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Superior: The Return of Race Science—A Review

A review of Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, Beacon Press, 256 pages (May, 2019)

The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct…
~Charles Darwin, 1871, The Descent of Man

Angela Saini’s new book, Superior, is a cautionary tale about the historical legacy, and putative return, of what she calls “race science.” As far as we can determine, there are four main theses running through the book:

  • ‘Race’ is not a meaningful biological category
  • Genes can only contribute to population differences on certain “superficial” traits
  • Studying whether genes might contribute to population differences on non-superficial traits is tantamount to “scientific racism”
  • Almost everyone interested in whether genes might contribute to population differences on these other traits is a “scientific racist”

To be blunt, we disagree with all four of Saini’s main theses, as we shall explain in this article. (Note that since the book is quite poorly structured, and in some places contradictory, it is not always easy to discern what Saini is or is not asserting. Nonetheless, we believe that the four propositions above comprise a fair summary of her main arguments.)

Our article begins by briefly reviewing the strengths of Saini’s book. It then provides a detailed discussion of the book’s weaknesses. We divide our discussion of the book’s weaknesses into two subsections: scientific misunderstandings and logical fallacies. Overall, while Superior is timely and covers a multitude of interesting topics, it ultimately fails to deliver on its core arguments and is likely to leave the general reader confused, as well as misinformed.

Strengths

First, Superior is admirably succinct at a mere 256 pages, meaning that—in principle—it can be finished in a single day. Second, despite not requiring more than a day of the reader’s time, the book does manage to cover plenty of interesting material. To her credit, Saini reached out to experts in a wide range of fields, including some who work at the cutting edge of human biosocial science. During the course of Superior, the reader is treated to commentary from historians such as Evelyn Hammonds, anthropologists such as Gilles Boëtsch, psychologists such as Richard Haier, and geneticists such as David Reich. Saini even contacted several individuals whose views are obviously antithetical to her own (although she does not always interpret their remarks charitably).

In addition to including commentary from these experts, Superior reports a number of rather interesting facts. In Chapter 1, for example, we are told that many indigenous Australians favour the multi-regional theory of human origins over the more commonly accepted Out of Africa theory “because it sits closer to their own belief that they have been here from the very beginning.”  And in Chapter 7 we learn that 90 percent of Britain’s gene pool was replaced in a series of migration events beginning around 2500 BC. This means that modern white Britons are primarily descended from the so-called Bell Beaker people, rather than from the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge.

A third strength of Saini’s book is that she aptly describes how aspects of “race science” have been misused in pursuit of commercial and political agendas, particularly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century in Europe. For example, as late as 1907, two million visitors flocked to the Grand Colonial Exposition in Paris, where—among other attractions—they could marvel at one of the “human zoos”: mini-villages set up to give curious onlookers a glimpse into the lives of “primitive” foreigners. And of course, few readers will need reminding that the Nazis justified their genocidal policies of “racial hygiene” by appealing to the supposed superiority of an Aryan “master race.”

Furthermore, Saini points out that it is not only Europeans who have sought to rewrite history, and indeed genetics, for their own political purposes. For example, despite overwhelming evidence that humans evolved in Africa around 250,000 years ago, some Hindu nationalists fiercely maintain that Hindus have no ancestry from outside India. Hence, in order to avoid sparking controversy, one team of Indian geneticists found it prudent to use the euphemism “Ancestral North Indians” when referring to an ancient population with ancestry from the western part of Eurasia.

Scientific Misunderstandings

We now turn to the weaknesses in Saini’s book, beginning with her scientific misunderstandings. The most important of these, which corresponds to the first of her four main theses, is her misunderstanding of race. Although Superior is about the putative return of “race science,” Saini does not actually provide a coherent definition of ‘race.’ In the Prologue, she writes:

No place or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.

This definition inextricably binds up race with morality, making it an affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality. (We will say more about this later).

Saini proceeds to make several familiar objections to a more reasonable and less ethically charged concept of race, contending that genetic variation between human populations is trivial, and that—as one British geneticist told her—human populations can be classified in “any way we like.” According to Saini, human races correspond to “arbitrary” divisions of population variation that are “politically and economically useful,” but that fail to capture the complex realities of genetic diversity. This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professional organizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals. Race is seen as an illusion—one that humans are seduced into believing because they trust the superficial evidence of their senses, and because of their desire to rank and dominate others. (Saini grants, for example, that classifying people by their ancestral continent is something that humans “can often do equally well by sight.”) In reality, however—according to this line of reasoning—genetic variation between human populations is miniscule compared to the variation within them, and what little variation does exist between them is mostly clinal, not discrete.

Despite the popularity of these arguments, they are either false (e.g. the claim that divisions are arbitrary) or approximately true but largely irrelevant (e.g. the claim that variation is not discrete). The first thing to notice about them is that they transform their ostensible target (‘race’) from a humble biological concept into something elaborately implausible or even metaphysical. For example, according to the philosopher Antony Appiah, race is the view that:

there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow us to divide human beings into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. These traits and tendencies characteristic of a race constitute, on the racialist view, a sort of racial essence

This, we believe, is consistent with Saini’s difficult-to-comprehend (and somewhat contradictory) view of race as something “deep in our bodies.” Race, in other words, is turned into an improbable Platonic essence, which is then used as a rhetorical piñata to demonstrate the foolishness of those who believe that racial differences are interesting and worth studying.

