Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018

Search by issue:

Race doesn’t come into it

Meehan Crist attacks my book A Troublesome Inheritance as ‘dangerous and deeply unscientific’ (LRB, 25 October). It is indeed dangerous, but only to her mistaken view that there is no biological basis to human race.

In the 1950s the anthropologist Ashley Montagu decided that imperialism, racism and antisemitism were all driven by the idea of race and that all could be undermined by excising the word ‘race’ from the vocabulary. With the horrors of the Second World War freshly in mind, people went along with his proposition that race had no biological basis, and it gradually became dogma, particularly on the academic left. Sociologists began to assert that race was just a social construct, not a biological one. On the left-leaning campuses of the United States, even geneticists came to learn that it was career suicide to suggest any connection between genetics and race. I was unaware of this political background until, in the course of writing about the human genome project for the New York Times, I noticed that geneticists would freeze when asked about any of the voluminous new findings about genetic differences between human populations.

I found it preposterous that a small posse of obscurantist zealots had been able to stifle all academic discussion by branding anyone who disagreed with them a racist. As for the danger of encouraging racists, the compelling evidence of the genome is that all humans have the same set of genes, and all are variations on the same theme, hardly the basis for asserting that anyone is superior to anyone else. So I wrote a book that explained the new findings and said that yes, duh, there is a biological basis to race. A multitude of geneticists signed a letter attacking the book but without specifying any errors in it. Theirs was a political statement, not a scientific one.

I did not expect my book to receive many rave reviews but have been surprised at the sheer dishonesty of the arguments deployed against it. These have taken three approaches. First, blanket assertions, as per Ms Crist, that the science in the book is deficient, though she cites no actual errors in evidence. Second, the charge that the book talks of distinct races (and must therefore be racist), despite my statements that races cannot be distinct almost as a matter of definition. Third, I am accused of saying that some races are genetically more intelligent than others, even though the book says clearly that IQ scores cannot reliably be compared across races. A scholar’s duty is to clarify. Crist’s review is one long obfuscation that tries for political reasons to make the oddities and exceptions in genetics outweigh the regularities. But they don’t. As for politics, the best way to defend against racism is surely with the truth, not the tattered lie that race has no basis in biology.

Nicholas Wade
Montclair, New Jersey

Meehan Crist writes: Nicholas Wade takes issue with ‘the tattered lie that race has no basis in biology’, citing the existence of ‘genetic differences between human populations’. Here, as in his book, Wade conflates race with genetically defined human populations. No geneticist would deny that genetic variation exists across human populations as defined by geography. However, the question at hand is whether genetic variation defines race and explains putative racial differences in social behaviours.

Scientists and scholars suggest the answer is a resounding ‘No’. To see why, imagine yourself to be an early 20th-century scientist armed with DNA sequencers. You might have been keen to scope out differences between Northern and Southern Italians, who were then considered two different races. While certain patterns of alleles may still be more or less likely to show up in the genomes of people from the North or the South, the suggestion that they are distinct human races today seems absurd. That’s because we no longer believe them to be distinct races. Without the idea of race first, as defined by humans, the genetics of race is meaningless.

I do not say, as Wade suggests, that ‘the science in the book is deficient.’ The science he reports, in fact, has nothing to do with it. Without any scientific evidence, he speculates that genetic differences undergird different social behaviours and thus ‘the rise of the West’. Wade’s error, and the fundamental error of all proponents of a biological basis of race, is one of logic. You can’t look to genes for a story of race if you don’t already have a story of race in mind.

Smarter than you think

Rosemary Hill, in her piece on Queen Mary, mentions Prince Albert Victor, Victoria’s eldest grandson, known in his time as Prince Eddy, in the usual unflattering terms and in the usual context of the unsavoury scandals that continue to be associated with him (LRB, 6 December). It is perhaps worth pointing out that there was rather more to him than scandal.

In 1881, Prince Eddy along with his younger brother, the future King George V, visited Japan as midshipmen on board the warship HMS Bacchante. At the time Eddy was 17 and he seems to have acquitted himself well in handling the demanding protocol of the Japanese imperial court. At an audience the two boys had with Emperor Meiji and his consort, Eddy acted as spokesman, telling the emperor that a portrait of Queen Victoria was on its way to him as a gesture of friendship, and presenting the empress with two wallabies, which he had acquired during their earlier stay in Australia.

Andrew Cook, in Prince Eddy: The King Britain Never Had (2006), argues that there is no evidence to substantiate any of the rumours that swirled around his name long after his death. Prince Eddy’s diary and papers were destroyed by his aunt, Princess Beatrice, it seems, after his death, but Prince George’s diary, which is in the Royal Archives, and the private writings of others who accompanied them, such as the diary of Sir Ernest Satow, suggest that they behaved creditably in Australia and Japan, though their interests were rather juvenile for their guardian’s taste and George did insist on getting tattooed.

