We speak to him about his latest book, How to Argue with a Racist, why what we understand as race doesn’t really hold up with the genomic data, whether professional sport is any good for studying race, and whether we can ever truly remove racism from science.
Why did you want to write this book?
Three angles of my career and life have collided in this book. The first is that I’m a geneticist, so I’m interested in human variation, the basis from which historical descriptions of race have come.
The second thing is that I spent my entire career at University College London (UCL), which is, in many ways, the home of human genetics. I was in the Galton Laboratory, which was named after Francis Galton. Galton was sort of the founding father of both human and statistical genetics, but also of eugenics and some pretty awful ideas.
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The third thing is that I’m mixed race. My maternal lineage is Indian, via indenture – which is a form of slavery – to Guyana. It’s not been a major part of my personal life, but now, at the point in the 21st Century where conversations about race and genetics and nationalism all appear to be on the rise, I think that there is a reasonable case to be made that there is a co-opting of contemporary population genetics.
It was a sort of inevitable that this book was going to emerge from me, and I think needs to be published now more than ever.
What does ‘human variation’ refer to, and how does that relate to the term ‘race’?
This is a complex area, and historically, we’ve been pretty poor at trying to understand human variation. People throughout antiquity have been discussing how we are different all throughout the world, since humans have existed. There is no doubt that people look, behave and are different from each other.
Around the 15th Century, these conversations became formalised attempts to pin down the differences between the groups of people that Europeans were encountering as they conquered the other continents.
Whereas historically, we could group people by superficial characteristics like skin colour or basic morphology, genetics shows that the picture is far, far more complex.
What are the biggest scientific misconceptions about race?
One of the really big misconceptions is the concept of racial purity. In the UK, we’re seeing a resurgence of the far-right. All over the world, neo-Nazis and white supremacists are obsessed with genetics and ancestry testing. White supremacy is dependent on a notion of white or northern European purity.
Apart from the fact that biology has rejected the idea of race as a meaningful scientific terminology, the idea that there could be racial purity is just ahistorical, ascientific, it’s an absolute nonsense.
There’s been a weird emergence of this ancestry testing industry, and I think those kits amplify the sense that there is some kind of genetic essentialism which can be bound by nationhood.
Being able to claim some loose membership to a long-gone people such as the Vikings is innocuous enough, but it’s a position that is not scientifically meaningful. My concern is that they are effectively the same claims that actual white supremacists use, who take genetic ancestry testing as a demonstration of biological essentialism.
You relate this to sport, and how ‘facts’ from sporting history have fuelled prejudice.
Within the confines of sport, we see regional differences in successes. Two examples that I go into are the 100-metre sprint in the Olympics, and long-distance running. There hasn’t been a white man in the finals of the 100 metres since 1980. The Kenyans and the Ethiopians have won every long- and middle-distance and marathon race for years.
If you’re looking at these results, you’re thinking, there’s got to be something in this. Black men are better at sprinting, East Africans are better at long-distance running. The problem is the dataset is minuscule. So, 58 men have competed in the 100 metres final since 1980, which is a terrible sample size.
The second thing is that these are elite athletes at the top of human capability, and therefore are not representative of the populations from which they might have been derived.
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If success in certain sports wasn’t primarily determined by cultural factors, then you would expect to see those same people who are good at explosive energy sports, winning in all sports where that biological type would predispose you towards success.
Yet, take short-distance swimming. In the same period that there have been no white men running 100 metres, how many black people have competed in the finals of the 50-metre freestyle swimming in the Olympics? There’s one. Cullen Jones got the silver in 2012 in the London Olympics. So, none of these numbers make sense.
All of this fits into a picture where people who aren’t racist watch the Olympics and go, “Usain Bolt has won again, he’s the fastest man who’s ever drawn breath,” which is probably true, “because it’s in his genes. It’s because it’s in his ancestry.”
Now, one of those statements is partially correct, and the other is not. So, when someone says, “Well, you know, black people are better at sprinting,” I want [my book] to have equipped people to be able to go, “Yeah… no.”
So much of what we use today has come from racists. Can science ever be rid of racism?
That’s a great question, one hopes the answer is absolutely ‘yes’. I think it’s perfectly reasonable and in fact necessary, to know our own history, and be completely honest about it.
Genetics sort of underwrites all biological sciences now. The foundations of my field are closely associated with racism and race. If we forget that, we’re in danger of repeating those mistakes.
Newton said that “we stand on the shoulders of giants”, which is absolutely true – but we also stand on our peers’ shoulders as well. We’ve got to remember that some of those giants were also living in eras where social norms were different, and racism was the norm. It’s important to remember that scientists can also be awful people.
How To Argue With A Racist by Adam Rutherford is out now (£12.99, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
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Listen to more episodes of the Science Focus Podcast:
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- Gaia Vince: What part does culture play in our evolution?
- Robert Elliott Smith: Are algorithms inherently biased?
- Caroline Criado Perez: Does data discriminate against women?
- Angela Saini: Is racism creeping into science?
- John Higgs: Are Generation Z our only hope for the future?