A more plausible conception of race, one that is consistent with how careful philosophers and geneticists use the term, recognises that:

  • When humans began leaving Africa around 75,000 years ago, they dispersed across a much greater range of environments than they had previously inhabited.
  • The humans that settled in different geographic regions subsequently came under different selection pressures (e.g. temperature, seasonality, altitude).
  • Natural barriers such as oceans (e.g. the Atlantic), deserts (e.g. the Sahara) and mountain ranges (e.g. the Himalayas) impeded gene flow between different populations for substantial periods of time.
  • When there is limited gene flow between populations that have come under different selection pressures, we would expect them to gradually diverge from one another over via the processes of genetic drift and natural selection.

Races therefore correspond to human populations that have been living in relative isolation from one another, under different regimes of selection. This means that racial categories identify real phenotypic differences, and reflect real genetic variation. Despite the various selective quotations to the contrary in Superior, many experts who have urged that we eschew the term ‘race’ would agree with all four of the propositions listed above, even if they sedulously avoid using the term ‘race’ because of its negative political connotations. In fact, Saini herself seems to recognise this point, when she writes in Chapter 6:

The word “race” had been prudently replaced by “population,” and “racial difference” by “human variation,” but didn’t it look suspiciously like the same old creature?

We are not particularly wedded to the word ‘race’ and would be happy to use ‘human population’ or ‘biogeographic ancestry group’ instead. But whatever term is used, the substantive arguments are important, and Saini’s muddled account of human variation deserves refutation.

The primary reason that natural philosophers began to classify humans into different races is that human populations look different from one another. Their skin colors, hair textures, facial structures, and stature all differ, often in predictable ways. Furthermore, these differences reflect their divergent geographical origins. In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull. (They are able to correctly classify human skulls into black and white Americans with about 80% accuracy, using only two variables.) Therefore, despite the common charge that racial classification is ipso facto racist, and that most Enlightenment typologies of human variety were motivated by prejudices and a desire to rationalize imperial domination, ordinary people and Enlightenment philosophers also took to classifying human differences for the mundane reason that such differences actually exist.

Of course, for a long time philosophers had no idea why races varied (which didn’t stop them from speculating). We now know that human population variation is ultimately caused by evolution (genetic drift and natural selection), and is proximately caused by genes. Although some modern intellectuals obfuscate, kicking up dust with abstruse arguments so that nobody can see, the simple truth is that genetic evidence strongly supports many everyday intuitions people have about human populations: they are somewhat (not very) different from one another, and while their differences are often geographically gradual (no two races are totally distinct), they are sometimes discontinuous (humans really do group together).

In a well-known study, Noah Rosenberg and colleagues found that human genetic variation largely corresponds to broad geographic regions and, more compellingly, that it closely matches Johann Blumenbach’s 1781 classification of human morphological variation into five races: Caucasians, Americans (Amerindians), Ethiopians (Africans), Mongolians (East Asians), and Malaysians (Oceanians). When Rosenberg’s article was first published, it came under a certain amount of criticism. However, he and his colleagues responded robustly to these criticisms in a follow-up article. Among the most compelling findings reported in their follow-up is that if one samples subpopulations from the five major genetic clusters, those separated by a given geographic distance tend to be more genetically similar if they are from the same cluster than if they are from different clusters. This indicates that, although human genetic variation is mostly clinal, it is partly discontinuous. (Blumenbach’s typology is one of those Saini dismisses as “arbitrary” without offering any evidence or argument.)

In an article ultimately sceptical of the term ‘race,’ the geneticists Sarah Tishkoff and Kenneth Kidd write, “The emerging picture is that populations do, generally, cluster by broad geographic regions that correspond to common racial classification.” Numerous scholars have found similar results, which—it seems safe to conclude—reflect a real pattern of genetic variation that emerged after humans began migrating out of Africa around 75,000 years ago. Of course, human population structure can be observed at multiple levels, and we are not claiming that there is something ‘special’ or ‘natural’ about the continental level.

Nonetheless, Saini consistently maintains that these very same genetic data have dismantled “the idea that race was real,” and that Ashley Montagu’s famous dismissal of race as a pernicious myth “has been vindicated.” They have done this, according to Saini, by showing that most variation exists within and not between major continental populations. Saini defends her interpretation by appealing to Richard Lewontin’s famous analysis of human genetic diversity, and also by appealing to Rosenberg’s study (cited above), which actually found that human genetic variation largely conforms to Johann Blumenbach’s classification. Lewontin’s paper did show that human genetic variation is mostly within and not between human populations. But Lewontin made a crucial mistake when he dismissed the explanatory power of racial classifications. (Saini notes that there has been “one critique” of his analysis, but doesn’t tell her readers anything about it, not least that the critique has given rise to the term ‘Lewontin’s fallacy.’)

