The Return Of Race Science In the 19th century it was mainstream science to believe in a racial hierarchy. But after WWII, the scientific world turned its back on eugenics and the study of racial difference. We speak to author Angela Saini, who says that race science is back.
NPR logo

The Return Of Race Science

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/740072055/740078588" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Return Of Race Science

The Return Of Race Science

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/740072055/740078588" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

(Imitating English accent) Would you dare question who you really are?

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

(Laughter).

MERAJI: A travel company called Momondo wants to know. One of their ads starts with a rotating cast of characters discussing their identities and their ethnic pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm really patriotic about Bangladesh.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, I am 100% Icelandic. Yeah, definitely.

DEMBY: But then the interviewers ask them about their, let's say, issues with certain kinds of people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #1: Think about other countries and other nationalities in the world. Are there any that you don't feel you get on with well or you won't like particularly?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Germany. Yeah, I'm not a fan of the Germans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Particularly India and Pakistan probably because of the whole conflict.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Because I have this side of me that's, like - that hates Turkish people - not people, but the government.

MERAJI: So in this ad for a company that aggregates deals on flights and hotels...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: (Laughter) ...The people get a DNA test that looks a lot like the home kits that you see advertised on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #2: So do you know how DNA works? So you get half from Mum and half from Dad.

DEMBY: And so they have these unusually comfortable bigots spit into a tube like you do for these DNA tests. Shereen, remember, we did that for the show once.

MERAJI: Oh, indeed. I'm all things, Gene, except for Neanderthal.

DEMBY: (Laughter) You're a multitude of things.

MERAJI: (Laughter) I'm a multitude.

DEMBY: And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Oh, my God.

DEMBY: ...The big DNA reveal two weeks later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #2: The story of you is in that tube. What's it going to tell me?

MERAJI: Listeners, it will shock you to learn that when these people get the results of their tests back, the tests conveniently tell them that they share ancestry with the people they hate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Five percent German.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm Irish.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Yes, I'm a Muslim Jew.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Great Britain, 11%. Are you sure these results are right?

DEMBY: There were stranger hugs and stranger tears. It's a whole thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER #2: In a way, we're all kind of cousins, in a broad sense.

DEMBY: And then the ad says, (imitating English accent) you have more in common with the world than you think. An open world begins with an open mind.

MERAJI: So basically, use our site and book those flights and get to know your people.

DEMBY: (Laughter) What?

MERAJI: I know. So many questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. So many questions about this ad - whether it was staged, whether these were actors, whether real people's interviews were cut in a manipulative way. We don't know. But on this episode, we're going to focus on the message - in this case, the idea that figuring out where you're really from - and, Gene, I'm using your air quotes right now - by taking a DNA test is an anti-racist gesture. It's a way for people to confront their bigotry and, in the case of this ad, book a trip to get to know your ancestors.

DEMBY: (Laughter) But today, we're talking to an author and journalist who argues that these DNA tests aren't anti-racist because they still treat race as a biological fact, as a real thing with discrete, scientifically identifiable features. And it's the same logic that has always underpinned pseudoscience around race. Her new book is called "Superior: The Return Of Race Science."

MERAJI: Or should we call it racist science? And we'll talk to her after the break.

DEMBY: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. And now to our conversation with Angela Saini, the author of "Superior: The Return Of Race Science."

MERAJI: I have a question about the inscription in your book - for my parents, the only ancestors I need to know. What does that mean?

ANGELA SAINI: Well, that kind of is a joke at the ancestry testing companies, really (laughter). You know, when they tell us that - find out who you are descended from, thousands of generations back who your actual ancestors are - I just think, you know, one, you can't tell me who my actual ancestors are because DNA testing cannot tell you that.

But secondly, why does it matter? Why is it so important to us to know who our distant, distant ancestors were when we have people alive with us right now who give us our culture, who give us our frameworks, who give us our sense of who we are, our sense of right and wrong, our place in the world and, you know, have a sense of identity that isn't biologized because when we biologize identity, this is what the nationalists want. This is what the far-right wants. This is what the Nazis did in Germany. They tried to biologize identity.

Now, after the Second World War, when we saw eugenics play out - so the kind of consequences of these ideas play out in Nazi racial hygiene in the Holocaust - the world kind of took a collective intake of breath and tried to put its house in order. So scientists, policymakers, the United Nations all came together and decided race has no place in biology anymore.

But there were two problems with this. Number one was the hardcore scientific racist. They weren't on board with this consensus, clearly. And they set up their own very small but active networks - global networks where they communicated amongst themselves. They had their own journal. They kind of kept scientific racism alive within this little network.

The other aspect which I look at in the book is, did mainstream science - so everyday scientists - really abandon these ideas completely? And my argument is no. They glom onto them. There are still scientists who, despite knowing better and despite being mainstream, good-hearted, well-intentioned scientists, still sometimes invoke race in scientific research - particularly medical research - when it's inappropriate.

