Superior: The Return of Race Science Book Review
Every month I write a detailed review of an anti-racism book, highlighting quotes I find most impactful or thought-provoking. This month's newsletter will be focussed around science so I chose this rather comprehensive book, by Angela Saini, to critique. Having already written a post a few days ago on the history of race as a construct, this book came in very handy.
As I mentioned in my history of race article, this book collects a good variety of arbitrarily constructed races, all of which seemed to promote white people as the most superior. For example:
In 1795, in the third edition of On the Natural Varieties of Mankind, German doctor Johann Friedrich Blumenbach described five human types: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans and Malays, elevating Caucasians–his own race–to the status of most beautiful of them all.
Without listing the myriad of examples given (you could always read my other article!) it becomes very evident, if it wasn't already, that race is clearly a construct, and that white Europeans spent centuries trying to categorise other people. By setting up hierarchies, colonisers could justify their colonising.
No region or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance. It’s the notion that groups of people have certain innate qualities that are not only visible at the surface of their skins, but are intrinsic to their physical and mental capacities.
In hindsight, this is a very suitable prologue. The whole book hinges on this evaluation. If I were to be critical, this book is almost a little too journalistic, written with the bias of someone wanting to prove a point. Although this is entirely fair for an antiracism book, as a science book it bends the rules of impartiality that are expected of other science books. I was hoping for, and expected a little bit more of a scientific approach.
Once I accepted this, I was open to the interesting arguments the book had to make. I also had to reconcile the fact that because the book was making the conclusion that race is not actually scientific, and that biological racism who no strong basis, there wasn't going to be a huge amount of science. Instead, it mostly catalogues and gives details of the evolution of race science through time.
Archaeology is the one of first sciences that is investigated. It frames the human diaspora question and concluded that we came out of Africa, really as one human. There is a multiregional argument, which is contentious, and discussed, but the general consensus is that humans grew and travelled in different regions on the African continent. What is noteworthy is how European thinking (in the so-called Enlightenment Period) framed Neanderthals as stupid, much like the newly-discovered aboriginal Australians, until it was discovered that Europeans are more like Neanderthals. Neanderthals weren’t considered stupid any more. The European narrative altered science. It should be that science informs opinion, but what happened time and time again in the evolution of race science, was that opinion informed science. Contradictory science was discarded, at best to satiate a confirmation bias; at worst, to justify enslavement, apartheid and genocide.
Chapter two dives into the obscene, arbitrary, and often completely derogatory racial categorisations that occurred since the 16th Century. I found the piece on Darwin very interesting. Darwin was seemingly unique and original in his observation that we had a common ancestor and, although he still struggled with the idea of hierarchy, apparently still placing men above women, and white above all else, he still disparaged the myth of race science (clearly not immune to the irresistible urge of placing white men on top). Despite his idea of a common ancestor, his survival of the fittest model proved a dangerous tool in the hands of the wrong people.
Darwinism did nothing to inhibit racism. Instead, ideas about the existence of different races and their relative superiority were merely repackaged in new theories. Science, or the lack of it, managed only to legitimise racism, rather than quash it.
Soon after Darwinism, as detailed in Chapter 3, we see the birth of eugenics, and this book continues to log many of the scientists who were perpetuators and communicators of racism. This whole chapter on eugenics is fascinating. That eugenics was popular, well-researched, well backed by influential people, and incorporated into cultures such as China and India, provided strong arguments that fuelled Nazism. Galton, for example 'Dreamed of a ‘utopia’ of highly bred super people'.
Karl Pearson, who succeeded Galton as the main force behind eugenics when he died in 1911 and shared his views on race, believed that since other races than his own were inferior, intermixing was also dangerous to the health of the population. By this logic, the very existence of those other races represented something of a threat. ‘Pearson’s argument is that if you have uncontrolled immigration the welfare of British people is at stake,’ Subhadra Das tells me.
How many far-right nationalists believe in this eugenics theory today? That our whiteness is under threat. From what the current populist politics machine suggest, it is a theory that some still believe in.
I loved this inclusion though:
'Another vocal critic was biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come from humble beginnings to become an important and well-loved researcher, credited with formulating evolutionary theory at the same time as Darwin...
‘The world does not want the eugenicist to set it straight,’ he warned. ‘Give the people good conditions, improve their environment, and all will tend towards the highest type. Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant, scientific priestcraft.’
