How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality. By Adam Rutherford. Weidenfeld & Nicholson £8.99.
Rutherford defines racism as ‘a prejudice concerning ancestral descent that can result in discriminatory action’, and his book is an extended argument against racist ideas. Race exists, he says, because it is a social construct, but its lack of scientific validity is illustrated by the fact that racists cannot even agree on how many races there are. The concept of race was invented during the era of European exploration and exploitation, as a way of justifying the mistreatment of subject people.
The first chapter deals with the complex interactions between genes and inheritance. Even standard schoolbook examples such as red hair and eye colour are far more complex than they appear, and a child can in fact have any colour eyes, whatever the combination of their parents’ eyes. Over the millennia humans have moved around a great deal, and, as one example of the consequences, a small number of white Yorkshiremen have Y chromosomes most commonly found in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, a gene flow that may date back to Roman Britain. Homo sapiens originated in Africa, and pale skin is an adaptation via natural selection to exposure to a weaker sun in northern regions. But even then there is no simple correlation between skin colour and latitude, and there were diverse skin colours well before the human dispersal from Africa.
Going backwards in time, family trees frequently intersect, and the genetic ‘isopoint’ is the time when the whole population is the ancestor of the entire population today. For Europe the isopoint is the tenth century CE, so all Europeans are related in this way. As Rutherford says, ‘every Nazi has Jewish ancestors’. True ‘indigenous Brits’ lived here a million years ago, and were not sapiens. There is ‘no such thing as racial purity’.
A discussion of links between ancestry and athletic and other kinds of ability is interesting. Long-distance running was once dominated by Finns, but now the medal-winners are largely from specific areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. This seems to be explicable by a combination of lean body shape and a culture of running, not some supposed racial advantage. Most classical musicians are white, while most jazz musicians are black, and this is clearly due to cultural traditions. Intelligence is not a single thing, so measuring it by a single IQ score is not sensible, and IQ tests are culturally biased.
Rutherford’s book gives a clear and well-argued account of the fallacies of racist ideas. However, it is unfortunate that some of the works mentioned in the text are not included in the list of references. Also that it is necessary to deduct 26 or so from the page numbers stated in the index in order to find the actual discussion of the terms in question.