MERAJI: Before we get to that point, there's this journal that shows up all over your book called Mankind Quarterly. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Mankind Quarterly.

SAINI: So the Mankind Quarterly was set up after the Second World War in the early 1960s by a group of scientists who were not on board with the global consensus that race had no place in biology, that race was a social construct, a fallacy, which is what UNESCO was saying at the time. So these scientists - there weren't that many of them - they got together and they founded this journal, the Mankind Quarterly.

Even at the time, by the standards of the time, scientists were outraged. They just couldn't believe what these people were putting out. It was so unscientific, of such poor quality. And yet, it didn't close down.

And part of the reason for that is their funding came from this very wealthy segregationist based in the U.S., Wickliffe Draper. So he was this big textile heir who was just minted. He had so much money, and he was committed to segregation, to maintaining segregation in the United States. And one of the ways he did this was to build - help build an intellectual framework around racism. So he funded the Mankind Quarterly, and he funded scientists who published in it.

MERAJI: You really use it as this barometer throughout the book to show the ebbs and flows of race science over time. Why did you make that choice?

SAINI: Because it really is, I think, the greatest symbol of the survival of scientific racism from the 19th century. It is kind of the benchmark for society to be able to gauge how popular these ideas are. If this journal is popular and people are still publishing in it, then we know these ideas are still alive. And right now, it is popular.

What is particularly shocking to me is that some of these editors and some of these writers are on the boards of mainstream journals now. And that should concern us because it says that these ideas have passed from the very, very fringes of science into some aspect of the mainstream, that they are gaining traction in mainstream academia.

DEMBY: How is the growing popularity of, you know, the genetic test that people can just, like, you know, spit into a vial and send it away - how has that aided in the resurgence of race science and the sort of traction around these ideas?

SAINI: So the vast majority of difference between human beings - between one person and the next - is individual difference. That is the source of the greatest variation between us as human beings - more than 95%. Less than 5% of it is down to population-level differences, these group differences.

So I am of Indian heritage. My parents were born and grew up in India, and so did their parents. Now, if my genome were tested and you were to test the genome of another person from India and the genome of, say, a white European, it is perfectly possible for my genome to have more in common with a white European than the Indian person.

We don't think of race that way. We think DNA testing tells us I should have more in common with this person because we have the same ethnic heritage or geographical heritage. It's not telling you where your ancestors are from, necessarily. It's telling you what you have genetically in common with people alive today and where they live. That's all it's doing.

DEMBY: So we group data in all these different ways that have been, you know, helpful in the way we understand the world. And we do it with genetics, right? I mean, we did an episode not too long ago about sickle cell anemia and how people from certain populations in North Africa and West Africa were more likely to have this trait that makes them predisposed to sickle cell anemia. So is it possible that we risk missing out on important trends or certain scientific realities if we are skittish about getting into genetics and race?

SAINI: Well, I think we need to be careful about what we mean when we say race. So with the sickle cell anemia example, we know that the sickle cell traits exist in those regions of the world where cases of malaria are high. And that is because as devastating as an illness as it is to have sickle cell anemia, having the trait provides some resistance to malaria. So in the gene - in the regions where it exists, it is beneficial to the people who have it because one risk outweighs the other.

This means it's geographical. It's not racial. It exists in certain parts of Africa and not all. It exists in other parts of the world outside Africa where people don't have black skin. The reason it looks racialized in the U.S. is because, in the U.S., many white people are of European ancestry and many black people, because of the history of slavery, are of West African ancestry. And that means that in the U.S., with the demography that it has, it looks racialized. But globally, it doesn't look racialized. Globally, it looks as though people in certain regions of the world have it.

One of the examples I look at in the book is hypertension. So hypertension is one of the most racialized diseases in the world. In the U.S., it is treated as a black condition because black Americans have it to a - at much higher rates than other groups. In the U.K., it's so racialized that one of the national health bodies here defines in its guidelines that if you are black and under the age of 55, you will be given a different pill for hypertension than if you are white and under 55. So you are giving...

DEMBY: Wow.

SAINI: ...People different treatments based on their skin color. And is this justified? So there was - there's this wonderful epidemiologist, Jay Kaufman, who I interviewed for the book, and a health researcher, Richard Cooper, who looked into the stats around this. You know, what is the basis for this racialized system of treatment? They broke down the figures. And they found that assigning treatment by race in this case is about as useful or only just marginally more useful than flipping a coin.

And why is that? We know that there are other indicators, other factors that are far better predictors of whether someone will have hypertension. Years of education - the more years of education you have, the lower you are likely to have hypertension. Diet - diet is the overwhelming reason that people have hypertension. Having too much salt in your diet means you are more likely to have hypertension. It is the reason my mum has hypertension because Indian food...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

SAINI: ...Is heavily seasoned, and she will not stop putting salt in her food, whatever the doctor says. We're using race as a proxy for diet. People who are poorer - and black Americans on average have a lower socioeconomic status than white Americans - have poorer diets, and they are more likely to have hypertension and stress. If you are suffering racism, if you're suffering discrimination in a society, if you're an immigrant, we know from studies you are more likely to have hypertension.

