Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience

Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?

Rachel Dvoskin

A group of anthropologists are outraged that the Leakey Foundation, which is the number one funder in the US of human origins research, invited New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade to speak as part of the foundation’s annual lecture series. One of them, Jonathan Marks of UNC at Charlotte, wrote a letter to the foundation decrying Wade’s use of what Marks described as weak and controversial evidence to support genetic determinist arguments and to promote the biologization of culture. The Leakey Foundation, whose highest priority after funding human origins research is public education, defends its decision on the basis of Wade’s ability to translate science for the public, as well as his ability to explain how DNA has expanded our understanding of human evolution.

“Somebody needs to get fired over it,” says Marks, who is an outspoken opponent of viewpoints he regards as anti-science or anti-intellectual. “Somehow [the process by which Wade was selected] needs to be made more transparent because it has given the field of anthropology a black eye.” The members of the Anthropology Advisory Committee of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), who wrote a similar letter last year to the New York Times in response to an article by Wade, are equally incensed. While granting that Wade—who has also been a reporter at Nature and Science, but is not himself a scientist—has a right to his opinions, these academics contend that by allowing him to speak at a Leakey-sponsored event, the foundation is legitimizing his views as normative in anthropology.

The Selection Process
The Leakey Foundation’s speaker series is administered primarily by its Communications Committee, which is made up of five or six members of its board of volunteer trustees. Most of the trustees, according to Board President William M Wirthlin II, are not scientists, but rather business professionals (and a few attorneys) who share a passion for science—paleoanthropology in particular—and are dedicated to the mission of the Leakey Foundation.

Every year, Camilla Smith, who heads the trustee-based Communications Committee, asks the scientists and board members to help her compile a list of candidates whom the board believes are involved in exciting research and who will also be good at reaching a lay audience.

Director of Communications Danielle Dana runs the logistical components of the lecture series, planning a schedule of about eight lectures a year. According to Dana, the list of speakers is vetted with the board of trustees and with the Scientific Executive Committee (SEC)—currently seven experts on primate evolution and biology. Final decisions are made by the trustees. When asked about his involvement in the process, Richard G Klein (Stanford U), co-chair of the SEC, said that he supposed that he “could have some influence over the speaker selection.”

“Occasionally they ask me if I have any suggestions,” Klein continued. “Mostly I just get a list saying these are the Leakey speakers for this year.”

In the case of Wade, some of the foundation’s trustees had heard him speak about his new book Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors on NPR’s “Science Friday,” and were impressed. “We thought that he would be able to tell the scope of things, the way it all kind of fits together,” says Communications Committee Head Smith, referring to the way DNA, the fossil record and even linguistics together tell the story of human dispersal out of Africa.

Smith recalls that the suggestion to invite Wade came from her and one or two others, including a trustee from Houston, where Wade eventually spoke at the Houston Museum of Natural Science as part of the foundation’s lecture series. Though Smith was not ignorant of Wade’s controversial opinions, she and the staff felt confident that Wade would draw an enthusiastic response and help them fulfill the goal of the lecture series, which, according to Wirthlin and Smith, is to increase public understanding of human origins by getting the message out to as broad an audience as possible.

The Letter
In January 2007, when Marks emailed a letter to the foundation questioning their choice of Wade as a speaker, Wade was already scheduled to give two talks. Leakey President Wirthlin did not discuss the letter with anyone at that time; his understanding, he says, is that the staff determines how any potential policy issues should be handled.

When paleoanthropologist Harold Dibble (U Penn) came to San Francisco in February to give the first lecture in the series, staff Director of Communications Dana and trustee Smith spoke to him about Marks’s letter. Dibble, who was blind copied (along with others) on Marks’s email, recalls that they mentioned the letter in conversation. He advised them that, in his opinion, they were not doing anything wrong by having Wade speak.

“Although we are really sorry to have offended [Marks] and anybody else, the purpose of the program is to make the science accessible,” explains Dana. “Nicholas Wade does that and he does it very well.” Arguing that part of their mission is to provide the public with a diverse array of views related to human origins, Dana concludes, “It isn’t our job to judge who is right and who’s wrong.”

The Controversy
Marks and his colleagues at NYAS remain baffled by the Leakey Foundation’s decision to have Wade speak. “There’s a widespread discomfort with the way he expresses the insights that molecular biologists might have about human behavior,” explains U of Hawai’i geneticist Rebecca Cann.

