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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Anthropology  Sociocultural Anthropology

Science in Black and White How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide

Out of Print
By: Alondra Oubré(Author)
376 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Rich in technical detail, Science in Black and White offers a dispassionate, factual debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist claims, while showing how differences arise from the complex interplay of genetics, epigenetics, and environmental influences.
Science in Black and White
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Average customer review
  • Science in Black and White ISBN: 9781633886001 Hardback Nov 2019 Out of Print #250729
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About this book

This unflinching exposé of racially biased research – the Alt-Right's "scientific wing" – debunks both old and emerging claims of inborn racial disparities.

Racial groups differ in some of their social patterns, but the cause of those differences – nature versus nurture, or genetics versus environment – remains fiercely debated. For the pro-nature camp – sometimes aligned with white nationalism and eugenics, and often used to promote ideas of racial inferiority and superiority – race-based biological determinism contributes significantly to the ethnic divide, especially the black/white gap in societal achievement. By contrast, pro-nurture supporters attribute ethnic variation in social outcomes primarily to environmental circumstances, ecological conditions, and personal experience.

In this thoroughly researched book, science writer Alondra Oubré examines emerging scientific discoveries that show how both biology and environment interact to influence IQ – intelligence performance – and social behaviours across continental populations, or human races. She presents compelling evidence for why environmental and certain non-DNA-related biological phenomena overall seem to best explain black/white disparities in a gamut of social behaviours, including family structure, parenting, educational attainment, and rates of violent crime. As she demonstrates, nature still matters, but the biology that impacts racial variance in social behaviours extends beyond genetics to include other processes – epigenetics, gene expression, and plasticity – all of which are profoundly affected by a wide array of environmental forces. The complex, synergistic interplay of these factors combined, rather than just genes or just environment, appears to account for black/white divergence in a gamut of social behaviours

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Dispassionate and information-dense debunking
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 9 Sep 2020 Written for Hardback

    Some time after I reviewed Angela Saini’s book Superior, I was contacted by medical anthropologist and science writer Alondra Oubré, offering me the opportunity to review her new book. The overall aim of Science in Black and White might be the same – the debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist thinking – but Oubré shows there is more than one approach to get there.

    Scientific racism has a long history, so the first third of this book provides plenty of background information and history to get you oriented. This includes the origins of the nature vs. nurture debate, social Darwinism, and eugenics. The rise and fall of the blank slate, the notion that the human mind is shaped solely by the environment. The rise of both behavioural genetics, which studies genes associated with behaviour, and Darwinian medicine, which looks at evolutionary explanations for why some genetically related groups are more prone to certain diseases. The basics of natural selection, DNA, SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms – the single-base-pair mutations that much research has focused on), and the method of genome-wide association studies that allow you to rapidly compare whole genomes for numerous such mutations. But also the concepts of gene × environment interactions, epigenetics , and biological plasticity. And, finally, a primer on brain architecture.

    In case you were in doubt, Science in Black and White is an information-dense and intensely data-driven book that is meticulously annotated. Hundreds of endnotes reference the studies that Oubré draws on to back up her statements and claims. In discussing this background, she already reveals a long history of trying to justify exploitation, colonialism, and white supremacy with scientific arguments. Most of that has now been shown for what it is: flawed research, full of confirmation biases and faulty assumptions. And yet, there remain plenty of right-wing scholars happy to use the latest research tools to push their agenda, while others continue to misinterpret new results.

    The remaining two-thirds of the book thus samples a wide range of modern research and what it is and is not telling. This covers purported ethnic differences in IQ, the use of MRI to show racial differences in brain features and anatomy, and the use of candidate gene association studies that result in those headline-grabbing claims of “scientists have found gene for X!”. But Oubré also covers studies on sexual maturation and age of puberty onset, with the accompanying claims that African American girls start earlier – the not so subtle hint being that this makes them more prone to adolescent behavioural problems, teenage pregnancies etc. And there is the tale of testosterone and now the AR or androgen receptor gene, with some scholars seeking to pin increased violence and incarceration rates of African Americans on hormones.

    These chapters offer plenty of asides that might not immediately deal with racial science, but that serve to place it in a wider context and explain technical details. Nevertheless, a clear pattern emerges. In chapter after chapter, Oubré shows how simplistic claims of racial differences in behaviour or personality traits that are pinned on genetics do not stand up to scrutiny. Further research invariably shows that things are, well, complicated. By the end of the book, it is hard not to feel that some people are just incorrigible racists, hell-bent on proving some link, any link, to support their notion of black inferiority and white supremacy.