In brief, Lewontin ignored the fact that differences among human populations are correlated. Although population variation at any one genetic locus tends to be small, global population structure becomes clear if one examines correlated differences across loci. For a simple analogy, consider men and women’s faces. If one takes any particular characteristic, say nose size, there is likely to be more variation within a sex than between the sexes (and it would be nearly impossible to classify faces by sex with any accuracy using only nose size). However, if one considers all facial characteristics together (which is, after all, how we actually experience human faces), then sex differences become sufficiently clear that an observer can guess the correct sex more than 95 percent of the time.

Notwithstanding truisms about within-group variation exceeding between-group variation, human populations differ in important and fascinating ways. Some differences can be observed at the level of major continental populations, whereas others can be observed at finer-grained levels: accepting that race is a meaningful biological category does not mean ignoring differences between more localised subpopulations. For just a couple of examples: some human populations possess adaptations that allow them to survive and reproduce better at high altitudes (in which barometric pressure decreases effective oxygen levels); while other populations possess adaptations that allow them to digest lactose into adulthood, a trait that many take for granted, but which evolved relatively recently. These differences were not invented by “scientific racists,” and although they stem from small genetic alterations, they are important and worthy of scientific inquiry. Here are several of many other examples:

Admittedly, Saini does not deny that there are some genetic differences between human populations. (She even mentions the Bajau study in Chapter 9.) But she insists that any differences are limited to what she calls “superficial” traits (and a few disease-resistance genes). For example, in Chapter 7 she claims that “no scientific research has been able to show any average genetic differences between population groups that go further than the superficial, such as skin color, or that are linked to hard survival, such as those that prevent a geographically linked disease.” (This assertion corresponds to the second of the four main theses we laid out in the introduction.) Since Saini never specifies which traits are “superficial” and which ones are not, nor why one would make such a distinction in the first place, we cannot be sure exactly what she believes. A remark in Chapter 7, referring to comments made by David Reich, suggests that “superficial” does not simply mean “non-psychological.” Saini writes, “He suggests that there may be more than superficial average differences between black and white Americans, possibly even cognitive and psychological ones” [italics added].

Throughout the book, Saini expresses particular horror at the idea that human populations might vary psychologically, calling it a road that is “paved in blood.” Saini, of course, is not alone. Many scholars have denounced those who have put forward hypotheses about human psychological variation, often contending—like Saini—that the mere act of espousing these hypotheses is dangerous. Because of this, and because Saini’s presentation of the literature and arguments about human psychological variation is highly selective, the theory and evidence relating to such variation are worth addressing in detail.

Contrary to the characterisation given by Saini, humans are just another animal species: there is little reason to believe that they are fundamentally different from wolves, deer, or chimpanzees. Like other animals, their bodies and brains were sculpted by natural and sexual selection. And they vary from one another for straightforward Darwinian reasons. In diverse environments and niches, different selective pressures prevail, favoring some characteristics and disfavoring others. For an obvious example, humans have darker skin in environments with more intense UV radiation than they do in environments with less intense UV radiation. Dark skin appears to protect against folate photodegradation, and light skin appears to facilitate cutaneous vitamin D synthesis.

Given the myriad ways in which human populations vary morphologically, it is reasonable to hypothesize that they might also vary psychologically. Human cognitive processes are not caused by a ‘ghost in the machine’; they are caused by the brain. And the brain is not in some special category, uniquely impervious to selective forces; it is a product of evolution—just like bones, blood, and skin. Therefore, it would be rather surprising if human populations that evolved in different environments over thousands of years had not diverged (to some extent) psychologically. For example, the invention (or discovery) of agriculture greatly changed humans’ relationship with their environment, as well as with each other, allowing for more sedentism, greater population density, and eventually greater social specialization. It probably also rewarded self-control and delayed gratification, because immediately killing animals for food was often less productive in the long run than keeping them alive. Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues have suggested that even different kinds of farming (e.g. wheat versus rice) selected for slightly different proclivities, which in turn gave rise to different modes of culture (e.g. independent versus interdependent). Nicholas Wade, in his widely (and we believe unfairly) condemned book, A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), made similar arguments and applied them to a variety of cultural differences.

The single most controversial area of “race science” is research into population differences in cognitive ability. When dealing with this topic, it’s useful to step back from any definitive assertion to contemplate a less divisive question: is it possible that human populations could differ in cognitive ability, at least in part, because of their different evolutionary histories? It seems nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that of course they could. In principle, cognitive ability is no less amenable to selection than stature, skin colour, muscle-fibre density, or any other trait. And there are reasons to believe that some environments may have presented ancestral humans with more cognitive challenges than others (although this is certainly a matter of ongoing scientific dispute).

