Book Response: Superior by Angela Saini

So some people have asked me lately if I have a Goodreads account or anything like that, and I don’t, and the reason why I don’t is the 2007 book John Dies at the End. I was very active on Goodreads until I put up a negative review about that book, which I hated, and got trolled into oblivion by a bunch of proto-MRA freaks with little else to do. I do want to start tracking what I’m reading in some way, though, so I’m going to devote a category of this blog to “book responses,” which aren’t exactly reviews but are… yeah, responses.

Anyway. The book I just finished reading was Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (so much for choosing a topic that won’t attract trolls! whatever, fuck off, Nazis). It was an excellent read, a fascinating exploration of the many incarnations and reincarnations of race science, told with a journalistic accessibility and building a nuanced narrative with direct quotes from its subjects. Saini does a great job explaining the tug-of-war between people on both sides of this issue, but her presentation is not milquetoast “fair and balanced” – she calls out the maleficent actors as well as the dundering do-gooders who have, wittingly or unwittingly, added to their causes. For instance, she writes about progressive population geneticists who attempted to study small “isolate” groups in hopes of understanding their uniqueness, adding fuel to the folks who want nothing more than proof conclusive that humans are different enough to be treated differently according to their “race.”

What’s so satisfying about this book is the way Saini digs into the issue from many angles. There’s a remarkable amount of confirmation bias afoot on this topic, both from the white nationalists who seek out and twist scientific affirmation and from the reportedly apolitical or liberal scientists doing the research, and it seems clear that there’s comparatively far less inquiry about the “nurture” issues vs. “nature” in determining the roots of differences between people. Saini shines a light on the small subset of academic publishing devoted to amplifying “scientific” support for racism, including the journal Mankind Quarterly and various pieces that have wound up in more mainstream academic fare, such as Intelligence and Science. She talks about how money has flowed to legitimize and amplify racist ideas, demonstrating how the old systemic holders of power have fought to keep it (i.e., a wealthy descendant of slave owners put large amounts of money into these publications).

Saini shows us how we have arrived at the current moment with the alt-right and the mainstreaming of nationalist movements around the world. She explains that after World War II, eugenics and race science were broadly dismissed as outmoded and inaccurate, certainly not championed by political leaders. Then, through the creation of journals like Mankind Quarterly and the rise of early-internet niche mailing lists that drew well-intentioned people in, they slithered back into public consciousness, waited for amplification, and received it in the form of an international infection of right-wing ideologues responding to the 2008 recession by taking cues straight from the WWII fascist playbook. We’ve looped our way back to xenophobia, and the architects of it are eager for a way to dismiss opposition with clear scientific facts.

Saini explains why they won’t get them, but also the danger of it not mattering to them in the end. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand the social and academic aspects of race science and how race (and racism) is positioned as a technology in order to help “neutralize” its claims. It’s a great cautionary tale for the impacts of research, as anyone working in population genetics and related fields can have their work appropriated and recast in ways they never intended.