Wade’s critics object to his assertions that certain population-specific characteristics—the supposed violent nature of hunter-gathers such as the Yanomami and superior intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews, for example—may have been shaped over a relatively short period of time (in evolutionary terms) by natural selection and that, in effect, people of different nationalities or “races” may be born with different human natures.

His critics allege that among other errors and assumptions, Wade conflates race, ancestry and genetic variation, and that he mistakenly extrapolates from individual traits to group characteristics.
“Almost no geneticists use the term race,” concedes Wade. “In large part, that’s for good reason.… As a journalist, however, I feel that I should use words that people are familiar with. So if geneticists are in fact talking about what general readers think of as race, than that’s the phrase that we should use.”

Many argue that Wade reports on problematic hypotheses—such as the suggestion by anthropologist Henry C Harpending (U Utah) that Ashkenazi Jews were selected for superior intelligence because of the cognitive demands of their positions as moneylenders—without conveying to his audience the controversial nature of the arguments or giving sufficient weight to opposing points of view. Wade contests that in his book he explains quite clearly the assumptions that went into that particular hypothesis. “I can’t think of any caution I omitted from the discussion.”

Social Darwinism Redux?
A few researchers praise Wade for refusing to shy away from touchy issues in the name of what they believe to be merely political correctness. E O Wilson, whose praise appears on the cover of Wade’s new book, commented in an email on Wade’s well-informed and objective journalism. “I’m not surprised that there are still ideologues who find information on human genetics ‘dangerous’ to their ideas,” Wilson says, “but Mr Wade is not a justifiable target for their anxieties.”

However, many cultural and biological anthropologists warn that, when considered uncritically, Wade’s gene-centric explanations and sweeping generalizations, filtered through what some view as his Western-oriented value judgments, could be used to support eugenics and social Darwinist agendas.

“Nobody denies the fact that biology is the basis upon which the potential for human behavior takes place,” acknowledges NYU anthropologist Maria-Luisa Achino-Loeb, who co-wrote a letter in response to Wade’s New York Times reporting with fellow NYAS Anthropology Chair William P Mitchell. Yet Wade’s genetic explanations for population-wide differences in human behavior are anathema to Boasian anthropology.

Some academics believe that the opposition to certain avenues of scientific exploration and dissemination may be driven by a built-in agenda of social reform. According to Dibble, who has received grants from the Leakey Foundation, “It’s not up to the social anthropologists to determine how people think…. They’re not the intellectual police of everything social.”

“Genetics is rescuing us from the darkness in which social scientists have kept us for many decades,” says Wade. Plainly unconvinced of the value of social sciences to the current study of human origins, he continues, “Anyone who’s interested in cultural anthropology should escape as quickly as they can from their cultural anthropology department and go and learn some genetics, which will be the foundation of cultural anthropology in the future.”

Where to Go From Here
Whether Wade is careful enough in his reporting, and whether the Leakey Foundation—by sponsoring his talk—did any lasting damage to the field, it is clear that Wade has succeeded at capturing the public’s ear. Academics, on the other hand, are pulling together to renew anthropological participation in public discourse. In a symposium organized by Achino-Loeb and Mitchell for the upcoming AAA meeting, academics will discuss how and why anthropological science is so often misrepresented in the media, as well as the ways in which the public consciousness—and in turn public policy—is shaped by popularization of particular lines of scientific inquiry.

AAA President Alan Goodman is doing his part to chip away at what he considers a fundamental barrier to public understanding of the true complexity of the human story—the fact that biology is, in many ways, “separated out from the corpus of anthropology.”

Goodman recognizes that this practice, in part, has created an environment in which Nicholas Wade declares that many social scientists feel they needn’t bother at all with evolution or genetics. “They are ignoring the theory that explains all of biology,” says Wade, “of which humans are definitely a part.”

Because anthropologists of various subfields may too often see the foundations of human behavior and diversity through the limited lens of their own discipline, Goodman thinks “we really need a new science in which we look at how all of those things are interrelated…a science of development, a science of intersecting processes.” While encouraged by evidence that “biocultural” approaches are reemerging within anthropology, he advocates taking this integrative approach further, to the public—the classroom, for example, where he has taught eighth graders, who, he says, are “remarkably good at the obvious, at seeing that humans are their genes and their culture and their environment.”

Descriptions of the eight public education lectures sponsored by the Leakey Foundation can be found at:

Rachel Dvoskin received her PhD in anthropology from NYU and the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology, or NYCEP. She is currently the copyeditor of Scientific American Mind.