by comparing populations within a species — and by that measure, the entire species (all populations) of Homo sapiens sapiens (us) currently falls into just one biological race. This is not an assertion that biological races cannot exist, or a political statement by left-wing academics. This is an accurate assessment of the current biological and evolutionary data.

2) This does not mean that what most refer to as “races” (“white,” “black,” “Asian,” etc.) don’t matter. They do. These are real categories in our social and political lives. But the ways these categories are created and defined are not scientifically valid biological categories; they are constructs that are put together based on social, historical, economic, and political features, and then superficially and erroneously linked with certain selected biological features (skin color, facial form, clusters of alleles, etc.). This does not mean that they are not socially relevant and a real part of our society; it just means that they are not biological categories (and thus are not the products of evolutionary histories).

3) Wade asserts that his critics “are heavy on unsupported condemnations of the book, and less generous with specific evidence.” This is wholly untrue. For example, I challenged him on specific studies (that he cites in the book) and asked him to engage with the analyses of the data and the ways in which it is interpreted in those and related studies. He refused to do this in our webinar and simply repeats that refusal here (and avoids mentioning the webinar altogether).

4) Ironically, Wade suggests that my criticisms of his book are weak because I do “little primary research,” and that my academic reputation is not very good. But how much actual research has Wade done? Has he had to go through the tenure and promotion process based on peer-reviewed original work? I did. I have current primary-research fieldwork projects in the areas of human-primate interactions (including behavior, population genetics, disease transmission and ecology), and I have an active research project looking into recent human evolution (over the last 300,000 to 400,000 years) and the development of complex social cooperation. I have a number of other smaller projects ongoing as well and have spent more than 26 years doing fieldwork and labwork and publishing peer-reviewed articles and books in anthropology and biology. Wade should have at least had a look at my CV before questioning my credentials.

5) Discussion about race and biology need to be focused on what the data are and what they mean, and they need to reflect current understandings of how the science works. Wade shows his continuing ignorance of biology and genetics when he states, “Unlike identical twins, we are not all clones.” If he had a grasp on current genetics, he would see how absurd this statement is. Twins are not identical to clones, and even clones with the same DNA can have strikingly different morphologies. Science matters, and getting the science right is the core of any discussion about race. Humans vary biologically, and we are not all the same. But there is only one biological race at present in our species. Understanding that, and the science behind it, is critical.

I stand by my (and others’) scientific critiques of Wade’s use and misuse of the data from human population genetics and human evolutionary studies. I am convinced that this can be a meaningful and intelligent discussion. If Nicholas Wade ever wants to sit down again and this time actually discuss the research, the data, and the complex reality of human biological variation and human evolution, I would be glad to do it.

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