Superior by Angela Saini: essential reading for every scientist

The death of George Floyd in the United States earlier this year sparked a flurry of long-overdue activity in my corner of academia. For a few weeks in June, everyone was interested in the subject of racism, and for us, racism in academia in particular. An informal strike was held on the 10th of June, motivated by the idea that by downing tools for the day, scientists could make a statement that racism in academia must be eradicated.

I did not participate in the strike. Partly because I’d not been very productive around that time and badly needed to catch up on work, and partly because I was sceptical that it would do anything. The idea was to send a message, but who was listening? If the physical, and often violent1 protests going on across the US weren’t enough of a wake-up call about the level of racism and discrimination experienced by black people, what good would some academics taking the day off do?

Consequently , a few of us in my department have tried to be a little more proactive in starting and continuing the often difficult conversation about racism. One aspect of this effort is a book club that we hold once every two months or so, covering books, articles, documentaries and other materials to help us (and by “us” I here mean the white majority of personnel in the department) to better understand not only the historical aspects of racism but its continued influence on society and academia. I mention this not as a form of self-congratulatory back-slapping — it is, quite frankly, the barest of bare minimums that could be done, and I will make no further comment on the general situation in my department, besides the fact that it has yet again fallen to the PhD students2 — the worst remunerated and most insecure members of the department — to start and maintain this effort.

Our latest choice of book was “Superior: the return of race science” by Angela Saini. The book is an exploration of the concept of race, and how race is used misguidedly in many scientific fields (most prominently, biology, archaeology and medicine), often driven by covert or (quite shockingly to me) overt political and economic agendas. The book covers a staggering array of topics: from human zoos to eugenics before, during and after the Second World War and from the caste system in India to the drug testing practices of doctors and pharmaceutical companies. To try and summarise every topic treated here would do Saini’s excellent writing a disservice, so I will simply describe what I felt to be the most important points of the book and of course, I highly encourage you to read the book itself.

The main theme presented in the book is that attempting to classify human beings based on their race — and these days skin colour is typically used as a proxy, though historically other anatomical features such as the shape of the jaw or skull were used — is unscientific. Race has no scientific basis. It is not genetic. In fact, the human population is so intermingled that from a genetic standpoint, we are all functionally identical. More concretely, a study of genetic data taken from one thousand people around the world revealed that as much as 95% of variation is within the major population groups, rather than between them. As Saini says, “although I look nothing like the white British woman who lives next door to me, it’s perfectly possible for me to have more in common genetically with her than with my Indian-born neighbour who lives downstairs”.

When talking about the recent popularity of take-home DNA testing kits, Saini writes “… the tests fortify the assumption that race is biologically meaningful. If it’s possible to categorise, we assume, there must be something to the categories”. I think this is one of the core tenets of the book: people love to categorise and label things, but we often unwittingly become prisoners of those self-made categories. This really helped me to understand a phrase I’ve heard a few times before, that “race is a social construct”. Part of this drive for categorisation is surely born out of a strong (and understandable) desire to fit in, to find one’s tribe, to belong. On the whole, however, it’s probably better if you find this sense of identity and community in your favourite football team rather than in something as nebulous as race.

What I found most surprising is that despite the evidence to the contrary, the search for the “answer” in human genes continues. The question is ill-defined, but some scientists seek to understand whether the social and cultural differences present in different “races” and across different communities have some inherent basis in our genetics. This is a delicate line to tread. On the one hand, researching the human genome and understanding the role our genes have played in the evolution of our species is important; on the other, it is important not to fall into the trap of concluding that certain “races” have been more successful because they have some kind of genetic superiority. Rather, white Europeans, for example, have, by and large, enjoyed economic success and prosperity in the 20th and 21st centuries due to the flourishing empires of the 18th and 19th centuries which were built on slavery and colonialism. Genetics played no factor in this; the reasons are myriad, but largely social, political and to some extent an accident of geography.

What I particularly appreciated about Saini’s research for the book is that she did not shy away from interviewing those with extremely different views to her own. One prominent interviewee was Gerhard Meisenberg, a German biochemist and editor-in-chief of the journal Mankind Quarterly. This journal was founded in 1960 by, amongst others, an ex-Nazi scientist, Otmar von Verschuer, and the British eugenicist and neo-Nazi Roger Pearson. As Saini writes, its aim was to publish articles challenging what the founders saw as a politically-correct, left wing conspiracy to suppress their efforts on researching race, and particularly the role of race in human intelligence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the articles it published were awash with undisguised racism. Saini quotes William Tucker, a professor at Rutgers University, who says of the journal “Nothing seemed too bizarre or repugnant to receive the Mankind Quarterly’s stamp of approval”.

Incredibly, Mankind Quarterly still exists today, and still publishes articles. Even more worryingly, its impact factor has risen over the past ten years. This section of the book was the one which I found most shocking — in my naïvety, it never occured to me that people with an ounce of scientific training could, in full consciousness, hold and disseminate such racist views. Furthermore, both Meisenberg, and the president of Mankind Quarterly’s publisher, Richard Lynn, sit on the editorial board of Elsevier. Yes, for the cosmologists reading this, that’s the same Elsevier that owns Physics of the Dark Universe, Physics Letters A and B, Comptes Rendus Physique and more than a hundred other physics journals.

Saini relays Meisenberg’s opinions on race at length — and opinions they are, for although he is a scientist by training, he offers no scientific evidence to support his claims. As she writes, “Meisenberg’s tactic is simple: using people’s gut prejudices and casual observations to undermine trust in mainstream science. If you feel it to be true, it must be true”. This sentence seems more stark than ever in the current post-Trump era of “fake news”.

To me, the most important message contained in this book is the following: science is inherently political and contaminated by bias. We like to think of science as the ultimate rational and logical way of dealing with the world, but scientists are not brought up and educated in a vacuum. We are just as susceptible to unconscious (or conscious) bias as the non-scientist. Furthermore, all science is funded by someone, or some entity. Journals like Mankind Quarterly exist because someone is paying for them. Even if you maintain that science is apolitical, it is very hard to argue that economics is. What are the personal and political motivations of the organisations that fund your work? What is their ideology? How objective and transparent are they regarding these motivations? On this point, a sentence from the book that stuck out to me was the following: “… those to really watch out for are the ones who claim to be uniquely free of bias, who tell you they have some special, impartial claim on the truth”.

I have hardly scratched the surface on the topics covered by Saini in the book. I can only say that it provided me with a lot of food for thought about how scientific research is conceived and funded, and how “race science” has persisted under many guises to the present day. I reiterate my encouragement that you find a copy in your local libary or bookshop and dedicate some time to reading and reflection, especially if you are working in science or academia.

1. Made so by the actions of the police, rather than the protesters, I believe.

2. I will further note that for the first six months of the book club, it was organised and moderated by two female PhD students. It is well-known that women take on more than their fair share of “housekeeping” tasks in academia — being more likely to be asked to take minutes for a meeting, for example, or to serve on committees, than their male counterparts — and unfortunately, even despite the relatively good gender balance in my department (three of the fifteen permanent staff, one of the thirteen postdocs and seven of the twenty six students are women..!), and in general, a good awareness of the gender imbalance in physics, we do not escape this mindset. However, this footnote is really a blog post for another day.

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