Posted on June 5, 2019

Superior: The Return of Race Science—A Review

Bo Winegard and Noah Carl, Quillette, June 5, 2019

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.)

{snip} 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. {snip} 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).

{snip} 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.

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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

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{snip} 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. {snip}

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{snip} 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. {snip}

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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).

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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.’)

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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. {snip} 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.” {snip}

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.

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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. {snip}

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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). {snip}

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. {snip}

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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. {snip}

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. {snip}

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.”

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{snip} 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. {snip}

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.”

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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.

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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