Angela Saini on the Return of Race Science

September 19, 2019

Even though there’s growing awareness that race is a social construct — it defies biological definition — it’s really hard to let go of a concept that feels so real. There’s also a temptation for progressive, more or less decent human beings, who wouldn’t consider themselves racist, to define racism as something that happens on the far right, among Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and people sporting MAGA hats.

Turns out that’s not the case. At all.

One of the most pervasive issues when it comes to race is the science. What does the history of race science have to do with today’s science on human variation? Why do modern scientists need to grapple with the legacy of racial definition and oppression? How does the centuries-old mythology of race impact the practice of medicine well into the 21st century?

On this episode of Point of Inquiry, Kavin Senapathy speaks with author Angela Saini about her book Superior: The Return of Race Science. The Telegraph advises “philosophically and historically uneducated scientists” along with those with “more murky motivations” to read this “brilliant and devastating” book.


Angela Saini is an independent British science journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, The Times, Prospect, New Scientist, Science, New Humanist, Wired, Vogue, Stylist, and the Economist among others. She has won a number of national and international journalism awards.

While you’re here, we’d like to give a shout-out to the Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia. While Kavin was researching the episode, she realized that Superior didn’t have a page on Wikipedia. She alerted GSoW’s Rob Palmer and their team member Robin Cantin had a page up within 48 hours!

Now, the reason this has happened is not because race is real, it has happened because scientists have not grappled fully with the history of their field. They have not fully dismantled this way of thinking and started again. What they did was just continue. 

Hi, everyone. It’s me, Kavin Senapathy. Your point of inquiry cohosts. I interview author Angela Ehsani about her critically acclaimed book, Superior The Return of Race Science. 

As Angela tells it in her Scientific American blog post titled The Internet is a Cesspool of Racist Pseudoscience. She interviewed researchers at the cutting edge of research into human difference to journalistically expose the dangerous history of scientific racism. There’s a caveat to this episode, of course, and that is that while the episode will be an extended intro, if you will. We can’t really lay out all of the meat of this book, let alone its nuances in less than an hour. So if you’re as worried as I am about the dangerous resurgence of white nationalism in the US and racialized nationalisms around the world, then Superior is a must read and know that a whole lot of you are aware of the fact that the concept of race has no biological basis. That race is a social construct. And this has now been corroborated by the world’s leading scientific societies, including the American Society of Human Genetics. But it’s also fair to say that people like Sam Harris and Steven Pinker, both of whom have decent sized following within the skeptics movement, do plenty of dabbling in the pseudoscientific stance that there are observable differences between so-called races and that these differences are biological, including measures like IQ. So buckle in skeptics. It’s time for a bumpy science ride. 

Hi, everyone. It’s Kavin Senapathy, your point of inquiry co-host back this week with a very special guest. Angela Saini is an award winning science journalist, author, broadcaster and one of the most respected journalists in the UK. I just finished her newest book, Superior The Return of Race Science, which one of my favorite science journalists, Ed Young, called deeply researched, masterfully written and sorely needed. And for whatever it’s worth coming from me, I could not agree more. So thank you so much for joining me, Angela. 

You’re welcome. I’m very happy to be on the podcast. 

Even though there seems to be growing awareness among some circles that race is not biologically real. That it’s a social construct. It’s really hard to let go of a concept that feels so real. And there’s also a temptation for progressive, more or less decent human beings who wouldn’t consider themselves racist, to define racism as something that happens on the far right among neo-Nazis. The KKK and people’s sporting make America great again hats. But Superior smashes this idea, making the case that racism doesn’t just exist on the fringes and among religious extremists. It’s been a mainstream fixture in academia, politics and industry since the Enlightenment and the birth of Western science. So, Angela, let’s start with the basics. What does the term race science mean in a nutshell? And is this term interchangeable with scientific racism and intellectual racism? 

This is a hard question because in some ways, race science for long term was just science. So even though people describe it, scientific racism now as pseudoscientific, because, of course, we know from genetic evidence that race is a social construct, that the way that we divide people is always arbitrary anyway, that you divide the human species is arbitrary for a long time. And certainly since the Enlightenment, the idea that the human race could be divided in two breeds or categories and that there was some kind of hierarchy between these groups was accepted. And in fact, it was a kind of cornerstone of a lot of enlightenment thinking and certainly common knowledge among Western scientists in the 19th century. They took this for granted, this idea. The only question was how many races are there and how do we divide them and which ones are most superior to others and how should we be treating them? What forms do these differences take? The idea that race was real wasn’t questioned for a long time until arguably into the 20th century by most mainstream scientists and anthropologists. 

