Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond and Anthropology

     Ok, Anthropology, one day after my post on Nicholas Wade, and that post gets more hits than the last five or six posts here put together.  I get it, you like Nicholas Wade, and especially complaining about him.  You don’t like biological reductionism, and think that such studies are used to reinforce racist ideologies.  For what it is worth, I more or less agree.

But for some reason you don’t want to read stuff that critiques biological reductionism on its own terms, and opt for those presented by the anthropology’s favorite bogeymen, which from recent activity in the blogosphere seem to include Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and Razib Khan. I know because I follow the hits on this blog, and my account, and the hit masters are those posts which mention those three names.  In contrast, my April 30 post about six inches below this post is doing realtively poorly, as is the article it mentions “Of Looking Glasses and Mirror Neurons….” Which was published last month in Perspectives on Science.  It is about The Looking Glass Self, a fantastic concept from sociology, and the advantages of using it rather than that favorite of the biological world, The Mirror Neuron Hypothesis.  Please read this rather than the latest diatribe about Nicholas Wade, or the others.

And if you want a further dose of social scientific critique of biological data, go read Jonathan Marks What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, and Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.  It is better to read these classics, then to spend time complaining about the latest from Nicholas Wade or Jared Diamond.  There are plenty more great citations to social scientists like Susan Engel, Omar Lizardo, Timothy Ingold, Richard Wilkinson, Pierre Bourdiue in the bibliography of my article—believe me sociology and anthropology are in an excellent position to create an alternative to biological reductionism—just do it!

Anthropology is a wonderful subject—show the world how wonderful it is by practicing it, and have the confidence that the rest of the world will notice.  I certainly have.


Nicholas Wade Writes Again—And Again Anthropology Pays Attention

Nicholas Wade has a new book out, and the Anthropologists are sharpening their indignation—complaining because he treads on their private territory.  Sorry, anthro, you are not medicine or law, and do not have a monopoly over who practices what you preach.  Let it go.  Sometimes I think that the entire discipline is beset by a big-time inferiority complex

The solution?  Simply do good anthropology, and more importantly, promote good anthropology.  That might mean assigning Nigel Barley’s The Innocent Anthropologist, Jonathan Marks book What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee, Carol Stack’s All Our Kin, W. E.B. DuBois The Souls of Black Folk, and so forth.  Durkheim, Marx, Wollstonecraft, and Malinowski are also more worthy of your precious classroom time.  Talk about such books in your classes, have students read them, and stop wasting time setting up the strawmen of Nicholas Wade, Jared Diamond, and others you may not like.

Strawmen. Are. Not. Worth. Class. Time. Of. Which. There. Is. Too Little.

BTW, I assigned The Innocent Anthropologist this semester to a senior seminar in Social Science and again had a great response—so good that I’m going to try it out with a lower division International Engagement class next semester.  Barley is great because not only can you critique the limitations to functionalism, you can also talk about the nature of empathy, humility, cultural relativism, and ethnography.

And in a final BTW, if you want to see some posts here at from the last time Wade published a book, they are here, and here.  From way back in 2007.

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


I am a bit speechless, but maybe I can express it in blogging (now that I have this outlet).

So the current issue of Anthropology News has an article about biological anthropologists being upset with the Leakey Foundation for having journalist Nicholas Wade as one of their speakers (get the scoop here: Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience: Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?

That is not what I’m upset about. I agree, biological determinism should be questioned, critiqued, put into context, as necessary. What I’m upset about is this bit, from our AAA president, who states that (here I’m quoting from the aforelinked article):

‘biology is, in many ways, “separated out from the corpus of anthropology.”

Goodman recognizes that this practice, in part, has created an environment in which Nicholas Wade declares that many social scientists feel they needn’t bother at all with evolution or genetics. “They are ignoring the theory that explains all of biology,” says Wade, “of which humans are definitely a part.”

Because anthropologists of various subfields may too often see the foundations of human behavior and diversity through the limited lens of their own discipline, Goodman thinks “we really need a new science in which we look at how all of those things are interrelated…a science of development, a science of intersecting processes.”’

End quote. Read that carefully, boys and girls. The president of AAA (a biological anthropologist in his own right) seems to be suggesting that we need a new approach, a holistic approach, even, to the human condition.

Forgive me, I thought that was Anthropology.