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A troublesome book
on 21 September 2014
Wade's provocative new book is curiously schizophrenic. The first half is a detailed and fascinating, while the second half is no less interesting, but far less rigorous. In all fairness, the author does warn the readers what to expect in advance:
"Readers should be aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of history, economics and human evolution." (paperback edition, P15)
Well, quite. This mostly boils down to Wade repeatedly asserting that the stability of different social institutions is indicative of an underlying genetic basis:
"…in situations where culture and political institutions can flow freely across borders, long enduring disparities are harder to explain. The brisk and continuing pace of human evolution suggests a new possibility: that at the root of each civilization is a particular set of evolved social behaviours that sustain it, and these behaviours are reflected in the society’s institutions. Institutions are not just sets of arbitrary rules. Rather, they grow out of instinctual social behaviours, such as the propensity to trust others, to follow rules and punish those who don’t, to engage in reciprocity and trade, or to take up arms against neighboring groups. Because these behaviors vary lightly from society to the next as the result of evolutionary pressure, so too may the institutions that depend on them." (P13-14)
Or as he puts it elsewhere:
"Institutional continuity that extends over many centuries, and over millennia in the case of China, may thus reflect the stability provided by the institutions’ genetic components. One indication of such a genetic effect is that, if institutions were purely cultural, it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another. But American institutions do not transplant so easily to tribal societies like Iraq or Afghanistan. Conversely, the institutions of a tribal society would not work in the United States – indeed, many of them would be illegal – even if Americans could figure out what tribe they belonged to." (P127)
"The social institutions of the four civilizations had considerable inertia, meaning that they changed very slowly over time. Institutions that endure for many generations are strong candidates for being rooted in a genetically framed social behavior that maintains their stability." (P147)
Wade is sometimes shy (or just plain cautious) about spelling out the implications of this idea, but every so often he will drop some clues:
"Variations in human social behavior and in the institutions that embody it have far-reaching consequences. Developmental economists long ago learned that it is not just lack of capital or resources that keeps countries poor. Billions of dollars’ worth of aid have been poured into Africa in the past half century with little impact on the standard of living. Countries like Iraq are rich in oil, but their citizens are poor. And countries with no resources, like Singapore, are rich.” (P148)
Wade then goes on to write, “What makes societies rich or poor is to a great extent their human capital” (ibid.) One needn’t be a devout follower of PC orthodoxy in order to see something subversive and sinister in the above paragraph, given the racialised context.
It must have taken some serious cajones to write those words. It will also take some rather serious evidence to justify them. So how does Wade fare? Well, Wade is consistently reductivistic on historical, economic and sociological issues, but he does nonetheless manage to include at least one eye-opening section (P50-57) which, firstly, highlights the role of the hormone Oxytocin in creating trust (but doesn't relate the findings to the issue of race), before then moving on to discuss the role of the MAO-A gene in regulating aggression (which he does place in a racial context.) These are intriguing asides in themselves, and at least provide some serious food for thought. However, wade is quick to acknowledge that these findings are anything but conclusive – they simply provide some a priori support to the idea that there could be important genetic factors to consider on these matters. As the point stands, it provides very little direct support for his grand socio-biological thesis, but it should at least help to challenge those of us who tend to underplay the role of genetics in human affairs.
Naturally, Wade’s critics will (correctly) point out that the author has moved well beyond the bounds of the available evidence to make his case – something that Wade himself acknowledges. They will also (again, correctly) charge that his speculations could provide cover for the most sinister and retrograde social agendas. Despite Wade’s casual dismissal of such fears, I think that his critics would be right to be alarmed and concerned.
What, then, is to be done about this book and the issues it raises? Should it be dismissed or discussed? That question might prove more divisive even than the deeply flawed but interesting book that it’s addressing.