Superior: The Return of Race Science

by Angela Saini

Paperback, 2020




Beacon Press (2020), 256 pages


Superior tells the disturbing story of the persistent thread of belief in biological racial differences in the world of science. After the horrors of the Nazi regime in WWII, the mainstream scientific world turned its back on eugenics and the study of racial difference. But a worldwide network of unrepentant eugenicists quietly founded journals and funded research, providing the kind of shoddy studies that were ultimately cited in Richard Hernstein's and Charles Murray's 1994 title, The Bell Curve, which purported to show differences in intelligence among races. If the vast majority of scientists and scholars disavowed these ideas, and considered race a social construct, it was still an idea that managed to somehow make its way into the research into the human genome that began in earnest in the mid-1990s and continues today. Dissecting the statements and work of contemporary scientists studying human biodiversity, most of whom claim to be just following the data, Saini shows us how, again and again, science is retrofitted to accommodate race. Even as our understanding of highly complex traits like intelligence, and the complicated effect of environmental influences on human beings, from the molecular level on up, grows, the hope of finding simple genetic differences between races--to explain differing rates of disease, to explain poverty or test scores or to justify cultural assumptions--stubbornly persists. At a time when racialized nationalisms are a resurgent threat throughout the world, Superior is a powerful reminder that biologically, we are all far more alike than different.… (more)


(66 ratings; 4.3)

User reviews

LibraryThing member GailNyoka
It’s not often I call a book “essential” reading. Superior: The Return of Race Science, is one of these few.
Based on solid research, acclaimed science writer Angela Saini presents us with a painstaking – and highly readable – history of the pernicious ideology of ‘race.’ People
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everywhere of all political persuasions find it easy to buy into the idea that biological race means something.” (Page 23). Yet, “the idea of race is not harmless. It brings with it centuries of political baggage, the blood of millions.” (Page 199).
Saini examines the reasons why we so often cling to the idea of race, and gives a chilling account of how recent attempts to find a scientific basis for racial superiority or inferiority have been bankrolled by vested interests, even when no scientific research has ever found that humans are divided into races.
The generations before me, and present generations, have lived in a society which implicitly believes that a man with ‘white’ skin is the pinnacle of all that is best of humanity. The further one moves from this supposed ideal, the lesser and more insignificant the person.
We live daily with the consequences of this deeply ingrained societal belief. We need to take a thoughtful and thorough look at how this ideology continues, and what it means for the future. Saini’s book provides us with that.
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LibraryThing member gmicksmith
Race science is of course associated with the Nazis but the author her paints a wider brush. The author has already addressed inferior so herein the Indian author is considering superior race science.
LibraryThing member drneutron
Biologists tell us over and over - there’s no biological or genetic difference between what we call different races. And in fact, “race” has been defined and redefined to fit the purposes of the times. And yet there have been, and still are, people who define others by skin color or place of
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origin or ethic grouping. Angela Saini walks us through a history of race science, mostly (though not entirely) Western race science, eugenics, and all the bad stuff it’s brought. This is a well written and eye-opening book that ought to be on everyone’s list.
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LibraryThing member deusvitae
A very compelling, thorough investigation into the intersection of modern science and race theory.

The book is so titled (and especially subtitled) so as to suggest that the reader is into a major exploration of a resurgence of race science, and indeed, the work begins with a discussion of race
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science...only for the reader to learn how it never really went away. Ever since the end of the first half of the twentieth century there has remained a small minority of researchers and investigators attempting to justify old racial theories using new science. The author does well at exposing how they work, how flawed their works are, and yet their ability to pop up at any time, whenever the cultural tide is correct.

But then the author also looks at the work of some very prominent anti-racist scientists as part of genome projects that look for differences among human populations in a way that, whereas not aligning with older categories, still attempts to categorize people into subpopulations. She questions the whole impulse to thus categorize and seek out such distinctions; she had already cast some aspersions on the whole basis of the Enlightenment project as *the* way forward for the investigation of reality.

Toward the end of the work the author ends up demonstrating well how a good number of scientists, even those who have no ostensible racist intentions, end up maintaining racist categories in their heads, and, however unconsciously, continue to use them and thus find reasons to corroborate their presuppositions. In the end, the work just exposes how much of science is based on the presuppositions of scientists, and that as long as race is a major social category, science is going to keep attempting to find ways to characterize those who have as superior and those who don't as inferior. Biological bases will be sought for questions that are really answered sociologically: certain groups may be disadvantaged, but it's not based on biological difference (which, no matter how much it is sought, still does not exist), but based on sociological differences. But then, of course, those who have would again be forced to grapple with how they system they've built caused these other groups disadvantage, and would have to see how those disadvantages show up in the charts. To believe it's all based on genes, or some other factor, tranquilizes from these concerns.

