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Book Review—Superior

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As a history of race science, this is an excellent book. It begins with the roots of the concept of race, how it was used to justify slavery. It covers the appalling use of non-white bodies for various purposes, particularly scientific experiment, culminating in the atrocities carried out by the Nazi regime. Angela Saini portraits racist-scientific publications, the people behind them, and the legitimacy the genome research had lent to the idea that different races are biologically different. She ends with the effects of this "science" on contemporary life: castes in India, and race-differentiated medication in the US and UK.

Possibly because I've read it in fits and starts, I didn't get much out of it except a history of atrocities done in the name of science. I'm not entirely sure what the premise was. If the premise was that racists have been trying to legitimise their view using science, then I'm not sure what the caste chapter was about (it was brilliant, though, I can see why she kept it). If the premise was that race is a social and cultural structure, well, we heard that before, and most of the space in the book was spent on the opposing view. If the premise was that science is always political, then there was no engagement with the other side, which argues that race is a social and cultural structure. Science cannot be political only on the side we disagree with.

I'm particularly interested in the idea that science is political. I mean, of course, it is. No one can be objective because we live in a social and cultural world. Even if physics, maths, and chemistry laws do not change based on where you are in the world, medical, biological, social and cultural observations rely on your perspective. If that's the case, how can we ever be objective? And if we can't be objective, on either side, how will we ever know "The Truth"?

I believe the challenge before us now is exactly that. We have to be able to research everything, regardless of how wacky the theory sounds because that's the point of science. However, given the extent of research done on the genome and particularly on genetic group differences with no results, at what point do we say there are none? At what point do we put that aside and turn to a different question? It reminds me of the vaccine debate. We know that the MMR vaccine doesn't cause autism and is definitely not responsible for the rise in autism diagnosis. But not examining other environmental causes doesn't make sense either, because genes cannot explain autism in much the same way they cannot explain intelligence. The concept is just too complex.

The truth is complex and nuanced. We must be able to embrace complexity and nuance. It's hard work, and it goes against everything we grew up on, everything that social media is built towards. It goes against our nature. This is why it's a challenge.


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