"Dangerous ideas": the author Angela Saini on the return of old school scientific racism


If you were on Twitter following the Leadership Association of the Party of Canada (PPC) in Burlington, Ont. last month, you may have double-turned and wondered, for a second, if you were somehow transported to an alternative social media site in the 1919 universe, not 2019.

Author Angela Saini


A tweet of the organization on May 3, since it was canceled, has embraced the old-style scientific racism of the rarest kind. In response to a user who tweeted: "We have only one race living on this planet: the human race", the person who manages the account @BurlingtonPPC replied that, in reality, not all people belong to the homo species sapiens; some are Homo erectus, an extinct ancestor of modern humans. The account also published a series of photos of people of different ethnic backgrounds, each accompanied by a picture of a skull and an old-fashioned racial term such as "caucasoide", "mongoloid" or "negroid".

A clamor followed, of course, and the person managing the account lost his job. But as the British scientific journalist Angela Saini tells in her new book, Superior: the science of the return of the racethis kind of scientifically sound but absolutely unscientific racism is enjoying a revival of politics and popular culture. He explained why so many people insist that humans divide into distinct and biological categories called "races" when the evidence overwhelmingly shows that it is false.

Q: Tell me a little about what drove you to write this: what happened that led you to believe that this book had to exist?

A: I grew up as an ethnic minority in London at a time when the city was a fairly racist place. One of the reasons I became a journalist was to explore these problems of injustice. Especially in recent years, with the election of Trump and the rise of ethnic nationalism and the extreme right across the world, we have seen how dangerous these ideas are and how much biologically essential ideas about the race they are re-emerging.

Q: If you have an understanding of human genetics, you know that human variation is continuous, not discrete. It's not like you have a certain number of traits in your DNA that flip a switch and make you turn black or white or Asian. Race is a social category, not a biological one. But we were not relieved to believe it. How did you approach to communicate it to a general public?

A: It's really strange. Scientists have been claiming for so long, for decades, that race is a social construction. But for the society as a whole, the race is so real. We are trained from an early age to look for some differences related to certain categories. Having that idea (challenged) is rather an affront to a sense of identity. It was an affront to my sense of identity when I was writing this book, to really see how little there is for the race.

Science is proving them increasingly wrong every day

D: You received a lot of criticism for this book. Did something really make you stop and think? Something interesting for you?

A: The tendency when you write something like this is to think, "Maybe I can make my argument so good that even the most avid racists will be convinced they are wrong." And all the criticisms I've had so far have been from the hard-core racists. I have had excellent reviews in the normal everyday press. As for me, I don't think I could find a discussion that could convince (the racists), because they don't rely on creating a mainstream science. They are abusing data and selection sentences from cards that say completely different things. They know that's what they are doing.

D: C & # 39; is a large group of people who certainly do not identify themselves as racist, but continue to think: it is logical that there are human variations and vast categories of people. And that, to say, people from Kenya are really good runners. From there it is not very logical to jump to look at the relationship between race and IQ, and suddenly you are making judgments about who is superior. How do you explain to people that human differences are not about race?

A: I don't think human capacity is tied to heritage, actually. It is not all Kenyans who have any kind of sporting advantage. And also, why do we never ask, for example, why Britain – a tiny, tiny country, much smaller than Kenya – has produced a number of world-class white athletes over the years? Why does no one say that the British, or the whites, have some kind of physical advantage? We accept changes in the companies to which we belong. We make ourselves indispensable when we talk about societies that we don't know very well. If some groups produce people of excellence, this is very often for cultural reasons.

D: Right, we don't have a gene for good hockey players. Meanwhile, Canadians drill so far above their weight in the NHL.

A: Yes. I have never heard any kind of discussion about the superiority of white in sport. It always concerns other groups – as if they excelled at something, it must be associated with some racial characteristic. It can't just be for hard work and training. I am a legacy of South Asia, and so often I am stuck with the stereotype of "You must be good at math". Not all Indians are good at math! It would be bizarre.

Q: Even if, for example, you were to study IQ and run, you have to consider that your genes are influenced by the world you live in. Can you talk about the role of the environment in shaping our abilities and even our genes?

A: I don't look at epigenetics (the study of non-genetic factors that influence gene expression) in my book, because it's such a young field, and it's not a huge amount of data. We know that the trauma crosses generations. But we still have to quantify it.

The environment has a huge effect on inequality. It has a tangible effect on our bodies. In the UK, we know that the poorest people have a lower life expectancy. Everywhere in the world, the poorest people live shorter lives. And this is obvious: your diet is not so good, you have stress. In the United States, we know that the life expectancy of black Americans is lower. And there is nothing to suggest that most of this is due to anything but social circumstances.

D: Quillette, a conservative website in Canada, has published a review of your book which is quite critical. He cites this study which, according to the writer, shows that scientists can distinguish the difference between the skulls of black and white people with an accuracy of 80%. Even if this is true, does this contradict all that is in your book?

What are they trying to do? I can look around and identify someone who is likely to be black or who is probably Asian. It doesn't take a genius. I don't need to look at someone's skull to do it. I wonder what they are suggesting if they invoke skulls rather than skin color. Does this make it more scientific? We know there are differences in appearance throughout the world on average. The fact that it can be done only with precision, they say, of 80%, goes to show how confused the boundaries are.

Most racists are ignorant. But there are some, and these are the people I look at in the book, who are very well educated. Their racism is stronger than any willingness to look at the facts. They will continue to reach, and when that fails, they will come back to the arguments and ideas of the nineteenth century. Why do they have anything else? Science is proving them increasingly wrong every day.

D: You talk about the persistence of scientific racism in intellectual circles and the academy, and how racist people have successfully framed the expression of racist ideas as a matter of freedom of speech and academic freedom. Where do you personally draw the line on what is good to study and what is scientific racism?

A: I personally think that if you can get your work funded by a respectable body, published in a reputable journal, peer-reviewed by traditional scientists, then study what you want. And indeed, there is a huge body of literature that looks at human variations and the social and health implications of racism and discrimination. As far as scientific racists can claim to be silenced, in reality there is a huge amount of work out there that looks at race and racism and the effects on the body and the differences between population groups . And what they repeatedly show is that race, as a genetic quantity, has very little validity. But since race has a cultural, social and political power, it has an impact on the way we live.

This interview has been modified and condensed.

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