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Darwinist chastised for spinning “just so” stories, but he still brings home the bacon

Europeans resist “mad cow disease” because their ancestors were selected for cannibalism….Jews were selected for higher intelligence than other peoples because of the calculational demands of money-lending…


Nicholas Wade wrote a book on the supposed evolutionary history of humans. Wade’s book is ranked at #129 on Amazon, and my guess is that would be on the order of about 2,000 copies a day being sold (any one with a better estimate is invited to post, of course). So the book is “bringing home the bacon” as they say in the USA.

His book was reviewed in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature. (Some of you may not be able to access the article, so I’ll quote relevant sections here. The link however is at In your own image.)

The review of the book was a real take down. What is interesting is that in the process of slamming Wade, the reviewers reveal some interesting issue about the state of evolutionary “science”!

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.

Wade’s explanations commit various well-known errors, such as equating correlation with causation and extrapolating from individual traits to group characteristics….

…The book has many internal inconsistencies, and one can easily find contrary evidence or readily construct alternative ‘just so’ stories that invoke the same genetic scenario and the same kind of reasoning.

evolutionary arguments should be based on sufficiently credible, consistent and compelling scientific evidence. It is easy to claim that a trait is due to natural selection, but responsible selection-based arguments should have substantial experimental mechanistic support, at least for the fact of selection. That’s not the state of most current evidence.

Say it ain’t so. The state of most empirical evidence for natural selection having a major role in shaping evolution is lousy. Yet children are told the theory has Overwhelming Evidence.

Indeed, after 50 years of investigation, we can’t convincingly demonstrate selection for most of the red-blood-cell diseases, other than sickle-cell anaemia, that are probably coevolving with the strong selective force of malaria. Other best-case scenarios for human genetic adaptation, such as adult lactase persistence and skin colour, are also incomplete.

Say what! Natural selection has not been established to operate for certain obviously deleterious conditions! The visibility of certain traits to natural selection is a major topic of Genetic Entropy which points out the problem posed by a signal-to-noise ratio for natural selection. And here it is, Genetic Entropy‘s predictions are being at least partially borne out! Another triumph from a pro-ID scientist.

Human phenotypic changes can far outpace genetic ones, making it challenging to know whether such traits are even genetic, much less what they ‘evolved for’ millennia ago.

In addition, assertions of genetic causation should be built on what is already known about the difficulties of explaining complex traits, including behaviour or intelligence. The extensive literature documenting the subtleties of such traits undermines simplistic ‘evolved for’ scenarios, but Wade largely ignores it. The aetiology of complex traits is influenced by environmental factors as well as variation at multiple genes, greatly attenuating the causal impact of individual genes. We are far from understanding either the genetic architecture or the evolution of complex biological traits, even in the best data from experimental organisms unaffected by the blur of culture. Intensive gene mapping has typically failed to identify more than a fraction of even the genetic variation, much less all the variation, in such traits. The effects of experimental genetic manipulation in laboratory animals routinely vary significantly even among the few strains tested, and the life experiences of litter-mates, twins, inbred animals and clones are far from identical. Despite this sobering knowledge, Wade claims example after example of ‘genes for’ traits.

But why not just enjoy the sport of fanciful speculation, even if the arguments leak like sieves?

My answer: Why not enjoy the sport of speculation. There is money and fame for spinning evolutionary stories, no matter how unscientific. Just ask Richard Dawkins.

speculative evolutionary reasoning by leading scientists fed a venomous kind of darkness not too many decades ago. Wade’s post-hoc tales often put him in step with a long march of social darwinists who, with comfortable detachment from the (currently) dominant culture, insist that we look starkly at life in the raw and not blink at what we see. But given today’s limited understanding of complex traits, too often what one sees is oneself.

(thanks to David Coppedge for alerting me to this entertaining review!)

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2 Responses to Darwinist chastised for spinning “just so” stories, but he still brings home the bacon

  1. Its a good, sound review Salvador. I’d read excerpts elsewhere. If I remember correctly, the reviewers get hounded bitterly for their honest look at the book.

    “We are far from understanding either the genetic architecture or the evolution of complex biological traits, even in the best data from experimental organisms unaffected by the blur of culture.

    Now that’s facing reality.

  2. I am stunned by the popularity of this book. How to explain it? I think the reviewer hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “But why not just enjoy the sport of fanciful speculation, even if the arguments leak like sieves?

    People are enjoying the sport of fanciful speculation…but the author has not informed his readers that he’s working in this genre. Rather like Dan Brown writing The Da Vinci Code without the disclaimer: “this is just entertaining fiction, folks.”

    The book needs a warning label!

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