Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (already up) features a letter signed by 139 population geneticists, including myself. It is, in essence, a group of scientists objecting en masse to Nicholas Wade’s shoddy treatment of race and evolution in his new book A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History.I have mentioned controversy about this book, and I have posted both sides. This is a significant development in opposition to the book.
Coyne previously joined a gang against group selection:
The list of authors and their institutions, which occupies two pages of the three-page letter, reads like a Who’s Who of social evolution. It’s telling that nearly every major figure in the field lined up against Nowak et al.One of his readers commented:
I’m confident that you’re on the right side of this dispute, but still, that argument is uncomfortably reminiscent of an infamous book titled “Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein” (Hundred authors against Einstein) [1931.]Wade replies:
These attacks have included repeated assertions that the book is scientifically inaccurate, a charge for which I have seen no basis. In the same vein, this letter issues general charges without supporting evidence.It is a little strange for 139 professors to agree to an attack letter, but to not be able to cite any specific errors, or even to state accurately what they are attacking. I would have thought that at least one of them would insist that the letter be accurate.
That is no coincidence. The two principal signatories of the letter, Graham Coop and Michael Eisen, have written previously that the book is full of scientific errors. I wrote to both of them asking for a list of errors that I could correct in the next edition. Coop never replied; Eisen said he would get back to me but never did. Neither had the grace to withdraw his original accusations. This is how politicians are expected to behave, not people professionally committed to the truth. Their baseless attacks on my book are a classic smear technique which they have now extended by organizing this letter. I hope that readers will see through the lack of specifics in their charges and judge my book for themselves.
Perhaps I could point out an error in one of the few specific statements in their letter. They charge me with saying that “recent natural selection has led to worldwide differences in I.Q. test results.” I say no such thing.
Wade's book does have some speculative comments, so I can understand if some scientists were complaining about exaggeration. But Coyne and his colleagues like to politicize evolution at every opportunity, and they appear to just upset that they are not controlling the message.
As far as the science is concerned, all of the signatories, I think, would agree that evolution has indeed played a significant role in human morphology and biochemistry, producing population differences that have adaptive significance. Differences among groups in skin color and lactose tolerance, for instance, are certainly due to natural selection, ...So he is not saying that Wade is wrong. He says that Wade might be right, but we do not yet have the evidence.
But what is even more speculative is Wade’s thesis that behavioral differences between groups, and thus the societies they construct, are based on genetic differences produced by natural selection. Perhaps that is true, but we don’t have a scintilla of evidence for it right now. And we know that those societal and cultural differences can change quite rapidly — much faster than can be explained by natural selection. Perhaps we’ve experienced genetic evolution producing inter-group differences in behavior, but we’ve surely had tons of nongenetic cultural evolution. (Take a look at the penchant for “Hello Kitty” in Japan. That is not based on genes.) For Wade to write a whole book resting on this speculative house of cards — the idea that genes and natural selection are everything in explaining culture — is simply bad popular science.
There is some evidence. We know that all known measurable human behavioral traits are heritable, and that many (non-behavioral) human traits have been shown to have been evolving in the last few thousand years. What we don't have is linkage between behavioral traits and specific genes.
I wonder how Coyne knows that there is no genetic influence on the Hello Kitty penchant. Has it been shown not to be heritable? Do Japanese girls dislike Hello Kitty if they have been reared outside of Japan? These may seem like dumb questions, but there does not seem to be any science to back up what he says.
Update: Other comments:
Nicholas Wade is hardly an insignificant figure, being a longtime science editor and reporter at The New York Times and perhaps America’s foremost journalist on evolutionary matters, whose previous bestsellers have gathered almost universal praise. Therefore, I find it very odd that his most strident critics apparently have not bothered to carefully read the book they were attacking.And this:
The 144 letter signatories apparently couldn’t agree on _anything_ beyond ‘speculative Wade is speculative’, and that there’s a lack of good evidence on topics that have been intellectually taboo, career-destroying, and grant-unfundable for decades (surprise!).