Some thoughts on Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance. When he asserts that Western societies have been more successful than others how does he define the notion of ‘success’? I also wonder about his assertion that societies organized along tribal lines are less successful than others. Given the current situation developing in Ukraine, I would say that European society is still very much organized along tribal lines. There are ample historical examples that highlight the this idea. Moreover, the first half of the twentieth century amply demonstrated that Western societies need to be very careful about patting ourselves on our collective backs about our notional ‘success.’ The same goes when we consider factors such as climate change. At this rate, it looks like we might be undone by the very ‘success’ of our technological achievements. Even cursory examination of historical evidence clearly indicates that Western culture reached its current position of global dominance due to geographic good luck. Technologies and concepts that developed outside Europe like agriculture and animal domestication, written language, the compass and rudder, the so-called Arabic numeral system, lateen sails, windmills, etc. were borrowed by European societies from others and used to build global dominance. Why don’t the societies that developed those concepts get credit for Western success? By 1400 CE, China was far and away more organized and powerful than any European society. See the exploits of the explorer Zheng He as an example: decades before Columbus was born, Zheng was exploring the Indian Ocean with a fleet of hundreds of ships. Do we use this evidence to show that Chinese people were naturally selected for success? Based on Wade’s arguments, we would have to posit major genetic changes in the Chinese population over just the past six hundred years to explain China’s decline and subsequent re-emergence as a world power.
Wade should read the excellent book Guns, Germs and Steel by the physiologist Jared Diamond, which discussed these issues in depth. It is undeniable that some aspects of what Arthur de Gobineau, Herbert Spencer and other 19th century thinkers categorized as ‘race’ are biologically based. Skin colour, hair texture, facial features, body type, and even some ethnically-specific diseases (such as Tay Sachs and sickle-cell anemia) have genetic underpinnings. Some cultural behaviours are also probably underpinned by our genes. But by Wade’s own admission, any genes that code for cultural behaviours have yet to be discovered. Until they have been positively identified, I think our best position on this issue is agnosticism.