Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini – review

This timely book looks at the toxic origins of racism, which science continues to embrace

This is an urgent, important book. It contains a warning: you thought racism might be on its way out of science? That the arc of society, bending towards more progressive, tolerant values, had long banished the scientific search for ways in which one grouping of people is inherently more talented, clever or physically able than another? You thought wrong.

Race is a relatively recent concept, says science journalist Angela Saini, in Superior. One of the first uses was in the 16th century as a way to refer to a group of people from a family or tribe, it did not have the connotations it carries today. It largely did not refer to physical appearance or colour, for example. She explains that, even until the 18th century during the European Enlightenment, skin colour was thought to be a shifting quality based on geography: people living in hot places had darker skins, but if those people moved to colder climes it was thought their skin would get lighter in response.

The beginnings of race science seem to emerge with the Victorian frenzy for categorising life. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who developed the now familiar binomial nomenclature to classify living things (Homo sapiens, for example) , was among the first to start categorising humans in a way that we might call “racial”. Linnaeus laid out four categories in 1758 that corresponded to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, recognisable by their supposed characteristic colours: red, white, yellow and black. A generous person might argue that Linnaeus was just trying to do what taxonomists do, but Saini explains that his classifications went further than just appearance: Linnaeus described indigenous Americans not only as having straight black hair and wide nostrils, but also being of a subjugated nature, as if that were their natural state. He further included human sub-categories for monster-like and feral people.

In an eye-opening section, Saini outlines just how many of the greatest lights of biology are implicated in the gradual accretion of ideas that we would now find unpalatable and unscientific. Even Charles Darwin fell for human categorisation, seeing “gradations between the ‘highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages’... Men were above women and white races above others.” Thomas Henry Huxley – Darwin’s bulldog and famed pugilistic defender of the theory of natural selection – was an out-and-out racist. Not all humans were created equal, he argued, and in an essay on the emancipation of black slaves, he wrote that the average white person had a bigger brain: “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.”This all came hot on the heels of rampant European colonialism, one of the effects of which was a proliferation of gentleman scholars who also turned their hands to classification of what, for many of the conquering explorers, must have been a bewildering array of “different” humans. At the dawn of the 20th century, some of this rich diversity of people ended up in human zoos, such as those at the grand Colonial Exposition in Paris. Walking through the remains of one of these zoos a century later, Saini describes what once stood there as an “Edwardian Disneyland, not with little dolls, but actual people”. There were five replica villages representing colonies in north Africa and beyond. Millions of visitors came to gawp at this array of “different” people over the six months of the exposition while scientists recorded measurements of these exotic people – skin and eye colour, sizes of heads, height, what they ate – and, says Saini, “set the parameters for modern race science”.

That white people were at the top of the human hierarchy seemed axiomatic in the early 20th century, permeating plenty of the thinking biologists and anthropologists were doing, particularly in fields such as eugenics. That there was no robust evidence to support such sweeping claims hardly put a brake on their efforts. The nadir in the desperate search to find scientific reasons to justify dislike of the “other” came in the second world war, as researchers associated with the Nazis did their damnedest to prove the supposed superiority of their Aryan race.

After the war, things appeared to shift. Aghast at the horror in which race science and eugenics had been complicit, biologists and anthropologists in the west did their best to do what winners do: rewrite the narrative. Any research associated with these prejudicial ideas in the US and Britain was brushed under the carpet, university departments were renamed, scientists shifted into new fields. In 1950, Unesco even convened 100 scientists, policymakers and diplomats who put out a statement aimed at dismantling the idea of race, to put an end to racism and racist research: “Scientists have reached general agreement in recognising that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.” Good had won over evil.

In fact, argues Saini, race science never went away. Instead it festered in the shadows, funded by murky foundations and individuals with barely disguised links to white supremacists. This area of work even has its own peer-reviewed journal, which supposedly seeks to publish studies on the apparent differences between people. All in the name of academic freedom to conduct dispassionate inquiry into the human condition.

But for Saini, the motives are clear: they may hide behind academic titles and affiliations, but these researchers and their supporters are reaching for something, anything to reinforce the hierarchies they already believe exist and to establish what they see as the superiority of one group of people over another. Every new biological discipline is quickly co-opted to the task. Take genetics. In the 1994 book The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued that African Americans were less intelligent than white Americans and that genetic differences between ethnicities were a big factor in that difference.

Scientists agree there is an important genetic component to intelligence. And research from the US in the 1980s – quoted in The Bell Curve – shows that if you ask people to self-identify their ethnicity and then measure, for example, educational attainment or IQ, you get different average levels between different ethnicities. However, this does not show that one ethnicity is genetically predisposed to be more intelligent than another. This is largely because the most up-to-date genetic sequencing work shows that African Americans have a substantial amount of European genetic ancestry – they could even be called African European Americans according to some geneticists. In Afro-Caribbeans, that European ancestry is even stronger. The upshot is that ethnicities are far more mixed than we can tell by appearances alone. Also, that the commonplace use of the word “ethnicity” simply does not map on to how geneticists think about ancestry.

Saini’s book asks its readers to face uncomfortable realities. She has form here. Her previous book, Inferior, was a powerful account of how the scientific establishment has misunderstood and mischaracterised women (and continues to). In Superior, she explains why we cannot afford complacency on race. Her spirited argument is meticulously researched and flecked with righteous anger.

There is hardly a better time for this book. Recent history has brought many of the so-called intellectual racists – Richard Spencer among a rogues’ gallery of others – and their shaky ideas to wider prominence. Authoritarian leaders around the world look to people like this and to their underlying race “scientists” to add intellectual ballast to their prejudice on issues ranging from equality to immigration. Whether or not research is sound seems to make little difference to white supremacists on the march for power. “Intellectual racism has always existed,” says Saini. “It is a toxic little seed at the heart of academia. However dead you might think it is, it needs only a little water, and now it’s raining.”

Alok Jha is science correspondent for the Economist and author of The Water Book (Headline).

• Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini is published by 4th Estate (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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Alok Jha

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