A Q&A with Angela Saini
Why are we seeing a resurgence of race science in the twenty-first century? Weren’t we supposed to be over this after World War II? The notion of “race” has been debunked in the world of science and is understood to be a social construct, but the idea of research-based racial differences is still with us—and has been with us since The Enlightenment. Science journalist Angela Saini tells this disturbing history in Superior: The Return of Race Science. Our blog editor Christian Coleman caught up with her to ask her about her book, the inspiration for it, and how to recognize the subtle signs of race science today.
Christian Coleman: Tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind writing Superior.
Angela Saini: For me, this is a book that has been bubbling since I was a child. I became a journalist in the first place because I became involved in antiracism movements at university while studying Engineering. But the time for this book was now, with the rise of the far-right and ethnic nationalism around the world. I wanted to put the rise of intellectual racism in historical and scientific context.
CC: Both Superior and your previous book, Inferior, explore how science can be used to misrepresent people in the name of upholding societal hierarchies and oppression. What drew you to this topic?
AS: My job as a science journalist is to understand the motivations of scientists just as much as it is about communicating their research. Science, while an empirical and ostensibly objective means of understanding the world, remains at heart a human endeavour. And being human, scientists are prone to bias and error. We desperately need to understand the mistakes that scientists have made and continue to make in order to make science better, and to make sure we don’t fall prey to those who misuse science for their own ends.
CC: Some readers will be surprised to find out that there are scientists today who believe in biological differences between races. What kinds of research are these scientists doing, and where are they publishing?
AS: By and large, race has been dismissed by most scientists as nonsensical, and therefore, of no utility in biology. But it remains a strong social and political force, impacting us every day, which means that there are also some researchers who are unconvinced that the human species is quite as united as we are told. These are some of the scientists I meet in Superior.
CC: Are there ways scientists have accidentally reinforced the ideas of race science when researching our origins as a species?
AS: Historically, a lot of this reinforcement has not been accidental at all. In the nineteenth century, it was unremarkable for white European scientists to believe in a racial hierarchy, even that different races were different breeds. This spoke to their political worldview. Today, while this is debunked, there are still some geneticists and medical researchers who keep invoking racial categories in their research, even when it is inappropriate or unnecessary. There are some subtle statistical variations between some population groups, but no biological basis to what we call race.
CC: What are some subtle examples of how we buy into the belief of biological racial differences today?
AS: I think it happens most clearly in medicine and DNA ancestry testing. When doctors tell us that certain groups are more susceptible to certain illnesses, without making clear that this may sometimes just be for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, it suggests we are biologically different. When firms say they can tell us where we are from by analysing our spit, without explaining how they do this or what it actually means, they also reinforce the idea of biological race.
CC: What would you like readers to come away with after reading Superior, especially when we’re living in times where high-ranking public figures like Clarence Thomas compare women who obtain abortions to eugenicists?
AS: We need to understand where our ideas of race come from and how they have been manipulated over the centuries to control and suppress certain people. The origins of the modern-day birth control movement, which has liberated millions of women, does indeed lie in the eugenics movement, but that doesn’t make birth control evil. Women want and need birth control and the right to abortion. Being associated with eugenics in the early days doesn’t detract from that. Technologies and scientific ideas can be used to liberate or to oppress. It’s up to us to decide how we use them.
About the Author
Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist whose print and broadcast work has appeared on the BBC and in the Guardian, New Scientist, Wired, the Economist, and Science. A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Kavli Science Journalism gold award in 2015. Saini has a master’s in engineering from Oxford University, and she is the author of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story and Geek Nation: How Indian Science Is Taking Over the World. Follow her on Twitter at @AngelaDSaini and visit her website.