    To expound on this a bit more, pro-nature advocates love to flaunt statistically significant results, but they rarely discuss the extent of variation around averages. Nor do they consider effect sizes, i.e. are minuscule but statistically significant differences actually biologically or socially relevant? And the correlations they show do not equal causation, though this is frequently overlooked or conveniently forgotten. Their claims are thus already on shaky ground by themselves.

    What complicates such attempts at straightforward genetic explanations further are environmental influences, which can completely overrule genetic tendencies, and epigenetics, which add another layer of complexity. Some examples discussed here include brain structure (powerfully shaped by nutrition and early childhood development), intelligence (influenced e.g. by the socioeconomic status of the family you grew up in, but also by epigenetics, e.g. the chemical substance DNA methyltransferase that can tweak the activity of genes associated with intelligence), or the effect of genes on aggressive behaviour (which can be completely annulled by growing up in nurturing environments free of abuse). Furthermore, the genetic basis of many traits is complex, influenced by thousands of genes with tiny contributions each (so-called polygenic traits).

    Intelligence has been a hot and recurrent topic over the decades in this kind of research, and one oddity struck me: Oubré takes as a given the reality of the IQ gap, the idea that white people are smarter than black people because they score higher on intelligence tests. I might be mistaken, but I was under the impression that this gap is subjective, notably because IQ tests are notorious for their inbuilt (cultural) biases and are thus of questionable value.

    Aside from that, I found Oubré’s dispassionate approach a breath of fresh air. I greatly appreciated her neutral post-mortem of the Samuel Morton–Stephen Jay Gould debacle on braincase volume and its link to intelligence*. Where racialist scholars have a point, Oubré will readily grant them it. And while for Saini all research on ethnic differences is suspect by definition, Oubré is level-headed, highlighting its value in understanding why ethnic groups differ in their vulnerability to certain diseases (e.g. the increased risk of prostate cancer in African American men). This book is not driven by a pro-nurture agenda; Oubré repeatedly hammers home the message that nature vs. nurture ought to be replaced by nature plus nurture. Both play a role. Her epilogue, which highlights that clan or family genetics might offer a new perspective is remarkable in that sense.

    Science in Black and White is not necessarily the easiest book to read and I can see people getting bogged down by the rich technical detail provided here. But if you want to engage with the nitty-gritty and go deeper into the claims of racialist scholars and understand why they are mistaken, this book is the ticket.

    *Gould shot down Morton’s ideas in his book The Mismeasure of Man, but later, more careful reanalysis found that Gould’s approach was not free of confirmation bias either, causing no end of glee in certain quarters.
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Alondra Oubré is a graduate of the joint doctoral program in medical anthropology at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley and the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine, and holds a PhD in anthropology and medical anthropology, as well as an MA in anthropology from UC Berkeley. For the last twenty-five years, she has worked as a medical writer and regulatory affairs specialist in the medical device and pharmaceutical industries. Dr. Oubré's published works include essays on the nature-versus-nurture controversy over the ethnic achievement gap, medicinal plant research for pharmaceutical drug development, and various scientific topics for magazines and journals, such as Skeptic magazine, Psychiatric Times, and Scientia Salon. She has lectured on race-related topics at events hosted by organizations such as the American Anthropological Association, California Institute of Technology in conjunction with the Skeptic Society, University of Maryland at College Park, Human Behavior and Evolution Society, and various universities in the United States, Africa, and Asia. She is the author of two books, Race, Genes, and Ability: Rethinking Ethnic Differences (two volumes) and Instinct and Revelation: Reflections on the Origins of Numinous Perception.

Out of Print
By: Alondra Oubré(Author)
376 pages, b/w illustrations
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Rich in technical detail, Science in Black and White offers a dispassionate, factual debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist claims, while showing how differences arise from the complex interplay of genetics, epigenetics, and environmental influences.
Media reviews

"Alondra Oubré has courage. She steps into an area that's utterly taboo: genes and race. And she gives a thorough overview of where the research on the issue stands. With the possible exception of Superior: The Return of Race Science, this is a topic you will not get a comprehensive, dispassionate review of anywhere else."
– Howard Bloom, author of The Lucifer Principle and Einstein, Michael Jackson & Me.

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