I am black and mixed-race, but it remains unclear to me whether these are social identities or biological classifications. Luckily, I can turn to Adam Rutherford’s latest book, How to Argue with a Racist, to reveal the current scientific understanding of race, ancestry and genetics. It also tells us how to argue effectively against the idea that certain populations of people are biologically inferior.
From the beginning, Rutherford is clear that although he uses the term “race” frequently, he does so only because the word is widely used: it isn’t scientifically valid, yet it exists so must be addressed. “Race is a social construct. This does not mean it is invalid or unimportant,” writes Rutherford.
How to Argue with a Racist’s strongest suit is to encourage a general conversation about race, informed by the latest science on the reality and origins of racism. Researching ethnicity has often been career death, but Rutherford says scientists shouldn’t shy away from the field. Nor should writers, to judge by his mission.
Cry for identity
For many, race is a cry for identity and belonging. In 2018, when groups of neo-Nazis in the US “chugged” milk to supposedly demonstrate their superior, genetically encoded ability to process lactose, they were trying to assert their white identity, writes Rutherford.
He rather undermines such an assertion by revealing that the gene mutations that enable lactose processing aren’t unique to people of European descent. They also exist today in Kazakhs, Ethiopians, Tutsi, Khoisan and in many places where dairy farming took off as part of agriculture.
Chugging milk is a theatrical gesture, but as Rutherford points out, we increasingly turn to ancestry and genetic testing to reaffirm our human tendency to seek meaning and identity.
I can relate to this. My surname, Liverpool, comes from an ancestor on my father’s side, forcibly shipped from West Africa to the Caribbean via Liverpool, UK, during the transatlantic slave trade. But as Rutherford points out, the number of children produced by sex between enslaved peoples, and between the enslaved and their owners, makes it virtually impossible for a genetic test to establish an African country of origin for the descendants of slaves.
Mathematics of ancestry
Instead of arguing against the logic of marrying identity to ancestry, Rutherford elegantly uses a bit of mathematics to show how our whole way of thinking about ancestry is wrong.
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He assumes generational time is 25 years and that the number of ancestors for each person in every generation has doubled. So we each have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. In 500 years, or 20 generations, that is 1,048,576 ancestors. Go back 1000 years, and each of us has more than a trillion ancestors: 10 times more people than ever existed.
The notion of a family tree isn’t the most scientifically accurate metaphor, he writes, because trees only ever branch, but family trees contain loops, with the same person appearing at multiple positions in the tree, for example, as a result of first cousins having children. Understanding that we are all more closely related to one another than we think is a pretty strong argument against racism.
Is any of this enough to convince hard-liners? Maybe not. As Rutherford writes: “The commercial genetic tests remain scientifically unconvincing. Regardless, the utility of consumer genetic testing is now a major and significant part of white supremacy discourse.”
Everyday racist beliefs
But in many ways How to Argue with a Racist isn’t really about arguing with hard-liners. Its target is the surprisingly prevalent set of racist beliefs, from men of certain groups having larger or smaller penises than average to people from different racial groups being more or less intelligent than average. “The way we generally speak about races does not align with what we know about those innate differences between people and populations,” says Rutherford.
For example, the largest study of penis size, including more than 15,000 men, found no evidence that the organ’s length or girth correlates with any particular population, racial category or ethnicity, while intelligence is a complex trait influenced by a score of genes and their interaction with our environment.
Rutherford hunts widely to account for the persistence of such racist ideas. But in the end, he faces down the biggest issue at the core of many of these racist stereotypes: is race truly a biological classification?
We are constantly told that it is a social construct, but scientists muddy the waters by appearing to contradict this as they perhaps carelessly mention both race and ethnicity in their research papers.
Rutherford is clear that the majority of geneticists think genetic differences between ethnic groups are meaningless in terms of behaviour or innate abilities. But he also acknowledges the contradiction because scientific papers are still published in which genes for complex traits like intelligence seem stratified along racial lines.
Race science is pseudoscience, but genetics and evolutionary research are inextricably tied up with race, and are often used by racists to justify themselves. Rutherford accepts that the field of human genetics has a dark history, “founded by racists in a time of racism”, but also argues that genetics “has demonstrated the scientific falsity of race”.
He writes that scientists’ reluctance “to express views concerning the politics that might emerge from human genetics is a position perhaps worth reconsidering”. After all, he argues, those who misuse science for ideological ends show no such restraint, and embrace modern tech to spread their messages.
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