That was when this idea was really smashed to pieces that we really started to take apart this longstanding way of scientists dividing up us up into groups and finally affirmed that the human race is one species. We are all overwhelmingly very similar. 

So, as you say, scientific racism was just science until about the 19th century. And of course, as you said, this is this is a hard question and it takes a it takes a lot to answer. So, of course, everybody needs to read this book that’s assumed throughout this interview. Could you could you take a couple of minutes to talk about how the idea of race comes about and on what basis the scientific inquiry into race is established? So it it pretty quickly gains a stronghold in mainstream academia, academia, as you put it. And as we approach World War One, the book paints a picture of the concept of eugenics being sold almost in the way that so-called clean living or clean eating is framed nowadays, especially the first thing that popped into my mind into the comparison. So you write in the book that eugenics at a point in time was synonymous with being healthy. So could you talk about that a little? 

So there are layers of issues here. And one of the first ones is how is race defined? So going to the first part of your question in the very early days of modern Western science. So at the birth of kind of empiricism, when researchers first started to categorize the natural world. So when they formed these kind of taxonomic categories, they naturally, I guess, naturally turn their eyes to human beings and thought, can humans also be classified in the same way that the natural world can? In the same way that we classify animals and plants and flowers and things. And there are many scientists, Linnaeus included, and Linnaeus is famous for producing some of the. So that we still use today. He famously also categorized humans into different categories. Now we have to remember that at that time, many European scientists, of course, didn’t have much exposure to the rest of the world. They knew very little about how humans lived or different cultures or different ethnicities, as we would call them now. And so within these classifications, Linnaeus included things like monster, like humans and feral humans to encompass people that he had heard about through rumor and perhaps in fiction, but never actually encountered in real life. So a lot of these Western European scientists were writing about people without having a very good understanding of what the human species really looked like in the round. You know, how people lived, what their appearance was, where people lived in the world. And it was very vague. It was quite arbitrary. And ever since then, every researcher, every scientist or anthropologist or ethnologist, whatever you want to call them in any way that they have tried to classify or categorize people has always been quite arbitrary. There are some people who in the 18th, 19th century said there were three races or four races or five races or six races or a million races. You know, they could never really pin it down. And the reason for this, of course, as we know now, through the science of genetics and having a much better understanding of how human diversity works is that we are all obviously we all obviously have a close genetic relationship to the people that we are related to personally. So I have a very close genetic relationship to my parents and to my sisters and to my son. I have a slightly weaker one to my cousins and to my grandparents and to my extended family. And it gets weaker and weaker the further away you go. Now, historically, we have tended to live near our relatives. This isn’t true for everyone, of course. In fact, isn’t it even true for me because my family are immigrants to the UK, so we don’t live anywhere near our extended family. But historically, let’s just say people have tended to live near kin and this will mean that they will have some kind of loose genetic relationship to the people in the community that they live in. And it gets weaker and weaker the further away you get from that community. Now, at the continental or even the national level, you know, the level of countries, that relationship is likely to be deeply, deeply weak. But we can draw lines of separation or a categorization wherever we like. 

