Superior - The Return of Race Science
Angela Saini argues that the need to classify human beings into groups is a problematic impulse that hasn't gone away, even among scientists...
The world is afflicted by a rash of majoritarianism. This has contributed to the emergence of the alt-right, or more widely in many countries, a frantic search among the majority for evidence that gives them a greater claim over their countries than besieging foreigners.
In this backdrop science writer Angela Saini's book Superior has a startling subhead: The Return of Race Science. The book's jacket asserts "…as ethnic and religious nationalism rises around the world, race science is experiencing a revival, fuelled by the misuse of data by politically motivated groups…"
That's an astounding claim. Has the disenchantment with globalisation afflicted scientists, scientific institutions - and their sponsors - in that they are now exhuming pseudo-science? And giving breath to ideas of the superiority of certain races?
However, it turns out that the book isn't about the 'return' but a scrupulously reported history of race science and its connections to contemporary research into the genetic history of populations.
Saini begins with colonialism and how in its quest for legitimising slavery and subjugating natives, it invented a hierarchy of man where the white European was at the apex of human development and the African the lowest.
Phrenology, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, the application of statistics to the study of human populations, eugenics, Josef Mengele and his gruesome experiments in Nazi concentration camps on twins and genetic inheritance, are mentioned in this narrative arc.
With the end of World War II, the formation of the United Nations and the universal declaration of human rights, one thought that it would mean the end of 'race science', but some researchers continued to investigate on these lines.
Closer to the present, Saini examines the controversy surrounding projects such as the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) that was conceived in 1991 and aimed to collect DNA from indigenous populations from around the world and explore global genetic diversity. Even though it was led by anthropologists and researchers, who were 'anti-racist' and meant to dispel notions of superiority and inferiority, it somehow - according to Saini - ended up packaging old ideas about race into newer bottles. The need to classify human beings into groups is a problematic impulse that has never gone away, she argues. Even in some scientists.
She cites the racism of James Watson, Nobel Laureate and co-discoverer of the double-helical structure of DNA, who has frequently spoken of the intellectual inferiority of black people and "Indians being servile and Chinese being left genetically conformist by their society." If people as accomplished and knowledgeable reason thus, what hope is there for the rest, she implicitly suggests.
Race is a social construct and has always been exploited by dominant power groups and therefore cannot be useful as a biological category and it perplexes Saini why avowedly 'anti-racist' scientists today would want to pursue the frequencies of certain genes in particular population groups, unless they had unconscious 'racist' tendencies.
In interviews with Indian geneticists who observe that India's traditional fixation with caste groups and strictures prohibiting intermarriage has led to communities that are disproportionately prominent in certain sport such as wrestling or archery, Saini is again "surprised" that it comes from a "well-regarded" geneticist. "...It demonstrated that more than half a century of research into human variation hasn't eliminated prejudice within science." This is akin to reasoning that anybody studying nuclear physics secretly aspires to build a bomb.
While Saini gives ample space and perspective to those with views she doesn't agree with, she elides what motivates bulk of contemporary geneticists interested in variation today, which is disease.
She ignores work that is looking at gene frequencies in India's endogamous communities to understand what role single genes and clusters of them may play in the inheritance of uncommon diseases and sensitivity to certain drugs. Warfarin, an anticoagulant, is used in patients who are at increased risk of developing blood clots and studies in India show that certain genotypes have reduced benefits from the drug.
These were insights gleaned from studying prevalence in consanguineous communities but it's no one's argument that a community, or a caste, is necessarily vulnerable to specific diseases.
Across the world, millions of patients afflicted by rare diseases struggle due to lack of medicine and research-attention to genetic disorders because there isn't enough work done. Disease and cure have primarily focussed on developing one-size-fits-all (read Western European) drugs and cures.
Superior is a necessary, compelling and informed read but no, there aren't evil scientists trying to dig up a supremacist past.