“A Troublesome Inheritance” still provokes controversy, but over eons environment does affect the genetics of different peoples

Nicholas Wade (science reporter for the New York Times) created controversy and anger with his 2014 book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”.  Right away, I wonder if this is the conservative-to-libertarian answer to Al Gore’s idea of “An Inconvenient Truth” as a book and movie title.

Let’s go over his basic argument.  Mankind originated in Africa (we are all “black”), and a mass migration north split off into two groups:  one group, gradually becoming Caucasian, settled Europe, the Middle East, and India. Another, becoming “oriental” settled East Asia, centered on China.  More recently further splits led to separate groups in Australia (aborigine), and the Americas (across the Bering Strait).

Mankind started out living in tribal groups with very close association with biological kin, as is common among other primates and many social animals.  First in Asia, and later in Europe, as populations increased and faced a “Malthusian trap”, populations had to organize into larger social and political groups (sometimes mediated by religion) to feed themselves.  Gradually, as social structures became more complex, society started to reward deferred gratification and individual problem solving. Families who were good at these skills, compared to using short term use of force and tribal violence, tended to prosper, especially as commerce developed. They had more children.  So in some parts of the world people are better adapted to modern civilized living than in others.

Africa, by comparison, did not have the population growth and geography that favored the growth of modern states, and colonialism intervened before it had time to catch up.  Likewise, smaller populations in the Americas and Australia did not have as much population mass to build modern states, although it seems to me that the Incas and Maya indeed built impressive civilizations.

For other reasons having to do with geography and the relative safety from invaders, Europe went through a second wave of innovation and developed openness to modern science (and balancing the power of the centralized state with other institutions) that led to technological superiority.  This is not always connected to “white people”.  Muslim populations in the Middle East often maintained tribal ways for geographical reasons, and tended support religious fundamentalism in a tribal context.  In China, innovation did not continue as quickly because the state became too centralized and conformist.

Wade has a lot of discussion of genes, alleles, and the statistical nature of how these are distributed.  At an individual level race may mean nothing as to innate capacity.  But in the aggregate, aggregate small differences in some psychological traits associated with genetics can wind up having profound political consequences.

Some reviewers have criticized Wade’s analysis of genetics (like on a final exam in Biology 101).  He gets into the issue of IQ, and notes that by some measures East Asians measure the highest, then Europeans, and then Africans.  But the work of others “A Path Appears” by Nicholas Kirstoff, would claim that the relative intelligence of groups in different parts of the world has a lot to do with child medical care and the availability of early learning. But Wade maintains that it is not easy to teach “western values” to tribal populations.

Wade also goes into detail on the relative success of Jewish populations in intellectual and artistic pursuits, and hints why western classical music sounds richer and more nuances than tribal or folk music of many parts of the world.

I think that Wade’s comments on the values of tribal societies are very interesting. Tribal groups (most of all, hunter-gatherer) are both egalitarian within and authoritarian. The values behind some kinds of religious social conservatism (like “The Natural Family” by Carlson and Mero) reflect extended familial or tribal values.  In tribal culture the nuclear and extended families develop slowly as social constructs, with many rigid rules about gender.  It takes many generations for nuclear families to develop and it may venture toward polygamy, favoring more powerful alpha males; in the beginning, most men interact with women and protect them from rival tribes collectively.  Sexual intercourse is strictly about procreation and, when in marriage, is connected to local privilege over the lives of others in the family.  Family values evolve from a system where most men had to be good at warrior behavior to protect the women and children in the tribe.  The refusal for a man to sacrifice himself when required to do so for the tribe is considered cowardly, and Wade bluntly points this out.  That relates to the practice of military conscription of men by more advanced states. It also helps explain “homophobia” (and now “transphobia”) and why modern gay rights seems so recent and so dependent on modern civilization.  But the practices of some native tribes would refute that claim.  In any case, personal morality is about a lot more than just making wise choices according to consequentialism.

Modern neuroscience does support the idea that various personality traits are influenced by genetics (and for sexual orientation and sometimes gender identity, epigenetics — I won’t get into how traits that seem to hinder procreation remain persistent here).  Sometimes these can become pathological or destructive, as in various recent violent events related to mental illness and probably somewhat to genetics.   Indeed, the existential “combativeness” of young men in tribal cultures seems hard-wired to a degree shocking to people who have grown used to openness.  So it seems reasonable that over time, characteristics that promote individual competiveness in an open society, rather than just following the group, could be favored and become more common in an advanced culture.

