Jonathan Marks response to the Leakey Foundation regarding controversial writer Nicholas Wade

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,

Jonathan Marks
Professor of Anthropology
UNC-Charlotte

One thought on “Jonathan Marks response to the Leakey Foundation regarding controversial writer Nicholas Wade

  1. Tony Waters

    Are Dandelions 33% Human?

    I agree with Professor Marks that books like Wade’s are biologically reductionist, and that this is a problem because it over-simplifies the social world, and ignores a wealth of data that culture is a human product, and not our genes. But, it is also true that such biological reductionism is the dominant paradigm in many of the biological, genetic, and psychological sciences which is why such an approach comes to the attention of outlets like NPR, and the Leakey Foundation.

    As Marks points out in the postings on ethnography.com, biologists go beyond their data too far when they infer that things like culture, ethics, morals, and consciousness are biological products. As he pointed out in his What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, the biological logic that asserts that because humans share 98% of their DNA with chimpanzee, we are 98% like them is absurd. This is particularly apparent Marks points out that the same logic would mean that we are 33% like dandelions because humans, indeed, share that proportion of our DNA with the yellow-flowered weed.

    This is not to say that genetic data is not useful in understanding some biological questions. Geneticists have developed tools, which in a robust fashion are able to infer patterns of ancient human migration. There are also genetic correlations with the development of culture, and speech which if correlated with other data from linguistics and archaeology can be used to make robust cases about the development speech and human communities. But as Marks points out, correlation and causation are not necessarily the same. Just because genetic selection takes place in primates, and primates have culture, it does not mean that natural selection drives culture change. The problem is not with the use of biological data, but the assuming away of culture as an independent variable. Admittedly, culture does not always meet the needs of biological models for irreducible positivistic data. Culture is a often paradoxical, but this is not a reason to assume that it is reducible to genetics, as any reader of Durkheim (or Jonathan Marks) knows.

    Indeed, in many circumstances biological structures are probably a product of the social world. For example, in the field of neurology right now, there is a great deal of excitement (and federal funding) for research into the nature of mirror neurons. Neurologists have recently discovered that (with their expensive instruments) that the brains of a primate which observes another of the same species doing something (e.g. eating) is active in the same fashion as the one actually doing the action. This biological capacity for firing neurons simultaneously, that is taking the role of the other, neurologists conclude, is the basis for the imitative activity which they infer is consciousness, and by implication, culture. In other words, the assumption is that culture is a product of the neurons. The idea is that culture creates the neurons and therefore is not an “irreducible phenomenon” is not typically entertained.

    But for a social scientist, mirror neurons are called “taking the role of the other,” and have for at least 100 years been the subject of the symbolic interaction world of sociological research. Indeed, Charles Horton Cooley, the social psychologist who did his research by in the early 1900s by simply observing his young daughter develop used the same metaphor, and described the same human capacity to mirror. But instead of “mirror neurons,” he called imitative capacity “The Looking Glass Self.” But in the world of neurology there is nary a reference to this vast literature, much less the classics dealing with the origin of society in social action.

    But back to the issue of the invitation from the Leakey Foundation to Nicholas Wade. Whether social scientists like it or not, the invitation reflects well the intrusion of the biologists/geneticists into anthropology. I doubt withholding invitations will change this intrusion. Charm actually works better. So do postings to ethnography.com, insistence on the social science perspective in reviews of neurology/genetics articles, letters to the editor, and so forth. Which is why I hope that there is a charming neuroscientist, or perhaps Nicholas Wade himself, out there ready to explain to Jonathan Marks what it feels like to be 33% dandelion!

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