• A Troublesome Inheritance

  • Genes, Race, and Human History
  • By: Nicholas Wade
  • Narrated by: Alan Sklar
  • Length: 10 hrs and 48 mins
  • Categories: History, World
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (368 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Drawing on startling new evidence from the mapping of the genome, an explosive new account of the genetic basis of race and its role in the human story.

Fewer ideas have been more toxic or harmful than the idea of the biological reality of race, and with it the idea that humans of different races are biologically different from one another. For this understandable reason, the idea has been banished from polite academic conversation. Arguing that race is more than just a social construct can get a scholar run out of town, or at least off campus, on a rail. Human evolution, the consensus view insists, ended in prehistory.

Inconveniently, as Nicholas Wade argues in A Troublesome Inheritance, the consensus view cannot be right. And in fact, we know that populations have changed in the past few thousand years - to be lactose tolerant, for example, and to survive at high altitudes. Race is not a bright-line distinction; by definition it means that the more human populations are kept apart, the more they evolve their own distinct traits under the selective pressure known as Darwinian evolution. For many thousands of years, most human populations stayed where they were and grew distinct, not just in outward appearance but in deeper senses as well.

Wade, the longtime journalist covering genetic advances for The New York Times, draws widely on the work of scientists who have made crucial breakthroughs in establishing the reality of recent human evolution. The most provocative claims in this book involve the genetic basis of human social habits. What we might call middle-class social traits - thrift, docility, nonviolence - have been slowly but surely inculcated genetically within agrarian societies, Wade argues. These "values" obviously had a strong cultural component, but Wade points to evidence that agrarian societies evolved away from hunter-gatherer societies in some crucial respects. Also controversial are his findings regarding the genetic basis of traits we associate with intelligence, such as literacy and numeracy, in certain ethnic populations, including the Chinese and Ashkenazi Jews.

Wade believes deeply in the fundamental equality of all human peoples. He also believes that science is best served by pursuing the truth without fear, and if his mission to arrive at a coherent summa of what the new genetic science does and does not tell us about race and human history leads straight into a minefield, then so be it. This will not be the last word on the subject, but it will begin a powerful and overdue conversation.

©2014 Nicholas Wade (P)2014 Penguin Audio

What listeners say about A Troublesome Inheritance

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating page-turner

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes, I already have. Ok, so I didn't actually turn any pages, but I did listen to the last two-thirds of the book in one Saturday sitting. This is a subject matter that I'm passionately interested in, but lack any science background to appreciate previous books that I've read. I would recommend it as a good broad introduction to evolution and natural selection.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

The author's theories. He covers many questions that I have pondered on myself, offers some fascinating theories, and compels the reader to continue questioning. There are some interesting rebuttals to Jared Diamonds books. I also appreciated the citing of Fukuyama's books on political order. Wade suggests (I think) that our propensity for different forms of government may be inherited in our genes. This would explain why tribal cultures have difficulty in maintaining democracies.

What about Alan Sklar’s performance did you like?

I found the narrator's voice to be pleasant and commanding. I never want the narrator to be the star. If I'm rarely aware of the voice and delivery, then s/he has done a good job. That was the case here.

Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

I wouldn't say that I was "moved", but what I read is still with me a week after I listened to it, and it has piqued my interest enough to read more about the subject.
Having read some of the book reviews on Amazon, I applaud Wade's courage to write such a controversial book.

12 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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very interesting listen

I don't know why we can't talk about these things more openly. Instead we tiptoe around them when we all know that the majority of what is in this book is blatantly obvious.

2 people found this helpful

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An absolute must read

In the current societal climate where science and research have seemingly fallen out of favor in relation to emotional sophistry, this book is an oasis of reason and evidence.

2 people found this helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Important, enjoyable, understandably tentative

60% of this book is the author laying out in painstaking detail his defense against the charge of racism. This is done though pretty adroitly and doesn't detract overly from the content of his argument. While I don't agree with every conclusion, this is an important book that I enjoyed a great deal and I'm​ more knowledgeable for having read it. What more can I ask?

2 people found this helpful

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  • c
  • 05-28-17

Thought provoking, but not always in a way I liked

Any additional comments?

I gave the book 4 stars because it was so thought provoking, but not always in a way I liked.

I am a bit torn with this book because I liked some of the postulates, especially being critical of those who refuse to see differences between peoples based on shared history and genetics (a slippery slope to be sure). Many others, I disagreed to the point of vehemence, including the assertion that culture is a genetic creation.

Nicholas Wade is critical of the science community for avoiding the obvious biological differences in the genes between different peoples based upon geography or other physical characteristics some refer to as “race”. I have believed for years that understanding genetic differences can improve quality of life through more directed treatment. One size does not fit all. So where it is helpful to quality of life, then the differences (albeit race) should be embraced and studied without fear of being called racist.

Nicholas Wade gives a good and interesting discussion about the history of civilizations and genealogy of East Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. He then does a nice job of debunking the 19th century belief of eugenics and shows how wrong folks got it back then. The author had me believing he held an objective view when he disparagingly quoted Charles Davenport, PhD (19th century eugenicist): “Can we build wall high enough around this country so as to keep out these cheaper races? Or, will it be a feeble dam leaving it to our descendants to abandon our country to the blacks, browns and yellows and seek an asylum in New Zealand?” This quote echoed many 2017 presidential campaign promises and made me cringe. Was Wade going to help identify how the macro differences in genes of large populations could be better used to improve the quality of life? I was so hopeful this book was going to be good…

Many of the book’s statements challenged my current beliefs and, as usual, I considered them and did not dismiss them out of hand. One challenge that was implausible to me: Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs, and Steel) got it wrong, and that resources were not the reason for some societies being “behind”. Wade claims “clearly culture is genetic based, just like skin color.” This is definitely NOT clear to me and many others. He goes on pounding the concept that humans lose aggressive tendencies when living in large communities, unlike the more warlike hunter-gatherer populations. He explains this through numerous arguments, all the time pleading the reader to buy into the “implied”, or “plausible”, or “indicative” notions he is promoting when evidence is simply not available.

Wade does go on to say that his assertions may never be proven because interaction between diverse genes is so complex and will not likely ever be understood. I agree with that statement. If you have faith in the author, maybe his words are compelling enough for you to accept, but not for me.

I was disappointed the author did not mention epigenetics once. That may have improved the quality of some of his arguments.

This was a very interesting and controversial read for me. I highly recommend it.

2 people found this helpful

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This is NOT Racism!...

For decades, feminists railed against the very idea that there were any fundamental biological differences in males and females that would influence basic behavior and social roles (despite clear knowledge about the roles of testosterone and estrogen on behavior!), and along came brain science and showed that yes, there are differences in the male and female brains that lead to different behavioral and social tendencies. And now the same for race. Here is the simple fact, PC or not, like it or not: the closer you are to any group genetically, the more you are going to be like that group. Don't like it? Complain to God or the Big Bang or Darwin. Genetics are genetics. Now, does this excuse things like prejudice, social engineering, genecide? Of course not. Does this mean that there is NO role that envirornment plays in development? Of course not. Does this mean that every woman is the same as every other woman and that every black person is exactly the same as the next? Of course not. It does mean that biology plays a big role in behavior and that the closer you are to someone genetically, the more of their behavioral tendencies you will inherit. That's science. Live with it.

44 people found this helpful

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Scientifically accurate. Historically false

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

I am a genetic researcher and a collaborator in an international consortium on characterizing the diversity of the human genome across varying populations.The science in this book is up to date. He mentions the paper on EDAR variants in east Asians, which is true. Unfortunately he is outside the loop in academia and got somethings wrong.

Race is not an issue in science, we acknowledge there are genetic differences in people and we correct for that in GWAS. We do not make claims, as Wade does, such as Africans tend to be more aggressive because of a single gene variant. Aggression is not determined by one gene, and not all Africans carry this trait. A fact Wade neglects in his racially charged book.

THE LARGEST FLAW is his belief that there was "a genetic change that occurred in Europe after the 1300's that made them more innovative", and subsequently dominating world culture. There is not a shred of evidence backing this claim.

He completely neglects the fact that China, India, and the Middle East were all innovative societies at one point. Instead he broadly paints a revisionist view of history and claims that China's authoritative government and the Islamic Empires' intolerance is based on genetics and is the explanation why these regions are less influential. China was very innovative at many points in its history and the Arab empire from 700s-1200's was extremely tolerant (relative to fundamentalists) and science flourished for 500 years.

Europeans are one of the least diverse continental groups of people. How do you explain the innovative, liberal governments in the West to the autocratic governments that still exist in the East?

IN SUMMARY: The science is up to date, and is valid. But Wade's interpretation of the science is flawed. He is not an expert but a science writer. His historical views are revisionist and racially charged.

If this book were a movie would you go see it?

No

Any additional comments?

Good on science, bad on interpretation, horrible and revisionist in history. Racially charged, even though he claims it's not.

29 people found this helpful

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great boom

While it's a bit "sciencey" it's puts things in plain terms that everyday people can understand. This book should be a required read for any senior in high school.

1 person found this helpful

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My questions were answered

I'm not a scientist. I've always wondered about genetics, race, intelligence and evolution. I've done a lot of research over my 50 years on earth concerning these subjects. This book finally answered all these questions for me.

1 person found this helpful

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So close to being a good book...

The premiss that a type of society creates evolutionary forces that alter the genome is interesting but is totally unsupported by the data presented.

This whole book reeks of "I'm not a racist but..." Trying to use evolution to explain racial stereotypes gives evolutionary psychology a bad name.

2 people found this helpful