Superior by Angela Saini review – how science enables racism

The concept of ‘race’ persists, even though it is biologically meaningless. This important book considers why

More than 90% of the top 20 performances in middle- and long-distance running are by black people of African heritage. Are they simply biologically better at it? That is precisely the kind of casual assumption that, as science writer Angela Saini shows in Superior, has kept “scientific racism” alive for centuries. In fact, more than half of those performances are by Kenyans, coming mostly from eight small tribes. One theory is that, having lived at high altitude for millennia, they have adapted to make more efficient use of oxygen when running. But studies have found no physiological advantage, and it’s possible that the answer is instead sociological. One thing is sure: having dark skin pigmentation is as irrelevant here as speaking a Kenyan language. The idea of “race” has nothing to contribute to the debate.

If you’re a typical Guardian reader, you might feel fine about, or flattered by, the notion that black people are better runners – it sounds positively antiracist, right? Yet this is the sort of reasoning that feeds racism: that there are meaningful biological distinctions between groups of humans (often on the basis of visible, literally superficial characteristics) that allow them to be categorised into distinct “races”, from which we can meaningfully predict traits.

The idea is so deeply ingrained that it is hard even to talk about race without seeming to accept its tenets. This doesn’t simply reflect a long history of prejudice. It is also because “race”, defined in terms of skin colour or facial features, was and sometimes still is a rough-and-ready clue to culture: language, cuisine, perhaps religion and shared moral values. It fits with the way we navigate a complicated world using “good enough” rules of thumb. How, then, can it be as biologically meaningless as Saini says?

The answer is subtle, and in this important book Saini – whose previous book Inferior exploded myths around sex differences – does a superb job of explaining it. Genetics has played a central role in debunking race as a biological entity by showing that there are no clear cut genetic subgroups that map on to our conventional notions of race. Saini points out that she might have more genetic similarity to her white neighbour than with the woman downstairs who, like her parents, was born in India. But it’s complicated, because there are also some identifiable genetic commonalities between populations. The point is that these occur at every scale and depend on what you’re looking for, and don’t privilege anything we can call “race”. Yet genetics has also given racists a new place to claim validation of what they want: proof of their superiority.

Superior reveals how hard it is even for the well intentioned to escape habitual assumptions. US medical researchers studying people’s responses to drugs in 2003 routinely used racial groupings to categorise and analyse their subjects – and yet none could say quite how they defined race, retreating into embarrassed laughs. Even where “race differences” in health and medicine have been identified, such as the increased risk of high blood pressure for African Americans, the default assumption has been to see this as innately biological rather than cultural and socio-economic, so that the alternatives aren’t carefully checked. The problem with scientists, Saini says, is that they too often assume they are above racism and so fail to engage with the history, politics and lived experience of race.

‘British nativists’ were alarmed to be told that the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man probably had dark skin.
‘British nativists’ were alarmed to be told that the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man probably had dark skin. Photograph: London's Natural History Museum/EPA

It’s almost a catch-22. Surveys that force us to self-categorise – white British, African-Caribbean – in order to monitor potential race discrimination (which, of course, is real) end up imputing a false essentiality to race. Saini has to grapple with this, too, for example in discussing the 8,500-year-old bones found in Washington state called Kennewick Man, which DNA testing in 2015 showed to be related to contemporary Native Americans, as some had long claimed. “He was one of their own,” Saini writes – while acknowledging how dubious it is to assert lines of ancestry this far back, as if “it’s not good enough to be who we are now, to be good human beings in the present”.

The explosion in genomic science plays a paradoxical role here. On the one hand, mail-order DNA analysis companies promote a genetic identity politics by encouraging us to find meaning in empty statements that we are, say, of a few per cent Scots-Irish or North African (or even Neanderthal) ancestry. On the other hand, genetic studies have helped show that human diversity was far greater in the past than was long thought – and that skin colour is a particularly poor guide to origins. Light skin did not evolve only after the migration of early humans out of Africa, and some “British nativists” were alarmed to be told that the 10,000-year-old Cheddar Man, whose bones were discovered in Somerset in 1903, probably had dark skin. Cheddar Man was most probably an ancestor of us all in one sense, even though his people were more or less wholly supplanted in Britain by lighter-skinned migrants from Anatolia.

“Scientific” interpretations of archaeological and anthropological (and now often genetic) discoveries have always been conditioned by assumptions that reflect a prevailing, often racist ethos. Cheddar Man was once reconstructed as white-skinned and rosy-cheeked, just as Kennewick Man went from being a Patrick Stewart lookalike to a shaggy version of Asian heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro. A few scientists insist on their total objectivity as they cling to a hypothesis in which the 13,000-year-old Clovis culture in the US descends from people living in Europe millennia earlier, who somehow crossed the partly frozen Atlantic – thereby claiming the continent back from Native Americans of Asian ancestry to become part of the “manifest destiny” of “Europeans”.

Sometimes this racial agenda is subconscious. But Saini uncovers a persistent community on the fringes of science, well funded by private benefactors (especially a foundation called the Pioneer Fund, initiated in 1937) and publishing serious-looking journals such as Mankind Quarterly with an openly racist philosophy. “It takes some mental acrobatics to be an intellectual racist in the light of the scientific information we have today,” says Saini, “but those who want to do it, will.” This movement has professors at universities who sit on editorial boards and attend conferences. It co-opts and inverts innocent-sounding terms like “human biodiversity” so that they mean not the genetic variation in humankind that renders race otiose but rather the idea that there are distinct groupings that vary in innate traits such as average intelligence. These people will draw strength from the racism expressed by high-profile scientists such as Nobel laureate James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA double helix. They supply apparent intellectual heft to the “alt-right” and to “race realists” (as scientific racists have rebranded themselves), and even if they remain marginal in serious science they have the money and influence to install themselves in governmental circles.

And they must believe their time has come. While we should be outraged that the United States has a racist president, or that British politicians consort with neo-fascists and jokingly use self-designations invoking the Ku Klux Klan, we shouldn’t be surprised. Saini shows that science, far from killing off both biological race and racism, has a great deal still to do if it is to avoid remaining an enabler.

• Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini is published by 4th Estate (RRP £16.99) To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Philip Ball

The GuardianTramp

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