The Racist History of Race Science

Published Oct 6, 2020

Author Angela Saini discusses biological myths and racist biases in the sciences from past to present.

In this episode
  • How scientific is race science? Spoiler: It isn't at all.
  • We dive into how social constructs have influenced our outlook on science
  • Colleen looks at how race science has been used to justify atrocities
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:33)
Intro (0:33-2:18)
Interview part 1(2:18-14:10)
Break (14:10-14:47)
Interview part 2 (14:47-22:12)
Segment throw (22:12-22:42)
Ending segment (22:42-28:06)
Outro (28:06-28:50)

Related content
Show credits

Ending segment: Katy Love
Editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Colleen: Angela, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Angela: Well, thank you for having me.

Colleen: So your most recent book, "Superior: The Return of Race Science," takes an in depth look at racist theories in science. And as the title suggests, this is something that has made somewhat of a comeback recently. But I'd like to start with the basics. What is race science and when did it emerge?

Angela: Well, I think a lot of people imagine racial categories to have been eternal, that the way that we think about human difference now is the way that more or less people have always thought about it. And actually, nothing could be further from the truth. The categories we use now in society, number one, they vary depending on the country that you're in. But the categories that you see, for example, being used in the U.S., these big kind of white, black, yellow, red, brown, originate from not that long ago. They're no more than a few hundred years old. And they were concocted around the time of the European enlightenment by thinkers and naturalists who, as they were classifying the natural world, so flora and fauna, they looked at humans and said, "Can we classify humans in that same way?"

Now, these European thinkers, often they didn't have much exposure or understanding of how people elsewhere in the world lived or looked. And this wasn't a very scientific exercise in the way that we understand science to be done now. And so it was very arbitrary. There were some thinkers who thought there were a few races there were others who thought there were hundreds or thousands of races. You can really divide people any way you want. Because as we know, now, of course, the human species is one race, we are one species. And although you can categorize people, for example, by height, or weight, or skin color, or whatever you want. These are always fuzzy things, and the choice that you make with regards to classification is really a political and a social one or a cultural one.

So these people were often informed by the social politics of their time. And of course, we're talking about upper class European male thinkers and so the way that they thought about human difference was very much informed by the politics of colonialism, of slavery, of this idea that they themselves were superior to other groups of people, not just racially, but also in terms of gender and also in terms of class. So when we talk about race science, coming back to your question or what is race, and this is what it is, it is the exercise of trying to classify humanity in certain ways and the belief that there are meaningful differences between those categories once you have done that classification, and it was always nonsense. It was always arbitrary. And it becomes clear actually, when you look at the history, just how arbitrary it is. But of course, the way that these categories have been used for hundreds of years mean that they feel very real, they feel as real to us as other social constructs like money or democracy or the idea of the nation state, they viscerally affect how we live. And so they feel real. But race science itself was always bogus. It was always pseudo-scientific.

Colleen: What does science actually tell us about race?

Angela: Well, it depends on which period of time you're in. You know, if you were there 300 years ago, then science would have told you that races do exist. You can divide people into certain ways, and that there's a hierarchy between them. Even in the 19th century. This was a very popular mainstream notion. And there were lots of scientists, mainstream scientists, in fact I would argue that most European scientists, and American scientists, at that time, believed that there was some basis to assume that humans could be divided up into groups and that there were kind of profound physical and psychological differences between the groups that we were talking about, that possibly we weren't even one species, that we were sub breeds or subspecies.

And this was used as a justification for so much. And so many of the kind of atrocities of the 19th and 20th centuries, whether you look at the Holocaust, whether you look at any other kind of genocide, slavery, colonialism, imperialism, apartheid, segregation, many of these were justified by these, what at that time were considered scientific arguments around racial difference. Of course, we know better now, but one of the questions I raise in "Superior" is how much better do we really know? Have we completely purged science of this idea that race is real or meaningful? And I would argue that we haven't.

Colleen: It’s interesting, because I think one thing that sort of adds to this confusion now is the way that we talk about DNA, around these individual DNA tests.

Angela: Well, I think DNA ancestry tests are an interesting case study here because I think more than any other type of technology in recent years, they have reinforced this idea that race must be real because if you're having these tests done, and they come back and they tell you, "You are so and so percent this and so and so percent that." How can they be analyzing your saliva, your DNA and be telling you that? Then there must be some kind of genetic basis to these racial categories. But I think people forget a number of things. Firstly, that what they are doing when they test your DNA is not an ancestry test as such. So they're not comparing your DNA to your ancestors or relatives of your ancestors. They are comparing it to other people who have had that test done. Now, we know that human variation is not random. Of course, it's not the case that if I have a baby, I don't know know, I have no idea what its skin color or eye color will be.

