How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality
Weidenfeld, pp. 206, 12.99
In the award-winning musical Avenue Q, filthy-minded puppets sang about schadenfreude, internet porn, loud sex, the uselessness of an English literature degree and racism. Or, more specifically, they sang about the ubiquitous human habit of
stereotyping people by race:
Everyones a little bit racist, sometimes.
The puppets were right: everyone makes judgments based on race. Humans are lazy creatures who like mental short cuts. Thinking in shades of grey is more effortful than thinking in black and white. Evaluating a new person afresh, based on their unique characteristics, is slower than falling back on a ready made judgment. If youve spent time with a two-year-old, or if youve used psychedelic drugs, you might have glimpsed what its like to see an individual blade of grass as itself, and not just as an exemplar of the category grass. Its exhausting.
In How to Argue with a Racist, Adam Rutherford uses his expertise in genetics to try to get us to see people the way a person on LSD might see a field of grass. That is, he wants us to see individual humans as themselves, rather than as exemplars of racial categories. Overcoming deeply ingrained patterns of mind, while also providing a crash course in genetic biology, is a tall order for any book, particularly one so brief. To accomplish his goal, Rutherford has densely packed each section of his book with scientific and historical details, all of which converge on a central theme its wickedly complicated.
Part I begins by challenging the apparent simplicity of racial distinctions based on skin colour or other observable physical characteristics. Consider, for instance, that two Africans, who would both be assigned the same race based on their skin colour, might be more different genetically than the Scots are from the Japanese.
Part II then challenges the idea of racial purity, the fiction that there are groups of people (like the Scots or the Japanese) who can trace their blood to just one set of ancestors living in one particular place. No such pure bloodlines exist; there really is no true Scotsman. Because people have had sex wherever and whenever they could, we dont have to go back too far in history to find a time when everyone alive then was the ancestor of everyone alive now. You and your immigrant neighbour are all part of the same family tree.
Next, parts III and IV challenge the idea that some racial groups are naturally more athletic, more musical or more intelligent. Do African-Americans dominate certain track and field events because they have a speed gene? Are the genetic diseases more common in Ashkenazi Jews evidence of selection for high intelligence? One by one, Rutherford picks up an apparently neat story about racial differences and turns it this way and that, exposing its holes and flaws and tattered seams.
Some of the science here has been explained in other books, including Rutherfords own A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, and more recently, David Reichs Who We Are and How We Got Here. What makes the organisation of the scientific material different in this book is right there in the opening sentence: This book is a weapon. Rutherford continues: These pages ... will provide a foundation to contest racism. Yet despite its confident title, How to Argue with a Racist is not entirely sanguine about the power of scientific argument. Arguing with racists, Rutherford says, is a fairly fruitless endeavour, and exhausting and he quotes Jonathan Swift: Reasoning will never make a man correct an ill opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired.
Rutherfords uncertainty regarding how useful science is for combatting racism reflects a deeper uncertainty about what, exactly, is the relationship between sciency-sounding ideas about biological differences between racial groups and the violence and vitriol that he calls avowed or overt or extreme racism. After all, as the puppets of Avenue Q cheerfully protested, the use of racial judgments doesnt mean we go around committing hate crimes.
But ideas about racial difference can, indeed, incite violence. Consider Dylann Roof, who gunned down nine black parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church after being radicalised on the internet. Before the massacre, Roof penned a racist screed that asked the exact same question about racial differences that How to Argue with a Racist considers at length: How could our faces, skin, hair and body structure all be different, but our brains be exactly the same?
It is tempting to answer that incendiary question by insisting that everyones brains really are exactly the same. As the great evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky observed back in the 1960s, if you maintain that people should be equal, then it is convenient to argue that the differences between them are accidental and trivial. This, for instance, is the argument that Ibram Kendi made in his similarly titled How to Be an Antiracist. An anti-racist is someone who is expressing the idea that races are meaningfully the same in their biology.
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. And when considering achingly complex domains of human achievement, such as music, sport, art and science, it has proved nearly impossible to separate out genetics from the messiness of human history, from colonialism and culture.
Rereading How to Argue with a Racist a second time, I began to imagine it as a letter, directed to one racist in particular to a younger Dylann Roof, as he was being drawn into the darker corners of the internet, before he picked up a gun to commit mass murder. Could science and history, clearly presented, have cut through the thicket of poisonous ideas that ultimately choked off Roofs capacity for the most basic human empathy? Could arguing with that particular racist about genetics have saved lives? That possibility, slim as it might be, is why How to Argue with a Racist is an important book.
