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Data of prejudice: the uses and abuses of the science of race

New books by science writer Angela Saini and psychology professor Jennifer Eberhard look at the “scientific” evolution of racism throughout history.

“I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,” said the Nobel laureate James Watson in an interview in the Sunday Times in 2007. “All our social policies are based on the fact that African intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Watson went further, taking issue with the wished-for assumption of equality among human beings because “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

The likelihood of prejudice trumping reason is to be expected. But what is more surprising, suggests the science writer Angela Saini in her new book, Superior, is the possibility that science informs prejudice or can be recruited into its service.

It has been widely accepted that Homo sapiens first appeared on the east African savannah 195,000 years ago. But that notion has always had doubters; some scientists, for example in Russia, China and India, make a special claim for their region. Science is not neutral and Saini writes: “The choice of theory [among scientists] may be driven as much by personal motivation as by data.”

The idea of evolution is not so fixed, it seems; calling someone a “Neanderthal” used to be a term of abuse, notes Saini, but the discovery that modern-day Europeans (and not, as previously thought, Aboriginal Australians) have a closer association with Neanderthals has led to their rehabilitation.

Looked at over the course of human history, race is a relatively new concept. Up until the 15th century, if a survey about the understanding of “blacks” was conducted, Europeans would have suggested words like “regal” and “privileged”, citing the Adoration of the Magi, then the only widely known depiction of black people. Subsequently, the Enlightenment introduced the science of categorisation. Carl Linnaeus’s classification of the species into four types: europaeus, asiaticus, americanus and afer, was biased from the start. As well as being delineated by their black, silky skin, kinked hair, flat nose and thick lips, Linnaeus judged afers to be “impassive, lazy… Crafty, slow, foolish… Ruled by caprice”.

Ever since, writes Saini, science has provided “the intellectual authority for racism, just as it had helped to define race to begin with”. Her tour of such practices makes for sobering reading.

Focusing on the Max Planck Institute, she recalls its past as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. In its pre-1948 years it was “dripping in blood” from human experimentation as its scientists “had willingly co-operated with the Nazi state, marrying academic interests and political expediency, helping to secure financial support and social standing for themselves”.

In 2001 the institute confessed that one of its senior historical figures, Otmar von Verschuer, head of anthropology, human heredity and eugenics, “knew of the crimes being committed in Auschwitz and that he, together with some of his employees and colleagues, used them for his purposes.”

It is tempting to characterise such practices as an aberration of German history. But eugenics also had enthusiastic supporters in Britain, throughout Europe and the US, swayed by the myth of “Aryanism” and the purity of race. Superior also shows that after the Second World War many scientists associated with eugenics were able adroitly  to “manoeuvre themselves into allied fields such as genetics”.

In writing that is as impassioned as it is elegant, Saini charts how the tide turned against eugenicist thought and research, with Unesco declaring in 1950 that all mankind “belongs to the same species, Homo sapiens”.

Further, in 1972 a landmark paper by the evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin spelled out that there was greater genetic difference within groups than between them. So, for instance, a black man in Nigeria had more in common genetically with a white man in Scotland than he did with a black man in Tanzania.

Great strides have been made in our understanding through the Human Genome Project, but the benefits of gene science have also presented unforeseen perils and risk catapulting us back to “the Enlightenment habit of casting humanity in the European image”; suggesting that there are hierarchies of difference after all.

By way of example, Saini reflects on the controversy over Bruce Lahn’s 2005 studies published in the journal Science. These suggested that a genetic variant linked to changes in human brain size (providing a cognitive boost) had emerged in populations 5,800 years ago. But the variant was rarely found in sub-Saharan Africa and South America. Even though the hypothesis of “cognitive advantage” was unproven, it was embraced by white supremacists as a vindication of their noxious beliefs. 

In a 2018 editorial, Nature sounded a warning bell on this trend: “Scholars are anxious because extremists are scrutinising the results of ancient-DNA studies and are trying to use them for similar misleading ends.”

Superior raises similar concerns. In recent years, archeologists in India, for example, have been tasked with digging up evidence of places, people and events described in Hinduism’s ancient texts. For Hindu nationalists the ancient past “has become a tool for projecting notions of technological and cultural superiority”.

Saini quotes the archaeologist Benjamin Smith’s anxiety over some scientific assertions that “could lead us back to the nasty conclusion that we’re all different”. Elsewhere she muses: “If understanding the scientific facts makes it so impossibly difficult to be racist, how does James Watson manage?”

Watson might easily have made his way into Jennifer Eberhardt’s new book, Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality, as a case study into implicit bias. Eberhardt, an African-American professor of psychology, also reflects on the “scientific” evolution of racism, reproducing from George Gliddon, Josiah C Nott and Louis Agassiz’s widely read Types of Mankind (1854) the exaggerated drawings of skulls of black men – depicted as being closer to apes than those of whites. This, argues Eberhardt, is “still part of our racial iconography, restricting the entry of blacks into the circle of humanity”.

Her research is tightly focused on bias in the US, where “once faces are categorised as out-group members, they are not processed… We reserve our precious cognitive resources for those who are ‘like us’.”

Law enforcement officers have held on to the domain assumptions about blacks that were prevalent in 1854. But Eberhardt is optimistic that science and technology (processing data, implementing police training in shoot/don’t shoot computer simulations) can find solutions and promote change.

Superior offers a more cautionary tale about science and race, concerned that in our current political climate, historical ideas only fit for ridicule are surfacing again. These are notions in search of intellectual cover and Saini warns that this “toxic little seed” needs only a little water to thrive at the heart of academia, “and now it’s raining”. 

Colin Grant’s “Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation” will be published by Jonathan Cape in October

Superior: The Return of Race Science 
Angela Saini
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £16.99

Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality
Jennifer Eberhardt
William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation