Jonathan Marks, Professor of Anthropology at UNC-Charlotte recently found our blog and has left a thoughtful comment on a post by Donna related to the controversy about Nicholas Wade being invited to speak at the Leakey Foundation. He has also let us post his letter to the Leakey Foundation that he wrote in response to including Wade in the series. Thank you for joining the conversation Dr. Marks and providing us with your point of view. We look forward to more or your comments in the future. He tells us he has yet to receive a response from the foundation.
25 January 2007
Dear Leakey Foundation:
It has recently come to my attention that you are sponsoring a lecture series that includes, among legitimate anthropological scholars such as Eugenie Scott and Harold Dibble, two lectures by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times. Wade is the author of a recent book called Before the Dawn, which attempts to explain the relevance of genetics for understanding major aspects of human evolution and diversity.
As I am sure you know, the history of physical anthropology is replete with uncritical invocations of genetics. It is consequently incumbent upon the current generation of practitioners to be more circumspect. Wade’s work, however, is not characterized by such circumspection, and to many anthropologists his writings have consistently evoked an earlier generation’s casual reification and conflation of ancestry, race, and genetic determinism.
The book was reviewed in Nature (15 June 2006) by Ken Weiss and Anne Buchanan from Penn State, who called particular attention to “Wade’s determination to find simplistic natural selection behind every trait, and by a lack of attention to issues that are known to inhibit a credible understanding of complex traits, never mind their evolution.” They go on to say, “Wade’s explanations commit various well-known errors, such as equating correlation with causation and extrapolating from individual traits to group characteristics. Often his arguments and trait choices are laden with Western-oriented value judgments.”
And perhaps more interestingly, “Wade argues that Europeans resist ‘mad cow disease’ because their ancestors were selected for cannibalism. He also says that Jews were selected for higher intelligence than other peoples because of the calculational demands of money-lending. He suggests that high intellectual skills are a genetic adaptation that occurred only after the origin of settled societies in places such as Europe. And he says that the Chinese as a “race or ethnic group” excel at ping-pong, which should encourage researchers to look for a genetic explanation.”
They conclude by finding his work “in step with a long march of social darwinists”.
I don’t know who made the decision to include Wade in your speaker series, but I don’t think it brings credit either to the Leakey Foundation or to the field of anthropology. You might do well to reconsider future advice from whatever source recommended Nicholas Wade. Wade most certainly does not speak for the field of anthropology, and I hope his views are not endorsed by the Leakey Foundation, which is now legitimizing them.
Very truly yours,
Professor of Anthropology