A large collection of prominent geneticists has published a group letter to the New York Times Book Review endorsing a negative review of Nicholas Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.” They speak of “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field…” The list of signers includes an impressive group of geneticists and others, claiming special expertise in their field. This deserves some thoughtful evaluation.
The last half century of population genetics has been more or less dominated by neutralism, a model of genetic change that postulated, in its strong and common form, that population differences are a passive reflection of histories of gene flow and genetic drift. In human genetics, especially, selection has been of little interest. The idea of group differences being products of natural selection is abhorrent to many. The reaction to recent models of selection in humans recalls a common quotation whose origin is murky but is often attributed to a Victorian lady, reacting to news of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection: “My dear, I trust that it is not true; but if it is, let us pray that it may not become widely known.”
The authors and signatories of the letter number 144. Surely they must speak with authority on this matter of Wade’s incorrect thought about their field? In the last few years evolution by natural selection has been appearing in the literature in various ways. There is a sea change coming in evolutionary biology. My immediate associations are with Brian Charlesworth, Francisco Ayala, Michael Lynch, Russell Lande, Michael Rose, Steven Frank, H. Allen Orr, Peter Visscher, Nick Barton, and Bernard Crespi come to mind. I am no expert in this domain, and I mean no slight to folks who didn’t immediately jump into my head, in particular the lot who write about evolutionary medicine. Interesting that none of these are signatories of the letter. H. Allen Orr in particular is curiously absent since he wrote the only sensible negative review of Wade’s book I have seen.
There may be an interesting background to this inquisition. I suggest starting with a reread of Geoffrey Miller’s editorial in the Economist in 2009. He discusses the hype and high hopes of medical breakthroughs from the Human Genome project, the collapse of that hope (continuing since the 2009 article) and the rich harvest of knowledge of human history and human evolution that the project has produced. Some of this harvest is unwelcome, especially because it led to the resurgence of the study of evolution by natural selection. Does this new direction threaten the revenue stream from agencies like the Wellcome trust and NIH? I remember a conversation with a colleague several years ago about something I had written. “Of course you are right,” he said, “but you know you are peeing in the swimming pool.”
I am especially curious about how Gregory Clark has managed to escape the wrath of the righteous guardians of “our field.” His brilliant economic history of the UK from medieval times up to 1800 is the most inflammatory book I have read in years. He proposes that Darwinian natural selection essentially bred a new version of humans, a version adapted to a stable society with courts and contracts, low time preference, aversion to violence, and middle class values. I have spent some time around economists and I hear none of them whining about Clark’s book, calling him a racist, and all the stuff a geneticist would get. How does he do it?