Saini does not, of course, consider this kind of reasonable argument, and she equivocates about facts that command near unanimous consent within the literature. For example, in Chapter 9 she notes that “much heat still surrounds the nation’s apparent black-white IQ gap” [italics added]. Readers might infer from this passage (and others like it) that researchers have simply posited, and then attempted to explain, an IQ gap that may not really exist. But this is untrue. Psychometricians do not dispute the existence of a 10-15 point IQ gap between black and white Americans; they only debate its causes. Consider what some experts have written in mainstream textbooks:

  • Nicholas Mackintosh: “It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain.”
  • Nathan Brody: “There is a 1-standard deviation difference in IQ between the black and white population of the U.S. The black population of the U.S. scores 1 standard deviation lower than the white population on various tests of intelligence.”
  • Earl Hunt: “There is some variation in the results, but not a great deal. The African American means [on intelligence tests] are about 1 standard deviation unit […] below the White means.”

Although the purpose of our article is not to debate the causes of the black-white IQ gap, it is worth noting that Saini’s arguments against hereditarianism (the hypothesis that at least part of the gap is due to genes) are selective, and fail to give the reader a sense of why many experts in the field are in fact hereditarians. To take just one example, she cites Eric Turkheimer’s argument that “in studies of people with the lowest socioeconomic status, environment explains almost all the variation researchers see in IQ, with genes accounting for practically nothing,” and concludes by noting that “for Turkheimer, it beggars belief that anyone should assume that cognitive gaps psychologists now claim to see between racial groups […] could be biological” (Chapter 9). However, even if the effect that Turkheimer mentions were as large as his original analysis suggested, a claim of which we are skeptical, it is irrelevant to the causes of the black-white IQ gap. This is because studies generally find that IQ is about equally heritable in blacks and whites. In fact, equal heritabilities were found in the same sample (but also including non-twin siblings and half-siblings) that Turkheimer used in his original analysis.

Logical Fallacies

On top of the scientific misunderstandings outlined above, the book contains numerous logical fallacies, some of which are rather serious. First, Saini criticises particular sources of evidence on the basis of their origins, a fallacy known—ironically enough—as the genetic fallacy. For example, in Chapter 9 she writes:

By observing the similarities between identical twins, researchers have for decades thought they might be able to discern whether certain traits might be more heritable than others. But twin studies, too, are tainted by a toxic past. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who trawled concentration camps for involuntary subjects, had picked out young twins to deliberately mutilate (via amputations) and dissect.

Later in the chapter, she does concede that twin studies might have something useful to tell us, when she writes, “let’s just assume for now that Robert Plomin and his twin studies are reliable.” However, it is unclear what it would even mean for a particular scientific method to be “tainted by a toxic past.” Twin studies are simply a way of partitioning the variation in some trait into genetic and environmental components, a feat they accomplish by comparing the degree of phenotypic similarity in pairs of identical and non-identical twins. Nazi scientists also measured quantities precisely, under controlled conditions. Does this mean that the scientific method itself is “tainted by a toxic past”?

Second, Saini frequently engages in the fallacy of incomplete evidence—commonly known as cherry-picking. In Chapter 5, for example, she gives the impression that any research attempting to “link economic development to intelligence” can only be found in certain “fringe” journals, of which she personally disapproves. However, she fails to mention that such research has been published in leading journals like Psychological Science, as well as in recent books by Cambridge University Press and Stanford University Press. (Note: we are not agreeing with Saini that research published outside of ‘leading’ outlets should be judged less favourably, just pointing out that she doesn’t give her readers the full picture.)

Likewise, she claims that “The Bell Curve [1994] was widely panned after it was published,” and notes in passing that “an article in American Behavioral Scientist described it as ‘fascist ideology’.” However, she fails to mention that 52 researchers signed a public statement in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ which endorsed many of The Bell Curve’s central claims. According to a recent paper dealing with inaccurate coverage of intelligence research, The Bell Curve actually contains “very little information that has since come into question by mainstream scholars” and “most of the book is not about race at all.”

Third, on more than one occasion Saini employs double standards. For example, in Chapter 9, when an Indian geneticist suggests to her that people from a particular region of India might be naturally predisposed to athletics, Saini is nonplussed:

This casual speculation surprised me, coming as it did from a respectable geneticist. It showed that more than half a century of research into human variation hasn’t eliminated prejudice within science, wherever it’s done. Old stereotypes are still being projected onto people, but perhaps in new ways.

Dismissing his conjecture as “casual speculation,” she proceeds to advance her own hypothesis, which is no less speculative: “lifelong training could just as easily explain the prevalence of athletes as any innate ability.” Saini does not explain why the default position should be to assume that the difference is environmental. In the absence of any specific evidence, it would make more sense to say, “We do not yet know what explains this difference. It could be genes, it could be environment, or it could be some combination of the two.” Note that the Indian geneticist’s conjecture is by no means implausible: there is already substantial evidence that genes contribute to population differences in athletic achievement.

Fourth, Saini commits the fallacy—long since debunked—of assuming that if genes play a role in something, then we have to blindly accept the status quo. In Chapter 9 she writes:

The logical consequence of insisting that IQ gaps between races are biologically determined is that nothing in human society can really be changed.

