Book review – Superior: The Return of Race Science

Over something as mundane as the tone of one’s skin humans have been inflicting intense grief and misery upon each other for centuries. And when biology and anthropology arose as scientific disciplines, they were brought into the fold to justify subjugation, exploitation, and slavery. With Superior: The Return of Race Science, journalist Angela Saini has written a combative and readable critique of race science that seems to be rearing its ugly head again. But in her fervour, does she take it too far to the other extreme?

Superior

Superior: The Return of Race Science”, written by Angela Saini, published in Europe by 4th Estate in May 2019 (hardback, 272 pages)

The title Superior is a bit of a play on Saini’s very successful previous book, Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science That Shows it. Just to make sure that there can be no misunderstanding the book’s angle, a quote from Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, graces the dustjacket: this book roundly debunks attempts to give racism scientific underpinnings.

The prologue and first introductory chapter already make some very sharp observations: “We can draw lines across the world any way we choose, and in the history of race science, people have” (p. 5). Or the fact that Enlightenment thinkers, at the dawn of what we consider modern science, took the politics of their day as a starting point. At a time when slavery and exploitation by white Europeans were part and parcel of everyday life, researchers did not start off free of prejudice or bias.

These observations lead to the bulk of the book; through numerous interviews Saini provides a well written and fascinating overview of how science got tangled into the story of race and how old biases persist, some subtly, some decidedly less so. Darwin’s theory of evolution and his idea that we had a common ancestor put to bed the idea that what were called human races emerged separately, a predominant idea used to justify colonialism and slavery back then. But it did not stop racist thought and was bankrolled into it.

“The chapters where [Saini] charts what happened to race science post-WWII […] shows [her] at her most probing, leaving no difficult or thorny topic untouched.”

Saini chronicles the rise of eugenics, which is the idea to use our understanding of genetics to breed better humans the way you would breed livestock (some of this already came up in my reviews of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity and Genetics in the Madhouse: The Unknown History of Human Heredity). These ideas fed into the atrocities committed during World War II, and Saini chillingly reminds the reader that prominent scientists and well-respected intellectuals of their day got drawn into this.

Really eye-opening were the chapters where she charts what happened to race science post-WWII. Richard Lewontin’s landmark 1972 paper showed that variation in genetic diversity within old-fashioned racial categories was far larger than between these categories, vindicating earlier opinions that these categories had no biological basis (see also Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature). But while the mainstream was busy accepting this, race science just went underground, as shown by Saini’s account of the academic right-wing fringe journal Mankind Quarterly and funding for this kind of research by the Pioneer Fund (see Sussman’s The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea for more). And lately scientific racism is on the rise again, with a new generation of people ready to misappropriate science for their own political agendas.

This part shows Saini at her most probing, leaving no difficult or thorny topic untouched, such as the continued use of racial categories when prescribing drugs against hypertension. Or the failed attempts to find racial difference in intelligence by looking at IQ scores, itself a very fraught concept. Her contention that race is a social construct used to justify political power play is supported by numerous sharp observations – so many I started to run out of my stack of post-it notes that I normally use to mark up noteworthy passages. I was totally on board with this part of her book and found it powerful and convincing.

“[The] contention that race is a social construct used to justify political power play is supported by numerous sharp observations”

Yet I have some criticism, and there is a certain incongruity at play here. Racial categories may have no biological basis, but there is genetic variation within and between human populations. To be crystal clear, I do not think these offer any justification for racism, but labelling this fact racist is also missing the point. And Saini seems very ill at ease with these findings.

So, on the one hand she includes geneticist Mark Jobling explaining the founder effect; the loss of genetic variation when small groups of individuals establish new populations, as happened during human migrations 100,000–50,000 years ago. And she remarks how India’s caste system with its restrictions on marriage has left a mark on the genetic makeup of castes, as shown by the incidence of rare genetic disorders.

But then on the other hand, she labels population genetics, which studies such variation to, for example, learn more about human evolution, as a rebranding of race science for the 21st century. The pioneering work in this field by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (see his Genes, People and Languages), who was about as outspokenly anti-racist as one could be, is eyed suspiciously. David Reich’s work on ancient DNA (DNA retrieved from archaeological remains) has shown humanity’s history to be one of a constant churn of groups migrating, interbreeding and displacing each other (see my review of his excellent Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). But his suggestion that there are real genetic differences (“not large, but not non-existent either”) between e.g. West Africans and Europeans after evolving in separation for 70,000 years seems to scandalize her: “They are words I never expected to hear from a mainstream, respected geneticist” (p. 182).

“She labels population genetics, which studies human genetic variation to, for example, learn more about human evolution, as a rebranding of race science for the 21st century.”

Of course, she writes repeatedly, Cavalli-Sforza and Reich are not racists and their intentions are good, but their research could be misappropriated. The idea that it could help demolish the very racial prejudices she is fighting unfortunately does not seem to have much currency with her. In my opinion, in her fervour, she unfairly casts a shadow on the research and reputation of these scholars. I think it is a pity that Saini leaves unexamined the question of how best to interpret these findings and prevent them from being misappropriated, instead conflating them with the larger target she is aiming for: debunking race science.

That criticism notwithstanding, there are many strong points in this book. Her probing questions lay bare the often implicit biases many of us still retain. Her own background and experiences bring a much-needed perspective to this subject – one that I would much rather read than that of, say, a white male scientist. And the book is an engrossing read that did not let me go. All this makes Superior a potent condemnation of race science and all its fallacies, even if I did not agree with her categorizing population genetics as such.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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