Nicholas Wade’s CNN GPS interview: Old phrenology in new clothes?

CNN GPS with Faeed ZakariaShowAnyone who knows me will tell you I am a level-headed person – what my Dad’s generation would call ‘one cool customer’. My best mates describe me as something of a Spock from Star Trek. I just don’t tend to get worked up or rattled about stuff. People and/or situations can push my buttons all they want…I rarely react. It’s not that I don’t care about things. I just keep the old emotions in check. It really takes a heck of a lot for me to lose my cool. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Nicholas Wade on the GPS Show ( ) did it. It took me from zero to Mach 5 in just under a few minutes.

Nicholas WadeSo what was the topic that set me off on a rollercoaster of disbelief and annoyance? What left me dumbfounded and incredulous? Nicholas Wade discussing his book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. If his interview talking points provide any indication of his book’s content, it’s trying to be politically correct observances about genetics and racial differences without being, well, racist. It’s the kind of ‘research’ that academics like to pass off as ‘informed’.  I have a feeling that if we were to peek under this particular book’s research petticoats, a very different picture would begin to emerge. I say that as a fully paid up member of higher education academia.

For me, Wade’s assertions came across as Old Phrenology dressed up in new clothes. That’s being kind. Because the words Hitler and Aryan Race quickly flitted through my mind. History has amply proved that bad things happen when bad science or questionable research in the arena of ‘races’ and cultural differences is touted/presented as fact.

To sum things up quickly, Wade contends that not only is the concept of ‘Race’ real –but that there exists genetic proof that different races have evolved along different paths. In short, different races have evolved differently.

To be completely transparent, I don’t believe in race. If you’re at all interested in my mere thoughts one the subject, here’s the link to my first post on the subject of how the concept of ‘Race’ is a fabrication . To cut a long story short, my own DNA journey put me on a path which led to the conclusions addressed in my four post series on the subject.

Zakaria could have torpedoed Wade out of the water with a few well-crafted and researched questions. He didn’t. So what could he have asked?

Well, for starters, I want to know about the data which purportedly supports Wade’s ‘academic’ and ‘scientific’ work. What was the size of the population he used for his study? If it was anything less than millions of DNA test results from all around the world, then I can’t take his findings seriously. What cultures were part of the study? And what has been their history over the past 1,000 – 3,000 years? That’s coming from a fellow university academic. Anything less couldn’t begin to possible support the broad sweeping statements Wade made on the show (here’s a link to the transcription of the interview: )

Mr Wade, I hate to burst your bubble but the majority of cultures on the planet have not lived in some sort of glorious isolation, genetic or otherwise. Human beings from different cultures have intermingled and produced culturally mixed offspring since the dawn of our species. We’ve exchanged admixtures – as well as concepts, technologies and beliefs – for as long as we’ve existed.

Human beings have an epic history which abounds with examples of the large-scale movements of people. Tens of thousands of years (at least!) of population movements due to environmental changes, famine, war/occupation, empires, trade, exploration and slavery have ensured that human admixtures (you know, the one thing that you didn’t discuss) have flowed back and forth amongst the different cultures and peoples of the Earth.

Even cultures who live in geographically isolated places have, upon occasion, chosen partners from outside of their immediate culture to counter-act against the downfalls of too much inter-marrying. It’s a taboo that a multitude of cultures around the world have. It’s a taboo that stretches back for millennia. The Romans understood this basic concept and expressed it quite plainly in their horror of the Egyptian royal practice of siblings marrying one another. The ancient Greek, Hebrews, Phoenicians, etc also understood the downfalls of a genetically limited population. My point? While ancient civilizations wouldn’t understand the concept of genetic diversity – they understood that ‘new blood’, ‘different blood’ was needed and benefited their respective cultures. Any anthropologist could tell you that.

And yes, there were political imperatives as well, namely ‘assimilation’ of different cultures into their own, forging political alliances through the intermarriage of populations or an attempt at genetic annihilation (‘breeding another culture out of existence). My point? This process was global and has been going on for as long as we’ve been human and have built civilizations and cultures. My study of DNA and genetics proves this time and time again. Again, I am walking, talking proof of it.

That’s fact. I’m living proof. And I am so very, very, very far from being unique.

The last bit that ramped up my disbelief was the conversation about the occurrence of lactose intolerance in East Asian populations. Really? Seriously? Wow. If you’re saying that East Asians have evolved differently from other ‘races’ on the basis that something like lactose intolerance is proof… then what does that say about the level of lactose intolerance among European populations? Again, Zakaria could have blown Wade clean out the water with this question.

Before anyone chastises me for the lactose intolerance example, I get it. It’s TV – and populist TV at that. Genetics is a complicated science and this had to be dumbed down so that Joe and Jane Blogs could understand the main thrust. It was, however, a stunningly bad example to use. It was a gross over-simplification. And, as I stated above, just plain wrong.

As for the Eskimo adaptation example, well, I hate to point this out but we are a highly adaptable species. Our ability as a species to easily adapt to different environments has enabled us to conquer every environment. Our ability to change to any set of circumstances is fluid. Just because a culture adapts to a set of circumstances, say high altitude, that doesn’t mean that adaptation is permanent. That population may retain the ability to easily live at a high altitude while they remain in a high altitude environment…but they and their descendants can easily live in other environments. They wouldn’t die if they came to live in a lowland area. It’s not like they would die if they moved elsewhere. It’s not like they would be like the Natterjack toad which has truly evolved to live in only one environment and is limited to breeding within its own sub-species.

I am kind of tempted to buy Wade’s book just for the humor value. I’m also tempted to read it to understand and assess the ‘science’ and the research behind his the theory. This wasn’t touched on at all during the course of the interview, which, in my opinion, should have been the main thrust of the interview. Pretty much everything Wade said he’s said already. There was nothing new to learn in this interview, not really. Which, in my view, made for lackluster and uninspired journalism at best. At worst, it was the loss of an excellent opportunity to unveil Wade’s real motivations and/or agenda in producing this book at all.

Apologies for the plug…but TV seriously needs my DNA Adventures TV series. It’s topics and ignorance like the above that I want to take head on with facts, nothing but the facts, and plenty of them 😉

3 thoughts on “Nicholas Wade’s CNN GPS interview: Old phrenology in new clothes?

  1. Self-styled Mr. Spock throws a fit when a well-respected science writer violates taboos on race, like the good Pavlovian dog he is.

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