If one thing emerges from this book it’s that we still don’t know very much about genes. While genetic scientists have done extraordinary things, exactly what each gene does and what impact it has on behaviour, character and appearance, is a vastly complicated question. In How To Argue With A Racist, science writer Adam Rutherford takes us through the historic and current research that has sought, and still seeks, to tackle the question of how these genes link to questions of race. Rutherford brings the entire idea of race into contention, asserting that it is a social construct, with little basis in scientific reality. Separating people by skin colour, he argues, is arbitrary and pointless from a genetic standpoint. Indeed, the categorisation of ‘black’ and ‘white’ is revealed to be pretty meaningless when you consider that the genetic variation between people within Africa is actually more significant than between African people and Europeans.
He demonstrates that so many common assumptions about race have very little backing in science. Are African-Americans genetically better at sprinting? Are Kenyans and Ethiopians genetically programmed to be better at long distance running? Are Jews genetically more intelligent than other people? The answer to all of these is: very likely not.
Nevertheless, there are no concrete answers here, which brings into question whether the concept of this book as a weapon against racism is a realistic one. As Rutherford says, we live in a time of increasing nationalism, in which white supremacists and other hate-filled groups attempt to co-opt science and genealogy to their cause. In some respects, he is correct that this book provides facts which would be useful in the fight against such blatantly racist endeavours. Most compelling in this respect is the chapter on ancestry. Rutherford sets out the utter fallacy of ‘racial purity’ Every Nazi, he says, will have a Jew as an ancestor. Some aspects of this chapter are fairly mind-boggling to the non-geneticist – over a 500-year period, Rutherford says, we will each have 1,048,576 ancestors – which reveals the pointlessness of asserting a purely white or European heritage.
It is a fascinating run-down of current scientific thinking, but the problem remains that at the core of this story is an extremely complex field of science that, however skilfully it has been distilled for the lay reader, doesn’t lend itself to slam dunk arguments.
In the second half, Rutherford sets out his views on sport and intelligence. He holds that while there are some genetic differences between separate geographic populations (albeit ones that overlap considerably), these do not account for differences in academic, intellectual or sporting ability. Nevertheless, the picture is not always clear-cut.
Take sport. Rutherford asks whether the genetic variations we have so far associated with elite sportspeople segregate with specific populations, ethnicities or races. The answer, he says is: ‘Yes. And no, And maybe’. When it comes to the notion that African-Americans are genetically programmed to be good sprinters, Rutherford points to some very limited evidence that one particular type of gene does influence the ability to run fast. This type of gene has been found to be more common in African- Americans than white Americans. However, if you read on very carefully, the extremely limited and uncertain nature of this evidence becomes clear. Not is still found in white Americans, just to a slightly lower degree. But try telling a racist that. Rutherford encapsulates the problem himself by quoting Jonathan Swift, whose famous maxim holds that: ‘You cannot reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves into.’ Well, quite.
Nevertheless, there is clearly merit in everyone understanding at least a little about this field of science. When it comes to race and genetics, many stereotypes proliferate that aren’t perniciously racist but are still incorrect. Whoever we are, we are far better off dealing in scientific reality than with stereotypes and falsehoods.