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Superior: The Return of Race Science Paperback – May 5, 2020
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—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
“A well-argued, timely, sobering wake-up call for those who believe science is always objective and apolitical. Highly recommended for academic researchers, journalists, and general science readers alike.”
—Library Journal, Starred Review
“[A] brilliant critique of ‘race science’ . . . this is an important and, in an era of rising racial tensions, must-read book, especially for those most sure they do not need to read it.”
“Superior: The Return of Race Science makes the compelling case that scientific racism is as prevalent as it has ever been, and explores the way such backward beliefs have continued to evolve and persist. And it couldn’t be more timely.”
“A rigorously researched and reported journey from the Enlightenment through nineteenth-century imperialism and twentieth-century eugenics to the stealthy revival of race science in the twenty-first century.”
“In Superior, Saini expertly chronicles the broader social forces that have reinvigorated race science . . . . For such a weighty topic, Superior is a surprisingly easy-to-read blend of science reporting, cultural criticism, and personal reflection.”
“Whether you think of racist science as bad science, evil science, alt-right science, or pseudoscience, why would any contemporary scientist imagine that gross inequality is a fact of nature, rather than of political history? Angela Saini’s Superior connects the dots, laying bare the history, continuity, and connections of modern racist science, some more subtle than you might think. This is science journalism at its very best!”
—Jonathan Marks, author of Tales of the Ex-Apes: How We Think About Human Evolution
“Angela Saini’s investigative and narrative talents shine in Superior, her compelling look at racial biases in science past and present. The result is both a crystal-clear understanding of why race science is so flawed, and why science itself is so vulnerable to such deeply troubling fault lines in its approach to the world around us—and to ourselves.”
—Deborah Blum, author of The Poison Squad: One Chemist’s Single-Minded Crusade for Food Safety at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
“Some writers have tackled the sordid history of race science previously, but none have gone so deep under the skin of the subject as Angela Saini in Superior. In her deceptively relaxed writing style, Saini patiently leads readers through the intellectual minefields of ‘scientific’ racism. She plainly exposes the conscious and unconscious biases that have led even some of our most illustrious scientists astray.”
—Michael Balter, author of The Goddess and the Bull
“In this essential book, Angela Saini deftly shows how science and racism have long been intertwined, why that pernicious history continues to this day, and why ‘race science’ is so deeply flawed. Deeply researched, masterfully written, and sorely needed, Superior is an exceptional work by one of the world’s best science writers.”
—Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life
“Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science is nothing short of a remarkable, brilliant, and erudite exploration of what we believe about the racialized differences among our human bodies. Saini takes readers on a walking tour through science, art, history, geography, nostalgia and personal revelation in order to unpack many of the most urgent debates about human origins, and about the origin myths of racial hierarchies. This beautifully written book will change the way you see the world.”
—Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying of Whiteness
About the Author
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Both Lescaze's book and this one place a heavy emphasis on the early histories of their fields, but the two books handle these respective histories very differently. As is the case in many areas of science, the earliest attempts at paleoart in the mid-19th century were extremely crude by today's standards, and Lescaze presents these early reconstructions within the context of the history of paleoart, showing how the field has evolved from its primitive origins up to the rigorous reconstructions made by 21st-century paleoartists. Saini, on the other hand, has set out to prove that contemporary population geneticists such as David Reich and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza are making the same mistakes that were made by the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific racists who believed that indigenous Australians were not fully human. One must recognize what an extraordinary assertion this is: to claim that some of the most prominent geneticists in the world are continuing to make a fundamental error that has gone uncorrected for over two hundred years, but that a journalist with no background in genetics is able to detect the error.
Saini's book is primarily structured as a series as interviews with various prominent researchers about genetics and/or intelligence, including the aforementioned David Reich, Robert Plomin, and Richard Haier. Each interview is punctuated with Saini's comments about the ways that she believes these scientists to be naïve and/or wrong, often with an assertion about how the actual state of research in these fields contradicts these scientists' opinions. However, in most of the cases where Saini claims to know better than these professionals, her statements about the current state of research are incorrect. There are too many examples of this pattern to list, but I'll provide a few that are representative.
On page 183, Saini says: "But to date, no scientific research has been able to show any average genetic differences between population groups that go further than the superficial and are linked to hard survival, such as skin colour and those that prevent a geographically linked disease." The context of this quote is discussing David Reich's assertion that we cannot rule out the possibility that genes affecting psychological traits will eventually be found to differ in their distributions between human population groups. There are a few dozen genetic studies that have found differences between human populations that go beyond superficial traits or disease resistance, but given the context of her statement, one study stands out as particularly relevant.
