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Superior: the return of race science. Angela Saini. 4th Estate. London. 2019.


Excitedly promoted in national newspapers, glowingly reviewed in Sunday magazines, the author interviewed on national radio, this book is part of a mainstream narrative which promotes the ascendant public stance, which is that race does not exist as a useful category, and that those who perversely study it have reprehensible motives.

Saini dedicates the book to her parents “the only ancestors I need to know”. This is touching, though a bit hard on her grandparents. The Prologue (page 3) explains her stance: “The key to understanding the meaning of race is understanding power. When you see how power has shaped the idea of race, and continues to shape it, how it affects even the scientific facts, everything finally begins to make sense”.

As Lenin said in 1921: “The whole question is—who will overtake whom?”

Written by an avowed anti-racist, race, racism, anti-racism, and political groupings on the Right are prominent themes. The style of the book is engagingly discursive, a quick tour through selective history: Hitler gets 8 mentions, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot none. The text is reference free, and flows easily. Papers are listed at the end of the book, but not linked to the text, and claims cannot always be traced to references. Other popular genetics books have given references by page number. This is not a book to read if you want to learn about the genetics of intelligence, or of group differences in intelligence, about which there is surprisingly little.

Much of the book involves interviews with researchers, many of whom argue that there is no biological basis to race “except as social categories”. There is warm praise (page 89) for Montagu’s 1942 view that race “is based upon an arbitrary and superficial collection of external characters” and that “Individual variation within population groups, overlapping with other population groups, turned out to be so enormous that the boundaries of race made less and less sense”.

Amusingly for a book which understandably attacks the notion of racial purity, it tacitly champions ideological purity. As in the Da Vinci Code, it warns the innocent public about shadowy organizations promulgating foul ideas in tainted media, probably planning dreadful things in secret conclaves. Saini’s polemic assumes that if she can show that a person or their associates are right wing, then that invalidates their opinions. Her tone is unabashedly political. It is one thing to try to avoid being partisan, and fail; and quite another to be resolutely partisan throughout, and to assume righteousness. Here are a selection of what Saini regards as strong arguments.

Saini (page 90) quotes Lewontin 1972 and concludes:

In total, around 90% of the variation lies roughly within the old racial categories, not between them. There has been at least one critique of Lewontin’s statistical method since then, but geneticists today overwhelmingly agree that although they may be able to use genomic data to roughly categorize people by the continent their ancestors came from (something we can often do equally well by sight), by far the biggest chunk of human genetic difference indeed lies within populations.

First, there is no detailed criticism of Lewontin’s argument. Second, it is admitted that DNA alone can confirm genetic groups, albeit “roughly”. In fact, it can be done with very high precision, as Tang et al. (2005) have shown. Third, Lewontin’s misleading conclusion is repeated, without saying that some genes acting together can have big effects, and many other genes of minimal effect do not wash away actual differences. It would be like denying Pygmies are short or that the fastest sprinters are usually West Africans.

Richard Dawkins gave an elegant summary:

However small the racial partition of the total variation may be, if such racial characteristics as there are highly correlate with other racial characteristics, they are by definition informative, and therefore of taxonomic significance.

A balanced account would have mentioned findings which changed the picture. Lewontin based his claims on blood type markers: about as advanced as it was possible to be in 1972, but hopeless to identify genetic clustering, therefore doomed to render a false negative. By 1975 the number of markers had increased sufficiently to easily discriminate between groups.

The issue was explained here:

Edwards (2003) Human genetic diversity: Lewontin’s fallacy. A.W.F. Edwards. Bio-Essays 25:798–801, 2003

In popular articles that play down the genetical differences among human populations, it is often stated that about 85% of the total genetical variation is due to individual differences within populations and only 15% to differences between populations or ethnic groups. It has therefore been proposed that the division of Homo sapiens into these groups is not justified by the genetic data. This conclusion, due to R.C. Lewontin in 1972, is unwarranted because the argument ignores the fact that most of the information that distinguishes populations is hidden in the correlation structure of the data and not simply in the variation of the individual factors.

Here is an account of more modern research, showing that even US census categories can be utilized for the purposes of genetic classification

H.Tang et al. (2005) Genetic Structure, Self-Identified Race/Ethnicity, and Confounding in Case-Control Association Studies. Am J Hum Genet. 2005 Feb; 76(2): 268–275.

Subjects identified themselves as belonging to one of four major racial/ethnic groups (white, African American, East Asian, and Hispanic) and were recruited from 15 different geographic locales within the United States and Taiwan. Genetic cluster analysis of the microsatellite markers produced four major clusters, which showed near-perfect correspondence with the four self-reported race/ethnicity categories. Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity.

There is a near-perfect correspondence between genetic measures and the common US census racial labels, with a misclassification rate of only 14 per 10,000. Some of this is due to the admixed “other” category, but 9,986 in 10,000 subjects can master the art of looking in a mirror and noting which race they most resemble, a task beyond the wit of some academics.

