Science journalist Angela Saini’s latest book is a powerful and thorough investigation of the flawed science behind race.
“It takes some mental acrobatics to be an intellectual racist in light of the scientific information we have today, but those who want to do it, will,” writes Saini in Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). “Racists will find validation wherever they can, even if it means working a little harder than usual.”
Superior begins with an exploration of the origins of the biological basis for race. In the eighteenth century, race science became a fashionable way for European white, male scientists to organize and classify groups of humans based on color and a few other physical characteristics. Naturally, these men placed themselves further along the evolutionary ladder than, say, Aboriginal Australians or West Africans.
“Race has always been an intrinsically political area of research, the idea itself born out of a certain world order,” Saini explains. Her tone is measured and academic even as she is describing hateful ideologies and horrific genocides of intelligent civilizations. But there is a touch of emotion to her writing resonating through, poignant and sharp, when she tells us that she cried after a interview with a woman whose indigenous relatives were murdered. Along with them, a cultural and genetic history – obliterated.
You’d be inhuman not to feel disgusted and upset along with her. The callous disregard for the value of human life incites a desperate desire to learn more in the reader. We want to know more about why this happened and, importantly, what we can do to prevent it from happening again. But first, we need to understand the problem: the racism behind the claim there is a biological basis to race.
According to anthropologist Jonathan Marks, two fallacies exist. The first is the idea that humans can be divided into unique races with their own traits. The second is that these innate differences between human races explain the existence of political and economic inequality, rather than historical injustice.
“What these guys are trying to do is manipulate science to construct imaginary boundaries to social progress,” he tells Saini. “A common theme among today’s race realists is their belief that, because racial differences exist diversity and equal opportunity programs – designed to make society fairer – are doomed to fail. ” The idea is “we should accept inequality as a biological fact.”
This is exactly the issue with race pseudoscience today. It suggests a reason to not make an effort to remedy inequality or address discrimination. And the very same people advocating for this are the ones who would benefit most from ending commitments to diversity and inclusion.
“For those with a political ideology to sell, the science (such as it is) becomes a prop. The data itself doesn’t matter so much as how it can be spun,” explains Saini. “Marks warns me that those to really watch out for at the ones who claim to be uniquely free of bias, who tell you they have a special, impartial claim on the truth.” In Mark’s words, “Whenever anybody tells you ‘I am objective, I am apolitical,’ that is the time to watch your wallet, because you’re about to have your pocket picked.”
Scientists studying race have biases and prejudices, like all scientists. But unfortunately, these biases – whatever they may be – will affect this kind of research much more. Studies on race were funded by institutions and individuals with something to prove. Race science can become a weapon in the wrong hands. And even when shoddy science is debunked, racists will cling to the dubious conclusions, claiming that they just hasn’t been proven yet.
You can read this instead as they just haven’t been proven right yet. “There’s no incentive for them to admit intellectual defeat,” Saini writes in the book’s conclusion. “Those committed to the biological reality of race won’t back down if the data prove them wrong…If skin color doesn’t explain racial inequality, then maybe the structure of our brains and bodies will. If not anatomy, then maybe our genes.”
And when that fails, they will keep reaching and reaching for more elaborate, more pseudoscientific theories. All this, she writes, to prove what the prejudice they have been pushing all along: that they are superior. Saini suggests that we instead look to history for answers; that we push to end discrimination and inequality in all its forms, to stop it from being perpetuated by systems necessary for society – education, healthcare, government. After all, these things are far more productive and beneficial to society than arguments over whether certain groups of people are worth more or less than other.
Ultimately, an enlightening and powerful book that thoroughly explores the flaws of the biological basis for race. If you enjoyed her book Inferior, you absolutely must read this one next. A necessary read, especially for those who have not experienced discrimination because of their skin color. We would be wise to heed the conclusions Saini draws in Superior.