How racism infects science

Topics Racism | books

Superior: The Return of Race Science | Author: Angela Saini | Publisher: Harper Collins | Page: 352 | Price: Rs599
In July 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) issued a statement that characterised racism as “a fundamentally anti-rational system of thought. Scientists have reached general agreement in recognising that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo Sapiens”. This was in the aftermath of World War II, a war triggered by a “master race” that did its best to exterminate inferior peoples.

But within a year, Unesco was persuaded to subtly modify that statement to “Scientists were generally agreed...”. Even after a racially-charged war where tens of millions died, there was a lack of scientific consensus on the basic fact that humans belonged to the same species.

That lack of consensus was a manifestation of what the author of this book describes as “race science”. This is one of the most pernicious and persistent ways to propagate racism: Dress it up as science. Even as Ms Saini delves into the history of this phenomenon, she connects it to the current zeitgeist.

This is a timely book. Racism, and its handmaiden, “race science”, have made a stunning comeback in the 21st century. Across the world, race science has been weaponised by sundry populist demagogues who have combined it with ethnic nationalism to build political platforms.

The new “scientific arguments” buttressing racist ideologies have become more sophisticated and more specious at the same time, as there has been pushback from within the academy. The scientific underpinnings of racism were always dubious, and one by one, the hypotheses of race science have been systematically refuted, as science developed an understanding of DNA and prehistoric migration patterns.

There are several inconvenient facts that race science can't deal with logically. One is that all humans living today have the same ur-mother, Mitochondrial Eve, and Homo Sapiens originated in Africa. That is, it is perfectly possible that Angela Saini, a brown person of Indian origin may have more DNA in common with Angela Merkel, than with another brown person of Indian origin. This means it is impossible to see race as a biological construct anymore.

But instead of being chucked into the dustbin with ether, and geocentrism, and Flat Earth hypotheses, racism and its proponents have just sought to make newer pseudo-scientific arguments. This is actually clever tactics: Any argument in favour of racism could be logically refuted. But racism is a social construct, and like other social constructs, it needs to remain in the public eye to continue picking up adherents. Attempts to refute race science just ensure that the pot stays on the boil.

Racism, or the belief that one “race”, however that may be defined, is inherently superior, is an attitude that reaches back into the mists of time. The elite of every dominant civilisation have always implicitly, or explicitly, believed in their own superiority and every civilisation has reinforced that belief with its own educational and socio-cultural ethos.

But race science — the attempt to add intellectual ballast to this belief by “proving” superiority in some measurable way — started in the European Age of Enlightenment. It was heightened during the colonial era and it reached a horrifying peak in the early-mid 20th century. Eugenics led to the “logical” conclusion that inferior races should first, not be allowed to breed unchecked, and then to the creation of concentration camps, where untermensch (sub-humans) were systematically wiped out. Less murderous but still horrific policies such as Apartheid, caste-based discrimination, forcible sterilisation and racial segregation were also buttressed by racism.  

Race science started with Carl Linnaeus who categorised human “races” along with his other taxonomies. Linnaeus made a pretty loose characterisation based on a few observable physical characteristics. The 19th century and the early 20th century saw further attempts to slice and dice human beings into races.

It is notable that practically every scientist of the 19th century, and most politicians, believed in the racial superiority of “whites”. Many 20th century personalities did as well. The list of eminent racists includes luminaries like Charles Darwin, his cousin, Francis Galton who pioneered eugenics, James Watson of the DNA fame and Robert Shockley who led the team that invented the transistor. It includes politicians such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and reformers like Marie Stopes. It included multitudes of scientists who espoused the Nazi cause.  

This is not really surprising. Scientists are social beings, and many will subscribe to whatever the mainstream ideology is, in their respective society. During the era of colonisation, Europeans spread across the world, exploring, trading, and exploiting their technological superiority to grab real estate. Local populations were subjugated, enslaved and in many cases, exterminated. Slavery and the use of bonded labour led to enforced migrations. Racist beliefs were mainstream. Ergo, many scientists espoused them.  

Ms Saini highlighted gender discrimination in STEM in her earlier work, Inferior. That book pointed out that there continue to be huge disparities in terms of gender when it comes to participation in STEM disciplines. Superior makes a similar, even broader point about racism. It's essential reading for anybody who wishes to understand how ingrained racism infects science.

Superior: The Return of Race Science
Angela Saini
Harper Collins
352 pages; Rs 599

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