In 2001, the New England Journal of Medicine published an editorial provocatively titled “Racial Profiling in Medical Research.” The author, Robert Schwartz, reiterated the commonly held view that no biological basis exists for race, and then argued that physicians should not consider race in their research or medical practice. This prompted a sharp response from geneticist Neil Risch, who pointed out that numerous studies had demonstrated significant genetic differences among humans based on continental ancestry, suggesting evidence of five distinct races. Among the reasons for recognizing such variations: research shows that people of different races sometimes vary in their responses to medicines.
The talented New York Times science reporter, Nicholas Wade, recounted this exchange in his 2006 book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, which contained a short section on how the latest genetic research challenges the received wisdom about race and biology. Now, eight years later, Wade is back with a provocative book on that subject. In A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Wade seeks to topple a whole set of related beliefs about human development prominent among social scientists, especially those on the left.
The decoding of the human genome, completed in 2003, has given added weight to the view that there is indeed a biological basis for race, Wade argues. More broadly, he contends, scientific advances now challenge the widespread notion that culture alone, with no contribution from genetics, is responsible for differences among human populations. To support that idea, many social scientists contend that human evolution all but stopped when the first modern humans emerged from Africa some 50,000 years ago. Wade, by contrast, argues that there is now persuasive evidence that “human evolution has been recent, copious and regional” and that understanding the continuing role of natural selection and its impact on our behavior may help illuminate everything from the origins of the Industrial Revolution to why some cultures fail.