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Dismantling the evidence: Angela Saini. Photo/Supplied

The return of race science

British writer Angela Saini's new book is a timely debunking of the pseudoscience of ethnic inferiority.

Today, eugenics is a dirty word. We tend to think of the horrors of the Holocaust, slavery and colonialism as evil manifestations of outdated ideas about racial purity and the superiority of one group of people over another. Or so you would hope.

Racist populism is clearly raising its ugly head again, and Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science is a timely and sadly necessary reminder that any notion of race is driven by power structures rather than biological evidence.

Superior is part-science history, part-science journalism, enriched by the author’s own experience as a person of Indian heritage living in London, facing everyday racism.

Saini tracks the roots of racial classifications back to the Enlightenment and its gentleman scientists’ tendency to observe the rest of the world through their own lens of assumed superiority and cast humanity in comparison to the northern European model. It is not surprising, Saini writes, but rather a testament to the audacity of power that white and wealthy scientists put themselves at the top of a racial hierarchy they drew up randomly.

Based on the early genetic concepts Gregor Mendel gleaned from peas, and influenced by Darwinian ideas about the survival of the fittest, race science extrapolated to humans – and prepared a fertile ground for politics based on the expansion of power and racial dominance, with the most horrific consequences of eugenics emerging in Hitler’s reign. Saini argues that the post-World War II narrative of good winning over unfathomable evil meant that the full history of how the idea of race was constructed in the first place could not be revisited. This in turn meant that although eugenics was no longer acceptable, the idea continued to simmer.

The most chilling part of Superior is Saini’s detailed reconstruction of how several scientists whose thinking continued to be firmly anchored in genetic determinism – the idea that complex human traits are genetically fixed and therefore significantly different between population groups – were able to reinvent themselves and continue their work, funded by a wealthy donor looking to support racial science.

Her writing is crystal clear. So much so that every scientist she describes emerges as a perfectly plausible, if flawed, character. She doesn’t need to accuse her subjects of racism. Instead, she leaves enough space for them to reveal their own confirmation bias and racist convictions before she proceeds to debunk their science.

In the process, Saini builds a clear picture of the evidence: race is a social and political construct not borne out by biology. If we could look at the genome of each of us, we wouldn’t find clear racial boundaries but gradients that blend into each other.

At the same time, Saini makes it clear that science itself is socially constructed, and there will always be those who, for their own reasons, want to claim that people’s place in life is determined by innate and unchangeable abilities rather than inequality in opportunity.

SUPERIOR: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini (Fourth Estate, $35)

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.