Guo, Jing, et al. "Global genetic differentiation of complex traits shaped by natural selection in humans." Nature Communications 9.1 (2018): 1865. This study found differences between African, East Asian, and European populations in the distribution of genetic variants affecting ten traits, including four health-related traits (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, coronary artery disease, and type II diabetes), and three psychological traits (risk of Alzheimer's disease, risk of Schizophrenia, and years of educational attainment). The last of these, years of educational attainment, is often used as a proxy for intelligence in genome-wide association studies.
On page 221, Saini says, "The question of whether cognition, like skin colour or height, has a genetic basis is one of the most controversial in human biology." To be clear, this sentence is referring to the causes of individual variation in cognition, not the causes of differences between group averages. The question of whether or not group differences have a genetic basis is indeed controversial, but in 2019, making such a statement about the heritability of individual variation is equivalent to saying that it's controversial whether or not global warming exists. Ideas such as the existence of global warming or the heritability of cognitive ability are controversial among some political activists, but among professionals in the relevant fields, these questions have been regarded as settled for more than twenty years.
Around a year ago, I wrote an article for the evolution blog Panda's Thumb giving an overview of what's currently accepted in this area. Amazon doesn't allow external links in reviews, but my article can be found by Googling for its title, which is "General intelligence: What we know and how we know it". An older source that discusses the heritability of human intelligence, and demonstrates how long this conclusion has been accepted, is "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns", a report published by the American Psychological Association in 1996.
On pages 227-228, discussing her interview with Robert Plomin, Saini says: "he (Plomin) would still be left with the challenge of finding a single mechanism, one biological pathway, to explain how any of these genetic variations acts on the brain and leads to what we see as someone's general intelligence. We know, for instance, that X-linked mental retardation is a genetic condition, identifiable in a person's DNA, reliably leading to certain intellectual disabilities. [...] But for everyday intelligence, scientists don't have anything like this." Saini is wrong about this, too, and the data that she is claiming doesn't exist has existed for several years.
Okbay, Aysu, et al. "Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment." Nature 533.7604 (2016): 539-542. This study found that the genetic variants associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genes that are expressed in fetal brain development. Many of the developmental pathways by which these genes are expressed are also known, allowing for a picture of the mechanism by which variance in them affects cognitive ability. The relation between these variants and cognitive ability has been replicated in a second study: Lee, James J., et al. "Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals." Nature Genetics 50.8 (2018): 1112-1121. In addition to how these genes are expressed in fetal development, the supplement for this paper also examines how they impact the structure of brain cells themselves.
The preceding three quotes might give the impression that the focus of Saini's book is on attacking the data underlying the science of genetics, but the greater portion of her book makes a different argument. Throughout the book, the argument she makes most often is that research about race and genetics, or about genetics in general, is unethical because of its potential to be abused and the ways that it's been abused in the past. For example, on page 224 Saini argues that studies comparing the degree of similarity between identical and fraternal twins, the most widely-used method of measuring heritability in behavioral genetics, are "tainted" because they are reminiscent of Josef Mengele's human experiments conducted on twins at Auschwitz. Saini doesn't mention the critical distinction between Mengele's experiments and behavioral genetics: modern twin studies are always conducted with the subjects' consent, and don't involve harming anyone.
Saini has a tendency to take it for granted that readers will regard these sorts of arguments as an adequate basis for rejecting research that is otherwise highly-regarded. As another example, in her discussion of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, Saini (pp. 150-151) argues that Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues "had somehow fallen into the trap of treating groups of people as special and distinct, in the same way that racists do", and that "They were using similar intellectual frameworks to pre-war race scientists, but with fresh terminology". The implication is that this accusation makes Cavalli-Sforza's research invalid and/or unethical, but Saini never offers an explanation as to why his research is discredited by its vague resemblance to unethical research that had been conducted a century earlier.
It's disturbing to see the number of people who are praising this book, and apparently welcoming Saini's disparagement of scientists such as Plomin and Cavalli-Sforza, who are respectively among the most prominent figures in the fields of behavioral genetics and human population genetics. In our society's zeal to eradicate racism in all its forms, is it now considered okay to reject large swaths of biological research that is, by most measures, well-established and uncontroversial? The majority of this book's positive reviews have focused on Saini's discussion of research about race and intelligence, which only makes up about ten percent of the book, while saying little of her attacks on behavioral genetics and population genetics more generally. The attitude appears to be that if the only way to discredit research about race and intelligence is by discrediting the two entire fields that this research builds upon, so be it.