Black Americans are more likely to die of almost everything than white Americans. Life expectancy of a black American is lower than a white American. It's perverse to assume that this must be genetic. Are black Americans so genetically disadvantaged that even infant mortality would be higher in black Americans naturally than white Americans? It just doesn't make any sense.

MERAJI: You also use this Neanderthal gene to kind of explain the squishiness of the science around this, how we had this attitude toward Neanderthals that has changed since these DNA tests have become really popular. And I would love for you to talk a little bit more about that.

SAINI: So when it was discovered that there would have been other human species around as well as modern humans in our very, very distant past, in our ancient past, and Neanderthals were identified - this was in the 1800s, in the Neander Valley in Germany - Western European scientists looked at this ancient species and thought, why did this person go extinct? It must have been that, you know, they were stupid. They're lower down the evolutionary ladder, using the language of the time. You know, Neanderthals were this kind of thuggish, brutish, stupid species that just couldn't survive the evolutionary race with modern humans.

And the other thing they did is that they compared the skulls of Neanderthals with Aboriginal Australians. Why did they do this, given that these are bones discovered in Europe? Aboriginal Australians obviously live in Australia. They did it because the story they had constructed told them aboriginal Australians are lower down the evolutionary ladder. So even though Neanderthals lived in Europe, they will have some kinship to aboriginal Australians - not relationship, necessarily, but some similarity because they are at the same level of evolution - also doomed to die out.

And let's remember the politics of the time in the 19th century. Colonizers had already moved into Australia, had already murdered aboriginal Australians in their thousands, if not their hundreds of thousands. There was already this white Australia policy, which was essentially designed to breed the color out of Australia. So here were these aboriginal Australians living - real, modern humans living, being compared to this now-extinct species, serving this story that these people don't deserve to live.

Now, if we zoom forward to today, to the 21st century, over the last, let's say, 20, perhaps even 30 years, it slowly dawned on scientists that perhaps Neanderthals share some ancestry with modern-day Europeans - in fact, many people around the world, but including modern-day Europeans.

In the book, I outline - in the last ten years, we've seen journal articles and papers in the press saying Neanderthals were really smart. They were sensitive, just like us. They were people, just like us. So what happened? Suddenly, just by dint of association with Europeans, Neanderthals have gone from being this stupid, brutish, thuggish, lower-down-the-evolutionary-ladder species, and now they are people like us because they're European. I mean, it's just perverse.

And scientists will deny that these things have anything to do with each other - you know, that they are being perfectly objective when they speculate about Neanderthals today. But it's impossible not to see in the various ways in which Neanderthals have been framed - stories being served - essentially, origin stories being served. And that speaks, I think, to the fact that race and racism is still a problem within scientific research.

MERAJI: That gets to this note that I wrote in the margins of the book, which is that I wanted to have a beer with Subhadra Das. She's the curator of the University College of London Medical and Science Collections, and you interviewed her. Side note - she's also a stand-up comedian. And she has a great quote in your book, which is, scientists are socialized human beings who live within society, and their ideas are social constructions. And I was like, bingo. Yes. Hell yeah. But yet, Angela, we treat them as if they're these objective sources of facts. And why do we continue to do this?

SAINI: Well, you know, I studied engineering. And for me, science still remains this source of - in my dreams (laughter) - in my utopian dreams - this source of kind of facts - rational objective. This is where I turn when I want the truth about the world and about the universe. And I still think it's the best way of getting to the truth about the world and the universe.

But scientists are human beings like everybody else, like the rest of us. And of course, they are going to be affected by the politics of the world that they live in. How could they not be? They always have been. You know, Darwin bought into this idea that there was a racial hierarchy, that there was a gender hierarchy. And he was a brilliant scientist who was so thorough and careful, and even he bought into it.

So why do we find it so hard to believe that modern-day scientists are somehow so free of bias and so objective that they can't also be victim of the same kind of problem? Of course they are victims of the same kind of problem. And to deny that racism affects science is to deny that racism exists in society.

MERAJI: Angela Saini's a science journalist and author of "Superior: The Return Of Race Science." Thanks, Angela.

SAINI: Thank you.

DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. You can follow Shereen @RadioMirage. That's radio mirage - all one word. I'm G-E-E-D-E-E 215. And we want to hear from you. Our email address is codeswitch@npr.org. Sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Sami Yenigun and Maria Paz Gutierrez. It was edited by Sami Yenigun, Leah Donnella and me.

DEMBY: And of course, we got to show love to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Kumari Devarajan, LA Johnson and Steve Drummond. Our interns are Jess Kung and Michael Paulino.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.