Friday, July 8, 2016

Nicholas Wade vs David Dobbs

I just finished Nicholas Wade's A Troublesome Inheritance, Genes, Race and Human History.   I then reread David Dobbs article.  Dobbs does appear to have read much of Wade's book, but he obviously did so with great distaste and animosity.  I on the other hand read it with "almost"* no ax to grind and found Wade's book carefully written, reasonable and logical. 

Wade does indeed argue that political concerns about race have gotten in the way of a free and open discussion about natural selection working in the past 15,000 years.  A prejudice that has affected much scientific work is that natural selection works so slowly that there has been no significant evolutionary change in man for the past 50,000 years.  Wade poses some interesting questions regarding that assumption.  Why did man who had been a hunter-gatherer for 185,000 years suddenly decide to become a farmer?  There is indeed no "evidence" (something Dobbs thinks Wade should provide) that there was an evolutionary change that made man amenable to farming, but is Wade really irresponsible for asking us to consider the possibility that natural selection was at work prior to 15,000 in order to enable man to successfully farm?  Farming (who would disagree?) has an evolutionary advantage over hunting and gathering; so why not be open to the idea that natural selection smoothed the way.   One known fact in this regard is that lactose tolerance enabled farmers to drink the milk of herd animals.  This is one example of natural selection enabling man to do well in a farming situation.  Mightn't there be other ways not yet discovered?  It doesn't seem outrageous to believe that there might be.

Consider one of Dobbs accusations:  "And despite his protests to the contrary, Wade often sounds as if he sees the rise of the West as a sort of stable endpoint of human history and evolution -- as if, having considered 5,000 years in which history has successively blessed the Middle East, the Far East and the Ottoman Empire, he observes the West's current run of glory and thinks the pendulum has stilled."

Here are Wade's words which say something rather different:  "Western civilization was certainly expansionary, but after a comparatively brief colonial phase it has refocused on the trade and productive investment that drove its expansion in the first place.  It seems a fortunate outcome that the world's dominant military power has turned out to be the West, with a system of international trade and law that offers benefits to all participants, and not a purely predatory and militaristic state like that of the Mongols or Ottomans, as might have been expected, or even a civilized but autocratic one like that of China.

"The West was more exploratory and innovative than other civilizations in 1500 and it is the same way now.  Neither Japan nor China has yet seriously challenged the West's preeminence in science and technology despite ample investments and a large body of educated and capable scientists.  Well-performing institutions don't guarantee the west's permanent dominance but East Asian societies seem too authoritarian and conformist, despite the high abilities of their citizens, to challenge the innovation of the West, a fact implicitly acknowledged in the Chinese state's intense efforts to steal Western technical and commercial secrets. [p. 247]

[this much sounds as though it might support a Dobbs belittling interpretation, but Wade goes on.]

 "But the success of the West, even if long lasting, is necessarily provisional.  The framework of social behavior at the root of the West's critical institutions may be frailer than it seems and vulnerable to being overwhelmed by adverse cultural forces such as political stasis, class warfare or a failure of social cohesion.  Western societies are well adapted to present economic conditions, which they have in large measure created.  In different conditions, the West's advantage might disappear.  If the present climatic regime should change substantially, for instance in the global cooling that will precede the inevitable onset of the next ice age, more authoritarian societies like those of East Asia could be better positioned to endure harsh stresses.  By evolution's criterion of success, East Asians are already the most successful human population: the Han Chinese are the world's most numerous ethnic group.  By another biological criterion, the population of Africa is the most important, since it harbors the most genetic diversity and hence a larger share of the human genetic patrimony than any other race." [p. 247-]

Not only is Wade not suggesting that the "pendulum" has stopped, but he states that the West's preeminence is tenuous.  Earlier he notes that the East Asians, China, Japan, and Korea, score higher in intelligence tests than those in the West .  In another place he discusses the Ashkenazi Jews and how their higher intelligence enabled the best of them to achieve great things in many fields.  If the Chinese for example with their higher levels of intelligence were to open their society in the way the West has, they might rush ahead of the U.S. and the West in a few generations.  But all the East Asian nations have social constructs that inhibit scientific freedom.

*    Perhaps it was Wade, I'm not sure, but someone wrote that advances (in a field I can't recall) occur funeral by funeral.  The force of academic authorities prevent the advance of theories and the publishing of books that contradict their prejudices.  The inhibiting of that freedom in the U.S. through peer and and academic authoritarian pressure seems to be occurring in the animosity being applied to Wade's book (and Wade personally)

 This  reminds me of Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor:  One of Cantor's sections describes the Mandarins.  Cantor writes, "In every country a small group of senior professors (between two and ten people) at leading universities hold a disproportionate power within a given discipline, whether it is physics, psychology, literary criticism, art history, or medieval studies.  They have unimpeachable and usually unchallenged prestige, and their books are universally praised in the established academic journals, on whose editorial boards they sit.  They attract usually the brightest, the best-prepared, the most ambitious, and the most industrious graduate students and so train the academic stars of the younger generation who follow their ideas and interpretations unless Oedipal rebellion or a cultural revolution or a social earthquake (for example, the Great Depression of the 1930s) intervenes.  This small cohort establish a feudal network of job placements, in which those senior professors insert their students, who, because they are selectively so bright and hardworking, probably deserve the jobs anyway strictly on a merit basis. . . . This feudal system is the basic sociology of power of the academic profession in every Western country.  In France these academic power brokers are called mandarins. . . ."

 A student or writer no matter how bright or worthy will suffer if he offers an opinion counter to that of his mandarin.  Wade doesn't put his concern in Cantor's terms but probably wouldn't disagree with Cantor.  What he does say is,

"The idea that human behavior has a genetic basis has long been resisted by those who see the mind as a blank slate on which only culture can write.  The blank slate notion has been particularly attractive to Marxists, who wish government to mold socialist man in its desired image and who see genetics as an impediment to the power of the state.  Marxist academics led the attack on Edward O. Wilson when he proposed in his 1975 book Sociobiology that social behaviors such as conformity and morality had a genetic basis.  Wilson even suggested that genes might have some influence 'in the behavioral qualities that underlie variations between cultures.'" [p59]


"Yet the idea that there could be meaningful genetic differences between human groups is fiercely resisted by many researchers.  They cling to the idea that the mind is a blank slate on which only culture, not genetics, can write, and dismiss the possibility that evolution could have effected any recent change in the human mind.  They reject the proposal that any human behavior, let alone intelligence, has a genetic basis.  They make accusations of racism against anyone who suggests that cognitive capacities might differ between human population groups.  All these positions are shaped by leftist and Marxist political dogma, not by science.  Nonetheless, most scholars will enter this territory from lively fear of being demonized by their fellow academics.  [p200]


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