If scientists purport to serve society’s need to uncover answers that illuminate the nature of our world, why would they leave open questions unexplored?
Yet, in his 2014 book on modern evolution, science writer and former New York Times science editor Nicholas Wade suggests that the pressure of political correctness has forced us into exactly this predicament.
In A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade argues that science seems to be ignoring rather concrete evidence that identifies genetic differences between human beings. Heads of researchers turn away from the subject, he writes, due to institutionalized fear of “being smeared with insinuations of racism” and jeopardized careers.
Wade’s thesis focuses on modern genetics. He suggests that genetically distinct human races diverge as much as other subspecies, and that clear racial divides began when humans migrated out of Africa more than 50,000 years ago. Furthermore, he proposes that the genetic selection that resulted shaped not just physical traits—lighter skin to aid in sunlight absorption, for example—but distinct behaviors that define geographically distinct civilizations. It takes different behaviors to succeed in hunter-gatherer societies, in tribal societies, and in urban settings. Wade suggests that these differences are not entirely cultural, but can be reflected in genetic predispositions that emerge over many generations of natural selection. This notion raises a point of contention within the social sciences and one that Wade insists is unwarranted.
“Evolutionary differences between human populations can be described without providing the slightest support for racism,” he writes. In fact, the results emphasize “the genetic unity of mankind.”
Wade cites “intellectual barriers erected many years ago to combat racism” as forming a wall that blocks current study of the recent evolutionary past. He urges scholars that exploring this subject will not lead to a racism resurgence.
Wade’s point is intriguing, and seems to be supported by a substantial body genetic research. And although he acknowledges the issues at stake as well as the awkward challenges that arise, he believes this should not stand in the way of legitimate scientific progress. “To ignore every difficult subject would serve only the forces of obscuration,” he writes.
What would make the resulting battle of scientific sensibilities worthwhile? The potential knowledge only recently made possible from exploring the human genome. Wade entices even amateur curiosity in the potential of the research he suggests into this “archive of wholly new data about the human story.” From genetic studies, he proposes we can prove human evolution is “recent, copious and regional” and that this explains largely unanswered questions about distinct elements in human history, such as why the Industrial Revolution was not a global phenomenon, or why China has maintained a unified and authoritarian state for millennia.
“Nature has many dials to twist in setting the intensities of the various human social behaviors and many different ways of arriving at the same solution,” Wade writes. The potential revelations Nicholas Wade suggests would seem to make worthwhile the significant effort it will take to overturn well ensconced cultural and political norms of the academic world. After all, science continues to expand its own avenues of exploration and discovery.