Today’s guest blog post is by the President of the American Anthropological Association, Monica Heller.
Nicholas Wade’s recent book, A Troublesome Inheritance, is not one I would typically spend my weekends reading, as I don’t have much interest examining theories of everything in this world and little patience for theories as misguided as those examined in his book. But as science editor at The New York Times Wade wields influence, and his book reserves a special role for the American Anthropological Association (AAA), an organization of which I happen to be the current President. Unfortunately, that role is of the bad guy in a narrative opposing two figures: benighted cultural anthropology and « politically incorrect » but scientifically accurate theories of cultural evolution.
Those scientific theories, he says, show that race is a central feature of human biology, and that it has a genetic basis, which then influences social behaviour, some of which is more « successful » than others – not surprisingly, the behaviour he characterizes as « well adapted » is characteristic of Caucasians, and especially of Western Europeans. But it’s okay, he reassures us, the rest of us (well, you – I’m Jewish, and according to Wade astonishingly well-adapted, though the Sephardic bits might slow me down) can learn, and our genes can look Caucasian too! There are many problems with this argument, of course, notably the frequent confusion of correlation and causation, and the frequent omission of consideration of alternative hypotheses (for example, the equating of IQ measurements with an individual intelligence trait, as opposed to, say, the ability to write standardized tests). I will let my colleagues in biological anthropology address those that they are best-placed to discuss.
My own major surprise showed up on page 3. Using a single study of age of first reproduction on Isle-aux-Coudres (Quebec) between 1799-1940, Wade argues that a drop of four years over that time period is evidence of genetic adaptation with permanent consequences, and hence of contemporary evolution. Wade also uses such examples to argue that genetics are the basis of such social behaviours, while simultaneously arguing that genetic changes result from social conditions. I am from Quebec, as it happens, and have devoted years of study to francophone Canada. I’ve driven by Isle-aux-Coudres on many occasions (it is very pretty, you should go). I know a little about the political economy of reproduction in francophone Canada, enough anyway to know that (and why) it went from having one of the highest birth rates in the First World (and relatively low age of first reproduction) through to about 1960, to having one of the lowest in one generation – a rate which has subsequently persisted, with concomitant relatively high age of first reproduction. (And I know enough about l’Isle-aux-Coudres to know there is no reason to believe things would be different there.) And I’m not even a biological anthropologist.
Indeed, as President of the AAA, I could not help but notice that Wade portrays contemporary cultural anthropology as entirely represented by the American Anthropological Association (though admittedly, Wade doesn’t always get the association’s name right; let’s hope his copy editors catch those errors). Next, he portrays it as entirely founded on the work of Franz Boas, as though no one has had an original thought or a critique of Boas in the last 100 years or so. Third, he portrays the association as entirely devoted to a particular form of cultural anthropology which Wade decries as refusing to acknowledge biology altogether because it is a victim of its ideology; this will likely surprise both cultural anthropologists and AAA sections like the Evolutionary Anthropology Society as much as it surprised me. I am sure such oversimplification and reduction is useful for a book hoping to make a single point to a general public, but it concerns me that it should come from the person responsible for the science section of the New York Times. The cultural anthropology character in Wade’s book (that would be the one wearing a blindfold and erring in mists of its own creation) is not one I remember ever having encountered.
But what really concerns me, in the end, is the force of theories of race and cultural evolution. The fictive naturalization of what are fundamentally relations of power is, actually, terrifying. It would be lovely to think that they are too silly to waste our time on, but Wade’s book shows that they are not going away any time soon, and that we need to redouble our efforts to show them up for what they are: attempts to justify inequality. It would be nice to have The New York Times on our side. We have a few black hats to share.