You know, our children look like us. We pass on traits through generations of course, and historically, people have tended to live near their family. Then of course, there is going to be some fuzzy genetic similarity between families and communities. It gets weaker and weaker the bigger you draw that circle. So when you're getting to your kind of second cousins or third cousins, your great great grandparents, a genetic link gets weaker and weaker. When you're talking at the state level or nation level there may be some kind of fuzzy genetic commonality here, but I have to assert very clearly that there is no gene that is present in all the members of one group and not in any other human being. There are no black genes, there are no white genes, there is no way that, for example, my DNA could be tested and they could say, "You're definitely of Indian origin."

Colleen: You talk in the book about Darwin in 1871 he published "The Descent of Man." So he states that we have one common ancestor, and we evolved from that slowly, like all other life. And you point out that that could have solved the race debate, but it didn't. So where did Darwin go wrong?

Angela: Well to be honest, we could have solved the race debate at any point, if anyone had had, you know, thought about the origins of these racial categories, they would have seen historically just how loose, meaningless, and arbitrary they were from the beginning. What happened in the 19th century was that many scientists were very heavily invested in this idea that racial differences were real, not least because the politics of the time demanded that they did. You know, this was the height of colonialism, the height of slavery. There were abolitionist movements. And I should say that Darwin was an abolitionist himself, in fact, his family, his broader family, were very active in the abolitionist movement. And yet Darwin himself couldn't abandon his belief that there was still something tangible about race, and that some races were inferior to others, that certain groups of people, certain indigenous communities, for example, in parts of the world were doomed to die out because they were lower down the evolutionary ladder.

I mean, this is the complexity of his legacy, I think, that we have to confront, because I think we celebrate Darwin rightly. But at the same time, we have to understand the ideological frameworks within which he was working, the political frameworks within which he was working, and how racialized they really were, and how racialized they were for so many people. This was part of the air that they breathed, these ideas, this belief that it was justified to keep slaves or it was justified for Europeans to colonize other countries that they considered less civilized. This was so entrenched an ideology in European thinking, and also it had been entrenched in the beginning, in the European scientific project and the establishments of science that it still remains there now. But even now in the 21st century, you still see people thinking in these terms.

Colleen: You're making me think about when you talk about the journal, "The Mankind Quarterly.” That sounds like it was a fringe publication, but it still continues to play a role in race science today. It's still around, is that right?

Angela: That's right. So "The Mankind Quarterly," for those who aren't aware of it, is a journal that was founded in the 1960s by a small group of academics and people on the margins of mainstream academia as well, who were not on board with the consensus around this idea that race was a social construct. So in the 1950s, UNESCO put out a series of statements affirming once and for all, through collaboration with scientists, anthropologists, policymakers all around the world, that race was a social construct. And by and large, most people were on board with this, but there was a small group of scientists who weren't, including some very mainstream scientists who weren't convinced that we were one species, for instance, that we all evolved together. There were some who thought that we evolved separately to have very different traits. And some of these scientists on the very fringes who were still committed, for example, to maintaining segregation in the United States, who saw a problem with racial mixing, what they termed at the time miscegenation so this idea that different racial groups shouldn't be having children together, because those children will be somehow genetically flawed in some way. And they got together and set up their own journal. Because, you know, mainstream journals wouldn't publish this kind of nonsense anymore. And that journal was called "The Mankind Quarterly."

Colleen: So, the writing in "The Mankind Quarterly," these are not peer reviewed, scientific papers. But this is some way of creating sort of a narrative framework to in some way try to make race science legitimate.

Angela: Yes, and I think what people need to remember is that racists aren't just those kind of ignorant thugs in the street, there are racists at every single level of society. And that includes academia, there are white supremacists within academia. And what "The Mankind Quarterly" aimed to do was give voice to those deeply racist elements within academia and outside academia, people on the fringes. And I have to say that its contributors these days tend to be on those very fringes that I mean, I don't think there are any reputable academics who still write for that publication. But I should say that's only very recent. There have been academics who have written for it at top universities around the world.


Colleen: One thing that you said a minute ago, which is that there are racists in all walks of life, in academia, and I think one of the things with science is that science is supposed to be objective and rational and without bias, and you give a lot of examples in the book of European white scientists trying to sort of retrofit archeological finds to support white European supremacy. And I think an example that will really resonate with people is the Neanderthal makeover example. So can you talk about that a little bit?