To this end this is a very powerful and excellent book and worthy of consideration: why do we even categorize on the basis of race? Why keep those boxes in our heads? Such boxes cause confusion and lead down inaccurate roads far more often than saying anything of value. We do better to see race categories as just the most recent form of justification of a form of supremacy, and deny its power outright. The author did well to point out how it was not that long ago that southern Europeans were believed to be inferior in intellect and biological stature; now they've been subsumed into the "white" population, and the same assumptions are now made about the "new" inferior groups, and it will probably change again. Likewise, it is hard to think of a racial basis for much of anything in Western culture when there are so many who seem to be of one race but are in fact an amalgamation of people from different parts of the world.

The book also does well at showing the cost of implicit bias: the author spoke of a person she knew who went without the proper diagnosis for 8 years until a radiologist saw an x-ray without knowing who she was and could tell it was cystic fibrosis. At the time, cystic fibrosis was believed to be a "white disease," and the girl was black. We can assume no ill will on the part of the physicians; these false categories just meant there was a failure of imagination that could have ended very tragically.

And yet...the author has her own set of biases. She is acutely aware of the dangers and difficulties of racism and tribalism, being of middle class England but of Indian descent. Her acknowledgement to her son expresses the excess: what makes us is our personal experiences and individual actions, with culture and family and other things that might shape a person given a brusque and glib passing comment. It's a bit ironic, but sadly unsurprising: the author has attempted to show how all of these scientists are blinded by their presuppositions and cannot see them for what they are, and thus do not see the disconnect between the science they think they're doing and the systemic racism they end up perpetuating, and yet she herself does not seem to see how she is atomizing everyone, as if one's reality is formed by one's experience and one's own actions. The chapter before she had described how Mendel's ideas about genetics were most likely flawed because interaction with other factors at play were not in view; and so it is with her own views on these subjects. Family, culture, etc. does, and should, wield a lot of influence on a person. Yes, there is no biological basis to race; yes, race science is all an attempt to demonstrate a supremacy that is biologically invalid and sociologically bankrupt. But that doesn't mean we throw all of culture and ethnicity into the dustbin of history. The problem is not differences among populations: the problem is looking at "the other" as less than on account of differences. Whatever solutions exist to the scourge of racism must still find a way to honor and value ethnic and national differences, even though they are based in sociology, not biology.

Nevertheless, a book worthy of consideration.

**--review copy received as part of early review program
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LibraryThing member pwagner2
This book should be required reading for scientists, biologists, statisticians, and bigots. It shows how data is only as good as the scientists interpretation of it. If they have a bias, their results will probably show that bias. It was news to me that there is and never has been any data to back
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up race science. (I was raised by a bigot)
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LibraryThing member pomo58
Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini is an example of what science writing and journalism should be. She presents her position so there can't be any legitimate complaints about a hidden agenda, yet she presents the views of those abusing science to serve their views on race with
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more balance than most writers would be able to.

This is not, nor does it claim to be, a scientific treatise. In much the same way that research surveys/overviews do, and these are regularly published in peer reviewed journals so this isn't anything that should be so startling to these people who act like this is so "unscientific," Saini surveys the research and presents the consensus as well as the outlier views. Especially those outlier positions that have been appropriated by the alt-right (read racist, white supremacist extreme) to support their false sense of superiority. Perhaps what most bothers these "reviewers" who then spew pseudo-scientific manure in response is that after presenting some of these views, whether historical or relatively current, Saini uses the words of other researchers and scientists to refute those views, or at least to show how the chance of those views ever finding solid evidence is slim to none. Then, when she restates what these scientists say, those are the quotes these "reviewers" use to make it sound like she is just giving her own opinion. Don't let these people fool you, whether you agree with Saini and the majority of researchers in the field or not, this isn't just someone giving their opinions as argument against racist science. I started reading one or two reviews out loud to a researcher I know and had to stop, just reading it aloud caused all the dogs in the neighborhood to start barking. I guess there were a bunch of things in those reviews that do that. Particularly on e review that misused a research article in hopes no one would actually go read it and realize the guy lacks any science credibility whatsoever.

Even for someone who understands that race is a social construct and thus finds the vast body of supporting research useful will have a couple areas that will likely not sit well. There is a difference between ignoring bad research and trying to stop research from being done. I never got the impression Saini was advocating for shutting down such research but a few of the researchers seemed like they would have been behind such an idea. The problem isn't so much that these researchers doing racist research are doing it but that there are now a lot of outlets that let these things see the light of day even though the vast majority of peer reviewed journals reject them. Prior to social media and the proliferation of information bubbles such research would have remained on the fringe and passed around or published through a few agenda-based publications.

The book includes citations to research and articles mentioned if you want to make sure she isn't misstating what is being done, there is no hidden agenda here, at least not on her part. Those supporting and spreading the questionable science, well, their agenda is partially hidden behind false claims of being opposed to "identity politics" or pretending that the difference between any measurable characteristic of a population must be biological, since they pretend that there haven't been social, legal, and political factors. These pseudoscience advocates ignore, or likely don't understand, the extent to which environmental factors do indeed figure into genetics, primarily through epigenetics. But nuance isn't their thing, bluster and misdirection are their tools, and boy are they tools.

I would recommend this to everybody. If you believe the vast body of evidence (as well as history) that race is socially constructed this offers some insight into how science is being misappropriated again. If you aren't sure exactly what might be different between populations and how those things might be framed, this will offer some insight into what the science can and cannot answer and will also show that many researchers doing this research aren't necessarily racist, they have a view of science that is still, unconsciously, affected by the society in which they live. If you believe that the vast majority of researchers are part of a long and large conspiracy to deny you your superiority, well, read it anyway, maybe some sense will seep in. But I know this last group won't read to learn anything or to assess information but strictly to find ways to attack it. They don't realize, or maybe they do but I'd rather not think they could be quite so low, that before one can argue against something one must have an understanding of that position. Otherwise, it just becomes trying to out yell the other side.

Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
One of the things I love about science is that it is impartial. There's no room for emotions, no room for opinions. It's just about the data - does it support your hypothesis or not.

Except that that is never really the case. If your hypothesis is deeply flawed, or as we see in this book, deeply
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rooted in the assumption of racial superiority, then the data will necessarily be skewed to reflect that. Any conclusion will be worthless.

And yet time and time again, research starts with this very premise. It didn't start with the Nazis. Nineteenth century Europeans were especially good at high-blown rhetoric that concealed truly disgusting racism. What's truly horrible is that it didn't end with the Holocaust either, although you would think such a terrible result would have made humans forever wary of repeating such an atrocity. But in country after country around the world, science is still rewriting history to tell the story of one race's superiority to another.

If you are one of those people, like I am, frustrated by people claiming that we live in "post-racial" world, that there is no discrimination, you will find lots of evidence to argue against that claim. Sadly, I doubt any of it will be convincing. If you refuse to listen to the stories of racism and hatred on the news, you won't read this book either. And that's a shame.

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. However, my opinion remains my own.
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LibraryThing member mldavis2
The book traces the origins of research and beliefs regarding racial differences. Ultimately the author concludes that while there are outward physical manifestations of genetic differences, all humans are essentially the same, and that racial superiority is a human construct rather than a
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scientific fact.

This was an early review copy provided upon request.
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LibraryThing member theodarling
A fascinating and disturbing look at the history and continued popularity of eugenics and race "science". This book is unfortunately (still) timely, and well worth a read.
LibraryThing member Zcorbain
Amazingly written, well researched, and extremely informative. While some liked to live with the delusion that America had become postracial when Obama was elected, racism was thriving on the margins waiting to go inevitably mainstream. This book is particularly good for understanding an aspect of
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racism and makes a wonderful companion to others books on the broad topic of racism.
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LibraryThing member cmc
A very accessible survey of attempts to “prove” the existence of race by scientific means, pretty much solely to justify thinking that one group is better than some or all of the others, and, of course, mostly white people trying to claim they’re special.

Over and over again, we see the power
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of science applied to explain differences by biological factors by researchers who are, somehow, incapable of taking into account blindingly obvious explanations such as poverty, racism, educational differences, and other cultural beliefs and practices whose effects are overwhelmingly powerful compared to the tiny differences “explained” by twisty statistical manipulation of data from small samples, small population sizes, or both.

It’s especially painful to see the focus on genetics/biology when, again, over and over, we see groups once described in horrifyingly demeaning terms—such as immigrants from China, Japan, India, Greece, Italy, and Ireland—who are later reevaluated and acknowledged to be normal people after all, or, even, when convenient, to somehow have some special innate something that allows them to outperform whites on some measure. (Said something, of course, is assumed to be biological, rather than cultural. And, of course, white people are always still better than other groups they look down on.)

The author is London-born and raised by her Indian immigrant parents, which provides a unique perspective on the issues as racist beliefs are a bit different in the UK/Europe than in the US, and also because the “East Asian” communities in the UK have had different experiences despite being lumped together.

She also talks about how powerful hierarchical cultural systems, such as India’s castes or closed orthodox Jewish communities, can create actual biological effects, such as various rare genetic disorders that appear in populations with small numbers much more often than in the broader population, by limiting the possible partners of people enmeshed in these systems, and the powerful social limits on things like access to education, availability of employment, exposure to outside ideas and opportunities imposed by these systems create the sorts of differences in IQ and similar measures that disappear when those structures are loosened or individuals escape from their control.
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LibraryThing member thereserose5
I thought I knew a bit about race "science" going into this book, but hearing the history all laid out and how science/health is still so tangled up in it today was astonishing.
LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Best for:
Those interested in the history of of science used in support of and to further racism.

In a nutshell:
For centuries, racism has received some support from those who seek to use science to suggest there are biological differences (and inferiorities) among race. This book explores many of the
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ways they are wrong, and many of the ways they continue their racist work.

Worth quoting:
(I tried to narrow this down, but there’s so much good in here)

“Because of the narrow way Europeans had set their parameters of what constituted a human being, placing themselves as the paradigm, people of other cultures were almost guaranteed not to fit.”

“The idea of race didn’t make people treat other people as subhuman. They were already treated as subhuman before race was invoked. But once it was invoked, the subjugation took on a new force.”

“Scientific racism has come out of the shadows, at least partly because wider society has made room for it.”

“The true human story, then, appears to be not of pure races rooted in one place for tens of thousands of years, but of constant mixing, with migration both one way and another.”

“The desperate hunt for ‘black genes’ reveals just how deeply even well-meaning medical researchers believe that racial differences in health must be genetic, even when a goldmine of alternative explanations exists.”

“Enjoy your culture or religion, have pride in where you live or where your ancestors came from if you like, but don’t imagine that these things give you any biological claim.”

Why I chose it:
The author gave a remote talk at my workplace (I work at a University).

This book is dense yet extremely readable. Author Saini organizes it chronologically, so the reader gets a real sense of how ‘race science’ has evolved over time. She focuses on how it has changed to provide the racists with different avenues for trying to prove their belief that there is a biological difference among races, and further, that those differences mean that some people (usually whites) are superior.

Saini covers so much ground that I’d be doing a bit of an injustice to try to summarize it all here. But her basic premise, which she backs up repeatedly with not just source material but with interviews with some of the offenders, is that racists have made use of science for decades to try to support their ideas of racial superiority, when in fact there is basically no evidence for the concept of race to be found in biology.

I found the history extremely interesting, but I was especially taken with the discussion of the focus specifically on genes, and how genetics has played into and furthered some racist ideas about biology. And the chapter called ‘Black Pills,’ about how medicine has suggested a biological difference in disease treatment and process that could be much better described looking at sociological factors, was fascinating and frustrating.

Saini doesn’t just present the facts though, she also explores what all of this means for us as society, when some people are so desperate to feel superior that they seek to misuse science. I think we are getting closer as a society to understanding that science is yet another area that is not free from bias; this book makes it extraordinarily clear.

Keep it / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it
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LibraryThing member ahaver
I initially chose this book from the Early Reviewers options because it has a fairly inflammatory title. Anything to do with race science is going to spark some fires; especially these days with our current political and social environment. I love standing next to a good flame and seeing what comes
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from it.

I admit I wasn't entirely sure what it was about, but I felt fairly confident that it was a journalistic review of the history of race science with (I was hoping) a somewhat objective viewpoint. I was not disappointed. Angela Saini, while not truly objective, is a phenomenal investigative journalist (just look at the 20 pages of references she includes at the end of the book!). She isn't afraid to ask the hard questions, and she doesn't lead the reader to believe one thing or another as much as others I've read.

The beginning of the book felt a little as though she was really pounding the point home that "race" isn't anything more than a social construct (I agree), and it felt at times as though she would just reiterate the same point a couple times with different phrasing. As the book went on, it became much more of a historical timeline of race science, the popularity it enjoyed and the crashes it experienced. I enjoyed that she not only pointed out the logical fallacies in so many racist assertions and "scientific breakthroughs," but she also pointed out that the self-proclaimed non-racists scientists were still using a racist dogma, even though they used modern phrasing. You know you've found a genuinely good investigator when they point out weak points on both sides.

Race, whether or not it exists in the realm of science, is an incredibly sticky social topic and I love when people aren't afraid to get dirty. Angela Saini will definitely need a shower after writing this book, and I must say I'm rather proud of her.
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Original language


Physical description

256 p.; 9 inches


0807028428 / 9780807028421
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