When Authors Need a Dose of Humility

It’s a saying sentiment among writers I know and respect that you can’t write well unless you read a good bit. That’s often the difference between a serious writer and an amateur with dreams of grandeur: the serious writer cares about her or his craft. The not-so-serious writer thinks they know everything or has a chip on their shoulder.

Look at the mirror and ask yourself, which are you? I don’t mean to be flippant or accusatory, but sometimes we all need a dose of humility. And sometimes humility is needed even among those who are extremely bright (perhaps especially for those who fall into that category).

CHAUCER_HengwrtNowhere has this struck me as more true than with a recent author I discovered. Nicholas Wade. Wade’s thought-provoking book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, offers a genetic-oriented glimpse at what made humans tick and evolve over the past 50,000 years and defeat other early human species. It’s an incredible book because Wade offers some very non-intuitive explanations for how we humans (homo sapiens humans) got to be where we are today.

His explanation of how we domesticated wolves into dogs, for example, destroyed a lot of the misconceptions I had once held. You might be wondering, why was I reading this book as a fantasy / science fiction author? Well the answer is simple: to write good stories, often I’ve found that truth really is stranger than fiction and books on these types of topics can be awesome springboards for new stories and novel ideas.

Back to the main point though: Nicholas Wade, for all his brilliance, also could use a little dose of humility. Some of his more controversial claims are not backed up by evidence, and that’s a shame since he is a really good author. Like any author, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to be vigilant about your own biases. In the case of Nicholas Wade, his main problem is that he is so focused on the power of genetics (genetic drift, natural selection etc.) that he too often wants to see evidence where there isn’t any. It’s like a good storyteller who stumbles in his story by having his characters suddenly behave out of character just to prove a certain moral; it just doesn’t work.

So this is where I felt completely blindsided: Nicholas Wade discusses how geneticists “frequently” find that women have had  children by men other than their mate. Wade goes on to hint strongly that infidelity is a prominent, hard-wired trait in human nature (i.e. in women).

Now I have a problem with this, on many different levels. If you’re going to make a controversial claim (i.e. women have this genetic imperative to sleep around), then you better back up that claim with sound scientific evidence. Nicholas Wade doesn’t do this. In fact, he points to what he calls a “rule of thumb” among geneticists doing DNA tests which states that “5-10%” of tests reveal a different father than expected. Then he extrapolates from that sketchy factoid that this somehow proves that a genetically-wired trait of infidelity is likely at work among humans.

Throwing out a vague 5-10% number shows what is really at work here: guesswork. Wade’s geneticists have no idea how prevalent infidelity is among humans. How could they when the average person never has a genetic test done in their lifetime?? Let’s say it is 5.2% instead of throwing out some vague range. Okay, so 5.2% of genetic tests result in some unexpected paternity somewhere in the lineage. That hardly qualifies as “frequently”, right? When something happens 5.2% of the time, I don’t know about you but I call that RARE. By overstating his case, Wade isn’t doing himself any favors.

Wade also fails to point out something important here: surprises in paternity for a genetics test could be the result of other factors at work, not just infidelity. If you have adopted family members in your genealogy, chances are you may have surprises when it comes to paternity. If people lied about their family history for cultural reasons, geneticists aren’t going to pick up on that either. In many cultures having a child with someone of another race is frowned upon; lying about the identity of one parent would then become a cultural decision, not a genetically-ordained tendency toward infidelity.

The point here is straightforward, at least in theory. If as an author you can’t back up your claims, it’s time to choose some different claims. If as a fiction author the story you’re writing doesn’t build toward the ending you envisioned, don’t force it. Change the ending! The same can be said of writing in the nonfiction universe. Sometimes a dosage of humility is exactly what we writers need.

If you have a slanted perspective, take ownership of it and question yourself. Your readers will benefit – and by the way, so will you.

Final Note: I would still recommend Nicholas Wade’s book as a good read overall. Just be prepared for an overly genetic-oriented explanation for things which might very well have other, more valid explanations: http://www.amazon.com/Before-Dawn-Recovering-History-Ancestors/dp/014303832X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1432736833&sr=8-1&keywords=before+the+dawn

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