www.epjournal.net – 2014. 12(3): 509-520
Darwin’s Duel with Descartes
A review of Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human
History. Penguin: New York, 2014, pp. 288, US$20.68, ISBN # 1594204462 (Hardcover).
Bo Winegard, Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA. Email:
firstname.lastname@example.org (Corresponding author).
Ben Winegard, Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO, USA. Email:
email@example.com (Corresponding author).
Most social scientists explicitly denounce mind-body dualism as an anachronistic
theory that was decisively refuted by modern advances in biology and neuroscience. In
practice, however, many implicitly harbor dualistic beliefs, especially when theorizing
about potentially incendiary topics such as sex or race differences. The physiognomies and
physiques of the sexes or races may vary, but their minds do not. This selective dualism
implicitly assumes that the material inside the skull is impervious to selective forces and
that the mind, like Descartes’ res cogitans, mysteriously transcends the laws of physics.
Because this belief is completely at odds with current knowledge about the world, and with
the explicit pronouncements of most social scientists, it is difficult not to see it as a
manifestation of political ideology. This does not mean that every researcher or scholar
who harbors such beliefs does so because of his or her political preferences; rather, it
means that selective dualism has achieved near fixation in academia because it coheres
with the ideology of egalitarianism1 that is a prominent component of the worldview of
most educated citizens, including professors (see Inglehart and Welzel, 2005; also, many
social scientists are liberal, which might compound this problem—see Inbar and Lammers,
2012). Haidt (2013) and others (e.g., Tetlock, 2002) have noted that conscious and
unconscious ideologies, like small and imperceptible fluctuations on a superficially smooth
surface, can subtly direct the path of science. If these ideologies are wedded to strong
political or moral commitments, they can create a “moral tribe” who values ideological
consistency more than open and honest inquiry. As indicated by the responses to previous
proposals about racial variation in cognitive or temperamental traits (e.g., The Bell Curve:
1 By “egalitarian” we mean the belief that all individuals, population groups, and sexes are absolutely
biologically similar on every important trait.
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Race, Evolution, and Behavior), the ideology of selective dualism is an integral part of a
moral and political vision of a vocal tribe of academics and intellectuals who tolerate little
deviance from its basic tenets (Barash, 1995; Graves, 2003). Nicholas Wade’s A
Troublesome Inheritance directly assails this selective dualism, asserting that natural
selection differentially shaped the brains of the human races: “...brain genes do not lie in
some special category exempt from natural selection. They are as much under evolutionary
pressure as any other category of gene” (p. 106). If history is any guide, this book will
provoke vociferous debate, as well as a series of lamentable but predictable ad hominem
Wade’s book is, first and foremost, a courageous but flawed attempt to grapple with
a politically divisive but scientifically important topic: recent and regional human
evolution. To our knowledge, it is the first of its kind: A mainstream book written by a
respectable scientific journalist about racial variation in cognition and temperament.
Ranging from provocative speculations to cautious equivocations, A Troublesome
Inheritance is an entertaining, informative, but inconsistent challenge to orthodoxy.
Whatever its shortcomings, it is essential reading for anyone who applies evolutionary
principles to human behavior. In the first part of this review, we focus exclusively on
Wade’s book. After that, we briefly address the political concerns and ramifications of
speaking candidly about human biological diversity. Last, we connect Wade’s book to
other recent work, arguing that the standard evolutionary psychology paradigm is no longer
consistent with what we know about evolution and that it needs to be revised to allow a role
for recent and regional selection.
The Reality of Racial Variation
Wade begins by noting that the once standard view of evolution as a slow and
plodding process has been refuted by modern theory and data. According to Wade,
evolution is “recent, copious, and regional” (p. 7). That is, evolution can shape or tune traits
much more rapidly than commonly acknowledged. This new view of evolution has
important consequences for our understanding of human population groups. Modern
humans first migrated out of Africa between 50,000-125,000 years ago (Armitage et al.,
2011; Klein, 2002). The groups that migrated from Africa eventually expanded across the
globe, displacing other hominid groups, and forming relatively isolated populations in
diverse habitats, from bitterly cold, winter-plagued lands to sun-blasted deserts and lush
tropics (see Figure 1). In each climate, different physical traits would have been favored.
The most perspicuous example is skin color. In the sun-deprived lands of Northern Eurasia,
the protective pigment of dark skin is not necessary and is, in fact, problematic because it
interferes with sun absorption, which is necessary for the synthesis of Vitamin D
(Jablonski, 2004; Jablonski and Chaplin, 2010). Consequently, there is a strong correlation
between skin color and the geography of one’s ancestors.