We could draw it at the family level, in which case there really are millions and millions of races around the world. We could divide it at the extended family level, which is genetically weaker, but we could do that. We could divide at the community level, in which case it becomes weaker still and on and on and on. And this is why race is impossible to pin down, because it really is up to the thinker to decide where they want to places categories. And because they can be placed pretty much anywhere, you know, logically by this kind of genetic relationship. They can be placed anywhere from the family level all the way up to the entire human species. This is why this has always been so difficult. Now, these early thinkers, when they were categorizing people, of course, looked at national and continental boundaries. They looked at color, they looked at superficial measures because they didn’t have anything else to categorize people by. That was, you know, the easiest way for them to do it. It was it was as arbitrary as anything. You know, lumping Aboriginal Australians with black Africans makes no sense geographically. And yet this was the kind of thing that was done when you categorized by color, then this is something that you would do. So it was very arbitrary, very kind of nonsensical in many ways. And this is what scientists mean today when they say that race is a social construct. They mean that where we have placed these boundaries that we now use in our everyday lives, in our census categories, in the way that we speak about each other, in our own definitions of our identities. These are constructed categories. These are based on people telling us that this is where we are going to place this boundary. Now, you are within this boundary and this is how you live. That’s not to say that social constructs don’t have any power or meaning. They have great power and meaning. You know, money is a social construct. Money makes the world go round. So these categories, through their use to their political power, to their abuse, through colonialism, through genocide, through eugenics, have acquired an immense power of their own. And it is that power now that we see translated when we use race in the public sphere and also when it gets used in science. So eugenics, coming back to the second part of your question. Eugenics was a system of thinking, a science at the time. Of course, not considered science now, but the time very firmly considered science that emerged out of this idea that people are that certain traits are passed through generations of people. And we know this is true to an extent. So, of course, you know, I have inherited my skin color from my parents. I have inherited my hair color to some extent, my height, although these aren’t fixed in stone diet and other things have a huge impact on all of these measures. But we the idea of the early genesis was that since traits get passed down, there are some traits that are beneficial to the population. There are some Tait’s traits are detrimental. Now, if we could encourage people with the beneficial traits to breed, then we would have a population that was superior to other populations. This was the logic. So if we get the most beautiful and most intelligent people to have babies, then we will create a population of beautiful, intelligent people. And if we discourage, you know, the criminal types, the mentally feeble, the immigrants who maybe don’t have the same qualities as the indigenous population, you know, I’m using the language of the time to to breed. Then if we discourage them from breeding, then we can somehow improve the kind of genetic stock of the population. So eugenics is about making people making a population stronger, a race stronger by selective breeding, essentially. So what people do on farms with animals. Now, the big problem was this with this, of course, is that it doesn’t always work this way. You know, two intelligent, beautiful people don’t necessarily produce intelligent, beautiful babies, even though they might think they might do. 

If you give a few examples in your book, but in society at the time, especially in in Western society, there are there are products and services being sold under this marketing term. 

Is that more or less accurate? 

The first man to coin the term eugenics was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. And he worked and not very far from where I live at University College London, where he set up the first eugenics lab. And his his ideas were very popular at the time across the political spectrum. So people on the right, the left liberals, the Fabians, you know, people who are the intellectuals, Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence. So some of the leading thinkers and intellectual of the day bought into this idea that we could improve the population through the selective breeding program and that some people better. Now, of course, the people who were really behind it were the ones who were who considered themselves, you know, the superior ones, the ones we would want more of. And this is a recurrent feature of both race, science and eugenics that is always somehow the scientists themselves that place themselves at the top of the hierarchy. 

You know, every single time I don’t know how that happens, you know, if scientists are completely fair with that happen. 

But, you know, somehow it’s always the white European scientists telling us that white Europeans are the superior race and that it’s always kind of the wealthy white men, male eugenicists and female eugenicists, for that matter, in the early 20th century, telling people that the poor were outbreeding the rich and that the poor should be stopped from having so many babies that the criminal types were kind of taking over. And this is a kind of logic that you still see. I think you still see hints of it today in the way that we think about. Poor people and immigrants. And, you know, people at the margins of society. 

Right. Although maybe the terminology has changed. The the essence of it is more or less what it once was. 

You know, now. So when we get to World War Two. Of course, there is this idea that race, science and eugenics is no longer a conscionable. It seems, at least from the outside, that race science dissipated shortly after World War Two. But according to the book, this this is a myth. So what happens after World War two? 

Well, of course, in Nazi Germany is where we see the kind of logical conclusion of eugenics play out. So we have to remember eugenics, like I said, was very popular in Britain, although it never made it into government policy. It did make it into policy in certain states in the US. So there were sterilization programs in certain states in the US. In fact, even up until the middle of the 20th century and after the Second World War in Japan and in India, there was sterilization, huge mass sterilization programs. So eugenics was popular all over the world as a kind of, like you said, a kind of way of making the population healthy by getting rid of the negative, what were perceived to be negative elements within it. But in Nazi Germany, of course, we see it play out through the policy of racial hygiene and then in conclusion, the Holocaust. And when that happened, of course, when the world kind of came to grips with what had happened at the same time as scientists were also starting to realize and figure out that actually eugenics wasn’t implementable, that it wouldn’t work in the way that they imagined it once would because of the way traits are inherited. And because of the randomness and luck really involved in how certain traits are passed down. There was everybody turn their back on it. So after the Second World War, there was this kind of huge consensus around the world, in fact, enshrined by the United Nations that eugenics was pseudoscience, that race was a social construct, and that race science had no place in biology anymore. So the investigation of human difference, what it meant to be different, went from biology into fields like anthropology in the social sciences. So it went from kind of the hard study of what makes us different physically into how does different play out culturally? What are the effects of racism and discrimination on the body and on the mind? And this is the this is the kind of race research is still done to this day, of course, and rightly so. You know, the study of racism and discrimination there. There’s a huge body of literature within the social sciences investigating this. And I’m sometimes really surprised when geneticists say to me, oh, you know, because of this great taboo as they have is when I was writing the book, one one geneticist said to me, you know, this is great taboo that’s stopping us from researching racial differences. And I think to myself, not much. These social scientists would be doing it for 70 years. And the literature is enormous. Go and study it. It’s all there. It wasn’t done in genetics because it was thought to be no longer worthwhile doing it in genetics, but it has been done elsewhere, even though this people turn their backs on this after World War Two. 

