More South Asian Media Backscratching: GUARDIAN's Alok Jha Reviews Angela D. Saini
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From the (UK) Observer:

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini – review
This timely book looks at the toxic origins of racism, which science continues to embrace

Alok Jha, Mon 27 May 2019 06.00 EDT

This is an urgent, important book. It contains a warning: you thought racism might be on its way out of science? That the arc of society, bending towards more progressive, tolerant values, had long banished the scientific search for ways in which one grouping of people is inherently more talented, clever or physically able than another? You thought wrong.

Race is a relatively recent concept, says science journalist Angela Saini, in Superior. One of the first uses was in the 16th century as a way to refer to a group of people from a family or tribe, it did not have the connotations it carries today. It largely did not refer to physical appearance or colour, for example. She explains that, even until the 18th century during the European Enlightenment, skin colour was thought to be a shifting quality based on geography: people living in hot places had darker skins, but if those people moved to colder climes it was thought their skin would get lighter in response.

The beginnings of race science seem to emerge with the Victorian frenzy for categorising life. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, who developed the now familiar binomial nomenclature to classify living things (Homo sapiens, for example) , was among the first to start categorising humans in a way that we might call “racial”. Linnaeus laid out four categories in 1758 that corresponded to the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, recognisable by their supposed characteristic colours: red, white, yellow and black. A generous person might argue that Linnaeus was just trying to do what taxonomists do, but Saini explains that his classifications went further than just appearance: Linnaeus described indigenous Americans not only as having straight black hair and wide nostrils, but also being of a subjugated nature, as if that were their natural state. He further included human sub-categories for monster-like and feral people.

In an eye-opening section, Saini outlines just how many of the greatest lights of biology are implicated in the gradual accretion of ideas that we would now find unpalatable and unscientific. Even Charles Darwin fell for human categorisation, seeing “gradations between the ‘highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages’… Men were above women and white races above others.” Thomas Henry Huxley – Darwin’s bulldog and famed pugilistic defender of the theory of natural selection – was an out-and-out racist. Not all humans were created equal, he argued, and in an essay on the emancipation of black slaves, he wrote that the average white person had a bigger brain: “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilisation will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.”

… In 1950, Unesco even convened 100 scientists, policymakers and diplomats who put out a statement aimed at dismantling the idea of race, to put an end to racism and racist research: “Scientists have reached general agreement in recognising that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.” Good had won over evil.

In fact, argues Saini, race science never went away. Instead it festered in the shadows, funded by murky foundations and individuals with barely disguised links to white supremacists. This area of work even has its own peer-reviewed journal, which supposedly seeks to publish studies on the apparent differences between people. All in the name of academic freedom to conduct dispassionate inquiry into the human condition.

… Every new biological discipline is quickly co-opted to the task. Take genetics. In the 1994 book The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein argued that African Americans were less intelligent than white Americans and that genetic differences between ethnicities were a big factor in that difference.

Scientists agree there is an important genetic component to intelligence. And research from the US in the 1980s – quoted in The Bell Curve – shows that if you ask people to self-identify their ethnicity and then measure, for example, educational attainment or IQ, you get different average levels between different ethnicities. However, this does not show that one ethnicity is genetically predisposed to be more intelligent than another. This is largely because the most up-to-date genetic sequencing work shows that African Americans have a substantial amount of European genetic ancestry – they could even be called African European Americans according to some geneticists.


Jha hasn’t thought arithmetically about his argument at all. Try to put some numbers to his assumptions and you’ll see it’s nonsense.

The logical implication of Jha’s argument is that the true white-black gap in IQ is even larger than the IQ gap we see in America due to African-Americans averaging 20% white.

The reality is that 23andMe customers who self-identified as black had 385 times as much sub-Saharan DNA on average 23andMe customers who self-identified as white.

So, racial self-identification matches up pretty well with racial DNA results. And when it doesn’t, using the DNA results rather than self-identification isn’t going to make The Gap go away.

Alok Jha is science correspondent for the Economist and author of The Water Book (Headline).

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