Furthermore, different human populations devised different sociocultural practices
to cope with their environments, and these created further selective pressures. For example,
agriculture first arose in the Levant approximately 11,000 years ago and eventually spread
(or was preserved with conquering migrants) across Northern Europe. It also arose
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independently in Asia, Africa, and the Americas (Diamond and Bellwood, 2003).
Agriculture dramatically altered how humans interacted with the environment, creating a
permanent source of food that supported sedentism, population growth, and hierarchical
societies with divisions of labor. Some domesticated animals provided milk, which offered
a rich source of calories to those who could digest the lactose. Lactose, however, cannot be
digested without the enzyme lactase. The production of lactase declines dramatically at an
early age in most mammals because they do not consume milk after weaning. Evidence
indicates that our human ancestors were no exception to this rule. Consistent with the
argument that evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional,” many modern human
populations continue to produce lactase throughout their adult lives, allowing them to
digest the lactose in dairy milk. This capacity corresponds to the geography of dairy-animal
domestication, supporting the contention that it arose in response to the novel selective
pressures of dairy farming (Cochran and Harpending, 2009; Holden and Mace, 2009;
Figure 1. Human migration out of Africa
Note. Source: Wikimedia commons
These arguments for modern evolution in human populations, although debated, are
not terribly controversial. But Wade argues that we should eschew the selective dualism
that has beset modern social science and draw a more radical conclusion: Different
environments and sociocultural practices would have favored different cognitive and
temperamental traits. Although this conclusion appears a straightforward consequence of
applying the principles of natural selection, it has provoked furious resistance among many
social scientists, often leading to calumniations and accusations of racism. However, as
Wade notes, it would be miraculous if there weren’t some cognitive and temperamental
differences between human populations for the same mundane reason it would be
miraculous if there weren’t physical differences: Relatively isolated groups that are
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exposed to different selective forces evolve differently.
Wade clearly knows he is walking into potentially dangerous intellectual territory
and deserves praise for boldly and consistently applying the principles of natural selection
to the human brain. Perhaps to inoculate himself from the anticipated venom of the
intellectual community, Wade includes a cautionary chapter about misuses of racial
science. He argues that modern interdictions against racism have probably erected an
impenetrable barrier against a resurgence of eugenics, but notes that “ideas about race are
dangerous when linked to political agendas. It puts responsibility on scientists to test
rigorously the scientific ideas that are placed before the public” (p. 37). Readers should not,
however, expect Wade to cower to political correctness. He chides Steven Pinker for
shying away from the potentially incendiary consequences of recent evolution, arguing that
Pinker diverges from a sustained argument about the evolution of self-control because it
might lead to unsavory political conclusions (pp. 170-173). He also critiques Jared
Diamond for spinning a superficially appealing but ultimately erroneous tale of geographic
determinism in his widely praised Guns, Germs, and Steel (pp. 221-223). Although these
critiques will probably not convert anyone—and they might be slightly unfair2—, they are
part of Wade’s laudable goal of elevating science over ideology.
Readers might be wondering about several prominent arguments that contend that
race is an invalid construct with no biological basis. Richard Lewontin, for example,
famously argued that the variance within populations dwarfs the variance between
populations and that race, therefore, is an antiquated and destructive concept with little
scientific utility (Lewontin, 1972). Wade, citing A.W.F. Edwards (2003), dispatches
Lewontin’s argument, noting that variation at one locus is racially uninformative; however,
correlated variation across multiple loci is racially informative. Although not without
dissent, research generally shows that it is possible to classify humans into racial groups
(also labelled “clusters” or “populations”) and that these racial groups correspond to
geographic regions. Rosenberg et al. (2002), for example, used 377 genetic markers in a
cluster analysis and found that the model produced population clusters that largely
corresponded to major geographic regions. Rosenberg et al. (2005) later confirmed this
pattern with 993 genetic markers. Tang et al. (2005) found that self-reported ethnicity in the
United States corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters derived from analyses of
326 microsatellite markers (3,631 of 3,636 self-reported ethnicities matched the genetic
cluster; here the geographic regions were ancestral).
Others have argued that races do not exist because there are no essential types of
humans: Groups diffuse into each other imperceptibly, and there are no Platonic essences
that correspond to our different racial categories (see Sesardic, 2010). As Wade notes, this
contention is undoubtedly true. But few, if any, researchers believe that racial categories
correspond to unique biological types that are wholly distinct from one another. Some
researchers have glommed this fuzziness, arguing that racial divisions are arbitrary and that
2 We do not think that it is productive, except for in extreme cases, to speculate about the underlying motives
of individual scientists. On the other hand, Wade’s general point, namely that ideology has played a role in
the study of human groups and civilizations, is incontrovertible.
