In her new book Superior, science journalist Angela Saini analyses the resurgence of racial science and scientific racism. She fears that this ‘resurrection’ is due to the rise of right-wing extremism and nationalism, and believes that race is first and foremost a matter of power.
Angela Saini. / Image given by the science writer.
In 2017 science journalist Angela Saini (London, 1980) published Inferior, a critique of the sexism that has affected science since Darwin. Two years later the British writer has completed the series with Superior, in which she analyses the science (and pseudoscience) that has studied human differences and the racism that surrounds them.
Superior shows the yin and yang of the study of human races. On the one hand, Saini speaks with prestigious researchers such as Svante Pääbo, David Reich, Robert Plomin and Jonathan Marks. On the other hand, she delves into the dark side of academia, where an inbred circle publishes ideas from the previous century in non-impact, suspiciously funded journals.
We met Saini in a cafeteria in central London, just a few metres from the British Museum, with which Superior begins. The journalist fears that race science is taking advantage of the resurgence of nationalism and the far right to return from the darkest corners of the twentieth century. Two days before the interview, the author had erased her profiles on social networks, frustrated by the racist harassment she had been suffering on Twitter. Precisely this week the writer tweeted again from her account, grateful for the reports of harassment of thousands of users.
Have you suffered more harassment than when you published your former book, Inferior?
Yes, partly because I was less well known then. Also, in Superior I identify the names of neo-Nazis, who communicate with each other and were ready to attack. They have a very strong political vision. Sexism appears in all societies, but racism has a different political tone.
Why did you leave Twitter?
In recent weeks, weeks racist and neo-Nazi sites talked about my book. I reported the most outrageous insults to Twitter, but in most cases they did nothing. There were also sexist comments, both are always connected. I left because we’ve got to give these companies the message that if they’re going to sit down and allow harassment, we will leave them.
I'm talking about darker websites, although today it's all mixed up. It's very difficult to know where the boundaries are anymore, look who comments. They are the same people! People who talk about me on 4chan are the same people who talk about me on Quillette.
You speak of the “return of race science,” along the same lines as an article in The Guardian warning of its “resurrection”. Had racial science really gone?
Its popularity comes and goes, according to the politics of the moment. Now, with the rise of the far-right and nationalisms, these people have become powerful and are trying to protect their vision of the world. Some are very well educated and try to fit their racism with what they know. That means twisting and manipulating the facts.
Their intellectual arrogance makes them think they understand things that mainstream science misses. They try to present their arguments with science to reinforce the idea that we are different and that their rhetoric works. That's why it now has a popularity it may not have had before, although it’s true that it has never left.
There were people who misunderstood Inferior asserting that you denied the differences between men and women. Are you afraid something similar will happen to Superior?
It’s assumed that I’m some kind of race denier, that I say there’s no variation between humans. Of course there is! I’m not saying that at all, it’s a deliberate misinterpretation. What I’m proposing is that human variability doesn’t go well with our view of racial categories. This is not controversial, scientists say so every day. There are statistical variations between populations; not deep, but subtle and not very significant.
So, do races exist?
Race is a social construct, which means races exist. Just because something is cultural doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. In fact, it has biological repercussions, as does gender, due to inequality. The life expectancy of African Americans is lower than average; it's not because of genetics, it’s because race has power in our society. That's why it’s being researched as a cultural entity. As a biological entity it has much less meaning than socioeconomic differences and diet.
I was surprised by the chapter on racial medicine. So it doesn’t work?
It surprised me, too. There is a high rate of diabetes in India. It may be partly because of genetics, but mostly because wealthy people eat too much butter, salt and sugar, and associate living well with a sedentary life. So of course diabetes will appear! It’s fatalistic to think of these things in racial terms, but we do it because it’s easy.
There are already cases of people to whom science has said they do not belong to the race with which they have identified all their lives. Will we see more such cases as genetic tests become even more popular?
Yes, and as societies become more mixed. We already have problems placing ourselves in these ‘hard’ categories, which shows their arbitrariness. In America being black means something very different than in South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom or India. They have a different meaning depending on where you are, they’ve always had it and always will. We have to accept that race is a social construct.
In Superior you link scientific racism with Trump and Brexit. Can science and ideology be separated?
To say that science is completely free of ideology is becoming less and less sustainable. This might apply to some disciplines like theoretical physics [laughs], but the study of human beings and their behaviour was political from the beginning. To suggest otherwise is to deny that we have biases. Anyone who studies human differences and says “I'm free from bias, I'm completely objective” is being self-deceitful. In fact, they do more harm, because unless they are aware of their prejudices, they will be unable to control them.
What responsibility has science had for the survival of scientific racism?
Your view of the world depends on the lenses through which you look at it. Humans live in very different, changeable ways. Observing who we are only captures a snapshot of that moment and place, of that group of people and their culture. The study of human nature tries to see who we are if we remove all the layers. What I argue is that it is impossible to remove them all, because culture shapes us from the second we are born. You can’t separate one thing from the rest.
You say at the end of the book that, when it comes to races, “history is the thing that can provide the answers; science can’t help you here”. Can’t it?
We can’t assume that race has a biological meaning because we know it isn’t true. There’s no doubt about that, science is clear on this issue. One of the arguments I put forward in Superior is that scientists need to connect with the social sciences to get a fuller picture of who we are. We cannot study human beings in a vacuum. We can [do research on races] if we are humble, recognize our biases, and read social science research.
It is impossible to deal with this subject without talking about genes and intelligence. If there are population differences in issues such as lactose tolerance, why should intelligence be different?
