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Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: A Troublesome Inheritance

A Troublesome Inheritance is a book about evolution and race. It's a thought provoking book and well-worth reading, though I found it disturbingly plays into stereotypes about races and individuality.

To begin with, the author makes what I consider are uncontroversial claims:

  1. Human evolution has not stopped, and evolution can work rapidly over as few as 20-30 generations.
  2. Human evolution and civilization goes hand in hand. For instance, in a large scale urbanized civilization, violent criminals are heavily punished, leading to aggression being bred out of the gene pool in relatively short order. In other words, humans have domesticated themselves over time.
  3. There's a strong relationship between geography and the type of civilization that evolves.
Unfortunately, he also makes several claims that I find difficult to believe, though he asserts that his notes at the end of the book provide research results that are strong.
For instance, he claims that the rise of the propensity for hard work, discipline and savings is due to wealth. Wealthy people during medieval times produced more surviving children. Since not all children can stay in the wealthy tier, some must therefore descend into the lower tiers, thereby introducing their genetic propensity for hard work, thrift, non-violence, and literacy into the rest of the gene pool, where they would later dominate. The evidence for this would have to be very strong before I can believe that it's a significant part of evolution during modern times. For instance, a lot of wealth isn't due to hard work, but being at the right place at the right time. This connection between wealth and all those factors might not be as strong as the connection between wealth and political/inter-personal savviness.

The big stretch in this book is when he claims that as a result of the cultural forces at play, the Western nations therefore evolved stronger tendencies towards novelty seeking, while the Asians evolved stronger tendencies towards conformity. This sneakily promotes some fairly obvious stereotypes again, with very little evidence. We simply don't know enough about genetics at this point to understand how personality is molded, and which parts of personality is determined by the environment, and which parts are what you are born with.

Now, there are some other claims that I think are quite believable. For instance, why have there been a preponderance of Jews in the sciences and other intellectual fields? Why are so many major award winners (Nobel prizes, etch) Jewish? There's quite a bit of evidence that there's been quite severe selection in the Jewish gene pool for IQ, which has also come along with a number of disadvantages such as genetic diseases unique to that race. This is entirely believable, especially since some of the genes creating those genetic diseases have also been linked to higher IQ.

The net result is that while I think this book is worth reading, especially in his debunking of say, Guns Gems and Steel, some of its wilder claims are a bit hard to believe. I can certainly see some politically minded folks seizing on this book as an opportunity to advance their causes. I fully expect certain sections of this book to be debunked in later research. But I'd recommend this book for everyone to read, bearing all these caveats in mind.

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