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Good Reads  History & Other Humanities  Anthropology

Superior The Return of Race Science

By: Angela Saini(Author)
342 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Fourth Estate
A passionately written condemnation of race science and its fallacies.
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  • Superior ISBN: 9780008293864 Paperback Jun 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1 week
  • Superior ISBN: 9780008341008 Hardback May 2019 Out of Print #247258
Selected version: £10.99
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About this book

For millennia, dominant societies have had the habit of believing their own people to be the best, deep down: the more powerful they become, the more power begins to be framed as natural, as well as cultural. When you see how power has shaped the idea of race, then you can start to understand its meaning.

In the twenty-first century, we like to believe that we have moved beyond scientific racism, that most people accept race as a social construct, not a biological one. But race science is experiencing a revival, fuelled by the misuse of science by certain political groups. Even well-intentioned scientists, through their use of racial categories in genetics and medicine, betray their suspicion that race has some basis in biology. In truth, it is no more real than it was hundreds of years ago, when our racial hierarchies were devised by those in power.

In Superior, award-winning author Angela Saini explores the concept of race, from its origins to the present day. Engaging with geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists from across the globe, Superior is a rigorous, much needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of race science.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Passionately written condemnation of race science
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Jul 2019 Written for Hardback

    Over something as mundane as the tone of one’s skin humans have been inflicting intense grief and misery upon each other for centuries. And when biology and anthropology arose as scientific disciplines, they were brought into the fold to justify subjugation, exploitation, and slavery. With Superior, journalist Angela Saini has written a combative and readable critique of race science that seems to be rearing its ugly head again. But in her fervour, does she take it too far to the other extreme?

    The title is a bit of a play on Saini’s very successful previous book, Inferior. Just to make sure that there can be no misunderstanding the book’s angle, a quote from Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, graces the dustjacket: this book roundly debunks attempts to give racism scientific underpinnings.

    The prologue and first introductory chapter already make some very sharp observations: “We can draw lines across the world any way we choose, and in the history of race science, people have” (p. 5). Or the fact that Enlightenment thinkers, at the dawn of what we consider modern science, took the politics of their day as a starting point. At a time when slavery and exploitation by white Europeans were part and parcel of everyday life, researchers did not start off free of prejudice or bias.

    These observations lead to the bulk of the book; through numerous interviews Saini provides a well written and fascinating overview of how science got tangled into the story of race and how old biases persist, some subtly, some decidedly less so. Darwin’s theory of evolution and his idea that we had a common ancestor put to bed the idea that what were called human races emerged separately, a predominant idea used to justify colonialism and slavery back then. But it did not stop racist thought and was bankrolled into it.

    Saini chronicles the rise of eugenics, which is the idea to use our understanding of genetics to breed better humans the way you would breed livestock (some of this already came up in my reviews of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh and Genetics in the Madhouse). These ideas fed into the atrocities committed during World War II, and Saini chillingly reminds the reader that prominent scientists and well-respected intellectuals of their day got drawn into this.

    Really eye-opening were the chapters where she charts what happened to race science post-WWII. Richard Lewontin’s landmark 1972 paper showed that variation in genetic diversity within old-fashioned racial categories was far larger than between these categories, vindicating earlier opinions that these categories had no biological basis (see also Not in Our Genes). But while the mainstream was busy accepting this, race science just went underground, as shown by Saini’s account of the academic right-wing fringe journal Mankind Quarterly and funding for this kind of research by the Pioneer Fund (see Sussman’s The Myth of Race for more). And lately scientific racism is on the rise again, with a new generation of people ready to misappropriate science for their own political agendas.

    This part shows Saini at her most probing, leaving no difficult or thorny topic untouched, such as the continued use of racial categories when prescribing drugs against hypertension. Or the failed attempts to find racial difference in intelligence by looking at IQ scores, itself a very fraught concept. Her contention that race is a social construct used to justify political power play is supported by numerous sharp observations – so many I started to run out of my stack of post-it notes that I normally use to mark up noteworthy passages. I was totally on board with this part of her book and found it powerful and convincing.

    Yet I have some criticism, and there is a certain incongruity at play here. Racial categories may have no biological basis, but there is genetic variation within and between human populations. To be crystal clear, I do not think these offer any justification for racism, but labelling this fact racist is also missing the point. Saini seems very ill at ease with these findings.

    So, on the one hand she includes geneticist Mark Jobling explaining the founder effect; the loss of genetic variation when small groups of individuals establish new populations, as happened during human migrations 100,000–50,000 years ago. And she remarks how India’s caste system with its restrictions on marriage has left a mark on the genetic makeup of castes, as shown by the incidence of rare genetic disorders.

    But then on the other hand, she labels population genetics, which studies such variation to, for example, learn more about human evolution, as a rebranding of race science for the 21st century. The pioneering work in this field by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza (see his Genes, People and Languages), who was about as outspokenly anti-racist as one could be, is eyed suspiciously. David Reich’s work on ancient DNA (DNA retrieved from archaeological remains) has shown humanity’s history to be one of a constant churn of groups migrating, interbreeding and displacing each other (see my review of his excellent Who We Are and How We Got Here). But his suggestion that there are real genetic differences (“not large, but not non-existent either”) between e.g. West Africans and Europeans after evolving in separation for 70,000 years seems to scandalize her: “They are words I never expected to hear from a mainstream, respected geneticist” (p. 182).

    Of course, she writes repeatedly, Cavalli-Sforza and Reich are not racists and their intentions are good, but their research could be misappropriated. The idea that it could help demolish the very racial prejudices she is fighting unfortunately does not seem to have much currency with her. In my opinion, in her fervour, she unfairly casts a shadow on the research and reputation of these scholars. I think it is a pity that Saini leaves unexamined the question of how best to interpret these findings and prevent them from being misappropriated, instead conflating them with the larger target she is aiming for: debunking race science.

    That criticism notwithstanding, there are many strong points in this book. Her probing questions lay bare the often implicit biases many of us still retain. Her own background and experiences bring a much-needed perspective to this subject – one that I would much rather read than that of, say, a white male scientist. And the book is an engrossing read that did not let me go. All this makes Superior a potent condemnation of race science and all its fallacies, even if I did not agree with her categorizing population genetics as such.
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Angela Saini presents science programmes on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service, and her writing has appeared in the New Scientist, the Guardian, The Sunday Times, Scientific American, Wired and the Economist. Angela has a Masters in Engineering from Oxford University, she is a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her work has won a string of national and international awards. Angela's first book, Geek Nation, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2011, and her second book, Inferior, was the subject of a national crowdfunding campaign which will donate a copy to every state school in the UK.

By: Angela Saini(Author)
342 pages, no illustrations
Publisher: Fourth Estate
A passionately written condemnation of race science and its fallacies.
Media reviews

"[...] Ultimately, Superior is most impactful in describing the persistence of support for ideas of hierarchal differences from the Enlightenment onwards, in the face of political backlash and researchers' inability to even defme the primary variable at play: race. [...] Superior is perhaps best understood as continuing in a tradition of groundbreaking work that contextualizes the deep and problematic history of race science [...] Saini contributes to this conversation by linking the desire to make race real, particularly with regards to measurable health disparities, to society's underlying desire to let itself off the hook for these very inequalities."
– Robin G. Nelson, Department of Anthropology, Santa Clara University, California, Nature 570(7762), June 2019

"Roundly debunks racism's core lie – that inequality is to do with genetics, rather than political power"
– Reni Eddo-Lodge

"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

"This is an essential book on an urgent topic by one of our most authoritative science writers"
– Sathnam Sanghera

"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

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