As you say, it’s shifted away from biology to the social sciences. And you talk quite a bit about this journal. Man, Mankind Quarterly that accepts these ideas. 

And even though it’s sort of on the fringes, there are still people in within respected people within academia sort of dabbling or having relationships with with this journal and with people publishing in this journal. 

And it still exists, right? 

Yeah. So even though there was this kind of global consensus that Ray Science race had no place within biology anymore, not all scientists were on board with that consensus. And you can imagine that, of course, there must have been people, many people who had built entire careers out of studying racial difference before the Second World War and during the Second World War to suddenly be told off the Second World War. No, you can’t do this anymore. While many people were on board with that for political reasons and for scientific reasons, some people just couldn’t let go. And they included Nazi race scientists for obvious reasons. There was some that thought that, you know, we that there was even one or more of an Virtua who are right about in and Superior who had conducted experiments on the bodies of Auschwitz victims. And he along with a number of other scientists. In the U.K., some of them in the US but scattered all over the world, decided, well, if mainstream journals don’t want us anymore, if they don’t want to hear about the work that we’re doing, then we’ll just create our own journal. And that’s what they did. They invented the Mankind Quarterly. They were funded by a very wealthy segregationists in the US, the textile heir who was committed to maintaining segregation in the US and wanted to build a kind of intellectual case for it. So he funded these scientists and he funded this journal. And really The Mankind Quarterly became a mouthpiece for these kind of views. And the Mankiw Quarterly is still in publication today. In fact, the current editor I interviewed, the previous editor who was the editor when I was writing my book for Superior. There there has since been a new editor this year, and he has been trolling me incessantly online since my book came out where a t a t shirt making fun of your area. He tried to imitate me. Yeah, he tried to imitate me in a YouTube video. And he wore an Audi and shirt to pretend that he was me and apparently put on a voice and everything. And because of complaints, that video has since taken down. But now I understand. I posted elsewhere, though. These are people who are still committed to this idea that race is firmly real, that there are profound, not just superficial differences, superficial physical differences between racial groups, but profound intellectual differences between groups. And these differences define the parts of history that these differences are the reason the West was successful, for instance, as though history is over and the West is a success and nobody else will ever be a success ever again. Or, you know, that the rest of history did was just leading up to white Europeans winning everything. But they are committed to this idea that the way history has worked is a reflection of the racial differences between us. And it is a deeply political idea. Of course, it’s a deeply white supremacist idea, and it has its roots firmly in the scientific racism and eugenics of the past. But it hasn’t completely left us mankind. 

Quarterly, of course, sounds and is very fringy. 

But scientific racism is, as you say, manifesting in really tangible ways throughout society, from academia to medicine to the workplace. So that brings me to a bit that you wrote in the afterword of the book, and that is that you believe that intellectual racism is, quote, a toxic little seed at the heart of academia. So can you share how this is currently at the heart of academia outside of mankind? Quarterly Essay, because most skeptics are science enthusiasts. I mean, I understand why, but they would believe that surely no reputable scientist, let alone a reputable science journal, would give credence to these ideas. 