Not only is this statement hyperbole (even if one couldn’t change racial IQ gaps, there would be plenty of other things one could change), but it also seems to imply that scientific findings should dictate our political choices. In reality, these choices are influenced not only by certain empirical facts, but also by whatever value system society decides to adopt. Under some value systems, such as ‘luck egalitarianism,’ confirmation of a genetic contribution to racial IQ gaps could actually strengthen the case for redistributive taxation. For example, Ronald Dworkin argued that material inequalities are unjust if they arise due to circumstances beyond an individual’s control. Since individuals cannot control which genes they will inherit, material inequalities arising due to genetic differences are unjust and should therefore be reduced through egalitarian social policies.

Finally, by far the most prominent fallacy in Superior, one which lies at the very heart of Saini’s book, is the fallacy of equating any claim that genes might contribute to population differences on non-“superficial” traits with racism. (For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to this as ‘the fallacy of equating hereditarian claims with racism.’) Indeed, this fallacy encompasses the third and fourth of the theses that we laid out in the introduction.

By way of illustration, Saini employs the terms “scientific racism” or “scientific racist” 17 times in the book, and she employs the terms “intellectual racism” or “intellectual racist” an additional 11 times. In Chapter 1 she describes the supposition that population groups “may have evolved into modern human beings in different ways” as “unconscionable.” And in Chapter 6, when discussing the work of famed geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, she writes, “as he saw it, racism was just a scientific idea that turned out to be incorrect.”

Before proceeding, we should be clear about what we are not saying. First, we are not denying that research into the genetics of human differences has been misused for appalling purposes at various points over the last two centuries. Second, we are not denying that some of the scientists who have undertaken such research were motivated by racial animus or by a desire to subjugate other people. Hence we understand the temptation to assume the worst about anyone who might be willing to entertain what we have called ‘hereditarian claims.’ Nonetheless, equating hereditarian claims with racism is a fallacy, and one that we believe is likely to end up doing more harm than good.

As Steven Pinker argued at length in his book The Blank Slate, those who equate testable scientific claims with various ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, fascism, etc.) are effectively holding our morals hostage to the facts. By using the word ‘racist’ to describe a claim such as ‘genes may contribute to psychological differences between human populations,’ they are implying that:

  • The claim must be false; but also that
  • If the claim were ever shown to be true, then racism would be “scientifically correct.”

Yet as Pinker notes, this is a complete non-sequitur:

I hope that once this line of reasoning is laid out, it will immediately set off alarm bells. We should not concede that any foreseeable discovery about humans could have such horrible implications. The problem is not with the possibility that people might differ from one another, which is a factual question that could turn out one way or the other. The problem is with the line of reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all.

The argument that we should not hold our morals hostage to the facts has been made over and over again by scholars interested in the genetics of human differences. As far back as the 1960s, one of the 20th century’s leading biologists, Ernst Mayr, said the following:

Equality in spite of evident non-identity is a somewhat sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of which many individuals seem to be incapable. They rather deny human variability and equate equality with identity […] An ideology based on such obviously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its championship of human equality is based on a claim of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost.

In other words, equating hereditarian claims with racism is not merely logically fallacious, but could be considered irresponsible as well. Many of the ideas that Saini classifies as “scientific racism” are empirical claims that have not been conclusively tested. Some of these claims may turn out to be wrong, but others may turn out to be right. If we label them all “scientific racism” and some of them do turn out to be right, there is a much greater risk that they will be taken as scientific proof that “racism is okay after all.” A more ethically robust stance would be to recognise that granting people equal rights, and treating them with respect, does not depend on whether genes make a contribution to population differences in psychological traits.

Conclusion

Superior is a timely book that attempts to grapple with the science of human biological and psychological diversity. It is reasonably entertaining to read, and does make some valid points about the misuse of “race science.” Unfortunately, it is also tendentious, dogmatic, and seriously misleading about the current state of scientific knowledge. The truth, as we see it, is that human populations differ in important and fascinating ways, and they do so for straightforward evolutionary reasons: such populations have been living in different environments from one another, under different regimes of selection, for thousands of years. Saini wants us to ignore the basic tenets of Darwinism. Moreover, she wants us to equate any claim that genes might contribute to psychological differences between populations with racism. This is a logical fallacy, and one that we believe it is irresponsible to promote given the current trajectory of research in the human biosocial sciences.

 

Bo Winegard is an essayist and an assistant professor at Marietta College. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher based in the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90.