Read more here:
- human genetics | Description, Chromosomes, & Inheritance ... - May 19th, 2020
- Human genetics - Wikipedia - May 19th, 2020
- COVID-19 Pandemic: Global Risks of More Complex Character and the Visions of the Future World - Valdai Discussion Club - May 19th, 2020
- Rothamsted turn to harvesting coronavirus data - Lab News - May 19th, 2020
- Complement genes add to sex-based vulnerability in lupus and schizophrenia - UAB News - May 19th, 2020
- DU to set up School of Public Health - The Indian Express - May 19th, 2020
- Covid-19 research: 45 Bengaluru startups working on medicine, testing methods and vaccine - Economic Times - May 19th, 2020
- Immortalized Cell Line Market Development, Trends, Key Driven Factors, Segmentation And Forecast to 2020-2026 - Cole of Duty - May 19th, 2020
- Worlds Shortest Population Reveal the Largest Genetic Contributor to Height - Technology Networks - May 15th, 2020
- Group of Genes Have Altered Expression in Autism - Technology Networks - May 15th, 2020
- Why can two young and healthy individuals be affected so differently by coronavirus? - Health24 - May 15th, 2020
- Amgen To Present At The Bank Of America Merrill Lynch Virtual Global Healthcare Conference - BioSpace - May 15th, 2020
- Viewpoint: Darwin's 'Descent of Man' is both deeply disturbing and more relevant than ever - Genetic Literacy Project - May 15th, 2020
- Study Finds Low Proportion of Individuals With Autism Receive Recommended Genetic Tests - Technology Networks - May 15th, 2020
- Cats can catch Covid-19 from other cats. The question is: Can we? - STAT - May 15th, 2020
- Deficient Expression of DGCR8 in Human Testis is Related to Spermatoge | IJGM - Dove Medical Press - May 15th, 2020
- Prevail Therapeutics Reports First Quarter 2020 Financial Results and Business Highlights - GlobeNewswire - May 15th, 2020
- Fulcrum Therapeutics, Inc. (FULC) Q1 2020 Earnings Call Transcript - The Motley Fool - May 15th, 2020
- Scientists concerned that coronavirus is adapting to humans - The Guardian - May 11th, 2020
- Coronavirus quickly spread around the world starting late last year, new genetic analysis shows - CNN - May 11th, 2020
- Your genes could determine whether the coronavirus puts you in the hospital and we're starting to unravel which ones matter - The Conversation US - May 11th, 2020
- Yes, COVID-19 is mutating, here's what you need to know - ABC News - May 11th, 2020
- Conservatives Are Not the Only Ones Who Ignore Facts and the Science - Merion West - May 11th, 2020
- Coronavirus in Scotland: Charity warns Covid will cause a spike in ME cases - as it calls for 'harmful' exercise treatment to be banned -... - May 11th, 2020
- Dr. Misaki Wayengera: The Man Behind Uganda's Covid 19 Test Kits - New Vision - May 11th, 2020
- Its In The Genes? Scientists Think Coronavirus Exploits Silent Hidden Mutations In The Body - International Business Times - May 11th, 2020
- From blood clots to 'Covid toe': Experts confounded by series of medical mysteries - The Straits Times - May 11th, 2020
- MET 2020 Slot booking to commence on July 15, Examination dates available at manipal.edu - Jagran Josh - May 11th, 2020
- Vitagene Launches The First FDA Authorized Saliva based Zero Contact COVID-19 At Home Test - Business Wire - May 10th, 2020
- Genetics in focus after coronavirus deaths of siblings and twins - The Guardian - May 10th, 2020
- 'An anvil on my chest': What it's like to have COVID-19 - LancasterOnline - May 10th, 2020
- Coronavirus may have spread to humans as early as October 2019 - study - The Jerusalem Post - May 10th, 2020
- Team reveals genomic history of ancient civilizations in the Andes - UC Santa Cruz - May 10th, 2020
- Regeneron Reports First Quarter 2020 Financial and Operating Results - BioSpace - May 10th, 2020
- Scientists at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Develop Anti-Coronavirus Surface Coating Based on Nanomate... - The Auto Channel - May 10th, 2020
- COVID-19 and food security - Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge - May 10th, 2020
- Val Sheffield elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences - Iowa Now - May 1st, 2020
- DNA gives clues into risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and other dementias - Alabama NewsCenter - May 1st, 2020
- Rare Gene Discovered That Nearly Doubles Risk of Developing a Neurodegenerative Disease - Clinical OMICs News - May 1st, 2020
- Progress in understanding the genetic basis of mental health - SFARI News - May 1st, 2020
- Coronavirus was widespread in UK at very start of pandemic, says genetics expert - Sky News - May 1st, 2020