Well, I as an engineering student, as I once was and as a humanist, would have also believed that at one point before I wrote Syberia that these were ideas on the fringes, that they have no place in mainstream science. But the argument I make in Superior is that it is the persistence of these ways of thinking in every single one of us that has allowed these ideas to flourish at the margins. So at the fringes, the reason that publications that mankind called they exist and that its followers believe what they do is because they feel they have enough in mainstream science to give them succor. So when they when geneticists equivocate over race as they do, and when popular population geneticists use old fashioned racial categories inappropriately, as they very often do, when doctors and medical researchers use racial categories as though they are biologically real, which they do routinely, then it feels as though race is real and it feels like that to everybody. So, for example, when I give talks, people often say to me, well, if race isn’t real, then why does my doctor tell me that? Because I’m black I should be given this drug? Or why am I told that I am much more prone to diabetes because I’m South Asian or this because I’m black or this because I’m white or this because I’m Hispanic. And the answer is this muddiness of thinking that never really went away. So like I said, off the Second World War, there was this consensus. But science never really confronted its history in moving on. It really just kind of put everything in a box and said this horrible Nazi racial hygiene happened, this horrible eugenics happened. But we are better than this now. We know better. And so they just moved on. Like. For population, genetics was a field that emerged out of eugenics, the genesis of the past became the population Janette’s this of the future, even though they may have been overtly anti-racist. Although many of them were very well intentioned, these ways of thinking still permeated them. They still used racial categories, even though they were telling us that they had no meaning, they were still using them in their work. And in fact, today, ancestry testing, which so many scientists tell us is a load of bunkum. You know, they tell us that ancestry tested tell you anything. It’s a load of rubbish. You know, why would you have this done? Well, ancestry testing came out of population genetics. In fact, there were population geneticists sitting on the boards of many of these ancestry testing companies. So if it was complete bunkum, then why would that be the case? Now, the reason this has happened is not because race is real. It has happened because scientists have not grappled fully with the history of their field. They have not fully dismantled this way of thinking and started again. What they did was just continue. And this is the legacy that we live with now. 

This this brings a question to mind. Do you have thoughts then on, say, the be all of us. Genome sequencing project. Do you think it’s still important to study the diverse groups of people when it comes to, say, genomics? 

Is that effort kind of haunted maybe by not scientists not having grappled with this past? Do you think it can be done well without grappling with this? 

It really amuses me when I see scientists, very well intentioned, well-meaning scientists tell me how important it is that they get samples from diverse populations, that they get time DNA samples not just from white Europeans, but from everyone. Well, the fact is that we are genetically almost identical when they say that they want diverse samples from everyone. It’s not because our DNA is somehow vastly different in different populations. That difference lies at the very margins of our genomes. So, for example, one geneticist told me if the entire population of the earth was wiped out safe, just say Paru, 85 percent of human genetic diversity would be preserved. I’m always skeptical and suspicious of those who say to me or who frame it as genetic diversity within the human species because the genetic diversity in the human species exists at the individual level. That is what makes us truly different. At the group level, that difference is really hugely marginal. So much so that it is perfectly possible for my genome to have more in common with my white neighbor than my Indian neighbor. Mm hmm. And we forget that sometimes we assume that within the so-called races, everyone is quite homogeneous and that between races that there is heterogeneity. In fact, the heterogeneity exists within these groups. Right. That’s the, you know, the greatest source of difference between us. They need to frame it more carefully. The reason they need to frame it more carefully is that even though it may be important to study those margin, B, the margins of our genomes, which we do differ at huge population levels, it’s not good to go out in the world and start telling people that that we are so different that to study a white European means that their genome cannot possibly have anything in common with a black African. That is just not true. They are very, very similar. Yeah. And to frame it in that way is hugely irresponsible because it because it buys into this idea that race is real. 

I’d like to shift gears for a moment to this concept that’s been on my mind since the beginning of 2018 and that came up in your book. And that’s this so-called diversity of thought, which I’ve also seen bandied about as diversity of opinion and viewpoint, diversity or intellectual diversity. And you talk about it in the book, as well as in your Scientific American blog post. The first time I encountered it actually is when I was working on a story about the Agrichemical Corporation. Monsanto’s platforming an outright hero by the name of Jordan Bede Peterson and a PR rep justified this platforming in a statement as being in line with the company’s commitment to create an environment rich in inclusion and diversity. And all of a sudden, Monsanto quietly threw in the term diversity of thought, which it had never before mentioned. There is this idea that it doesn’t make sense to. As proponents of this say, it doesn’t make sense to lower the standards of employment or admission just to fill a group quota. And I know you address this with some data from your chapter on caste, actually. What are your thoughts, Angela? And this push for non demographic diversity on campuses and in workplace? 

