The Inconvenient Truth About Race

Reviewed by Marshall Poe

The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution
by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending
Basic Books, 2009, 304 pages.

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This is the most difficult book I’ve ever had to review. I’ve read it and read it again. I’ve interviewed one of the authors. I’ve discussed it with people who know the subject. I’ve thought about it until my head hurt. I’ve had a fight with my wife about it. I’ve even read other reviews in search of guidance. I didn’t find any, so I still don’t know exactly what I should tell you about it.

Here’s why: The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution, by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, argues that the various races that make up humanity are genetically different in significant ways. We’re not talking about skin, eye, or hair color. We’re talking about intelligence, temperament, and a host of other traits that affect an individual’s chances in life. The races, the authors claim, are differently abled in ways that really matter.

That, of course, is a dangerous thing to say. In 1994 Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray made a similar argument in The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. Critics pummeled the book and pundits had a field day excoriating its authors. Bob Herbert, a columnist for the New York Times, called it “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship,” and said that its authors were in effect calling African-Americans “niggers.” Herbert wasn’t alone in his opinions.

Faced with The 10,000 Year Explosion, one is tempted to say, “Here we go again!” throw up one’s hands, and be done with it. But that would be too easy. Cochran and Harpending are not racists dressed up as scientists; they are real scientists studying race (or, rather, the genetic traits of large human populations). The thesis they propose is not obviously ridiculous: The type of phenotypic variation we see among human beings is found in other species (such as domesticated animals) and clearly has an underlying genetic basis. Their argument will offend those who believe that people are “all the same under the skin,” but that’s no reason to dismiss it out of hand. In short, the authors deserve a fair hearing. If they are right, they are right. If not, then not. We’ll try to find out which it is.

Marshall Poe is a professor of history at the University of Iowa and host of New Books in History, a podcast of interviews with historians.

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