27 Comments

  1. TarsTarkas says

    The argument seems to be that despite every other living species exhibiting variation there can be no such thing as race or any meaningful genetic (or sexual) differences between individuals of Homo sapiens, because that would be morally reprehensible. And anybody who even comes holistically close to even considering that concept must be a card-carrying member of the NSDAP, if not worse.
    Except when they use it to carve Homo sapiens en masse into teeny-tiny little victim-tribes oppressed by Straight White Male Patriarchy that require endless coddling and funding. Especially funding.
    Got it. Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

    • Peter from Oz says

      TT
      Yes you are correct, the regressives are incredibly keen to base everything on identity, as the quotation from Ernst Mayr in the article foreshadows. The big contradiction of the regressives has always been a sign of their projection of their own worst fears. Thus they don’t want race to matter, but they keep making it matter by insisting that it is important.
      Surely the danger that the regressives should fear is that research on race will be used by bad actors as an excuse for bad treatment of people of different races. It is that we all should be fighting against, not the knowledge itself. In recent times there have been several articles on QUillette on the topic of how leftism has become a new religion. One of the traits of religious thinking is the banning of ideas that may lead to any questioning of the core tenets of faith. The left’s faith is that racism is the false belief that the differences between the races (and they do insist on these differences existing) makes one race inferior to another. So any differences that could show that any race is more gifted in generalis heretical and must be banned.
      I can see why compassionate and religious people would think this way. After all, it would be a very bad thing if somehow science proved that blacks were not on average as smart as asians, and people then started discriminating against ALL blacks by assuming that they were all less intelligent than asians.
      My answer to that is that the leftists have to think a bit harder and realise what their real argument should be. It is really quite simple, it is the conservative argument that we have to ensure that everyone understand that the general cannot be reduced to the particular.
      All it takes is some training in logic, which is clearly something that too may leftists like Saini do not have.This is clear from the doublethink they engage in to hide their own racism. The problem is that their mental contortion on the issue produces a more insidious form of racism or more accurately oikophobia.

    • @StewyGriffith says

      The biggest risk posed by “Race Science” is that it may reveal that the differences in life outcomes between various population groups ISN’T due to the moral failings and evil behaviours of the lefts favorite punching bag ‘white people’, rather it is because of innate biological differences between these population groups encoded at a genetic level.

      I support policies designed to assist the poor and less capable in our communities to live a life of dignity, but ignoring the differences between population groups means that we in the west are importing vast quantities of people who will effectively remain a forever burden, permanently reducing the productive capabilities of our societies in terms of meeting the needs of its existing members, impairing the ability of our societies to function as democracies and making it even more difficult to pursued the population to make sacrifices in the present in order to build a better future.

      Finally there is the moral question to ask – is it morally correct to import a large population group with lower median IQs and all the attendant social issues that are found in terms of violence and general dysfunction, into societies filled with more capable people living peaceful lives?

      These are the reasons why IQ and racial differences are taboo in terms of discussing how we want our society to be composed – it impacts the growth lobbies ability to import vast numbers of less capable people, into our societies for no other purpose than to provide additional consumption.

      • Peter from Oz says

        @StewyGriffith
        I do have to agree with you in relation to immigration. But the real issue I have is that for some reason there is a strain of thought on the left that those who want to come to Australia have more rights than those who are already here. Those who are already here rarely get asked what they think of immigration. it seems their wish to keep their culture would be seen as evil by the left, whilst all other culture are sacrosanct. I admit I may be creating a straw man here, but I have never had a left winger explain to me why the wish to keep one’s country like it has been in the past is a problem. WHo cares if we are seen as ”racist” because we like our country how it is and don’t give foreigners the same rights here as we give to those who live here.The left seems to live a pixie world where borders don’t matter and the rights of indigenes are all bollocks unless they are emembers of the proper ”victim group”

        • E. Olson says

          Peter wrote: “Those who are already here rarely get asked what they think of immigration…”

          The reason they don’t get asked is because the elites already know the answer and it isn’t the “correct” one from their Western(self)-hating point of view.

  2. Dan Flehmen says

    To a biologist, the claim that human races are merely social constructs seems very peculiar, because the races correspond precisely to biological subspecies. That is, morphologically distinct populations of a species that occur in different geographic localities but interbreed at their joint boundaries, and produce offspring intermediate in their distinguishing characteristics. Thus, Rocky Mountain mule deer and Pacific coast black tail deer are subspecies of one widespread species: they interbreed freely where they meet, but are quite different in size and coloration and hybrids of the two are intermediate.

    Not only does that definition clearly apply to the major human races, depending upon whether the biologist is a ‘lumper’ or ‘splitter’, it can also be readily applied to subpopulations within the major human races. In Africa, for instance, it is easy to spot the differences between a Masai, Kikuyu, Luo or Dinka, or scores of other tribal groupings. Or in Europe between a Dutchman and a Greek. They are physically distinctive, associated with particular parts of the continent, but can and do interbreed readily. If the subspecies (race) concept is uncontroversial when applied to all other species, why should it not apply equally to Homo sapiens?

  3. Anon says

    Thank you sincerely for this extremely sober and thorough review.

  4. “Contrary to the characterisation given by Saini, humans are just another animal species: there is little reason to believe that they are fundamentally different from wolves, deer, or chimpanzees.”

    Pity the authors saw fit to mar an interesting review with such reflexive reductionism. I expected better from both Bo Winegard and Noah Carl. I’m not in the habit of reading articles written by chimpanzees.

    • neoteny says

      such reflexive reductionism

      The point is that humans are subject to all biological laws: in particular to natural & sexual selection. At least so far.