Angela: Well, I think this for me was illuminating. I traveled a number of times to Australia in the last couple of years. And I've read a wonderful book by Billy Griffiths, I think it's called "Deep Time," and it really looks at the history of archeology within Australia. And what you see, when you look at that history is how racist it is, though, it was informed a lot by again, the politics of that time, the 19th and 20th century politics, this belief that they were entering this terror, really this empty land, that the people who already lived there, the Aboriginal Australians were doomed to die out that they belong to some kind of less evolved race, and that they were lower down the evolutionary ladder. And what I also noticed over the last 10 years or so, is there's been a lot of research done into Neanderthals and their connections to modern day humans. So, for a long time, there was this belief that, we've known for a very long time about the existence of Neanderthals, and there was this belief that we did not mate with them. You know, this was a separate species that died out, that went extinct and we survived for some reason. And the fact of them dying out was know, we use it in popular culture to describe someone stupid, we use the word Neanderthal to describe someone who is an oafish male, we use the word Neanderthal. And in fact, if you go to your dictionary, that definition is still there.

But when Neanderthal bones were first discovered in Europe, in I think it's the end of the 19th century, one of the very first thing scientists did was compare them to the bones of Aboriginal Australians, living Aboriginal Australians. And this was because, like I said, there was this belief that they were both kind of lower down the evolutionary scale, that they were both doomed to die out, that both these were kind of different breeds of people that were doomed to die out. And that belief, of course, we have to remember, was the same one that drove racism in Australia, deep racism in Australia, one of the very first pieces of legislation to pass in Australia under its colonial government was the white Australia policy, which essentially tried to breed the color out of Australians. It was cultural and physical genocide almost, it really destroyed living communities.

And I interviewed one woman in Australia who has Aboriginal Australian ancestry, whose family were a product of this system. And it's heartbreaking. It's absolutely horrific to read and hear from living people about the absolutely despicable ways in which they were treated in Australia. I think Australia and Australians are still coming to terms with that, trying to atone and reckon with that devastating legacy. But we have to remember at that time, science was supporting this idea. Science was supporting this idea that it was legitimate almost, to have a group of people, a community, a culture die out under this belief that European civilization was superior, European people were biologically superior to these people.

Now let’s fast forward to the 21st century. Over the last 10, 20 years, it's become clear that Neanderthals did mate with modern humans. In fact, there are people alive, many of us alive today have a small proportion of Neanderthal DNA, if you want to think of it that way. So our very, very distant ancestors bred with Neanderthals. And in fact, it started to become clear that it was Europeans that might have the largest proportion of this Neanderthal DNA in them. And those scientists, no living scientists, of the last 20, 30 years would ever suggest that this meant that they changed the way they thought about Neanderthals. But when you look at scientific papers, and when you look at popular culture, and the phrases that they use to describe Neanderthals, it's remarkable how they changed in that time, when it became clear that Europeans had this close connection to Neanderthals. Then suddenly, people started talking about Neanderthals as being human, just like us. This was one "New York Times," essay. They felt like us, they, they didn't die out because they were stupid. They died out for some other unfortunate reason they suffered the same diseases that, you know, drawing them into the human circle. Forgetting that in the 19th century, they were used as a tool to push living human beings, Aboriginal Australians, out of the human circle.

Colleen: What do you see as a solution? Are there better or different scientific terms that we can use to talk about race, so we stop conflating cultural, social, and national identity with biology?

Angela: I do think language matters. But what we need to be careful of is when we change the language, that we're not just using euphemisms that we're not just doing the same thing, but using different language to describe it. There's a wonderful academic called Lisa Gannett, who writes about statistical racism, this idea that population geneticists in changing their language around race, not using the word race anymore, but using the word population, for instance, are actually just in a way obscuring what they're actually doing which, to an outside observer, like me as a journalist, feels a lot like race science sometimes, it really does. But they use different language around it. And they very assiduously avoid use of the word race or racial differences, but essentially doing almost exactly the same thing. And then you have to wonder, then what are you doing? If it's not race science, but it looks exactly like race science, then what is it? And that's where I think we have to be careful. This isn't just about language. This is fundamentally about how we think about human difference, how we think about the species, and the ways in which we divide up people. The fact that we divide people up at all, why do we even do that? And I think this is where we need to go back to because the project of dividing up people was this European enlightenment project, it was part of that political belief that human differences went that far.

So that's not to say that human variation shouldn't be studied. All I'm saying is that we need to think carefully about the ways in which we study it. It can't be as superficial as just changing the language. It has to be fundamental, I think.

Colleen: Right. Well, Angela thank you so much for the work that you're doing outside of writing the book. It's been really great talking to you so, thank you for joining me on the podcast.

Angela: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

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