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depending upon the criteria one chooses, one can end with very different and often
counterintuitive results (Diamond, 1994). But many of the alternative classifications, say
those based on antimalarial genes, are absurd because they ignore that racial categories are
designed to discriminate between correlated clusters of traits, not single discrete traits.
Furthermore, such categories ignore shared ancestry, which is a common criterion of
Wade uses a common classification based on the continent of origin of the
population, which therefore includes Caucasians (Europe), East Asians (Asia), Africans
(Africa), Native Americans (North/South America), and Australian Aborigines
(Australia/New Guinea), and then further subdivides into various ethnicities (e.g., Jewish,
Finnish, Basque) (see Wade, pp. 95-122). Perhaps future genetic analyses will compel
researchers to adjust these categories, but for Wade’s purposes, his classification system
Race and Civilization
The first part of Wade’s book is a relatively sober and well-written defense of the
legitimacy of racial categories and the reality of racial variation. The second part is a
speculative extension of this empirical and theoretical base, attempting to explain the
variation among human societies. Wade argues that at least some of these differences are
caused by the slight cognitive and temperamental differences of the peoples who create
them. Wade is forthcoming about the speculative nature of his undertaking, letting readers
know that chapters 6 through 10 take place in a “speculative arena” (p. 15). Although Wade
preemptively cautions his readers, his decision to tackle such a complicated and
controversial subject with a paucity of hard data is problematic. Furthermore, Wade only
half-heartedly grapples with the one source of serious data researchers possess on this
topic: the global distribution of IQ scores. Of course, the topic of race and IQ is fraught
with controversy, and the data are not without problem, but they are much more expansive
than data on any other single trait that might explain the variance among human societies.
Since the last half of the 20th century, explanations of cultural and social variation
have been almost exclusively environmental (e.g., Diamond, 1997; Morris, 2010). Perhaps
the Europeans happened to inhabit a particularly propitious continent that allowed them to
develop important institutions and technologies earlier than other peoples. This accident
then allowed them to flourish and to conquer vast regions of the globe. Wade contends that
this consensus view is only partially correct. Social institutions are not haphazard or
random; rather, they are closely connected to the peoples who create them. Different racial
groups create different institutions because they have different behavioral propensities.
Institutions that flourish among one racial group may flounder among another. In fact,
according to Wade, “the most significant feature of human races [is] not that their members
differ in physical appearances but that their society’s institutions differ because of slight
differences in social behavior” (p. 136).
Wade argues that traits such as trust, tribalism, conformity, and aggression are
especially important for understanding the variance among human societies (p. 246). For
example, Wade suggests that Asian individuals are slightly more conformist than
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Europeans and that this slight difference in individuals leads to dramatic differences at the
aggregate level. European societies value and foster innovation more than Asian societies,
creating dynamic economies and exposing ideas, technologies, and institutions to relentless
competition. In fact, according to Wade, the rise of the West is not an historical accident at
all, but rather the product of a combination of cultural and behavioral traits (that are at least
partially caused by genetics): “The rise of the West is an event not just in history but also in
human evolution” (p. 238). This view leads to skepticism about “Nation-building.” Wade
contends, for example, that the notion that a country can simply export its social and
cultural institutions to another country is naive because the people of the other country
might have slightly different cognitive and temperamental traits from the people that
created the institutions (On page 241, Wade notes that attempts to export Western
institutions to Iraq, Haiti, and Afghanistan have had limited success, at best). In a sense,
institutions are “extended social phenotypes” (Wade doesn’t use this term); peoples are
fitted to their institutions because they co-evolved with them in the same way that a beaver
is fitted to its dam-altered environment. This might be a bit strong, but it appears to capture
the essence of Wade’s argument.
The second half of Wade’s book illustrates some of its flaws. Wade’s hypotheses
about the social and institutional effects of racial variation are, of course, perfectly
legitimate scientific hypotheses3; however, they are undeniably bold, and they confront the
heavily fortified garrison of selective dualism that dominates mainstream academic and
intellectual discourse. Convincing others that the mainstream position is not only incorrect
but also worth challenging probably requires a more impressive armamentarium than Wade
provides. The book would have been stronger if Wade had more slowly and carefully built
his argument that there are important racial variations in cognitive and temperamental traits
before speculating about their role in human history. As it is, Wade’s book is fairly
impressionistic, which makes it enjoyable to read, but not as rigorous as it probably needed
As noted above, Wade is strangely dismissive of research about the effect of IQ
differences among human groups on economic, institutional, and cultural variables (see pp.