  5. Memetic Tribe says

    Question: What is the point of reaching out to experts in the field of biology when the author knows full well that the experts will self censor themselves in order to keep their career and funding streams afloat? Saini seems to make a case for convergent evolution: where geographically isolated populations evolve – by chance – into the same exact hing.

    Also: Claire, Could anything in Saini’s work be considered one of those “valid” points that you keep saying the far left has?

  6. E. Olson says

    “Under some value systems, such as ‘luck egalitarianism,’ confirmation of a genetic contribution to racial IQ gaps could actually strengthen the case for redistributive taxation.”

    Arguably such IQ related redistribution has almost always been the case, because low IQ people tend to do poorly at everything and cost society a great deal. Low IQ are more likely to be criminals, which creates not only the costs of the crime (theft, injury, death), but also the necessity of society spending more on police and prisons. Low IQ are more likely to do badly and be disruptive at school, which creates costs to other students when curriculum is dumbed down, but also in terms of the need for special tutors and greater costs of fewer students per teacher (for more 1 on 1 instruction) and extra school security. Low IQ are also less able at most jobs (if they can do them at all), which means more costs in training, supervising, and having the more able take up the slack caused by low IQ performance deficits, as well as the costs associated with IQ related welfare to the chronically unemployed or mentally disabled.

    In fact, the biggest difference today is that the modern welfare state is actually enabling and encouraging low IQ people to have relatively more children, who are supported by the taxes paid by higher IQ people productively employed and as a consequence of education, employment and high taxes (and feminist ideology) having relatively fewer children. Thus for the first time in human history, high levels of redistribution are causing low IQ segments of society to survive in great numbers and therefore reproduce at greater levels than high IQ segments, which is the most likely reason average global IQ is declining.

  7. Max says

    1.”Studying whether genes might contribute to population differences on non-superficial traits is tantamount to “scientific racism””

    Ok

    2.”Genes can only contribute to population differences on certain “superficial” traits”

    Ok. An how do you know that they do not contribute on non superficial traits?

    “I studied that”

    Hmmm…..

  8. E. Olson says

    A probably too kind review of what appears to be an appalling book. The question I have is who is the intended audience of such a pseudo-scientific/Leftist biased book? Could it be aiming at the university textbook market where PC faculty who share the same beliefs as Saini can assign it as a reading as part of their Leftist indoctrination so that impressionable young minds will be led to think this load of bollocks is actual science?

  9. Philip says

    The book is a perfect example of what you end up with if you put ideology before science. Everything is driven by the idea that racism is a great evil and therefore any science which might lend itself to be misused by racists must be denied. But once you relegate truth, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable, to being subordinate to your ideology, you eventually end up at the same place as book burners and Auschwitz guards. It’s not the truth that leads you to racism, it’s ideology.

  10. This article, by two experts, confirms my own, non-expert, way of thinking about race, which is that it is real & important.

    Are racial differences, which there clearly are, grounds for justifying racism? Of course not.

    However, by far the most important aspect of race is the role it plays in an individual’s sense personal & group identity. I identity with my European ancestors, their history & prehistory, rather than with my non-European ancestors, because I don’t have any, unless I go back many thousands of years.

    Why there is so much academic resistance to the reality & importance of race? Which recently led to one of the authors, Noah Carl, being prevented from taking up a position at Cambridge university. And it is not just “academic” in the sense of having little practical importance. There are profound social & political implications, which is what academics especially are, of course, so scared of.

    There is the fear that to admit to man’s Darwinian nature & situation would inevitably lead us down the same path that the Nazis took in justifying their insane racial ideology, eugenics & euthanasia programmes & wars of aggression. It is an understandable fear, but one we must overcome, just as early human communities had to overcame their fear of fire, in order to make use of it. Otherwise, we would never have emerged from the stone age.

    There was an overreaction to the evils of Nazism (esp. on the part of traumatised Jews), which basically went to the opposite, but equally insane, extremes, especially in regard to the Nazi obsession with “racial purity”, which has been replace by an obsession with DIVERSITY & racial mixing as a great moral virtue, which completely disregards the importance of ethnic & racial identity for any deep & meaningful sense of genuine national identity.

    In their pathological overreaction to Nazi social Darwinism, the social sciences trapped themselves in pre-Darwinian dark age, with a taboo against applying Darwinian logic to their disciplines altogether. The tragic consequence of this is that their understanding of human nature, society and the state is still on a par with medieval academic understanding of the heavens.

    I elaborate in this & other Twitter threads: https://twitter.com/rogerahicks/status/1012987161409355776

  11. E. Olson says

    “We are not particularly wedded to the word ‘race’ and would be happy to use ‘human population’ or ‘biogeographic ancestry group’ instead.”

    I believe the authors are being overly indulgent to the Leftist crazies in their willingness to give up using a perfectly legitimate word “race” because it has become politically incorrect. And why has it become politically incorrect, because race is used to distinguish between people who are having differing levels of success in modern life, which only means that whatever replaces “race” will also eventually become politically incorrect. This is because the underlying scientific facts about IQ and genetics are not going to change, which unfortunately also means there is little or nothing we can do to raise raise low IQs. These same issues also effect the history of other words that once were scientific terms of description such as negroid/negro, dwarf, imbecile/idiot that become non-PC and hence changed to black/African-American, little people/vertically challenged, and mentally challenged respectively.