You’re right. In my profession as well. I hear this phrase a lot more than I used to. It’s entered common parlance. We have to remember the roots of it. The roots of it are in the far right. This idea that it’s really the subversion of the language of the left, really, that when the left talks about diversity, when the left talks about identity politics, the right has now optioned these ideas for themselves and say, well, if you can have your diversity and if you can have your identity politics and so can we. And we see this play out in modern day white supremacy, for instance, that they say if we can have black rights, why can’t we have white rights? If we can have diversity of ethnicity, then why can’t we have diversity of thought? Now, the problem with this, of course, is that, you know, while academia in some countries may be dominated by certain schools of thought and sometimes these schools of thought differ even within a city. So, for example, I did a fellowship, M.I.T., and I was stunned when I was studying. I did a course in architecture at Harvard and at M.I.T. and there are schools of thought were completely different in that they completely disagreed with each other on urban planning and architecture. Now, this is what happens. You get certain ways of thinking that is often driven by whoever’s in charged at that particular department or that particular institution. And so sometimes it can feel as though there’s a left wing bias in certain institutions, maybe because those are the ideas that have won out in this marketplace of ideas. Or maybe it’s because the professors in that particular institution tend to think these things. Now, is that a bad thing? Is that a dangerous thing? Well, it depends how it happened, really. 

Did it happen? Because lots of people had lots of ideas and these ideas seemed to be the most rigorous and well-thought-out ones, and that’s how they won? Or did it happen through more nefarious ways? And this is what a lot of these old right people seem to claim. The people on the far right who want to place in academia and don’t currently have it, for example, scientific races say that there is some kind of plot against them. Sometimes they call it a Jewish plot or some kind of liberal plot to stop them from having a place at the table. But no scientific basis don’t have a place in academia, because 70 years ago it was decided by academia that there was no value in studying racial differences in biology. 

There’s no conspiracy here. This is just, you know, a scientific process that has led to this. Mainstream scientists now accept that race is a social construct. If they’re not studying racial differences, it’s because they’re also not studying why the earth is flat. You know, these are ideas that have long ago been debunked and they didn’t have a place anymore. So within my field and I know viewpoint diversity spans many different disciplines and many different departments. But within my field, in science, in biology, there really is no place for these kind of ridiculous arguments that somehow we should be studying these things. There is some conspiracy against it. There really is no conspiracy going on here. The conspiracy is on the part of the far right. They have kind of manipulated the language of manipulated organizations to make them believe that they are being fair when they include far right racist viewpoints in academia, when in fact what they’re doing is exactly the opposite. They are allowing very marginal, unscientific opinions to be given a platform where they don’t deserve one when nobody thinks they deserve one. Except for people who who politically share their far right views. 

What seemed to pop out in the book to me regarding diversity was a bit in your chapter on caste. But there is a study in in India there are reservations for four members of certain castes or are people who are deemed untouchable similar to the idea of affirmative action. 

And the data suggest that these sorts of programs don’t lower lower the quality of work being done in the workplace or of of students in in on campuses. Would you say that that’s more or less right? 

Caste is an interesting issue. The reason I included it in the book is because it’s very analogous to race in the US or class in the UK, inasmuch as this is a system of segregating people that has that has a biological element to it. So people have been told over centuries, we don’t know how far caste goes, but there are some who say thousands of years. There are some who say hundreds. There are some who say. There was very loosely practice until the British came along and hardened it during colonialism. But however, it has been practiced now, however, exists. The idea is that there are certain groups that societies divided into certain groups of people and that these groups should not intermix. Eugenicist loved this idea. So there was one of the eugenicist I wrote about in the book reginal, Ruffels Gates, who repeatedly went to India, who studied it in detail because for him it was, you know, a perfect example of a society managed under eugenic lines, which is to say we have a certain class of people who are designed, for example, to be the scholars. There are certain people whose son to rule, others who are merchants or fighters or, you know, everybody has a place in this society and nobody mixes. So here is society that’s developed to undo it. In essence, eugenic principles. And there are still geneticists in the US and in India and among the public at large. I think there is this view that somehow this reflects biology, that in fact, those lower costs cannot do the jobs of the higher cost people and that the that everyone does have their place. They are suited to certain things because these traits have been passed down over generations. Now, in recent years, as political leaders in India have tried to break down the caste system and they have introduced reservations and quotas for those at the bottom, the caste system in order to equalize society. Some people have thought while those at the lower costs will never be able to do the jobs that we have done for so long, there’s no there’s no way. But actually, research shows that when they do them, they do them just as well, which is exactly what you would expect. No, talent is not distributed unevenly among groups and populations. It is it it can emerge anywhere. 

Talent being biological and then becoming even more so because of these arbitrary lines that society itself has imposed on it. 

