Angela Saini on Stories About Race and What They Tell Us About Ourselves

Angela Saini
Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Shortly after publication in May of “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” my new book exploring the dark history of how our ideas of race were invented and the ways in which scientific racism is manifest today, I had a disturbing experience.

It began with a smattering of disparaging comments on far-right websites, some written by the same people who I had exposed in the book. And then it snowballed. Over several days, damning reviews of “Superior” were splayed across white supremacist sites and race-baiting blogs.

On social media, anonymous commenters speculated about my skin color and what they imagined this told them about my intelligence (the darker I was, the lower my IQ must be, they reasoned). Some invoked long-dead arguments from the 19th century about race and skull shape. As someone who grew up as a visible ethnic minority in London, the attacks were a reminder of the mindless racism I’d seen when I was younger.

In recent years, scientists have become increasingly concerned about extremists abusing their research for political ends. In March 2019 the American Association of Physical Anthropologists released a statement on racism, cautioning the public that race is not a scientifically accurate way to think about human variation.

Courtesy of Beacon Press

“As scientists, we strive to eliminate the influences of bias, racial profiling, and other erroneous ways of thinking about human variation from our study designs, interpretations of scientific data, and reporting of research results,” they wrote.

One might ask why such statements are still necessary when it was nearly seventy years ago that UNESCO published the first of its own statements on race in collaboration with scientists and policymakers, affirming much the same thing. The reason, I argue, is twofold. First and most obviously, racism hasn’t gone away. As the reaction to my book has shown, there are plenty still wedded to the belief in their racial superiority, who would do anything to defend this position, even if it means twisting facts and concocting bogus theories.

The second reason is that, despite some admirable efforts, scientists have not done such a great job of purging race as a variable from biology, nor at convincing the public that they really do believe it is nothing more than a social construct. We still see geneticists use racial categories when they shouldn’t, and medical researchers routinely use race as a proxy for human variation, despite how fuzzy and inaccurate it is.

The idea of race, as it plays out in the real world including in science, is a story. And it’s interesting to see what forms that story takes. I open “Superior” by exploring the invention of racial hierarchies and how these serve our human origin stories. During the Enlightenment, when European scientists were setting the parameters of modern science, one of their most important achievements was to reinforce the idea of essential human unity.

While noble in theory, in practice most European scientists and philosophers had limited contact with the rest of the world, so their model for humanity was inevitably constructed around the white European male. The Enlightenment thus laid the foundations for a science of human origins, as British anthropologist Tim Ingold has put it, that “has written the essence of humanity in its own image, and that measures other people by how far they have come in living up to it.”

This way of thinking had disastrous consequences. It helped Europeans justify consigning those who did not act or behave like them to the bin of “less than human.” If people failed to meet the standards for civilization defined by them, they came to be considered lower down the evolutionary ladder. Encounters with Africans, native Americans and Aboriginal Australians – indeed all non-Europeans, including Indians like my family – were shaped by existing racist frameworks but reinforced by science, used to justify slavery, colonialism and genocide. 

So when the remains of the extinct Neanderthals were identified in 1856, European scientists rushed to compare them to the skulls of Aboriginal Australians – both being, as it was believed at the time, closer to our primate predecessors. English biologist Thomas Huxley described the skulls of Australians as being “wonderfully near” those of the “degraded type of the Neanderthal.” Their perceived anatomical proximity to Neanderthals fed into the belief that Australia’s indigenous population was similarly doomed to die out. And that there was no harm in European colonizers helping them along through murder, detention and sterilization.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and we now learn that Neanderthals – once aligned with Aboriginal Australians – are in fact in small part the ancestors of modern-day Europeans, contributing up to 4 percent of their DNA. Confirmed in 2014, this discovery happened to coincide with Neanderthals, once the dictionary definition of thuggish stupidity, being remarkably rehabilitated in the public and scientific imagination.

Reconstruction of a Neanderthal male, based on remains found in Belgium. The Natural Histiory Museum, London.                    Credit: Shutterstock

In 2018 researchers in Switzerland and Germany suggested that Neanderthals had quite “sophisticated cultural behavior,” prompting one British archaeologist to wonder out loud whether “they were a lot more refined than previously thought.” An archaeologist in Spain claimed that modern humans and Neanderthals must have been “cognitively indistinguishable.”

In reality, as I was told by John Shea, professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University in New York, “Neanderthals are romanticized.” We don’t have a great deal of evidence about what they were like or how they lived, which means they can be whatever we want them to be. “We’re free to project good qualities, things we admire, and the ideal on them.” Of course, this is what we have always done. In the nineteenth century, they were endowed with the qualities that suited the racial stereotypes of the time. And today, arguably, the same.

In January 2017, a feature in The New York Times asked: “Neanderthals were people, too… Why did science get them so wrong?” Why, indeed. Why should Neanderthals so suddenly be accepted as “people” now?  Now that kinship has been established with Europeans, now they are human? If it had turned out that Aboriginal Australians were the ones to possess that larger portion of Neanderthal ancestry instead of Europeans, would our Neanderthal cousins have found themselves quite so remarkably reformed?

It’s tough not to see, in the acceptance of Neanderthals as “people like us,” another manifestation of the Enlightenment habit of casting humanity in the European image. In this case, Neanderthals have been drawn into the circle of humankind by virtue of being just a little bit related to Europeans – forgetting that a century ago, it was their supposed resemblance to indigenous Australians that helped cast actual living human beings brutally out of the circle.

This story, for me, illustrates why we must accept that science – and how it is interpreted – still lies at the mercy of our racial assumptions. All of us, even the best and most objective of scientists, betray some commitment to this dangerous idea. We must, of course, strongly call out extremists who abuse science. But researchers must also be introspective, asking what they can do in their own fields to rid society of the burden of racism.

Angela Saini, who won a 2015 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award, is based in London. Her latest book, “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” is out now from Beacon Press.


Associated homepage image credit: Henrietta Garden