What might milk have to do with white supremacist indignation? In 2017, a group of white nationalists in America descended on an anti-Donald Trump art installation in a museum in New York, carrying cartons of milk. They then proceeded to glug them down in an aggressive display of, well, lactose tolerance.
Absurd as it was, the men believed their act was backed by science. Genetic research has shown that while the ability to digest milk is usually deactivated after childhood in many populations, it developed in the earliest cattle-herders in Europe around 5,000-7,500 years ago. Ergo, for the white nationalists, it was a “white” genetic trait, and proof of the racial difference between white and black people. They were wrong, of course — similar traits had also evolved in cattle-rearing populations in East Africa, and Asia around the time. But this is just one example of science being distorted to serve a racist agenda in the West. Or, as Angela Saini, 39, writes in her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science (HarperCollins), “science is just a pawn in the bloody game.”
An Indian-origin British journalist, Saini’s project, one could argue, has been to dismantle the belief that science is objective and untouched by social differences. Her work uncovers how power structures influence the questions science asks and the answers it supplies. In her last book, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (2017), Saini charted the history of discrimination in the scientific establishment, revealing how the sexist premises of scientists such as Charles Darwin (that women were only fit for nurturing roles, and intellectually inferior to men) perpetuated patriarchy. “It was really as a journalist, seeing how scientists work close up, examining why they choose the questions they do, their personal motives, funding, agendas, politics, that I became fascinated by how bias operates in science as well as in everyday life,” says Saini in an email interview.
Superior is a book, Saini says, she wanted to write since she was 10 years old. She remembers the Britain of 1980s and 1990s, where she grew up, as a racist place, where a far-right party like the British National Party would take out marches in London. She was a teenager when an 18-year-old young black man, Stephen Lawrence, was killed by a white gang while he was waiting for a bus. “Growing up as an ethnic minority in London, race matters socially and politically. I was 10 when racism really started to hit home, and that marked the beginning of my journey of trying to understand what it means,” she says. “Nobody ever told me I was inferior, but the implicit message of everyday racism is that you are different and that you don’t belong.”
As Saini lays out in the book, while race is a powerful social construct, there is no scientific basis to race. What then is race science? “It is the belief that humans can be divided into distinct biological groups, and that there are deep and meaningful differences between the groups. As it is, it’s not really practised in mainstream science anymore. It’s considered pseudoscience,” she says.
But it was not always so. In the most powerful sections of her book, Saini recaps how the initial impulses of science were racist and tied to a violent imperialist project. In Australia, for example, the indigenous population was seen as occupying the lowest rungs in the racial hierarchy. Such “objective scientific views” enabled Europeans to exterminate the natives, annexe their land and even justified the separation of native children from their parents. “Because of the narrow way Europeans had set their parameters of what constituted a human being…people of other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit….And here lay the fatal error at the birth of modern science,” she writes.
That bias multiplied in horrific ways in the study of eugenics in the late 19th century and culminated in the persecution of Jews in the Holocaust—a project, Saini reminds us, that was aided and justified by reputed scientists. The horror of the Holocaust led to a blowback against eugenics after World War II.
While the scientific establishment rejected the idea of superiority of races, Saini argues that race science is creeping back, helped by a tide of ultra-conservatism in world politics. “It survives in two ways, firstly in modern-day scientific racism, on the fringes of academia and in the murky shadows of the internet. But it also survives in more everyday scientific thinking when researchers try to categorise and delineate human populations. It still creeps into the way scientists think about human difference, often unintentionally,” she says.
Or, as a scientist Saini interviews, points out, “Before it was something in the blood, but now it is something in your genes.” Saini traces how right-wing organisations continue to fund publications and dubious research on “human biodiversity”. In an argument that will be strongly debated, she also lays out the dangers of studying differences between populations, even by non-racist scientists, being hijacked by alt-right politics.
Superior also includes a chapter on caste in India, a social system in which population groups are kept separate by forced endogamy. She recounts meetings with Indian scientists who believe that millennia of genetic separation have turned caste into a “biological reality.” “I think caste in many ways mirrors race, inasmuch as it divides people into groups and treats them differently. It is as unscientific as racial categories, yet there are still scientists who believe that certain castes are endowed with different innate skills or abilities,” she says.
The study of genetics, Saini says, has only reinforced “the common unity of the human species.” But political establishments across the world are engaged in a project of denial — an Indian minister was recently heard in Parliament denying the theory of evolution. He preferred to believe that Hindus descended from “sages”, not apes. “Some have claimed that Hindus have lived in India for millions of years, which is an order of magnitude longer than our species has even been around,” Saini says. Many Chinese academics advocate the theory that ancient Chinese predated the migration from Africa.
In such a time of toxic identity politics, fake science is the racist’s ally. Saini says she is “putting together an international team of experts to help counter the virulent spread of pseudoscience.” More importantly, she warns against the infiltration of science by ideas of difference.
“Identity matters for many reasons, mainly cultural and political. But we have to recognise that these identities are social constructions, not biological ones. They may map onto certain biological features in some fuzzy, statistical ways, but that doesn’t make any group distinct. We must always remember, even while fighting for our rights as a particular group, that we are human first and that we are human together. Those who seek to tear us apart want us to biologise difference,” she says.