Prince Eddy was certainly not academically gifted, and it seems that the two boys served in the Royal Navy together because George was known to have a good influence on him. I do not want to suggest that he lived a blameless life, for he did not, but is it not going too far to give credence to the Duchess of Devonshire’s claim, many years after his death at the age of 28 in 1892, that he was ‘mentally deficient’, or to suggest that his death ‘came as pure relief to most people’? Perhaps it did in retrospect, after George had ascended the throne, but Gladstone wrote in the privacy of his diary at the time that his death was ‘a great loss to our party’, for Eddy appears to have had liberal views on the question of Home Rule for Ireland.

Peter Kornicki
London WC1

Rosemary Hill wonders if Queen Mary’s practice of asking for objects that she took a fancy to on visits to people’s houses could simply be a rumour. John Grigg in Lloyd George: War Leader (2002) describes how the queen, on learning in 1917 that Arthur and Ruth Lee proposed to offer Chequers to the nation as a country residence for the prime minister, asked if a portrait of Charles II at Chequers could be sold to her ‘for the Royal Collection’. As Grigg says, there was only one response open to the Lees in these circumstances, so the portrait was presented to Her Majesty with the Lees’ ‘humble duty’. In return she gave them a signed photograph of herself, framed in Benares brocade.

Ian Wright

Memories of Li Lisan

Miriam Dobson mentions the Chinese communist leader Li Lisan (LRB, 22 November). I remember seeing him from time to time in 1965 and early 1966 at the Soviet-built hotel in Beijing known as the Friendship Hotel (Youyi Binguan), where I was living as a translation editor employed by the Foreign Languages Press publishing house. He stood out in his long black overcoat, worn in the style of Georgy Malenkov, expelled from the Politburo by Khrushchev in 1957. A Chinese colleague told me that Li would go shopping at the special shops for foreigners at the Friendship Hotel. I knew that he and the military commander Peng Dehuai had lost their argument against Mao’s vision of a rapid transformation of the Chinese economy thanks to the Great Leap Forward, and had probably been exiled to a house in Beijing. I too fell foul of a ‘rebel’ group in the Cultural Revolution and was ‘imprisoned’, along with my wife and my ten-year-old son, for two years in a small hotel room in Beijing. I didn’t know that Li was murdered during the Cultural Revolution, probably because he didn’t have the protection of Mao or the prime minister, Zhou Enlai.

Eric Gordon
London NW1

Where the Raj Got Its Men

In his excellent article on the use of colonial manpower in the First World War, Jeremy Harding says that Britain had by the turn of the century ‘already sorted its Indian subjects into martial races – mostly hardy mountain types from the Punjab and Nepal’ (LRB, 6 December). First, while it is correct to say that the Punjab provided the bulk of the expanded British Indian Army during both world wars (Steven Wilkinson, in his book from 2015, Army and Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence, estimates between 30 and 40 per cent), this region is largely flatland. It is populated by the sturdy peasants who were indeed the focus of the recruiting policy of the Raj, but these were plainsmen farmers, not mountain men. Second, the Gurkhas mentioned by Harding were indeed mountain types, but they weren’t Indian, and neither were they British subjects, as Nepal remained a formally independent kingdom. When India gained its independence in 1947, the rest of the British Indian Army was divided between India and Pakistan, but the Gurkhas were the subject of a tripartite agreement between the newly created Indian state, the British government and the Kingdom of Nepal that divided up the peacetime force of twenty battalions, giving eight to Britain and 12 to India.

Conrad Barwa
London NW11

Bat-Shit Insane

Daniel Soar writes that the three academics who wrote fake papers to expose the shortcomings of cultural studies invented the name ‘grievance studies’ for ‘that section of the academy which identifies power imbalances in society and seeks to analyse them from the point of view of the marginalised or oppressed’ (LRB, 25 October). That’s odd, because I remember reading an essay published in 1999 entitled ‘Grievance Studies: How Not to Do Cultural Criticism’. Its author was your contributor Stefan Collini.

Charles Turner
University of Warwick

Daniel Soar’s statement that ‘any journal – Nature included – has to take it on trust that the data included in a study isn’t made up’ is untrue. Reputable journals do check against fabrication; and many, Nature included, have enhanced their checks in recent years as concerns about such breaches of scholarly integrity and the replicability of published research findings have mounted. Both journals and research funders across the world have also begun to insist that the data underlying published findings be made available for scrutiny by editors and reviewers as well as being made openly accessible to the community at large for further examination and possible reuse.