    The fact is that high IQ and other personality and cultural traits that are more valuable in the modern world are more valuable because of the way the modern world has evolved. When everyone was dirt poor and limited to very local geographic regions/markets (which was the case until the last 100 years even in the developed world), having a higher IQ and some other traits such as ability to delay gratification, or culturally valuing education provided much more limited benefits to the individual or group than today. Thus it is interesting to speculate how the current PC craziness would change if the modern world was one that favored races who had genetic advantages as sprinters or ability to thrive at high altitudes (i.e. non-whites and mostly non-Asians) – would we also deny those racially linked genetic differences and avoid their study, and ask fast running Negroids and Himalayan Mongoloids to check their privilege? Or perhaps we can start the movement by demanding the NFL and NBA millionaire rosters have the demographic profile of America.

  12. MIke says

    1)“Race” is not a meaningful biological category
    – I mostly agree, unlike the critique author

    2)”Moreover, she wants us to equate any claim that genes might contribute to psychological differences between populations with racism. ”
    – I mostly agree with critique that this is wrong, with one caveat.

    I think this critique of the book misses the mark slightly because it accuses the book of not defining race well and then does the same (doesn’t define very well race (populations) or the issues with race (population) definition). 20 years ago I would have agreed strongly with the book, but our ability to analyze genetics and understand the resulting medical/phenotypic variation has improved and has proven to be very important (pharmacogenetics etc). Based on some of the comments above, there should be real fear about how this research is interpreted and applied to geographic/perceived populations. But hereditarianism is a thing, and pretending that humans don’t vary is just not scientific.

    First a question for all the Americans: What race is Barack Obama? The answer in today’s world is that he is black, because race as discussed in the news is MOSTLY a social construct. The truth is that biologically he has genes from Kansas/Phillipines and genes from Kenya in some mostly equal proportion. Those genes influence his susceptibility to certain medical conditions and traits. However, I don’t expect his risk of being 1 standard deviation below the average white IQ would be a valid statement. This example highlights how our simple ways of navigating our social world really fall apart, and it is important to be very clear about how we define “populations” when talking about these studies. The terms black and white are so loaded in North American discourse, socially they are very meaningful, but not very biologically specific.

    This reminds me of the abortion/pro-life situation where you have two sides arguing about completely different things which are in opposition (individual sovereignty versus religious definitions of when life begins). It also reminds me of the gender issue where people’s heads explode because they can’t reconcile the non-exclusionary concepts of a mental gender and a biological sex.

    Throughout history when a lower socioeconomic status “race” mixes with a traditionally higher status “race” they are assigned the lower status, whatever you want to say about the leftists that is predominantly a true statement. Judaism is a religion, not a race, but because of the religion there has been a somewhat isolated “population”. I think that definitions of race are muddled in North America because currently there is medical/social utility in visually identifying people due to recent (200 years) history, but as exemplified by Mr. Obama one’s race is mostly a social construct. Genes can travel geographically across generations without people moving farther than the next village. There are important phenotypic variations, which should be explored to advance our understanding of human genetics. But determining someone’s genetic profile explicitly (not by asking where their parents are from or visually identifying them) is how this research will become very useful.

    In conclusion – 1)race is a terrible way to define populations because common understanding and use of race interferes with understanding of academic results.

    2)And, the motivation for this book is quite real and it sounds like it missed the mark, but it is important to acknowledge that the discussion of arbitrary and simple population groups/geography and the definition of the groups for study should be more carefully discussed and separated from the social aspect when communicating the results. I’m highly suspicious of blacks vs whites studies those just seem like conveniently simple and rather large and indistinct groups which have significant cultural and economic pressures being applied, especially in US. Steven Pinker’s discussions about Ashkenazi Jews seem to make more sense, as it discusses a distinct specific population/group and underlying mechanism.

    Overall, a well considered article, but felt a little overbearing about the way it brushed off some of the concerns and challenges of genetic research of human diversity.

  13. dirk says

    I wonder whether the disposal of the biological race concept by Lewontin and others could have happened if the Holocaust would not have been there. Same thing for that massive and rapid decolonisation, and maybe many other pomo ideas and hypes more.

  14. Emmanuel says

    Saini’s main argument seems to be that what she refers to as “race science” could have implications she does not like and therefore cannot be true…
    Let’s be honest for one minute : for every known species, we can identify subspecies displaying on average differences in terms of behaviour and appearance. Why should we assume things are different for humans ?

    Also, I don’t know if Saini discusses that, but the moral panick about racism and the fear of acknowledging differences between populations is a specificity of modern western societies. In Africa, Asia or South America, people are very straightforward and “open-minded” about that. If Saini was to go to Kenya or a place like that and explain the natives population differences don’t exist, nobody would take her seriously.

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