Sunday, May 11, 2014

West to Wade in Troubled Gene Pool

Nicholas Wade

Ed West, writing in "Darwin's unexploded bomb" (The Spectator, May 6, 2014), reviews Nicholas Wade's recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, which gets into some long-contested, highly fraught territory, as the title itself shows.

I've not read the book, but West also makes it sound provocative:
[T]he most sensitive [issue in the book], and [one] potentially troubling to the modern psyche, is the difference between human population groups that have evolved over the past 50,000 years. As Wade writes: 'The fact that human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional is not widely recognized, even though it has now been reported by many articles in the literature of genetics. The reason is in part that the knowledge is so new and in part because it raises awkward challenges to deeply held conventional wisdom' . . . . [Moreover,] evolution can take place far quicker than people once thought. Greg Cochran and Henry Harpending, in their book The 10,000 Year Explosion, argued that human evolution had sped up since the advent of the first cities. The drastic changes in our ancestors' environment created new evolutionary pressures; among them were selection for qualities that were beneficial in our larger communities, such as lower levels of aggression, deferred gratification (vital for farmers), a greater willingness to trust people outside of close kin group, and the qualities required for craftsmanship, finance and various other complex skills. Thus civilisation had increased the rate of evolution, and was continuing to do so . . . . The implications of this will trouble many people, seeing as it suggests that certain traits differ on average among population groups . . . . [Wade] cites the MAO-A enzyme; people with only 2 copies (rather than 3, 4 or 5) have a much higher level of delinquency. And 'if individuals can differ in the genetic structure of their MAO-A gene and its controls, is the same also true of races and ethnicities? The answer is yes.' A team in Haifa looked at people from seven ethnicities and found 41 variations in the portions of the genes they decoded, with 'substantial differentiation between populations' . . . . [Why, then,] do so many people confidently argue that there is no such thing as race, because there are 'no clear distinct racial boundaries'. This he calls 'verbal subterfuge', arguing: 'When a distinct boundary develops between races, they are no longer races but separate species. So to say there are no precise boundaries between races is like saying there are no square circles.'
Interesting findings with significant implications, but Wade's analogy bothers me. To say that "there are no square circles" is to express a necessary, mathematical truth that cannot be logically denied. But to say that races don't exist because "there are no precise boundaries between races," is not so clearly contradictory. Between a circle and a square, there are "precise boundaries." But the boundaries between races are not clear. I've not done research to know for sure, but I suspect that races are defined as large populations of individuals sharing many of the same genes with one another but not with another large population. But how large? Two tribes might be distinguished in the same way, or two ethnic groups, or almost any two populations, I -- in my ignorance -- suppose. And two populations could intermingle and become one, but a square and a circle could never unify.

The analogy therefore does not fit, but I reckon I ought to read the book . . .

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At 1:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good analogy. Moreover, race and ethnicity are not synonyms as West seems to suggest.


At 3:43 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, did you mean good "analysis"?

As for "race" and "ethnicity," I've noticed that British English often uses them synonymously.

Jeffery Hodges

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