It is difficult to imagine how any line of research could be so dangerous that it's worth paying such a price to eradicate it. One basic problem with this assumption is that all scientific discoveries, beginning with early humanity's mastery of fire, have the potential to be used for either good or evil. (For an example of a paper making this argument, see: Davis, Bernard D. "The moralistic fallacy." Nature 272.5652 (1978): 390.) Even leaving that argument aside, though, I think that there is a more important flaw in the perspective of Saini and her supporters, which was raised in one of this book's other reviews, from the user "CapitalismAndFriedman".
In the field known as Whiteness Studies, one of the foundational premises is that since racial categories have no relation to biology, they were instead created by whites as a means to enforce oppression of other groups, with the existence of a caucasian or "white" race is having been socially engineered to act as a ruling class. This is the basis for the concept of "toxic whiteness", which underlies racially motivated actions by leftist activists such as the student takeover of the Evergreen State College Campus in 2017. Saini may be concerned about a resemblance between Cavalli-Sforza's research and 19th-century scientific racism, but in modern discourse about race, there is another resemblance that is at least as concerning. Watching Mike Nanya's documentary about the Evergreen protesters, including their eventual attempt to physically hunt down the professor who had opposed them, it's hard to ignore the similarity between the actions of these protesters and the intimidation tactics that were used by the Nazi Brownshirts in the 1920s.
When defenders of these sorts of tactics justify their actions, they inevitably point to racial disparities in various areas of society as proof of the pervasiveness of white supremacy, and of the need for drastic measures to counteract it, with the assumption that any observed difference between races must be directly or indirectly the result of white racism. These assertions about the causes of racial disparities are empirical claims, that could potentially be proven or disproven by research about race, and it's essential to critically examine such claims before using them as a basis for the sort of social revolution that's being attempted. This is the most important reason society currently needs research about race and genetics, and why books such as Saini's are dangerous. If individuals such as Saini succeed at suppressing this research, and Whiteness Studies becomes an intellectual orthodoxy without its premises ever being challenged, I fear that the events at Evergreen State College may foreshadow the future of Britain and the United States.
But people can’t help focusing on how this or that group has social inequity due to discrimination. That if any group is not completely on par with every other it’s due to society. In other words, every inequality is a “social construct”.
This is an interesting idea. But it is flawed. It completely ignores biology in the equation. It relies on everyone being identical copies of each other.
A society with equal opportunity in every societal way will still have an inequality in outcome if biologically people are unequal.
And of course they are. Genes/biology have given us differences. Obviously, between men and woman. But also between fast and slow. And smart and dumb. And any of a million other traits. And, ugly and unfortunately enough, there are differences in traits between extended families with separated lineages. Not every human population is biologically identical to every other. It’s impossible.
This is reality. We aren’t blank copies of one another with no differences between sexes, for example. Or between families. If we don’t share a common ancestor within twenty or forty or so generations of each other, we are going to be different. Forty generations of separate ancestry is more than enough time for some biological adaptations to have occurred.
And, unfortunately, these biological differences manifest themselves more obviously in groups than in individuals. Individual variation is much bigger than group variation, but in groups the law of large numbers exposes a mean much easier.
Which, again is why it’s better to focus on individuals. More variation. Less obvious differences.
But in our society, people look at group differences as de facto evidence of discrimination, completely ruling out biology. They look at averages of the group. This is wrong. And also gross. You are basically calling out groups with biological advantages as being racist or sexist, when biology is a key reason for many social inequalities. "Privileged" people are not all monsters; most of them were just born with favorable biology.
Inequality is not de facto evidence of discrimination. And the only way biology wouldn’t be a reason for inequality would be if everyone were genetically identical.
So, I come to this book hoping for a real scientific takedown showing that whatever changes nature/biology has wrought between extended families they would be small. And hence whatever biological differences there exists between groups they would be minor. That in fact the social differences are the key.
But instead this author refuses to engage and heeds mindlessly to a blank slate mentality. De facto dismissing any idea that biology could cause substantial differences.
I’m going to have to continue for my search for an author that; (1) concedes humans aren’t a blank slate; (2) goes through the science in detail to show how biological differences between groups would be small or inconsequential.
I'm looking for someone that doesn't dismiss Rushton, Lynn, Murray and all the other investigators of this area through name-calling and character assasination, but takes them head-on at their own game. Exposes flaws in their thinking/methodology. Makes me think and really consider how biology is a minor factor. Scientifically and not dogmatically.
However, this book just appears to be ideology and not science at all. So, unfortunately, I will have to continue my search for a good counter-argument to biology being a key factor. Hopefully a real scientist will step up.
Top international reviews
I can’t recommend it highly enough...would urge everyone to read it