Book of the week: How to Argue with a Racist – Evening Standard

Posted By on January 31, 2020

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This book is a weapon, says Adam Rutherford, written to equip you with the scientific tools necessary to tackle questions on race, genes and ancestry.

Best known now as an author, speaker and perky science presenter onRadio 4, Rutherford has an impressive academic background, having been awarded a PhD in genetics at UCL for his research into genes involved in eye development and disorders.

Concise and polemical, How to Argue with a Racist is intended to help non-specialist readers understand and challenge the way that the science of human genetics is increasingly being abused to justify racism and the myths of race, racial purity and racial superiority. So he has quite specific and extreme opponents he wants to knock down here, people fixated on finding biological bases for racial differences although hes also addressing the more casually prejudiced well-intentioned people whose experience and cultural history steer them towards views that are not supported by the modern study of human genetics.

He tackles four key areas where we often slip up by adhering to stereotypes and assumptions: skin colour, ancestral purity, sports and intelligence. The aim is to clarify what we can and cannot know and say according to contemporary science.

This science is hard, he acknowledges and what he repeatedly has to tell us is that its all a lot more complicated than most of us think. Genes and culture, biology and history interact in the most complex ways. We are a rich symphony of nature and nurture of DNA and environment stuff we are born with and stuff that happens to us.

How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford (Weidenfeld, 12.99)

In the opening chapter, Skin in the Game, he explains just how complex the genetic factors in pigmentation are and always have been, as recent research has revealed. Not only were we diverse in our skin colour long before the dispersal from Africa, we were diverse in our skin colour before we were our own species.

The second chapter, Your Ancestors are My Ancestors, is a punchy assault on commercial ancestry test services, that reveal no more a probability of a proportion of ancestry, but have been co-opted by racists anxious to proclaim their own racial purity.

Rutherford produces some brain-scrambling figures to show how much common ancestry we have, right back to the genetic isopoint when the entire population is the ancestor of the entire contemporary population today and, on the other hand, the way we shed our DNA, so we carry DNA from only half our ancestors 11 generations back. Genetic ancestry tests may be fun, but in my opinion, mostly offer nothing much more than a gaudybauble, he concludes. You are not your genes, and you are not your ancestors. Most of your ancestry is lost, and can never be recovered.

In Black Power, he notes that since 1980, no white man has even competed in the 100 metres Olympics final, sprinting now being dominated by African American, Caribbean and African Canadian athletes and since 2010, every winner of the London Marathon, both women and men, has been either Kenyan or Ethiopian. But the explanation is not simply genetic, he warns. There are genes affecting both explosive energy and stamina but their effect is not simple. ACTN3 is not a speed gene, ACE is not an endurance gene.

In elite athletes, they appear to be necessary but not sufficient for athletic success. The difference in regionally mediated success is culture. And, he says, to reduce sporting greatness to mere unearned biology is racism, whether conscious or not. Necessary but not sufficient, then: a good distinction.

Lastly, in White Matter, Rutherford argues that differences in IQ scores countries in sub-Saharan Africa score 20 points lower than IQ standards in the UK are best explained environmentally. Likewise, the intellectual achievements of Ashkenazi Jews might be better attributed to a culture that values scholarship than to genes.

He admits it might seem odd that a geneticist should want to downplay the significance of genes, as he does, but the fact is that we are social beings who have offloaded so much of our behaviour from our bodily hardware to our cultural software, and nowhere is this more apparent than in our intelligence.

He thus valuably stresses the contribution of culture in combination with genes throughout. But then when it comes to considering culture rather than genes, he turns oddly dismissive. He scoffs at white supremacists expressing fear of the demise of Western culture, grandstanding thus: I dont know what Western culture is, because its very clear to me that my culture is not the same as the culture of other people in my street, postcode, city, country or continent.

Yet culture exists, despite such posturing. Surely we need to be able to argue with racists better than that. A useful but narrowly focused book.

How to Arguewith a Racist:History, Science, Race and Realityby Adam Rutherford (Weidenfeld, 12.99)

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Book of the week: How to Argue with a Racist - Evening Standard

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