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Superior - Angela Saini *****

It was always going to be difficult to follow Angela Saini's hugely popular Inferior, but with Superior she has pulled it off, not just in the content but by upping the quality of the writing to a whole new level. Where Inferior looked at the misuse of science in supporting sexism (and the existence of sexism in science), Superior examines the way that racism has been given a totally unfounded pseudo-scientific basis in the past - and how, remarkably, despite absolute evidence to the contrary, this still turns up today.

At the heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label. As Saini points out, there are far larger genetic variations within a so-called race than there are between individuals supposedly of different races. She shows how, pre-genetics, racial prejudice was given a pseudo-scientific veneer by dreaming up fictitious physical differences over and above the tiny distinctions of appearance - and how this has been continued and transformed with genetics to draw conclusions that go against the fundamental proviso of science - correlation is not causality. Saini demonstrates vividly how, for example, socio-economic or cultural causes of differences in capability, and even medical response to drugs, have been repeatedly ascribed to non-existent biological racial differences.

Along the way we come across the horrendous race-based acts of the past - from slavery to the Nazi atrocities - which have been justified by fictitious assumptions about the implications of race. But Saini makes clear that this is not just a historical problem. One of the excellent aspects of the book is the way that she brings in interviews and personal experience, so, for example, there is a fascinating section on discrimination on the basis of caste in India, and attempts to justify this on a genetic basis. Similarly, she repeatedly shows how white supremacists misuse information to draw incorrect and vile conclusions.

There are fascinating interviews with scientists whose work strays into misuse of evidence to imply something that the data simply does not support. With one exception of Robert Plomin, whose work seems far more solid than the rest, and can only be used to support racism by deliberately misunderstanding it, a lot of this work seems to have been poorly executed or involves drawing inappropriate conclusions. A considerable amount of this nonsense involves IQ testing - yet it has been shown that all IQ tests do is demonstrate an ability to do well at IQ tests, an ability that can be learned - so provides no useable evidence.

The coverage might have easily been extended to cover other discrimination on perceived differences, but I can see the benefit of keeping the focus on race. For me, the only disappointing thing is that Saini shies away from the logical conclusion of her observations. Having categorically shown that race does not exist, it's ridiculous that we still classify people this way. As the author acknowledges, we need some means of categorisation to fight prejudice - but surely it should be based on real markers such as socio-economic means and culture - to continue to do so by race having established that race doesn't exist seems oddly incongruous, and makes it more difficult to counter racists by giving weight to the labels they use.

Overall, a brilliant book, highly readable, which, if there were any justice, would put a final nail in the coffin of racism.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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