It can sound really compelling. And I think that’s, of course, the danger of this, is that the way that these people talk about this, it’s not the way that Magor hat wearing Trump supporters talk about race. It’s so very compelling and sounds like it’s the height of intellect. It’s it’s a trap that is easy to fall into. I was just talking to my producer about all of the great reviews of your book. And then there is a review from Cuil Act, and it’s exactly what one would expect. But it’s I mean, it sounds when one reads it, especially if it’s a quote, that reader sounds really compelling. There is a concrete example of how this concept of race impacts science in very tangible ways. But for some, they seem counterintuitive. So you delve in the book into how scientists have tried to square the higher rates of hypertension in black Americans. And public health researcher Richard Cooper tells you that hypertension is a case of science being retrofitted to accommodate race. So could you share with us how was the quest for answers on high blood pressure in black Americans twisted science to its own ends? As you put it. And what does this have to do with the logic of adjustment and imaginary worlds that are mentioned in the book? 

Well, hypertension is one of the most racialized conditions in the world. It is very common. In fact, my mother has hypertension. It’s essentially just high blood pressure and it’s mainly linked to diet. So if you particularly have a high salt diet, salt raises your blood pressure, of course, so it and that can precipitate hypertension. But in the US for a number of years, not forever, but for a number of years, it has been described as a black a condition because it’s far more prevalent in black Americans than in white Americans. And in the U.K. as well, it’s more common among black Britons. People of Afro Caribbean heritage. And so much so that in the U.K.. Nice. Which is the body that advises doctors on what to prescribe and even specifies that if you are under 55 and you are black, you should be given a different drug for hypertension than if you are white. So there is a six different system based on skin color for the treatment of hypertension in the US. There was even a drug, Bidle, which is still available, which is targeted solely at African-Americans, even though it works in everybody, but it’s marketed at African-Americans to treat hypertension. And it is, as far as we’re aware, the first drug, at least in the US, possibly in the world that has been approved for marketing at one racial group only. Now the question is why? Now, there have been there are, as far as we are aware, no big genetic clues for why hypertension is more prevalent in black Americans and white Americans. There have been billions of dollars poured into this. But, you know, there haven’t been any, you know, useful explanations, genetic explanations for it. There are plenty of social explanations, for example, in the UK. We know that, you know, people of lower, lower socioeconomic background have have lower life expectancies and lower risk of these kind of lifestyle diseases than others in America. In fact, in the US, black Americans die of everything. Almost everything at higher rates than white Americans and not just hypertension or the disease resulting from hypertension, but everything, even infant mortality rates. Now, to imagine that this is somehow genetic, that black Americans and remember black Americans themselves are hugely intermixed. So because of the legacy of slavery and the and the rape, the widespread rape of black American women during slavery, and then, of course, all the intermixing and everything that’s happened since then, black Americans have very varied ancestries, as do white Americans. 

But to imagine, let’s just say, that black Americans are so genetically distinct that they would die of everything at higher rates than white Americans because of genetics. It’s just nonsensical. It really make you know, there’s no scientist on Earth who would jump to that conclusion. And indeed, with hypertension, there are epidemiologists and there are researchers now who are saying, well, actually, perhaps it’s not genetic at all. Maybe there’s nothing different or very little different about the black body. Maybe this is cultural. Maybe this is because black Americans on average tend to be poorer of a lower socioeconomic class. And so their diets are poorer Civille that, you know, the environments are poorer. 

And this has a huge impact on your body in the same way as in the UK. Life expectancy is lower among lower socioeconomic groups to find a biological reason. 

Yes. To suggest that oppression has nothing to do with it. I guess it’s it’s a way to a quest to make ourselves feel better and maybe assuage our guilt. 

Well, this is what one of the epidemiologists I interviewed said to me, Jake Helfman at McGill University. He said that this is he said, you know, why do we do this? Why do we jump for genetic explanations for these health disparities rather than cultural and social ones? And in some ways, if we look at the history of America, we look at the deep divisions in the society for such a long time. It is easier in some way to believe that we have moved on. That society is not in the Polish state. It used to be to believe that these problems must be biological, because if they’re not biological, then society is to blame and society is to blame. And if society. But if society isn’t to blame, then we don’t have to do anything about it. Then we don’t have to fix the problems. We don’t have to improve people’s lives and the conditions and the environments that they live in. We don’t have to make lives better for them because it’s just their bodies. And this is the rhetoric that you see again and again in the history of medicine when it comes to race. Throughout the 19th century, throughout the 20th century and even now in the 21st century. I’m I’m aghast, really, at just how much. Doctors and medical researchers are resistant to this idea that race isn’t real because they have so absorbed this idea that it is. Now, this epidemiologist I’m talking about, Jake Helfman. He actually looked at the stats, so he looked at all the studies on hypertension and the response to certain drugs. And like I said, different drugs are given given to different groups of people in the UK and the US based on color. And what he found is that based on all these different studies, when you break down the figures, giving a different drug to a person based on race is actually no more reliable or no more beneficial than tossing a coin. There are other ways of dividing people, for example, diet. Diet is a much more reliable indicator of your likely to likelihood to have hypertension than race. So is years of education. The more years of education you have, the lower your blood pressure. If you’re an immigrant, if you’re an immigrant, you’re likely to have higher blood pressure than if you’re not an immigrant. So there are all these other factors that explain the differences much better than race. Why do we turn to race? 

