Superior: The Return of Race Science

Superior: The Return of Race Science

An astute and timely examination of the re-emergence of scientific research into racial differencesSuperior tells the disturbing story of the persistent thread of belief in biological racial differences in the world of science.After the horrors of the Nazi regime in WWII, the mainstream scientific world turned its back on eugenics and the study of racial difference. But a...

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Title:Superior: The Return of Race Science
Author:Angela Saini
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Superior: The Return of Race Science Reviews

  • gaverne Bennett

    A book of genius. Couldn't be more timely...

  • Csimplot Simplot

    Excellent book!

  • Brian Clegg

    It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, t

    It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

    At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinctions of appearance - and how this has been continued and transformed with genetics to draw conclusions that go against the fundamental proviso of science - correlation is not causality. Saini demonstrates vividly how, for example, socio-economic or cultural causes of differences in capability, and even medical response to drugs, have been repeatedly ascribed to non-existent biological racial differences.

    Along the way we come across the horrendous race-based acts of the past - from slavery to the Nazi atrocities - which have been justified by fictitious assumptions about the implications of race. But Saini makes clear that this is not just a historical problem. One of the excellent aspects of the book is the way that she brings in interviews and personal experience, so, for example, there is a fascinating section on discrimination on the basis of caste in India, and attempts to justify this on a genetic basis. Similarly, she repeatedly shows how white supremacists misuse information to draw incorrect and vile conclusions.

    There are fascinating interviews with scientists whose work strays into misuse of evidence to imply something that the data simply does not support. With one exception of Robert Plomin, whose work seems far more solid than the rest, and can only be used to support racism by deliberately misunderstanding it, a lot of this work seems to have been poorly executed or involves drawing inappropriate conclusions. A considerable amount of this nonsense involves IQ testing - yet it has been shown that all IQ tests do is demonstrate an ability to do well at IQ tests, an ability that can be learned - so provides no useable evidence.

    The coverage might have easily been extended to cover other discrimination on perceived differences, but I can see the benefit of keeping the focus on race. For me, the only disappointing thing is that Saini shies away from the logical conclusion of her observations. Having categorically shown that race does not exist, it's ridiculous that we still classify people this way. As the author acknowledges, we need some means of categorisation to fight prejudice - but surely it should be based on real markers such as socio-economic means and culture - to continue to do so by race having established that race doesn't exist seems oddly incongruous, and makes it more difficult to counter racists by giving weight to the labels they use.

    Overall, a brilliant book, highly readable, which, if there were any justice, would put a final nail in the coffin of racism.

  • Roman Clodia

    This is a journalistic account of 'race science' - where both terms 'race' and 'science' are scrutinised with a sharp eye. Saini is quite up-front with her own stance: that there's no genetic or biological support for racial difference beyond the merest superficialities such as skin pigmentation. Driven by the re-emergence of the most pernicious ideologies that many of us thought had been exposed for what they are by the Holocaust and other race-based genocides of the C20th, this takes an intere

    This is a journalistic account of 'race science' - where both terms 'race' and 'science' are scrutinised with a sharp eye. Saini is quite up-front with her own stance: that there's no genetic or biological support for racial difference beyond the merest superficialities such as skin pigmentation. Driven by the re-emergence of the most pernicious ideologies that many of us thought had been exposed for what they are by the Holocaust and other race-based genocides of the C20th, this takes an interesting look at the history of 'race science' and the role it still plays in academic research today, however contested and controversial.

    Saini is a relaxed writer, always accessible and with a sense of humour that is light but with just the right level of suppressed snarkiness: witness the anecdote of the geneticist who proclaims that he's discovered the 'chop-stick using gene' in Chinese people! Well, we laugh - but, of course, it's not much of a jump to go from 'Chinese people are biologically pre-determined to use chopsticks' to insidious and horrific claims about racialised intelligence, racial hierarchies, justifications for slavery, the creation of race-based underclasses and we're soon back at those looming gas ovens of Auschwitz.

    What is most dispiriting about this book is the extent to which highly-educated scientists at the heart of the academe in both Europe and the US can cling to old views of racialised genetic predermination and 'race fate' *in the face of an almost complete lack of biological evidence for racial difference in humans*. It's an important point, of course, but one which perhaps gets slightly repetitive in this book. But, perhaps, it needs to.

    There are some horribly disconcerting moments such as when we realise that Maria Stopes favoured eugenics to stop the 'wrong' kind of people from giving birth in favour of so-called 'racial progress'; or that the legendary James Watson (of Crick and Watson fame) was openly racist and sexist and believed that cultural qualities such as Jewish intelligence, in the example given, is genetically pre-determined.