189-193). Although the research on IQ differences is controversial and is far from
definitive, it is nevertheless more copious and rigorous than research on any of the putative
temperamental differences Wade adduces to explain institutional differences among human
groups (Jensen, 1998; Lynn 2006; Rushton and Jensen, 2005; but see Nisbett et al., 2012).
It is possible that Wade didn’t want this contentious issue to overshadow the rest of his
book, but this contradicts his explicit goal of speaking candidly about human variation and
its effects on social institutions. Furthermore, some of Wade’s own speculations are likely
to be equally contentious and controversial. Whatever the reason, Wade is selectively
skeptical of data that find a relation between institutional quality, work productivity, GDP,
3 Although standard, scientists should eschew the practice of branding such hypotheses “racist” or
“ethnocentric.” There is nothing more obviously erroneous about such hypotheses than there is about culture-
only hypotheses, which are freely forwarded to explain human differences. Honest empirical hypotheses
should be treated equally and should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.
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economic freedom, and IQ (Gottfredson, 1997; Lynn and Vanhanen, 2012). This puts him
at odds with what has become a productive research paradigm (Rindermann, 2013). Of
course, future research is needed to fully tease out the relative contributions of IQ and other
temperamental traits on social institutions, productivity, and GDP (Stolarski, Zajenkowski,
and Meisenberg, 2013). Wade may turn out right, but the current data suggest that his
dismissal of the explanatory power of IQ is premature.
Brief Comments about Political/Moral Concerns
Before addressing how this book and similar research might guide future
evolutionary thinking, we should briefly discuss the political and ethical concerns that
candid analyses of group variation might raise. Although Wade includes a succinct chapter
on the history of thinking about racial variation that answers some of these concerns, we
are skeptical that his assurances will alleviate the fears of many readers. Probably no other
topic in the social sciences is so fraught with possibilities for hostility and acrimonious
verbal assaults (Hunt and Carlson, 2007). It is understandable that many academics and
intellectuals are trepidatious about frankly addressing the possibility that groups vary on
socially valued traits such as athleticism, self-control, or intelligence. However, the
tendency of some intellectuals to denounce those who study such topics—to besmirch their
reputations with accusations of racism—is inexcusable. We cannot possibly allay all
concerns about this topic, but we do believe that:
1) It would be remarkable if groups did not vary on some socially valued traits.
2) It does not promote the interests of society or of science to deny such variation
simply because it makes some people uncomfortable.
3) It is important for academics to study group differences and to educate
responsibly the public about what they mean (see Haidt, 2009).
4) There is no reason why those who embrace and promote cultural diversity cannot
also embrace human biological diversity (Crow, 2002).
5) Contrary to widely shared opinion, culture-only hypotheses are not necessarily
safer or less costly than genetic-based hypotheses. Social policies based on either
hypothesis can be destructive.
From Galileo to Darwin, science has a history of destroying many comforting belief
systems. Each challenge has excited moral outrage and earnest concern about the
consequences of disseminating new ideas and research. Many Victorians, for example,
were certain that widespread knowledge of Darwinism would lead to crude hedonism and
immorality. It is easy in retrospect to chuckle at this alarmism, but it is also easy to
sympathize. The price of scientific progress is a steadily growing cemetery of once
cherished beliefs and myths. We suspect that the study of group variation will become
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commonplace and our descendants will wonder what all the clamoring was about. In the
meantime, however, we believe that it is important to remain respectful when addressing
this sensitive topic, and we especially believe that it is crucial to refrain from questioning
the motives of the scientists who find human biological diversity intriguing.
The Future of Human Evolutionary Sciences
Wade’s book is the culmination of an efflorescence of research on human diversity.
Since at least the 1990’s, numerous scholars have examined genetic, evolutionary,
psychological, and theoretical evidence that suggests that evolution has been recent, rapid,
and regional (e.g., Brown, Dickens, Sear, and Laland, 2011; Cochran and Harpending,
2009; Laland, Odling-Smee, and Myles, 2010; Zuk, 2013). This research appears to
contradict a central tenet of what can be called the “standard evolutionary psychology
paradigm,” namely that the human brain/mind and body evolved primarily in the
Pleistocene and that there is a “panhuman” nature. According to this reasoning, researchers
can most fruitfully assess human nature by reconstructing the selective forces that would
have prevailed during the Pleistocene and deducing the nature of the mental adaptations
those forces would have created. (Cosmides and Tooby, 2013; Marlowe, 2005; Pinker,
1997). Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Wade’s book to contemporary evolutionary
psychologists is that it challenges this view of a panhuman nature.. Below, therefore, we
would like briefly to address this challenge.
