Superior: The Return of Race Science

Angela Saini

Superior: The Return of Race Science
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Superior: The Return of Race Science

Angela Saini

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

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. 

Review

Superior is science journalist Angela Saini’s exploration of the rise, slight fall and second coming of ‘race science’. It’s the perfect antidote to the whirlpool of pseudoscience currently engulfing mainstream global politics.

Saini travels the world, talking to a range of scientists from different national contexts and asking a disturbing question: ‘Is there a biological basis to racial difference?’ What emerges from her investigation is a compelling picture of race as politically and socially constructed. The travel aspect alone makes a strong case along these lines: nothing makes ‘race science’ seem more ludicrous than hearing about examples from social contexts you didn’t grow up in.

Some of the cynical cases Saini explores are breathtakingly brazen. There’s the rapid rehabilitation of the Neanderthal – from Stone Age thug to symbolic thinker – once it was discovered that Europeans actually share quite a bit of DNA with them. Or the eugenicist Artemis Trust, convinced that there is a biological basis for poverty, dishing out hefty grants to assist with ‘fertility control’ in ‘poorer communities.’

Saini’s historical explorations really shine, and challenge simplistic narratives. Many Britons and Australians are (rightly) proud of fighting against Nazi Germany. But Saini’s investigation into the establishment’s warm pre- and post-war embrace of eugenics (from the treatment of Aboriginal people, to Winston Churchill’s vice presidency of the international eugenics association, to creepy 1950s labs studying red-headedness in Wales) puts paid to the idea that our governments were ever really such good guys.

Superior is never annoying nor didactic. It avoids simplistic generalisations. But it undoubtedly feels sinister from the first page. Not only does it delve deep into the dark, genocidal recesses of historical ‘race science’, but there’s an eerie sense throughout that humankind is poised to make another colossal mistake.


Chris Dite works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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