There’s one other thing to say “in favor” of tribalism, as it occurs in nature.  I think there are reasons that it may connect to “the afterlife” (through genetics) better than a self-directed individual’s own “soul”.  I’ve covered this recently on my News Commentary blog. Ponder again, the big cats: lions are social, tigers are not, and in a pride the alpha male lion guards his own lineage first.

Author: Nicholas Wade
Title, Subtitle: “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History”
publication date 2014, 2015
ISBN 978-0-14-312716-1
Publication: Penguin, 278 page, paper, indexed, 10 chapters
Link: Charles Murray review

(Posted: Saturday, June 24, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

“Human”: People around the world tell their stories, which add up, against alien-looking scenery

Human“, the project of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, alternates interviews with ordinary people from all over the world with aerial images of people in collective actions, or sometimes scenery that is so abstract in design and non biological colors that it looks alien.

The first interview presents a convicted murderer who meditates on learning what love and forgiveness mean. In time, other interviews present what makes humans tick, and some of it is chilling. A couple young men present what makes them want to fight an enemy in a brotherhood (jihad). Others talk about being socialized to sacrifice themselves to overcome common enemies. But as the film progresses, the interviews open up. In the middle section, several gay people speak, starting with a woman who had sex with a man under family pressure and got HIV from heterosexual activity. The religious objection to homosexuality, especially within Islam, is briefly explored. So is immutability.

Then the interviews move back toward a bigger vision of social justice.  One speaker (an Aborigine) mentions that earlier cultures did not have words to indicate personal ownership of anything. There is a lot of attention to the enslavement of low-wage workers overseas in quasi-dorm life.

The intervening photography is stunning.  One of the first images is of people playing soccer on a mountain plateau.  There are mass crowds with human columns and waves.  There are odd images of gas and water that look like they come right out of Christopher Nolan (“Interstellar”).  There is a shocking scene of manual labor in a mine in Russia.  Near the end there is a shocking scene of the slums in Senegal. There are over 60 filming locations.  There is an interesting abstract of Manhattan at night with the reflected light manipulated to look like fire.

The music score, by Armand Amar, resembles the music of Philip Glass.

A possible comparison would be “Koyaanisqatsi“, by Godfrey Reggio (1982).

Senegal scene similar to film, Wiki.

Name: Human
Director, writer:  Yann Arthus-Bertrand
Released:  2015
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Filmfest DC, Landmark E St, 2017/4/24, large auditorium, full
Length:  143  (full theatrical is 190)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official, Filmfest

(Posted: Monday, April 24, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

Salero: a stunning journey to the salt flats and industry in the Bolivian Andes


Name: Salero
Director, writer:  Mike Plunkett
Released:  2016
Format:  M (1.85:1)
When and how viewed:  At Maryland Film Festival, Baltimore, 2016/5/7, at Single Carrot Theater, show sold out
Companies: Cinereach
Link: Site

The word “Salero” literally means “salt shaker”. The documentary by Mike Plunkett, in 76 minutes, gives us a visit to what looks like the surface of an alien planet.  That is, the salt plains among the Andes (part of the “Alteplano”) at 12000 feet in Bolivia.  The famous Lake Titicaca is a few hundred miles away.

The film traces the changes in life there through the eyes of Moises Chmabi Yucra and his family. Moises has worked the salt flats his entire life.  Salt, as an industry, is left over from the colonial Spaniards. But the discovery of lithium ore underneath the salt (and apparently in nearby mountains) will change everything.  This will be Bolivia’s own industry, making it a “Persian Gulf” for the whole worldwide tech industry for a few hundred years.  It will also affect how Moises earns a living (now his work has more to do with constructing new hotels and homes) in Uyuho or toward Cochabama), as well as his daughter’s future.  She will get to go to college and work in tech.


This film would have been a good candidate for Imax 3-D.  There are many shots of the plains, with the salt almost as white as snow, but chunkier and more textured.  The mountains are distant. In some shots, irrigation water (as land use changes to farming) mixes in to produce a surreal effect, truly alien in look.


The director said that the film crew had to wait out protestors to get to the filming site in one case.

Wikipedia attribution link for Travel and Stuff, under CCSA 2.0.  typical salt picture.

There was a QA at the Maryland Film Festival with the director Mike Plunkett.  A particularly interesting comment concerned the demonstrations which hindered getting to the site and filming for a while. A previous demonstration had taken 90 days.  It took 10 hours from La Paz by bus to get there, but now there is a small airport.

A few short QA clips (each < 1 min):

Clip 1

Clip 2

Clip 3

Clip 4

(Published: Sunday, May 7, 2016, at 12:30 PM EDT)