In my secondary school history book, there was an unforgettable picture of a group of scantily clad Aboriginal Australians applying face paint to a child as part of an initiation ritual. I vividly remember the caption below it, which read that some people have survived into the modern era living a Stone Age lifestyle.
The insinuation was, of course, that the process of civilisation moves linearly, with hunter-gatherer societies trailing far behind the industrialised ones, with all the machines, weapons and comforts that the latter have.
What the writers of that book failed to see is how absurd it is to rank an industrial society higher than a traditional one, since the lens from which we are viewing both belongs to the industrialised society. As ‘modern’ human beings, we inadvertently consider ourselves (or those more ‘advanced’ than us) the yardstick of civilisation, so naturally, ‘primitive’ cultures such as the Aborigines, the Amazon jungle tribes — or, closer to home, the Kalasha of Chitral — will not fit our expectations.
In reality, though, traditional societies are probably hardier, having weathered natural disasters, wars and pandemics and, unlike us, being owners of rich histories dating back thousands of years. Or perhaps we are simply hesitant to accept that indigenous people are as civilised as us, because that would challenge the legitimacy of our presence on their land.
British journalist Angela Saini explores uncomfortable truths such as these in her book Superior: The Return of Race Science. She also peppers the book with her own experiences of growing up in London as a second-generation Briton of Indian origin, and whether her own quest for identity has anything in common with the scientists who try to answer the question ‘Who are we?’ by turning to genetics.
The book’s premise is compelling enough: the notion of race is purely a social construct, with zero biological rationale. And yet scientific racism — the belief that some people are genetically inferior compared to others — persists today, despite the horrors of 20th century Nazism, and the greater scientific and social awareness that we have now.
A well-researched treatise argues for the need to take the threat of scientific racism seriously
Tracing the history of race science, Saini exposes the shadowy world of contemporary pseudoscientific journals, and finds that migration policy and population control motivate many of the racist lobbies that bankroll them. She ends on an impassioned plea that we need to take the threat of scientific racism seriously, because it is responsible for the rise of right-wing nationalism we witness around the world, be it in the United Kingdom, the United States or India.
Saini argues that there is more genetic diversity within populations than across ethnic (or “racial”) divides. Being of the same ‘race’ doesn’t necessarily mean she is genetically more similar to the Indian woman in her building than her white neighbour. So, why are scientists hell-bent on proving somehow that people are different? Why are they so eager to find a biological basis for race?
To answer this question, Saini goes back to the invention of race as a category, which she says helped those at the top of the social and political order in the 1700s to justify their control of global resources. The argument goes that, if European colonisers could claim that “we are different” from conquered people, then the next step would logically be “we are inherently better”, which would justify their hegemonic position in society.
Most Western academics laud the Age of Enlightenment — the 17th century triumph of science over superstition, the first instance when humans were seen to be elevated above animals. But Saini says that even the Enlightenment occurred within the confines of European thought. So, when European philosophers set the parameters for what was considered a modern human being, they built it around their own experiences and what they happened to value culturally at that time.
Eurocentrism meant that people from other civilisations were not seen as equally human. As a consequence, she says, philosophers and scientists of the 18th century were incredibly racist — Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant and Voltaire being examples.
But this Eurocentric view of the evolution of mankind also had wider implications where Europeans fought with non-European civilisations. Race, rather than history, could then be the explanation for not only the natives’ failure on the battlefield, but for the failures of all non-white races to live up to the ideal that Europeans themselves had defined.
By the 19th century, the possibility that some races were inferior to others gave colonialism a moral boost in the drive for public support. The truth — that Europe was motivated by economic greed or power — was harder to swallow than the suggestion that the lands they were colonising were too uncivilised to be considered humans like themselves, deserving of freedom. In fact, they considered it actually doing the savages a favour by bringing culture and education. In the US, the same warped logic was used to justify slavery.
By the 20th century, race was an entrenched concept in all aspects of society, and science was no exception. The eugenics movement — that humans, like animals, could be bred into a better species — was a popular, mainstream view on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
In Nazi Germany, half of the nation’s doctors were Nazi party members. But when the Second World War ended, the role of science as a bystander (and, in many cases, an active participant in genocide) was conveniently forgotten. There was a smooth transition in most Western countries from eugenics to genetics research. Scientists began looking for new ways to study human variation: for example, blood types. While some of this science was sincere, it would not be incorrect to say a few scientists were still searching for proof that race was real.
And this dogged pursuit continues today, Saini says, despite all scientific evidence to the contrary. Intelligence studies — which try to show differing intelligence quotient levels between ethnicities — are a good example. Evidence has repeatedly shown that environment, rather than genes, determines most scholastic performance, but some scientists remain committed to their cause — and are often supported in their research by sinister bodies such as the Pioneer Fund in the US.
Using another example, Saini talks about the theory linking a supposed difference in blood salt levels among African populations during the transatlantic slave trade with hypertension among African Americans today. This spurious theory led some scientists to erroneously claim that the slaves who survived the journey across the salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean had high salt content in their blood, while others perished. But this made them more susceptible to high blood pressure, so their descendants suffer from the ailment.
Of course, this theory ignores the fact that high blood pressure — if it is seen to be higher in black Americans — is more likely to be a product of experiencing a lifetime of all the factors that give them hypertension in the first place, including a poor diet. So yes, blacks are more likely to die from high blood pressure — but also from other causes.
But while I’m obviously not as well read in the field as Saini, a couple of the arguments she makes in her book are perhaps not articulated particularly well. For instance, to debunk the transatlantic slave trade and hypertension theory, she says it’s incorrect to think all people of African descent have high blood pressure; in fact, she says, if we look at people who inhabit Africa today, they mostly have low blood pressure. But the argument is that people of African descent in the US are the ones whose ancestors survived the perilous journey across the Ocean — not all people of African descent!
Also, racists value racial purity: the misplaced belief that all their ancestors looked just like them. To rebut this, and prove that all African Americans today are not necessarily descended from slaves, she cites the results of a study by an ancestry testing company which found that, on average, a quarter of the ancestry of all African American people they tested was European. But earlier in the book, she herself says ancestry testing is unreliable and it is mostly a money-minting industry which appeals to racists.
At times, the book does seem a bit sensationalist, written to shock readers, for instance when it reveals the racist inclinations of well respected academics, philosophers and social scientists. At other times, one feels it could have been shorter, and there was no need to stretch it over 11 chapters. But it is undeniably well researched, spanning conversations with experts (and pseudo-experts) across continents, and bringing up various scientific theories from the past 400 years.
In 2018, then American president Donald Trump drew diplomatic gasps for reportedly disparaging African countries, Haiti and El Salvador during a pitch to curb immigration. Saini thinks this is where race science leads us. Going by recent developments in the US vis-à-vis the Black Lives Matter movement, she may not be too off the mark after all.
The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi
Superior: The Return of Race Science
By Angela Saini
Beacon Press, Fourth Estate Books, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 7th, 2021