    It's impossible not to snigger at some of the desperate manoeuvers of 'race scientists': in the 1920s, when Greeks, Italians and other southern Europeans were being stigmatised as having sub-par intelligence, one 'scientist' claimed that artists such as Dante, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo and da Vinci were clearly 'Nordic' - as, apparently, was Jesus!

    A high point, too, is Saini's digging behind the story from 2018 when the mummy of so-called 'Cheddar Man' was discovered and offered the opportunity to profile an ancient Briton - to the horror of many, not least the UK right-wing press, Cheddar Man turns out to have been black, not white. Which, considering the fact that humans all migrated out of Africa, is hardly surprising. (Light or white skin is an evolutionary development as ancient humans who migrated to less sunny northern Europe needed to maximise absorption of Vitamin D from the sun). So much, then, for all the Brexit-associated nostalgia for a mythic (white) England.

    And, of course, that's both the point of the book and why it's so important: this isn't a light-hearted review of old, done-and-dusted attitudes, this is about *now*: it's about Brexit and Trump, it's about #blacklivesmatter, it's about the alt-right appropriating and mis-using science, it's about respected scientists and scientific institutions themselves (though a marginal number, it must be stressed) still trying to find the elusive biological basis for race and differentiation - and all that follows along with it.

    Many thanks to HarperCollins, 4th Estate for an ARC via NetGalley.

  • Emma

    - Subir Sinha.

    Oh how this resonates in our social media dominated/'fake news' society. Sinha's quote refers particularly to religious extremists but effectively demonstrates the kind of sentiment that underlies the 'science' and ways of thinking that the book works to demolish. That backwards system which starts with ideology and then looks for evidence to support it. Race is not about genetics/ biological di

    - Subir Sinha.

    Oh how this resonates in our social media dominated/'fake news' society. Sinha's quote refers particularly to religious extremists but effectively demonstrates the kind of sentiment that underlies the 'science' and ways of thinking that the book works to demolish. That backwards system which starts with ideology and then looks for evidence to support it. Race is not about genetics/ biological difference, it is a social, cultural, political construct. It was created to separate, subordinate, invalidate certain types of people, a way of perpetuating and bolstering the supposed superiority of the great white male. It's the kind of thing that feels like part of the past, and it definitely should be, but Angela Saini shows that not only it it still here, it never went away. Even the Holocaust was not enough to demonstrate the dangers inherent in such ideology, simply pushing those who held these types of views out of the mainstream. For a while at least.

    Because now they're back and at the forefront of populist politics- given airtime, given applause, given power. And that's why books like this are so essential, to hold people and ideas up to scrutiny, to start conversations, to attack the fundamental misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) about human variation. Because feelings of superiority are how we end up arguing that migrant children in border camps don't really need soap or blankets or safety, it's how the fear of difference and the 'other' leads to Trump and Brexit, how 'knowing' that certain ethnic groups just aren't as clever or industrious means that they're a lost cause, worthless, a burden. It's always useful to blame those being crushed by inequality for their own problems. If they deserve it, there's nothing we can do, right?

    If nothing else, this book is an essential reminder about evaluating the quality of the information you access, share, and trust. Where does it come from? Who paid for it? What are they trying to sell you? Who benefits? What Saini's book does is present the ways in which the ideologies behind race science have altered or even determined its conclusions. And if you want to apply the same fact checking to her work, her sources are right there at the back.

    ARC via Netgalley

  • Julie Barrett

    I won an advance copy of this book through the website Library Thing. The subject matter is so timely, what with the rise of right wing nationalists in both the USA and Europe. When most people think of racists, they think of creepy inbred guys like the one playing banjo in the movie Deliverance. They think of guys wearing white robes, burning crosses on lawns. They think of Nazis wearing SS uniforms. They don't think of scientists and writers and professors.

    It's these white collar, professional

    I won an advance copy of this book through the website Library Thing. The subject matter is so timely, what with the rise of right wing nationalists in both the USA and Europe. When most people think of racists, they think of creepy inbred guys like the one playing banjo in the movie Deliverance. They think of guys wearing white robes, burning crosses on lawns. They think of Nazis wearing SS uniforms. They don't think of scientists and writers and professors.

    It's these white collar, professional racists that are the most dangerous. Using flawed research and misinterpretations of data, they provide the intellectual ballast for right wing politician's political views. By citing "science", the politicians appeal to people's fears while at the same time sounding logical and reasonable. After all, it can't be racist if it's a "fact". No matter that these "facts" are not true, that they do not hold up to peer review or any sort of scrutiny at all. It's all about the presentation. There are a few journals, funded by right wing patrons, that provide a sort of echo chamber for these people. It's the same few names over & over again, taking turns validating each other. It fools people into thinking, "Hey this research is being published so it must be correct." Wrong, anyone with money can start a journal or think tank and then publish anything they want. Science is becomes a tool for the rationalization of political ideas.

