Review: Superior The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

Angela Saini’s third book, Superior, is a logical follow-on from her second, Inferior, on the failure of science in relation to women. She is a science journalist and BBC scientific presenter.

The book’s thesis is that rather than being new, the use of scientific language for racist ends is almost as old as the concept of race. The rise and fall of the use of scientific racism is linked to the state of the right in general and far right in particular. Eugenics and related fields were banished from the public eye in response to the atrocities of the Nazis, only to return in a new guise when the right is globally ascendant.

These are not new theories or even theorists, rather a continuation of suppressed but not eradicated work that has been quietly rebuilding its strength. Saini brings out this continuity and interlinking of groups and researchers through meticulous research.

The work is divided into chapters, which lay out different theories or phases in the process of science being used to justify racially driven exploitation. The early book is focused on historical theories, from the age of colonialism onwards. Saini shows how these theories were used to justify slavery and conquest where the revolutionary bourgeois ideologies based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity could not.

Saini is spot on when she summarises the material motives behind the Europeans’ reluctance to engage with aboriginal Australians:

“Bewilderment – or rather an unwillingness to try and understand the continent’s original inhabitants – suited Europeans in the eighteenth century because it also served the belief that they were entering a territory they could justly claim for themselves.”

As we move into the post-1945 modern era, the book really gets interesting. Saini builds a good view of how these theories were sustained by a tiny number of academics and propagandists, who refused to accept the post-war consensus that race and racism were unscientific and ungrounded in material facts. The interconnected nature of the funding of these various groups is also pushed to the front as the same names appear again and again in different fields and organisations.

The continuing thread of Superior is the ideological need for these theories to support the people propagating them: i.e. the notion of white supremacy. Scientific data and studies are cherry-picked for specific results that happen to reflect the prejudices of the authors.

The flexibility of this so-called “science” is epitomised by the transformation of Homo Neanderthalensis. Until recently the Neanderthals were portrayed as relatively unintelligent compared with Homo Sapiens. The theory was used as justification for the subordination the Australian aboriginal people to clever, social Europeans.

With the discovery in 2010 that European people have a larger proportion of Neanderthal genetics, all this was replaced by Neanderthals’ brains being surprisingly large, allegedly indicating intelligence.

This changing of exterior justifications serves the same racist divisions. In later chapters Saini shows that disproved theories are conclusively replaced with new ones that enable the same oppressions and attitudes.

The chapter on India gives a concrete, non-Western example of a region which is still fundamentally split by racist theories about the qualities of people in the various castes. It is also a country where the far right, in the shape of Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, is on the rise.

It also shows how the same sets of pseudo-scientific theories are used to continue to cloak the division and oppression of the Indian peoples in the same ways as the approaches to Black and minority ethnic people in Europe. The interconnected nature of the world is flagged up as theories from around the world are spread much faster with the power of the Internet.

While Saini does give a strong, continued attack on the use of scientific language to cloak racist theories and policies, and shows the sources of funding in a fraction of the ruling classes of whichever time the theories were created in, she does not attempt at all to give an explanation for why these theories are taken up by sections of the subordinate classes.

The use of these theories to provide cover for continuing inequality and division by the rich, to give reasons why wealth is divided the way it is that are “natural” lies at the rotten heart of these racists’ endeavour:

“The logical consequence of insisting that IQ gaps between races must be biologically determined is that nothing in human society can really be changed. In an age in which some like to believe that we have transcended the old rules of social inequality, when the playing field is supposed to be level, when women have the vote, when black Americans have civil rights and colonialism is over, they believe that biology is all that’s left to explain the disparity that remains.”

Saini continues, “Inequality [according to scientific race theorists] must be natural”. The gene must be out there, we just haven’t found it!

In an article in The Guardian Saini wrote, “There is no gene that exists in all the members of one racial group and not another. We are all, every one of us, a product of ancient and recent migration. We have always been in the melting pot together.”

This is a good scientific riposte to the fake scientists of “race”. But it doesn’t answer why inequality exists. It doesn’t point to the real division of society into social classes and rival capitalist nations, which underpins all racist theory. If this book serves to lay bare the myths of racial superiority then it can clear the way for a better understanding of the real enemy, capitalism and imperialism.