The intellectual explosion that didn’t happen

A few years ago, we discussed the book, “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History,” by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade.

Wade’s book was challenging to read and review because it makes lots of claims that are politically explosive and could be true but do not seem clearly proved given available data. There’s a temptation in reviewing such a book to either accept the claims as correct and move straight to the implications, or conversely to argue that the claims are false.

The way I put it was:

The paradox of racism is that at any given moment, the racism of the day seems reasonable and very possibly true, but the racism of the past always seems so ridiculous.

I reviewed Wade’s book for Slate, we discussed it on the blog, and then I further discussed on the sister blog the idea that racism is a framework, not a theory, and that its value, or anti-value, comes from it being a general toolkit which can be used to explain anything.

I recently came a review essay on Wade’s book, by sociologist Philip Cohen from 2015, that made some interesting points, in particular addressing the political appeal of scientific racism.

Cohen quotes from a book review in the Wall Street Journal by conservative author Charles Murray, who wrote that the publication of “A Troublesome Inheritance” would “trigger an intellectual explosion the likes of which we haven’t seen for a few decades.”

This explosion did not happen.

Maybe one reason that Murray anticipated such an intellectual explosion is that this is what happened with his own book, “The Bell Curve,” back in 1995.

So Murray’s expectation was that A Troublesome Inheritance would be the new Bell Curve: Some people would love it, some would hate it, but everyone would have to reckon with it. That’s what happened with The Bell Curve, and also with Murray’s earlier book, Losing Ground. A Troublesome Inheritance was in many ways a follow-up to Murray’s two successful books, it was written by a celebrated New York Times author, so it would seem like a natural candidate to get talked about.

Another comparison point is Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” which, like Wade, attempted to answer the question of why some countries are rich and some are poor. I’m guessing that a big part of Diamond’s success was his book’s title. His book is not so much about guns or steel, but damn that’s a good title. A Troublesome Inheritance, not so much.

So what happened? Why did Wade’s book not take off? It can’t just be the title, right? Nor can it simply be that Wade was suppressed by the forces of liberal political correctness. After all, those forces detested Murray’s books too.

Part of the difference is that The Bell Curve got a push within the established media, as it was promoted by the “even the liberal” New Republic. A Troublesome Inheritance got no such promotion or endorsement. But it’s hard for me to believe that’s the whole story either: for one thing, the later book was written by a longtime New York Times reporter, so “the call was coming from inside the house,” as it were. But it still didn’t catch on.

Another possibility is that Wade’s book was just ahead of its time, not scientifically speaking but politically speaking. In 2014, racism seemed a bit tired out and it did not seem to represent much of a political constituency. After 2016, with Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. and the rise of neo-fascist parties in Europe, racism is much more of a live topic. If Wade’s book had come out last year, maybe it would be taken as a key to understanding the modern world, a book to be taken “seriously but not literally” etc. If the book had come out when racism was taken to represent an important political constituency, then many there would’ve been a more serious attempt to understand its scientific justifications. At this point, though, the book is five years old so it’s less likely to trigger any intellectual explosions.

Anyway, the above is all just preamble to a pointer to Philip Cohen’s thoughtful article.