    This book traces the history of race science, that is, the science of "proving" how white Europeans are better than everyone else. It started in the 1700's with the Age of Enlightenment. People wanted to study the human race. As Saini puts it - "The problem was that, because of the narrow parameters they established of what constituted a human being, setting themselves as the benchmark, other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit. By seeing themselves as the paradigm, they had laid the foundations for dividing it." It reminded me of a book I read recently about medical research, about how men's bodies are considered the default normal. Disease symptoms, side effects from medicine etc - it's how a man's body reacts that is considered "normal". The fact that women's bodies often react differently from mens is seen as the abnormal reaction. It's the same here. Seeing their own culture and situation as "normal" and others as "abnormal". The initial definitions are wrong and so the science is flawed from the beginning.

    "When we study human origins, we don't start at the beginning, we start at the end, with our own assumptions as the basis for inquiry." Data in and of itself doesn't say anything. It's how we interpret the data. Scientists don't live in a vacuum. They are social creatures, who live in a society and their ideas are social constructions. Science is always shaped by the time and the place it is carried out. Saini gives an interesting example using the medical study of hypertension. It used to be seen as a Jewish disease because Jews were an inferior race more prone to health issues. Currently some medical professionals see it as a black disease, that black people are more prone to hypertension because of innate flaws within them. History, culture, environment are dismissed as reasons for differences within groups. The default answer is that it is due to biology.

    Saini also delves into the definition of race. Who came up with these categories. Why they came up with the categories. What does genetics and archaeology say about these categories. Why people want/need to separate people into groups. There are no good biological classifiers for race. It hinges on external differences like skin pigmentation and hair texture. There are no internal differences between humans. There is no variant of any gene that has been found to exist in everyone of one "race" and not in another. There is only one race, the human race. Our made up categories come out of humans need to be different from others.

    Another great Saini quote - "The power of nationalism calls to the part of us that doesn't want to be ordinary. People like to believe that they are descended from greatness, that they have been genetically endowed with greatness. It's not enough to be who we are now, to be good human beings in the present." It reminds me of people who believe in reincarnation. No one ever says in a past life that they were a peasant farmer, a petty bureaucrat, etc. They were always Napoleon or Cleopatra or Genghis Khan. Someone special! Thinking of humans in terms of different races lets people delude themselves with specialness.The idea of race didn't turn people racist, make them think of other groups as subhuman. The mistreatment was already there & already happening. The concept of race gave a rationale for the mistreatment.

    Race is not a universal construct.

    Race is not a biological rule.

    Race is a story we tell ourselves.

  • Lou

    Having grown up as part of an ethnic minority group in London during the 1980s and 90s, Angela Saini has first-hand experience of the racism which was rife during these decades. Unfortunately, after being heavily discredited, race science has slowly and insidiously crept back into public discourse over the past 50-70 years. During her formative years, the murder of Stephen Lawrence in close proximity to her childhood home had a big impact on her and what really stuck in her mind was the differen

    Having grown up as part of an ethnic minority group in London during the 1980s and 90s, Angela Saini has first-hand experience of the racism which was rife during these decades. Unfortunately, after being heavily discredited, race science has slowly and insidiously crept back into public discourse over the past 50-70 years. During her formative years, the murder of Stephen Lawrence in close proximity to her childhood home had a big impact on her and what really stuck in her mind was the difference between someone white being murdered and a black individual; it was obvious that fewer resources and time were dedicated to an ethnic minority individual to those who were white. But was this due to scientific or societal issues?

    This childhood experience precipitated Saini's intense interest in the subject of race, racial bias and matters surrounding it, and this is an essential and exceptional work which rebuts the idea of racism as a biological issue rather than a social one. Not only does she debunk the lie that inequality is to do with genetics but she goes a long way to proving that it has everything to do with political power. It is a fascinating and beautifully written piece which has clearly been extensively researched. It is a masterfully written, topical piece by one of the most trusted science writers of our time and should be on the reading lists of anyone interested in the history and evolution of this subject from the beginning of time up to present day.

    Although it is frequently referred to as race science, I think the most appropriate and fitting terminology is racist science. Many thanks to Fourth Estate for an ARC.

  • Ethan

    A very compelling, thorough investigation into the intersection of modern science and race theory.

    The book is so titled (and especially subtitled) so as to suggest that the reader is into a major exploration of a resurgence of race science, and indeed, the work begins with a discussion of race science...only for the reader to learn how it never really went away. Ever since the end of the first half of the twentieth century there has remained a small minority of researchers and investigators atte

    A very compelling, thorough investigation into the intersection of modern science and race theory.