- This is how you do the genetics heritage filter on Instagram that everyone's doing - The Tab - May 1st, 2020
- COVID-19 vaccine in Ireland could take a year and a half - IrishCentral - May 1st, 2020
- MRC scientists elected Fellows of the Royal Society - Cambridge Network - May 1st, 2020
- Parkinson's discovery implicates "second brain" in the gut - New Atlas - May 1st, 2020
- Humans: are we the most effective vector of disease? - BugBitten - BMC Blogs Network - May 1st, 2020
- Could genetics explain why some COVID-19 patients fare worse than others? - Live Science - April 27th, 2020
- Human Genetics Market Overview, Top Companies, Region, Application and Global Forecast by 2026 - Latest Herald - April 27th, 2020
- American Academy of Arts & Sciences Elects UVM's Wallace to Its Membership - UVM News - April 27th, 2020
- The PBS documentary The Gene showcases genetics promise and pitfalls - Science News - April 9th, 2020
- Few clinical trials are done in Africa: COVID-19 shows why this urgently needs to change - The Conversation Africa - April 9th, 2020
- UCLA web app will enlist publics help in slowing the spread of COVID-19 - Newswise - April 9th, 2020
- Why does the new coronavirus kill some people and barely affect others? - Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice - April 9th, 2020
- COVID-19: Few Clinical Trials are Done in Africa. This Needs to Change ASAP. - The Wire - April 9th, 2020
- 'Behavioral suppression' needed to decrease coronavirus infections in Japan: experts - The Mainichi - April 9th, 2020
- The secret call of the wild: how animals teach each other to survive - The Guardian - April 9th, 2020
- Yann Joly on the fight against genetic discrimination - McGill Reporter - April 2nd, 2020
- Science to the rescue? How modern genetics could help save the world from coronavirus - Genetic Literacy Project - April 2nd, 2020
- Oldest human genetic data gleaned from 1.8-million-year-old tooth Haaretz - News Collective - April 2nd, 2020
- Science to the rescue? How modern genetics could help save the world from coronavirus - Alliance for Science - Alliance for Science - April 2nd, 2020
- BHU department claims to have discovered new technology to test COVID-19 - Jagran Josh - April 2nd, 2020
- Stealth BioTherapeutics Reports Fiscal Year 2019 Financial Results And Recent Business Highlights - BioSpace - April 2nd, 2020
- Researchers at U of T developing antibodies to 'neutralize' novel coronavirus before it invades cells - News@UofT - April 2nd, 2020
- What is coronavirus and Covid-19? An explainer - KTVZ - April 2nd, 2020
- Plasmid Market was Valued at US$ 89.52 million in 2018 and is Estimated to Reach US$ 447.68 Million by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 19.5% over the... - April 2nd, 2020
- The genetic architecture of the human cerebral cortex - Science Magazine - March 26th, 2020
- The Coronavirus Pandemic Shows Us The Importance Of Combatting Climate Change - Forbes - March 26th, 2020
- Kallyope Inc. Announces $112M Series C Financing to Support First Clinical Trials and Advance Portfolio of Programs Targeting the Gut-Brain Axis - P&T... - March 26th, 2020
- IN CONSERVATION: DR. JEFF STROVEL, CEO of VERALOX THERAPEUTICS - BioBuzz - March 26th, 2020
- How healthtech startup Bione aims to use genetic testing in the fight against coronavirus - YourStory - March 26th, 2020
- Coronavirus: Massive gap in US response revealed after scientists learn colleague tested positive through twee - MEAWW - March 26th, 2020
- Avera announces ability to test for COVID-19 in South Dakota - The Dickinson Press - March 24th, 2020
- University of Utah experts advise caution over drugs hyped as possible coronavirus treatments - Salt Lake Tribune - March 24th, 2020
- Invitae and Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Expand Access to No-Charge Genetic Testing in the US and Canada - PRNewswire - March 24th, 2020
- Studying the African genome could yield new medical treatments for everyone - Genetic Literacy Project - March 24th, 2020
- Human Genetics Market Higher Growth Rate / CAGR over the Forecast Period to 2026 by Key Players like QIAGEN, Agilent Technologies, Illumina - New Day... - March 16th, 2020
- Coronavirus is hard on older people and scientists aren't sure why - NBCNews.com - March 16th, 2020
- Researchers study irregular horse heartbeats, hoping to find a cure - Minnesota Daily - March 16th, 2020
- Dr. John T. Macdonald Foundation seeking to fund community-based organizations with major grant dollars - Miami's Community Newspapers - March 16th, 2020
- Validea's Top Five Healthcare Stocks Based On Motley Fool - 3/15/2020 - Nasdaq - March 16th, 2020