Evolutionary psychology is primarily a science of universals. Early researchers
were interested in universal mental adaptations, adaptations that arose from a complicated
organic substrate and therefore required many thousands of years to evolve (Cosmides and
Tooby, 2013). Understandably, this early emphasis motivated evolutionary psychologists to
minimize group variation. There is nothing wrong with the emphasis on human universals,
and it is almost certainly true that complicated mental adaptations take many generations to
evolve. However, it does not follow that there are not important differences among human
groups. (Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that there are few if any meaningful
genetic differences among human groups; see Cosmides, Tooby, and Kurzban, 2003).
Consider an analogy that might make the point clear and simultaneously illustrate
the potential importance of group variation. There is a universal car design or “nature.”
Every car is comprised of an engine, a gas tank, a chassis, tires, bearings, spark plugs,
axles, etc. Many of these parts are strikingly similar across cars. However, precise,
correlated changes in specific parts can dramatically alter the characteristics of a car. A
Dodge Viper, although built from the same abstract plan as other cars, has quite different
qualities from a Dodge Neon. Humans, like cars, are built from the same basic body plan.
We all have livers, lungs, arms, legs, eyes, and ears. Yet, small changes in the structures of
various systems (e.g., neural, cardiovascular) can lead to important functional differences.
For example, small changes in the cardiovascular systems of many Tibetans allow them to
survive better the rigors of a high altitude environment (Beall, 2007). The brain is no
exception. All humans possess a brain that allows them to learn a language, contemplate
abstract concepts, speculate about what others are thinking, experience a set of universal
emotions, etc. However, subtle alterations in the brain can modulate these capacities.
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Because of their socioeconomic niche, natural selection may have slightly dialed up the
general intelligence knob on Ashkenazi Jews, who score around 110 on standard
intelligence tests (Lynn, 2011). Whether these changes constitute an interesting alteration
of some putative panhuman nature probably depends upon our research question. If we
want to know why the Ashkenazim prosper in many societies, often despite virulent anti-
Semitism, then reference to a universal human nature is not going to benefit our research.
On the other hand, if we want to know how humans detect kin (Lieberman, Tooby, and
Cosmides, 2007), reference to a universal mental architecture is helpful and necessary.
Putting all of these strands of research and theory together, we suggest that a new
Darwinian paradigm is coming together that emphasizes the importance of recent and
regional evolution (Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, 2006; Laland et al., 2010; see also
work on gene-culture coevolution, e.g., Boyd and Richerson, 1985). Although it is
impossible to predict what this paradigm will look like 10 or 15 years from now, we can lay
out some basic tenets:
1) Variation fuels the engine of natural selection and is ubiquitous within and
among human populations.
2) Evolution has not stopped and has significantly shaped at least some human traits
in the past 50,000 years.
3) Extant hunter-gatherers might be slightly different from other modern
populations because of culture and evolution. Therefore, using extant hunter-
gatherers as a template for a panhuman nature is problematic (Henrich, Heine, and
4) It might be more accurate to say that there are human natures rather than a human
5) Selective dualism is untenable. Natural selection does not discriminate between
genes for the body and genes for the brain (as Wade points out “brain genes do not
lie in some special category exempt from natural selection. They are as much under
evolutionary pressure as any other category of gene” p. 106).
6) The concept of a Pleistocene-based EEA (environment of evolutionary
adaptedness) is likely unhelpful (Zuk, 2013). Individual traits should be examined
phylogenetically and historically. Some human traits were shaped in the Pleistocene
and have remained substantially unaltered; some, however, have been further
shaped in the past 10,000 years—some possibly as recently as a few hundred years
ago (Clark, 2007).
Wade has written a fascinating, challenging, and provocative book with a simple
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message: Evolution is recent, regional, and it doesn’t stop at the human neck. For many
decades now, social scientists have protected themselves from this nearly inescapable
implication by adhering to a form of selective dualism. Wade should be applauded for
challenging this flawed but convenient stopgap. A Troublesome Inheritance is not a perfect
book. We wish it had been a bit more systematic and rigorous, and we fear that Wade’s
fascinating speculations will be too easily swept away by streams of outrage and
indignation because he failed to provide stronger scaffolding. Nevertheless, his book
should encourage public conversation about the important and complicated topic of racial
variation. The celebration of human diversity should go hand in hand with the honest and
rigorous study of such diversity.
Acknowledgements: The authors thank Dave Geary for comments on an earlier draft.
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