WASHINGTON — Science author Nicholas Wade came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify before a Republican panel about the origins of the coronavirus, but he was instead faced with questions about “A Troublesome Inheritance,” his controversial 2014 book on race and genetics, that Democrats noticed was endorsed by notorious racist and anti-Semite David Duke, as well as other white supremacists.
“I have nothing in common with the views of white supremacists,” Wade said at one point during the hearing.
“They love you though,” Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland replied, arguing that Wade’s presence was an affront to any legitimate investigation into the origins of the coronavirus — the subject of Wednesday’s proceedings.
Mfume, former head of the NAACP, said he was “appalled that this hearing is now getting over the issue of race.”
Visibly shaken, Mfume went on to tell Wade that he was “absolutely offended that you would get the chance to step onto this platform and add something meaningful to it.”
The tense exchange cast doubt on whether inviting Wade to testify at the first hearing of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic had been an effective move on the part of the Republican majority, which is trying to legitimize the idea that the coronavirus product was from a laboratory accident in China.
Wade favors that hypothesis, but his previous writings on genetics and race seemed to frustrate his attempts to focus the conversation on the pandemic.
The committee’s leading Democrat, Representative Raul Ruiz of California, used his opening statement to discredit Wade. “His participation damages the credibility of this hearing,” he said.
For a brief moment, Capitol Hill was embroiled in a nearly decade-old controversy, though the topics understandably still stir deep passions.
Born in England and a Cambridge graduate, Wade worked at the prestigious Science magazines and nature in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when he had settled in the United States. He joined the New York Times in 1982 and would remain with the paper for 30 years.
Wade has written a number of books during his career, but none have proved as explosive as his 2014 foray into the connection between race and genetics—a connection that had been dismissed by many by then.
In an effort to restore the disputed correlation, Wade ventured into some of the more inappropriate areas of what was once known as scientific expertise. (His supporters would say he was dragged into that fraught territory by detractors who didn’t actually read his book, but some of those critics seemed familiar with his arguments.)
Race science was a favorite pastime of the Nazis, who tried to gather evidence – such as skull shape – to claim that Jews and other people of non-European descent were inherently inferior. Eugenics in the United States also resorted to similar arguments to restrict immigration or expand civil rights for black people.
While racial divisions may seem enormous from cultural and social points of view, the genetic variations between populations are actually quite small.
Wade opposed that prevailing view. Intent on “demystifying the genetic basis of race”, he attempted to describe various racial groups, which he believed originated in Africa, Europe, and East Asia. He then tried to explain how these three groups evolved different genomes and how those differences shaped their respective cultures.
Those statements led to some highly suspicious claims, such as that Jews were uniquely “adapted to capitalism,” a classic anti-Semitic trope. Meanwhile, people of African descent had a “tendency toward violence,” according to Wade’s analysis.
The mainstream reactions to the book were harsh. In its review, the Times called “A Troublesome Inheritance” “a deeply flawed, deceptive and dangerous book” that would license racists, while the Southern Poverty Law Center accused Wade of marketing “peripheral racist theories masquerading as mainstream biology “. The American Conservative found the book unconvincing.
In a letter to the New York Times Book Review, 139 scientists (including many whose work Wade had cited) accused him of “misappropriating” research to advance discredited arguments. They stated that “there is no support in population genetics for Wade’s conjectures.”
Wade made headlines again with the advent of the coronavirus, emerging as one of the first science writers to challenge the plausibility of the prevailing view that the pathogen came from an animal before entering the human population, most likely in a market for wildlife in the United States. Chinese city of Wuhan.
He laid out the case for the so-called lab leak theory in a long post on Medium in May 2021. The article remains an important milestone for other skeptics of the official Chinese narrative. Still, many scientists believe the virus originated in animals before jumping to humans.
Wade vigorously defended his record – and his book – on Wednesday. “This was a determinedly non-racist book. It contains no scientific errors that I know of. It does not contain racist statements. It emphasizes the theme of unity,” he told lawmakers before him.
But his Democratic critics remained unconvinced, while some proponents of the lab leak hypothesis took to social media to express frustration that the important question of how the coronavirus originated has been overshadowed.