Fighting racism with science

20 February 2020

Racism and eugenics are headline news. Andrew Sabisky has resigned from advising the government following media scrutiny of his comments on enforced contraception and the IQs of black people, while rapper Dave called the Prime Minister racist at the Brit Awards. The appeal to science to support racist ideologies is increasing, says geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford, whose book outlines what science can and cannot say about four key areas of common stereotypes and assumptions: skin colour, ancestral purity, sports and intelligence. His history of the ‘science’ of race makes for uncomfortable reading.

Rutherford says that black populations around the world do less well in IQ tests than other populations – for racists, focusing on differences like these is the end of the conversation. But this should be the start of the conversation, inviting further scientific inquiry, argues Rutherford. As Sarah Atayero tells us, IQ tests were created to validate the inferiority of BAME individuals and are fundamentally flawed. Simply describing differences between groups of people on various measures does not tell the whole story, and these differences are not accounted for by genetic differences.

Scientists working in these areas, some of whom are of course psychologists, tend to shy away from sharing their opinions, says Rutherford, who describes the inheritance of intelligence as possibly the most controversial area of science. Yet racists who misuse science gladly share their views widely. Scientists might therefore reconsider their reluctance to engage publicly – not least because their papers may be used to incorrectly support racist views. Rutherford has seen this for himself in chatrooms, where he has also seen racists boasting about their ‘pure blood’ results from DNA testing companies such as 23andMe.

DNA testing companies give results that are bland, broad, based on inference, and ultimately confusing to Rutherford. Being ‘35 per cent Greek’, for example, gives no information about which ancestors were Greek or how many. These companies reinforce essentialist ideas about nations, and not just among those who are racist. People use their DNA results to proudly assert that they get certain traits from their ancestors, yet Rutherford is doubtful that there is any genetic encoding for these traits – any national characteristics are more likely due to cultural influences.

Rutherford gives the example of Danny Dyer’s appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? to show how wrong our intuitive thinking on ancestry is. In the programme, Dyer discovers that he is descended from King Edward III – which sounds like an interesting fact to discover… But Rutherford estimates the chances of anyone with longstanding British ancestry being descended from the same King as practically 100 per cent. We are all more related than we think. The ‘global isopoint’ describes a time in history, around 3400 years ago, when the population of Earth were all the ancestors of everyone alive today. Put another way, at that point, all branches of all family trees cross through all the people in the world. Rutherford is well aware that this is a ‘brain-scrambling concept’.

Rutherford brings up an issue that we grapple with in psychology – can we celebrate a scientist who made great contributions but was also a racist [or sexist, or a sexual harasser]? In Rutherford’s view, we can recognise the work of these great scientists while also condemning their views. As Ateyero argues, we need to learn the racial and colonial history of psychological concepts, which should be taught with honesty about their origins. 

Rutherford dismantles the idea that race is a biologically valid description of human variation – instead it is a social construct. He shows that science is an ally in the fight against racism, and we should all use it as a weapon.

- Reviewed by Annie Brookman-Byrne, Deputy Editor