Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini
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.