Superior becomes most fascinating when we move past the second world war. Although the defeat of Nazism put an end to the most extreme manifestation of race science, it survived in a more subdued form and is now undergoing a revival, providing nourishment to racist political and social movements across Europe and the US. The ideas appear in academic journals — Saini focuses particularly on Mankind Quarterly, published by the Ulster Institute for Social Research — and are disseminated to a wider audience through social media.
Saini’s book asks its readers to face uncomfortable realities. She has form here. Her previous book, Inferior, was a powerful account of how the scientific establishment has misunderstood and mischaracterised women (and continues to). In Superior, she explains why we cannot afford complacency on race. Her spirited argument is meticulously researched and flecked with righteous anger. There is hardly a better time for this book. Recent history has brought many of the so-called intellectual racists – Richard Spencer among a rogues’ gallery of others – and their shaky ideas to wider prominence. Authoritarian leaders around the world look to people like this and to their underlying race “scientists” to add intellectual ballast to their prejudice on issues ranging from equality to immigration.
Saini’s survey of the past does not spare those with epochal intellectual gifts who parroted the assumptions of race science: Albert Einstein called the Chinese “an industrious, filthy, obtuse people”. Immanuel Kant described a quick-witted carpenter as “quite black from head to foot, a clear proof that what he said was stupid”. I know exactly how it feels to be addressed in these terms, by the way. While the more egregious public expressions of racial prejudice may now be rare, today “population genetics” or “human biodiversity” mine the same controversial ground. As in her previous book Inferior, about gender, Saini skilfully brings together interviews with historians, scientists and the objects of racial science themselves to paint a harrowing picture of the influence of race on science and vice versa. Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, she evidently believes that race science is on the march again, and is likely to turbo-charge right-wing populism. Her painstaking essay is revealing in many ways. If there is a problem, though, it is that she seems to have stopped writing 100 pages too soon. Several fascinating questions remain unanswered... I would like to see Saini’s thoroughness applied to the question of what AI and augmented decision making will mean for human capability. We already have evidence that the machines are learning to discriminate by race over and beyond the biases in training data. Will computer-enhanced intelligence prove to be an equally powerful adjunct to white, black and Asian minds?.. We need more from investigators like Saini so that we can learn how to make science serve liberation rather than the oppression.