Review: Angela Saini's "Superior: The Return of Race Science"
In reading Angela Saini’s new book, I was surprised to find myself surprised at the relief I felt seeing someone call a racist a racist. Superior: The Return of Race Science is the follow-up to Saini’s massively successful Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong––And the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. And it could not have arrived at a more urgent time. While pundits and politicians scuffle over whether or not it’s racist to tell a Somali refugee congresswoman to go back where she came from, Saini confidently lays the moniker of racist on scientists and pretenders from the Enlightenment Era to the present because she understands there is nothing more essential in our present moment than calling a spade a spade.
Superior tracks along a narrative that many of us are more or less familiar with, describing the apotheosis of race science in the horrors of the Holocaust. We know, in some vague way, that a line was drawn after the world learned of Nazi race science and medical experimentation. For many people, the story of race science ends there, having been utterly stamped out. Superior sharpens the fuzzy edges of this narrative and traces the path of race science not into oblivion but onto a well-organized fringe and, more disturbingly, back into mainstream science. Clarifying this narrative brings race science out of the murky past and makes it urgent and inescapable.
Organized into 11 roughly chronological chapters, Superior traces the intellectual history of a biological basis of race from the Enlightenment to the present. And although a large portion of the book is concerned with the history of race science, Saini is a science journalist, not a historian and doesn’t approach her subject as such. Instead, using interviews with living scientists—antiracists, racists, and those who seem somewhere on the blurry margin between the two, Saini focuses attention on the return of race science in our present day.
Saini begins with an examination of the science of human origins with the largely accepted “out of Africa” hypothesis, which holds that modern humans evolved on the African continent and then spread all over the world. According to the hypothesis, the differences we observe in people in different places are a result of adaptation to specific environments and varying degrees of isolation. But, Saini cautions about competing hypotheses, with more or less credibility, that propose humans became modern in their respective geographic locations and can be accurately grouped as races. Saini introduces this contemporary debate to prime the reader for the argument at the heart of her book: science today still dabbles in the forbidden depths of race science, a domain many believed to have been abandoned after the atrocities of the Holocaust.
In the next chapter, Saini explores the emergence of race science alongside what we recognize today as modern science in the early modern period. Having categorized nature and codified race in service of the economic and political aims of colonialism, Western scientists considered whether races could then be improved through eugenics, the subject of Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, Saini describes the role of this thinking in Nazi race science and genocide, which left behind a cadre of researchers who were reluctant to give up their study of human difference, but who realized that race science was no longer an acceptable path for mainstream academics. In the aftermath of World War II, race scientists were pushed to the fringe where practitioners were forced to create their own intellectual networks and journals, such as Mankind Quarterly, to continue their study.
In dealing with the reemergence of race science in the postwar period and the way that ideas of race infect and inflect even what we tend to think of as good science, Saini sharply points at every relevant occasion to the ways the egos of these men—they are always men—are implicated in their flight to the margins. So desperate to keep working on human difference after the war and so soundly rejected by mainstream academia, they looked for validation elsewhere. But the most haunting part of Saini’s analysis concerns the present day manifestation of race science, buried within respectable scientific fields, such as human biodiversity” and “population genetics,” and the contortions of language that have shielded the reemergence of race science within what we think of as “good” science.
Chapters 5 and 6 describe the various linguistic turns in this underground race science that helped rehabilitate the study of human difference. The new science of genetics provided a screen to race researchers, but it is not complete. As Saini shows, new findings in genetics often undermine the case of racists as she demonstrates the incredible complexity of human origins in Chapter 7.
In Chapter 8, Saini shows how the myth of American Exceptionalism was created and sustained in tandem with colonialist ideas about race. This serves as a case study in the way racists harness not only the scaffold of science to reach into our politics but also into history, mythology, and national self-image. In Chapters 9, Saini visits some prominent contemporary researchers whose work on the genetic basis of intelligence has infiltrated mainstream science and how the social sciences are combating genetic determinism by showing how social, cultural, and environmental factors account for what we often see as innate racial difference.
Throughout the book, Saini consults historians and anthropologists for their perspectives both on the history of race science itself and the deployment of certain interpretations of history by racists. The result is that Saini doesn’t spend much time on the counterarguments to the validity of race science that many historians might be looking for. Instead for instance in Chapter 9, she mentions that IQ testing is itself a fraught and flawed system of measuring and shows that racist claims about intelligence difference don’t even hold up in terms of IQ points. Saini understands that engaging in an analysis of IQ testing can easily be framed as “debate me, antiracists,” which simply changes the subject. Her method has the effect of keeping the conversation firmly centered on the methods racists themselves embrace. Saini’s argument is devastating, and it serves as a good reminder for historians that there is in fact a season for all kinds of argument.
In Chapter 10, Saini also addresses the matter of statistics and the ways raw data can be made to show racial difference in studies whose methodology is already compromised by the ambient perceptions of race within which researchers are embedded. In the final chapter, Saini considers how race has infiltrated not only our political and economic thought but our daily lives and the most intimate industries of medicine and healthcare, including the creation of “black pills.” Black pills are pharmaceutical products marketed exclusively to black patients, with the effect of reinforcing unproven ideas about a biological basis for race wherein black patients are inherently different than others.
“My favorite part of Saini’s analysis is the careful way she acknowledges the feel of race, how easily even the staunch antiracist can slip into its pattern without ever meaning to.”
This last chapter brings together multiple threads of Saini’s argument to show the practical, everyday ramifications of this reemergence, not only for scientists but for all of us. Beyond the sickening spectacle of the alt right and the revanchism of once-chastened white supremacy, the deeply felt, atmospheric idea of race still dogs the daily lives of people of color, especially black people in the United States. “Black pills” create a profitable niche in an otherwise saturated market for pharmaceuticals, and they serve as an example of one of the many ways that ideas about race are fed into our ambient. It’s a sharply drawn example that brings Saini’s argument into our own medicine cabinets, exhausting the last of our excuses for not being able to “see” race daily life.
My favorite part of Saini’s analysis is the careful way she acknowledges the feel of race, how easily even the staunch antiracist can slip into its pattern without ever meaning to. Part of this has to do with living in a modernity that was built, in very real material and economic terms, on colonialism, which relied on its own justification of and expedience on the idea of race. The other part is the way both racists and ostensibly well-meaning scientists who work on human difference have shifted and contorted the language we use to talk about it. Racists are fond of appropriating the liberal language of diversity and the preservation of cultural difference to reinforce biological difference. Threading the needle of acceptability, scientists study things like “population genetics” and blithely use racial categorizations in clinical trials. Saini’s keen ability to point out the ways that a feeling for race is embedded in our lives lit up a hundred tiny bulbs in my mind as I read.
As Saini ultimately shows, race science is both bad science and it doesn’t matter, which is perhaps the most terrifying feature of Superior. For racists, the only criteria for their scientific theories is whether they affirm a biological basis for race or cast a shadow of a doubt on competing science that does not. As Saini says, “the past is the problem,” because even as genetics, which has flirted so closely with race science since its inception, trends toward showing that human difference is far too complex to be bounded by race. If racists can’t get what they want from genetics, there’s always a lack of data about the past in the flexibility of archaeology, anthropology, and history that can be filled in with bigoted ideology. And combating that problem is the season of the historian, who should willingly take the baton she is handing to them.
Image credit: Illustration from the H. Strickland Constable's Ireland from One or Two Neglected Points of View shows an alleged similarity between "Irish Iberian" and "Negro" features in contrast to the higher "Anglo-Teutonic," 1899. (Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain)