Rutherford avoids the temptation of insisting that everyone is the same. Instead, he presents a more difficult — but more accurate — argument, describing both the reality of human genetic variation and the fiction of racial purity. Yes, genetic differences between people are important, not just for their bodies, but also for their brains and behaviours. But the physical characteristics that we use to lump people together into races are terrible indicators of how genetically similar those people are.
Early in this vital book, geneticist, writer and broadcaster Rutherford argues that, as racism is now being openly expressed, it is our duty to contest it with facts, “especially if bigotry claims science as its ally”. And that’s exactly what he does, using science to debunk stereotypes and assumptions about skin colour, ancestral purity, sport and intelligence. His argument is that it’s not just genes that make us who we are. “We are a rich symphony of nature and nurture — of DNA and environment — stuff we are born with and stuff that happens to us.”
The most explosive issue in genetics and race is, of course, intelligence. It is almost impossible to do justice to his nuanced arguments in a paragraph, but here is a snapshot: while the UK shows a population average IQ of 100, meta-analyses suggest that countries in Africa are likely to score in the 80s. Genetic factors cannot be fully excluded, Rutherford says, but the enormous genetic diversity across that vast region suggests the discrepancy lies in the challenging local environment, with poorer schools and fragile medical care, rather than in the genes.
So-called racial differences are literally just skin deep: genetics and human evolutionary history do not support the traditional or colloquial concepts of race. As a result, Rutherford argues, we are prone to say “race doesn’t exist”, or “race is just a social construct”. However, race does exist precisely because it is a social construct, and racism is real because people enact it. One has to admire his desire to challenge Jonathan Swift’s dictum: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.”
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 don’t know what Western culture is, because it’s 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.”