Michael Jubb
London SW11

Myths of Englishness

I can offer some empirical evidence in support of Alan Goater’s intuitions about the contrasting connotations of ‘remain’ and ‘stay’ (Letters, 22 November). A search in the British National Corpus, one of the large databases of authentic texts used by linguists to identify patterns and track changes in the use of specific words, reveals that the grammatical subjects of ‘remain’ are typically abstractions, often in negative contexts. Frequent examples include ‘congestion’, ‘inflation’ and ‘pollution’, all of which ‘remain a problem’, while often ‘questions remain unanswered’ and ‘problems remain unsolved.’ The subjects of ‘stay’ are more likely to be people, in concrete contexts such as ‘stay close’, ‘stay the night’, and in phrases such as ‘stay the course’, ‘stay ahead of the game’ and ‘stay put’. If the public is consulted again on the issue of EU membership, this suggests an argument for ‘stay’ as the counterpart to ‘leave’ on the ballot paper.

Alison Sealey
Lancaster University

There’s nothing harder

In a slightly caustic comment on Katrina Navickas’s review of Tim Rogan’s book The Moral Economists, Eoin Dillon casts doubt on E.P. Thompson’s ‘epiphany’ when he engaged in adult education in 1948 (Letters, 25 October). Dillon is quite correct in emphasising Thompson’s impressive political and military activity up to the age of 24, but is unduly dismissive of his subsequent move to Leeds University. Years later Thompson recalled that he ‘went into adult education because it seemed to me to be an area in which I would learn something about industrial England and teach people who would teach me.’ He rejected an obvious move to the Oxford Extramural Delegacy, chosen by several of his comrades, preferring the challenge of the industrial North of England. Over the next few years he taught four or five classes a week; undertook research that produced two outstanding books, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary and The Making of the English Working Class, as well as numerous political papers; became involved in shaping the way adult education developed in Leeds, emphasising the contribution of students’ life experience; and was a major force in the evolution of the new ‘history from below’. And he claimed that all this academic work took only half his time: the other half was spent on political activity, particularly the peace movement. In his early days in Yorkshire he became chair of the Halifax Peace Committee, secretary of the Yorkshire Federation of Peace Organisations and editor of a regional peace journal. He also continued his membership of the Communist Party until 1956. All this may not amount to an epiphany but it was a very impressive workload, quantitatively and qualitatively.

Roger Fieldhouse
Thorverton, Devon

Punch-Up in Congress

Eric Foner isn’t quite correct to say that Preston Brooks ‘immediately’ resigned his seat in Congress after his assault on Charles Sumner in May 1856 (LRB, 22 November). Brooks did not resign until July, when a motion to accept the report of a House committee that recommended his expulsion failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed for passage, though it did win a majority. Brooks then gave a speech defending his conduct and resigned, walking out of the chamber.

David Gordon
Auburn, Alabama

Big Man to Uncle Joe

In his review of Stalin’s wartime correspondence, Max Hastings rightly notes the disastrous cost which a premature attempt to open a second front in North-West Europe would have inflicted on Britain (LRB, 22 November). However, he omits to mention that one of the central purposes of the Allied bombing campaign was to support the Soviet Union by attacking the German homeland. From 1941 to 1944, this was effectively the second front. Its costs, as Max Hastings has himself eloquently described, were not insignificant. The RAF lost 55,000 aircrew killed, close to half of those who served.

Anthony King
Warwick University


My review of Kathryn Tempest’s biography of Brutus at one point suggests we can get a sense of Julius Caesar’s character from his letters (LRB, 6 December). I wish I could say I’d unearthed a cache of Caesar’s lost correspondence; I haven’t. There was a late editorial change to a (no doubt confusing) sentence in which I referred only to Cicero’s letters.

Thomas Jones
Orvieto, Italy

Like Themistocles

Stephen Sedley overlooks an entertaining episode of farce when he writes that ‘after Waterloo, nobody had even mooted a trial of Napoleon, save possibly by a French court for treason’ (LRB, 11 October). In fact, Napoleon himself was keen to be tried in a British court and wrote to the Prince Regent: ‘I come, like Themistocles, to throw myself on the hospitality of the British people. I put myself under the protection of their laws; which I claim from Your Royal Highness, as the most powerful, the most constant, and the most generous of my enemies.’ If treated as a prisoner of war, it would have been difficult to make a case for keeping Napoleon in captivity once a declaration of peace was signed, so to prevent such an appeal he was kept afloat, in Plymouth Harbour, where he was an object of public fascination.

In a contemporary case, Admiral Alexander Cochrane sued a journalist, recorded as ‘McKenrot’, for a defamatory article that accused Cochrane of cowardice. McKenrot had named both Napoleon and his brother Jerome as witnesses and travelled to Plymouth with the Napoleon sympathiser Capel Lofft to serve a subpoena requiring the brothers to attend court, which would have the force of law once delivered to the captain. They rowed out to the ship but as they approached on one side, the captain climbed down a rope ladder on the other, into another rowing boat. McKenrot and Lofft gave chase but were not able to deliver the writ that might have forestalled Napoleon’s exile to St Helena.

Ben Carver
Aarhus, Denmark

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences