Nope, Racial Groups Do Not "Genetically Inherit" Behavior

Illustration for article titled Nope, Racial Groups Do Not "Genetically Inherit" Behavior

Former New York Times writer Nicholas Wade recent made a "scientific" argument for white supremacy, claiming that Europeans are genetically predisposed to "nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience." Now, Scientific American has published an essay showing why this is complete nonsense.


University of British Columbia researcher Eric Johnson has been studying the intersection of politics and Darwinism for several years, and in his essay he reveals the fundamental flaw in Wade's so-called scientific reasoning. By extension, he explains why there can be no scientific basis for the claim that different racial groups evolved different character traits.

Johnson writes:

Wade seeks ... support for his hypothesis that Europeans evolved to be more peaceable and tolerant in the experiments of Soviet biologist Dmitriy Belyaev. By breeding wild foxes, Belyaev showed that selecting for tameness could produce animals that were just as doting as domestic dogs in only 30 to 35 generations. Wade calculates that there have been 24 human generations between the year 1200 and today, "plenty of time for a significant change in social behavior if the pressure of natural selection were sufficiently intense."

This selection pressure, Wade says, was an agrarian economy and the Industrial Revolution. Individuals who were more productive, and delayed their gratification by saving instead of spending, gained wealth at a faster rate and had larger families. (Wade cites one estimate from England suggesting that those with £1,000 or more at death had an average of 4 children while those with less than £25 had only 2). But, because there were a limited number of upper class families, most wealthy children had to marry beneath their station. These genetic entrepreneurs carried with them their industrious DNA down to the commoners.

[Writes Wade:] "Their social descent had the far-reaching genetic consequence that they carried with them inheritance for the same behaviors that had made their parents rich. The values of the upper middle class—nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience—were thus infused into lower economic classes and throughout society."

... Even if we assume that genetics is primarily responsible for "nonviolence, literacy, thrift and patience" (which it is not), there would still need to be evidence of a clear reproductive benefit in order for these behaviors to be "infused into lower economic classes" by having sex with the rich. Wade's evidence for larger families among the wealthy in England (the only data Wade cites) comes from the 2008 book A Farewell to Alms by economic historian Gregory Clark. However, while Wade highlights how the richest 1% had twice as many children as the poor majority, he conveniently omits what Clark determines just three pages later, which is that this relative increase lasted only a very short time. This omission says a great deal about Wade's commitment to both science and journalism.

Even if the English upper class had larger families than the poor, this did not continue into subsequent generations. After his first analysis, Clark looked at the number of grandchildren per child at different economic levels and came to very different results. The precise numbers are not cited, but according to the figure he provides (see below) there was only a slight increase in the number of grandchildren between the poorest and wealthiest families (less than 0.1 grandchildren per child). "So clearly this advantage is not perfectly heritable," Clark concludes, "or this ratio would have been close to double for these groups."

If Wade's argument is to be correct — that is, if genetics is to explain the transmission of social behavior throughout Europe and give rise to Western superiority — there would need to be evidence of strong heritability in the traits he thinks were important. Based on the evidence from Clark that Wade himself cites, this is not the case.

Illustration for article titled Nope, Racial Groups Do Not "Genetically Inherit" Behavior

Johnson's argument here is an excellent refutation of Wade's central premise. But it's also a great way to respond generally to the idea that somehow different racial or class groups have inherited different personalities or character traits over the past few centuries. We have no evidence that there is a reproductive advantage in being part of the ruling class. Indeed, demographers have noted that people in the developed world reproduce far less than people in the developing one. So by sheer Darwinian logic, it would seem that there is a far greater advantage to being in Africa than there is to being in Europe.


You should absolutely read the rest of Johnson's fantastic essay on his blog The Primate Diaries, on Scientific American.


Photo by DNF Style via Shutterstock


I'm having difficulty reconciling the idea of Europeans being non-violent with pretty much the entire history of Europe.