On a role now with dispelling the myth of racism, Saini soon writes about a 1972 paper that explored the true breadth of human biological diversity:
It was written by geneticist Richard Lewontin, who later became a professor at Harvard University. Dividing the planet up into seven human groups, based roughly on old-fashioned racial categories, Lewontin investigated just how much genetic diversity there was within each population, compared with the genetic diversity between them. What he found was that there was far more variation among people of the same ‘race’ than between the supposed races, concluding that around 85 per cent of all the genetic diversity we see sits within local populations
Chapter 4 and 5 then give, what in my opinion is, a disproportional amount of attention to a publication, Mankind Quarterly, that still circulates today, which spotlight writers and scientists who suggest differences between races (and who therefore encourage racism). She clearly wants to expose this lot and call it out but this is where it veers more into an journalistic piece than objective, scientific one. What arises in a few more sections in the book are examples of so-called scientists who use black under-achievement as evidence for their lack of intelligence, rather than inequality to highlight their apparent under-achievement. This is a crucial point; that racists will use circular reasoning to justify their preconceptions, and it is one that I think should be made a little more explicit.
Although I liked this book, and learned bits from it, I was aware of some of the content already. The crucial inclusion of the Cheddar Man chapter confirmed what I head in a previous audiobook, the variety of racial classifications have been echoed in lots of other literature, and the occasional arguments against racism were rather insufficient and kind of unimpactful. I think this book would be great for an introduction to the debunking of racism but may fail to deliver scrupulous, scientific detail.
There are still nuggets we haven't yet discussed. The evidence of how early homo sapiens may well have been white (not black) and that black people evolved from white, was very compelling. The invasion of a 'Beaker' civilisation on Britain was also fascinating.
While artefacts of Beaker culture are found scattered all over Europe, the team here at Harvard has shown by studying the DNA of four hundred ancient Europeans that these people must have swept in and supplanted almost everyone who was living in Britain at the time as well.
According to estimates drawn up recently by Reich and his colleagues, this Beaker invasion replaced around 90 per cent of Britain’s gene pool. And all in the space of just a few centuries. This means that light skin did not define Britons from the beginning.
And the truth bomb that comes from these findings is that:
The true human story, then, appears to be not of pure races rooted in one place for tens of thousands of years, but of constant mixing, with migration both one way and another.
As it perfectly points out, we must all be a bit inbred.
I think the book ends on a high, insomuch that the most profound points are at the end. Saini talks about how archaeological interpretations by Gustaf Kossinna were used as significant justifications for the propagation of Nazism. Again, there is not an abundance of science; more that she exposes how soft sciences have been used to justify narratives.
Of the Nazis, she writes:
Slowly, they harnessed archaeological evidence that fitted their account of a great ‘Germanic’ past. At the same time, by proving that the German people had roots across Europe, they could lay moral claim to territory beyond their own borders. In their minds, they would expand to form an empire based on the ancient Germanic race, which they believed itself originally stemmed from noble, light-skinned Aryans, and was physically and mentally superior to all others.
That shaping evidence around ideology, selecting specific results to suit a narrative, or even just a lack of care when it comes to interpreting or presenting data, can lead to disaster. What Kossinna did was no different from how scientific information was manipulated by anti-abolitionists in the American South in the nineteenth century, clinging tightly to their slaves, or by British imperialists who made the case for colonial rule by framing themselves as racially superior.
There is a fundamental point here that must be adhered to; that the scientific method must be watertight. Indeed, critical analysis should be used by all, in order to question the validate a hypothesis. We should be asking ourselves whether or not the science, the maths and the conclusions are watertight. If we don't get into these habits, history shows us the sorts of consequences that can occur.
This sort of message is addressed in the penultimate chapter on caste and the final chapter on medicine. We see that the differences that exist between populations are used to justify the racist thought. Really, a proper critique of the data would have most people question their assumptions.
A hefty 432-page report published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2003 confirmed that evidence of racial and ethnic gaps in healthcare is ‘remarkably consistent across a range of illnesses and healthcare services’, despite surveys showing that most Americans believe blacks and whites receive the same quality of care.
In a paper published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2017, a raft of public health researchers including Mary Bassett, the New York City commissioner for health, warned that scientists were too often turning to biology to answer questions that could so clearly be better explained by social inequality.
We know, for example, that 38 per cent of non-Hispanic black children in the United States live below the poverty line, compared with less than 15 per cent of children overall. Black people in poorer neighbourhoods live with worse levels of transportation, waste disposal and policing, and environmental hazards such as bus garages, sewage treatment plants and highways are more likely to be located near them. The areas where they live are also targets for cigarette and fast-food marketing.
To summarise, I think this book does a good job in the end at highlighting the flaws in racist thought. As I have said before, I think there could be a little more science, or perhaps the book could be organised in a different way (with a question and a subsequent dissection perhaps). But, on the whole, there was lots of food for thought. The presentation of racism through the ages, and the analysis of how race scientists and eugenicists perpetuated their thoughts, was thorough and well-informed. The interbreeding that must have taken place for us all to be here must also be a devastating blow to a out-and-out racist, too. For that, and for her other sporadic yet unavoidable truths, her book will no doubt make its mark.