    The book is so titled (and especially subtitled) so as to suggest that the reader is into a major exploration of a resurgence of race science, and indeed, the work begins with a discussion of race science...only for the reader to learn how it never really went away. Ever since the end of the first half of the twentieth century there has remained a small minority of researchers and investigators attempting to justify old racial theories using new science. The author does well at exposing how they work, how flawed their works are, and yet their ability to pop up at any time, whenever the cultural tide is correct.

    But then the author also looks at the work of some very prominent anti-racist scientists as part of genome projects that look for differences among human populations in a way that, whereas not aligning with older categories, still attempts to categorize people into subpopulations. She questions the whole impulse to thus categorize and seek out such distinctions; she had already cast some aspersions on the whole basis of the Enlightenment project as *the* way forward for the investigation of reality.

    Toward the end of the work the author ends up demonstrating well how a good number of scientists, even those who have no ostensible racist intentions, end up maintaining racist categories in their heads, and, however unconsciously, continue to use them and thus find reasons to corroborate their presuppositions. In the end, the work just exposes how much of science is based on the presuppositions of scientists, and that as long as race is a major social category, science is going to keep attempting to find ways to characterize those who have as superior and those who don't as inferior. Biological bases will be sought for questions that are really answered sociologically: certain groups may be disadvantaged, but it's not based on biological difference (which, no matter how much it is sought, still does not exist), but based on sociological differences. But then, of course, those who have would again be forced to grapple with how they system they've built caused these other groups disadvantage, and would have to see how those disadvantages show up in the charts. To believe it's all based on genes, or some other factor, tranquilizes from these concerns.

    To this end this is a very powerful and excellent book and worthy of consideration: why do we even categorize on the basis of race? Why keep those boxes in our heads? Such boxes cause confusion and lead down inaccurate roads far more often than saying anything of value. We do better to see race categories as just the most recent form of justification of a form of supremacy, and deny its power outright. The author did well to point out how it was not that long ago that southern Europeans were believed to be inferior in intellect and biological stature; now they've been subsumed into the "white" population, and the same assumptions are now made about the "new" inferior groups, and it will probably change again. Likewise, it is hard to think of a racial basis for much of anything in Western culture when there are so many who seem to be of one race but are in fact an amalgamation of people from different parts of the world.

    The book also does well at showing the cost of implicit bias: the author spoke of a person she knew who went without the proper diagnosis for 8 years until a radiologist saw an x-ray without knowing who she was and could tell it was cystic fibrosis. At the time, cystic fibrosis was believed to be a "white disease," and the girl was black. We can assume no ill will on the part of the physicians; these false categories just meant there was a failure of imagination that could have ended very tragically.

    And yet...the author has her own set of biases. She is acutely aware of the dangers and difficulties of racism and tribalism, being of middle class England but of Indian descent. Her acknowledgement to her son expresses the excess: what makes us is our personal experiences and individual actions, with culture and family and other things that might shape a person given a brusque and glib passing comment. It's a bit ironic, but sadly unsurprising: the author has attempted to show how all of these scientists are blinded by their presuppositions and cannot see them for what they are, and thus do not see the disconnect between the science they think they're doing and the systemic racism they end up perpetuating, and yet she herself does not seem to see how she is atomizing everyone, as if one's reality is formed by one's experience and one's own actions. The chapter before she had described how Mendel's ideas about genetics were most likely flawed because interaction with other factors at play were not in view; and so it is with her own views on these subjects. Family, culture, etc. does, and should, wield a lot of influence on a person. Yes, there is no biological basis to race; yes, race science is all an attempt to demonstrate a supremacy that is biologically invalid and sociologically bankrupt. But that doesn't mean we throw all of culture and ethnicity into the dustbin of history. The problem is not differences among populations: the problem is looking at "the other" as less than on account of differences. Whatever solutions exist to the scourge of racism must still find a way to honor and value ethnic and national differences, even though they are based in sociology, not biology.

    Nevertheless, a book worthy of consideration.

    **--review copy received as part of early review program

  • Mehrsa

    A good overview of the history of race "science." I studied a lot of the earlier documents for my own research and they just sounded like such a ridiculous and desperate attempt to justify racial hierarchies. Unfortunately, this garbage science is coming back in the form of IQ testing and DNA "science." The best part of this book was when she covered David Reich's research--I would suggest going straight to the source if you're interested. His book "Who we are and how we got here" is excellent.

  • Nick

    This book isn't written from a neutral perspective, and doesn't discuss the scientific research in detail. Or even is up to date with latest genetic research and information.

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