Right. Well, a quick aside to the listeners. If you’ve gotten this far and you’re feeling a little bit uncomfortable, you should because it’s uncomfortable to talk about. And in addition to Superior, which you should definitely read, may I suggest the book White Fragility by Robin D’Angelo. I wanted to end on a personal note in the acknowledgments. 

You write that this is the book you’ve always wanted to write since you were a child and you’ve poured your soul into it. And as I told you earlier, although you’re British and I’m American, I really related to you as the brown child of immigrants from India as well. 

So you weave anecdotes and observations throughout the book from your own perspective as a brown kid of immigrants and you yourself categorize Superior as a science book at its heart, though, so skeptics often argue that anecdotes aren’t data. Why did you choose to put so much of yourself into Superior? 

Well, my work for the last five years or so has really looked basically at why to scientists study the questions that they do. Why do they have the ideas that they have and why do they believe the things that they believe? And although we like to think of science as purely objective, as, you know, free of politics is sitting above politics as not being prone to bias. That is not the case. And I can tell you as a science journalist, having interviewed hundreds and hundreds of scientists and looked at the way that science works and many sociologists have done this as well and come to the same conclusion. Science is very much at the mercy of the people who do it. The reason that race science ever happened. The reason that eugenics happened. The reason that Darwin believed that women were the intellectual inferiors of men. The reason that all these mistakes happened is because the scientists who were coming up with these ideas, ideas which we now know are false. The reason they came up with them in the first place is that they were at the mercy of the politics of the age. They were in. They were affected by their own biases and their own prejudices. And I want my readers to know what my biases and prejudices were. I want them to know the world that I have grown up in, the experiences that I have had, because they have shaped my approach to the questions that I’m asking. I have to fight against the biases in me every single day. It’s actually a very difficult process to go out into the world and try and rid yourself of the biased baggage that you have, the assumptions that you have about people, the presumptions that you make about certain groups, whether that’s gender or ethnicity or race or whatever it is, class, anything. And I also have to do that because I was also raised with these ideas. So I wanted some of myself in there so that people would see where I am coming from. It may be different from where they’re coming from, but it’s important because it matters also to science. If we you know, my job as a journalist is not just to explain the science. The science does not happen in a vacuum. It happens by people. And people are fallible. And we have to understand their motivations and their agendas and where their money is coming from and why they’re writing, what they’re writing and what proof they have for it. And if they come up with a hypothesis or a theory that doesn’t have much evidence behind it. Why? Why are they saying this thing? And the only way we can understand that is by understanding the people that they are. So that is my job as a journalist, to understand the people that they are and why they say the things that they say and where they come from. 

Close out. Angela, what is the one big takeaway, if you if we heard that you’d like to leave our listeners with? 

It would be to read widely. So whatever field you are in, whatever scientific field you’re in or whatever you’re interested in, don’t just read the science, read the history and the cultural context of that piece of work. Understand the history of the field that you’re researching or you’re studying because it will immeasurably change the way you see it. It will help you to ask different questions around it. And if you truly are a skeptic, then this is the approach that you should be taking to knowledge. 

Thank you so much again, Angela, for being here. I hope to catch you on Twitter. Where can people find you on Twitter? 

On Angela de Seine. But I keep a low profile at the moment because of the huge amount of white supremacist trolling, if we can get pinkly. 

Speaking of which, we will link to that Scientific American blog post that I mentioned in the show notes. Thanks again, Angela. Thank you. Thanks for having me. 

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Kavin Senapathy

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at various outlets including Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, her "Woo Watch" column for Skeptical Inquirer online, and more. When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured. Follow her on Twitter @ksenapathy and Facebook.