The differences between groups are statistical; there are no ‘race genes’. Also, if we talk about altitude tolerance, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the characteristics of that group are also different. Finally, these variations have to do with survival, such as the ability to hold one’s breath. Intelligence depends on thousands of genes. Why would they be more concentrated in certain groups? There is no genetic or evolutionary evidence to suggest this. No matter what society you live in, being intelligent is beneficial.
There is a rather dark underworld outside the world of academia that argues, for example, that human beings are losing intelligence because of the poor and immigrants. Is it all connected?
For hundreds of years they have argued that deep down we are different. The interesting thing is that this debate has not always been with races, but with classes. At the beginning of the history of eugenics, it was feared that the poor were congenitally incapable and mentally weak. If they failed to improve over generations, it was because they passed on their weakness to their children. This applies to racial debates, with the idea that there are groups that don’t meet the genetic standards of the rest and should not enter the country and have kids.
That's why at the end of the book I come to the conclusion that this is all about power. It’s about a group of people who have power telling others that they don’t deserve it, that they should be controlled and that they have less of a right to live. Whether for reasons of gender, race or class, when these genetic arguments are used, it is always to defend power.
Power and also the need to create the myth of a nation. You relate colonialism to the origin of the modern concept of race. Do we still have this mentality in countries like the United Kingdom and Spain?
The paternalistic rhetoric of the benevolent civilization that cares for a weaker civilization is still seen here with the Brexit, as a result of how badly the history of the British Empire has been taught. Do we assume that the end of history has already been written and there will be no other winners in the future? Of course there will be, we’re already seeing it with countries like China and India.
The world order is changing and that causes insecurity by losing a control that we feel is naturally owed to us. And we assume this because the ideas of superiority and inferiority have permeated the subconscious. There may someday be museums in Singapore with European artefacts, like the British Museum. Arrogance makes empire builders think that their empire will last forever.
In that sense, you also criticize the ancestor tests. Will nationalisms increase their popularity?
There are already people who undergo these to reinforce their idea of who they are. In Israel they are being used to determine whether someone is Jewish or not; just imagine if that technology had existed in the 1930s. It seems very dark to me that everyone, not just the far right, has bought this idea that inappropriately biologises race and reinforces in our minds that there must be racial genes. Actually, the tests show who you may be vaguely related to, but they don’t find ‘European genes’ or ‘Asian genes’ because they don’t exist.
In ‘Superior’ you point to Enlightenment, a period that many claim today is the origin of the problem of scientific racism. Why?
Enlightenment reinforced political ideas that were already there and hardened them with science. It was the same with colonialism and the genocides we saw in the 19th century. Would they have happened without Western science? Probably, but science gave strength to these ideas and legitimacy to these racial constructs, which made them appear more rigid than they were before.
I was amused to read that 70 years ago there was already talk of how censorship and political correctness were damaging science because of “irrational science denialists”. Are those who repeat that nowadays as novel as they think?
They like to present themselves as such. What fascinated me was to see how intelligent they had been in manipulating speech using euphemisms, speaking of freedom of speech, academic freedom and diversity of opinion, to find accommodation in mainstream discourse. Today, universities and media support them without realizing that they are the direct intellectual heirs of Nazi eugenics. They have changed the way they speak, but they say the same things. We let them in and now there are politicians who use the same rhetoric of 70 years ago.
It reminds me of the ‘debates’ between evolutionists and creationists, or between physicians and homeopaths. There is no middle ground between being and not being a racist!
I just did an interview on the BBC and, after telling about the racism I've experienced online, the interviewer said, “I'm going to put my impartiality aside and say that this is terrible.” I thought: “How can you be impartial with racism?” It's the same as with the climate change deniers and the Flat-Earthers. Why do we keep feeding this idea that there are two opposing sides and equivalents? They were never any. There are only facts that are under scrutiny and should always be. The power we are fighting here is extreme right-wing ideology, not science. If we cannot recognize that, then we are making it easy for them.
Is it that worrying? I have the impression that it’s an inbred circle, that it publishes in its journals without any real impact and get no respect from the rest of the academic world.
There is a rigid circle, but there are university professors and politicians on its edges. The veil is being lifted from them, many people have done research and they’re finding it harder to keep up appearances. It’s shocking that there are serious magazines that allow those people to be on their editorial committees. For instance, Gerhard Meisenberg and Richard Lynn were on the editorial board of Intelligence and I contacted the editor of the magazine, who defended him on grounds of academic freedom. After I wrote an article in The Guardian, Meisenberg had been removed by the end of 2018. But the problem has not been solved, others have done nothing.
Is it true that, as one of the researchers states in Superior, “we look to science as a rationalisation of political ideas”?
Science has a power in society that nothing else has. It is viewed as objective, rational and legitimate. If it looks like a scientific fact, then it cannot be racist. This is what racists say on the Internet: “facts don't care about your feelings”, ignoring that facts are not on their side. They sell it as if they were being repressed by a conspiracy that tries to silence them, while they defend good science and are like Galileo or Copernicus.
It’s puzzling that someone buys this argument and what most impresses me is that many people do. I don’t have a problem with white men; I have a problem with those who say that science is on their side, when it isn’t. There’s no conspiracy: if race science has problems getting its work published, that’s because it's not very good.
In the end, as they say, “facts don't care about your feelings.”
No, but we can’t use that on them, can we? [laughs].
It seems that human beings need to think in categories like races or nations. What can we do?
I try to treat each person as an individual, because more than 95% of the differences between people are individual. It's difficult, I also have many biases and stereotypes, but I can’t think of any other way to act. Cultural stereotypes have given meaning to labels: once we have put one on somebody, we feel that we already know something about that person. Instead of seeing each person as you think they are, we must give them a chance to show who they really are.