Skip to main content

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heart of the book is the scientific fact that 'race' simply does not exist biologically - it is nothing more than an outdated social label.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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under