Nicholas Wade

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Nicholas Wade in 2005

Nicholas Wade (born May 17, 1942) is a British science reporter and nonfiction author. He was formerly a staff writer for the Science Times section of The New York Times. He has written a number of books on human evolution, including the controversial A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014).


  • I think the subject of race has been so difficult and so polluted by malign ideas that most people have just left it alone, including geneticists. … Most genetic variation is neutral – it doesn't do anything for or against the phenotype, and evolution ignores it – so most previous attempts to look at race have concluded that there's little difference between races. I think this position is the one on which the social scientists are basing their position. … If you look at the genes that do make a difference, selected genes, which are a tiny handful of the whole, you do find a number of differences, not very many, but a number of interesting differences between races as to which genes have been selected. This, of course, makes a lot of sense, because once the human family dispersed from its homeland in Africa, people faced different environments on each continent, different climates, different evolutionary challenges, and each group adapted to its environment in its own way.
  • The geneticists, if you read their papers, have long been using code words. They sort of dropped the term "race" about 1980 or earlier, and instead you see code words like "population" or "population structure." Now that they're able to define race in genetic terms they tend to use other words, like "continental groups" or "continent of origin," which does, indeed, correspond to the everyday conception of race. When I'm writing I prefer to use the word race because that's the word that everyone understands. It's a word with baggage, but it's not necessarily a malign word.

A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History (2014)[edit]

  • 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.
  • The recent discoveries that human evolution has been recent, copious and regional severely undercut the social scientists' official view of the world because they establish that genetics may have played a possible substantial role alongside culture in shaping the differences between human populations.
  • From an evolutionary perspective, the human races are all very similar variations of the same gene pool. The question that looms over all the social sciences, unanswered and largely unaddressed, is how to explain the paradox that people as individuals are so similar yet human societies differ so conspicuously in their cultural and economic attainments.
  • There are two important factors to consider in the emergence of social change. One is that a society develops through changes in its institutions, which are blends of culture and genetically shaped social behavior. The other is that the genes and culture interact. This may seem paradoxical to anyone who considers genes and culture to be entirely separate realms. But it is scarcely surprising from an evolutionary perspective, given that the genome is designed to respond to the environment, and a major component of the human environment is society and its cultural practices.
  • Over the last 50,000 years, modern humans have been subjected to enormous evolutionary pressures, in part from the consequences of their own social culture. They explored new ranges and climates and developed new social structures. Fast adaption, particularly to new social structures, was required as each population strove to exploit its own ecological niche and to avoid conquest by its neighbors. The genetic mechanism that made possible this rapid evolutionary change was the soft sweep, the reshaping of existing traits by quick minor adjustments in the sets of alleles that controlled them. But what began as a single experiment with the ancestral human population became a set of parallel experiments once the ancestral population had spread throughout the world. These independent evolutionary paths led inevitably to the different human populations or races that inhabit each continent.
  • The classification of humans into five continental based races is perfectly reasonable and is supported by genome clustering studies. In addition, classification into the three major races of African, East Asian and European is supported by the physical anthropology of human skull types and dentition.
  • Each of the major civilizations has developed the institutions appropriate for its circumstances and survival. But these institutions, though heavily imbued with cultural traditions, rest of a bedrock of genetically shaped human behavior.
  • If running a productive, Western-style economy were simply a matter of culture, it should be possible for African and Middle Eastern countries to import Western institutions and business methods, just as East Asian countries have done. But this is evidently not a straightforward task. Though it was justifiable at first to blame the evils of colonialism, two generations or more have now passed since most foreign powers withdrew from Africa and the Middle East, and the strength of this explanation has to some extent faded.
  • Tribal behavior is more deeply ingrained than are mere cultural prescriptions. Its longevity and stability point strongly to a genetic basis. This is hardly surprising, given that tribes are the default human social institution. The inbuilt nature of tribalism explains why it took so many thousands of years for East Asians and later Europeans to break free of its deadening embrace.
  • The various races and ethnicities into which humans have evolved represent a grand experiment in which nature has tested out some of the variations inherent in the human genome. The experiment is not being conducted in our interests - it has no purpose or goal - yet it offers considerable benefits. Instead of there being a single type of human society, there are many, creating a rich diversity of cultures whose more promising features can be adopted and improved on by others.
  • The idea that human populations are genetically different from one another has been actively ignored by academics and policy makers for fear that such inquiry might promote racism. The argument offered here is that people the world over are highly similar as individuals but that societies differ widely because of evolutionary differences in social behavior. It would be better to take account of evolutionary differences than to continue to ignore them.
  • Many forms of new knowledge are potentially dangerous, the energy of the atom being a preeminent example. But instead of curtailing inquiry Western societies have in general assumed that the better policy is to continue exploration in confidence that the rewards can be reaped and the risks managed. It is hard to see why exploration of the human genome and its racial variations should be made an exception to this principle, even though researchers and their audience must first develop the words and concepts to discuss a dangerous subject objectively.

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