R.A.Fisher made all this plain in 1925

‘‘When a large number of individuals [of any kind of organism] are measured in respect of physical dimensions, weight, colour, density, etc., it is possible to describe with some accuracy the population of which our experience may be regarded as a sample. By this means it may be possible to distinguish it from other populations differing in their genetic origin, or in environmental circumstances. Thus local races may be very different as populations, although individuals may overlap in all characters;’’ R.A. Fisher (1925).

In summary, relying on Lewontin 1972 misrepresents current knowledge on genetics.

Pages 178 onwards covers her interview with David Reich, who studies ancient genomes. Saini is disturbed to find that he, a respected mainstream geneticist, believes in races, at least at some level. She reassures herself that although there could be profound genetic differences between populations groups “but to date, no scientific research has been able to show any average genetic differences between population groups that go further than the superficial and are linked to hard survival, such as skin colour or those that prevent a geographically linked disease” (page 183).

This is a strong statement, though confusingly put. Skin colour illustrates evolutionary adaptation to environments, and Saini herself has reported that early inhabitants of Britain were dark skinned but then became lighter skinned, possibly to increase vitamin D uptake. “Geographically linked disease” means genetic responses to diseases like falciparum malaria, another adaptation. I think she means that both these differences are superficial. Sickle cell is a costly defence against a parasite, better than being dead, but awful to live with, and hardly superficial, but anyway. The intellectually curious would ask: are there other adaptations which are not superficial? How about bone density?

Equally, how about differences in glomerular function, a measure of kidney health, for which the scores are adjusted for those of Black African descent, to account for their higher muscle mass? Muscle mass and bone density are not superficial characteristics. In conflicts it would be a considerable advantage to have strong warriors, favouring “hard survival”. Would brain shape and size be superficial characteristics? Despite the widespread use of scanners in clinical practice, it is hard to find data on racial differences in brain size, but racial differences in head circumference are evident at 21 weeks of gestation.

There are also studies of brain shape and surface variability in teenagers:

Actual measures of cognitive ability are not discussed, despite a century of data on racial differences in intelligence, and it is increasingly hard to argue that genetic causes can be excluded.

On page 185 Saini reports that James Watson asked David Reich why Jews and Brahmins were so smart. Watson suggested that millennia of selecting for scholarliness was the key to both Jewish and Brahmin success. Saini is appalled, and reports that Reich was also appalled. Racism.

Others would be intrigued. Could selection actually achieve this, and if so, how many generations would it take? How does effective population size affect such presumed changes? Are those groups marrying just their own kind, or do they also marry brighter locals? What happens to non-scholarly Jewish and Brahmin children? Do they give up membership of the selective group and join the local population, abandoning their roots (what Henry Harpending called “boiling off”)? Is there a purely cultural explanation for cognitive elites that does not involve careful controls on marriage? What do the genetic studies say?

Saini visits her family in Indian Punjab, and allows herself to consider that, over generations, some groups might become genetically adapted to their occupations, like the Bajau free divers who can hold their breath underwater for long periods, assisted by larger spleens which may help them keep their oxygen levels high. Has she succumbed to doubts? Not for long.

Back in England (page 221), she visits Robert Plomin. and Lewontin is called into service again with his parable of the seeds: group differences may be due to different circumstances, in that seeds in well fertilized and watered soils will get better crop yields than those same seeds planted in poorer soils. Quite so, but is it true of racial difference in intelligence? The match between socio-economic status of origin and achievemebt in the US is weak, as the rise of poor Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants shows.

Page 228 and she says of Turkheimer that “in studies of people with the lowest socioeconomic status, environment explains almost all the variation researchers see in IQ, with genes accounting for practically nothing”. No discussion of current research which shows a partial effect in the US but not in other countries. Example:

On page 231 Saini says: In reality, parent’s IQ scores can only explain 15% of the variance in their own children, admits Plomin.

Plomin explains:

It’s true that you can only predict 15% of the variance of children’s IQ from one of their parent’s IQ but more if you had both parents’ IQ. However, when it comes to explaining variance in children’s IQ, inherited DNA differences account for about 50% of the differences.

IQ is about 50% heritable averaged over all studies at all ages. Parents and offspring correlate about 0.4. Perhaps she is squaring 0.4 (which would come to 16%) which is fine if what you want to do is predict children’s IQ from their parents’ IQ. However, if a trait were 100% heritable, you would expect parents and offspring to correlate 0.5. You don’t square the correlation when you are asking about components of variance, just as you don’t square a test-retest reliability correlation if you are trying to estimate reliability.

Given 50% heritability, children of intelligent parents (say IQ 130, found in 2.28% of the population) will be more intelligent than average, leading to them being over-represented in intellectually demanding occupations. However, since there are three times more parents in the IQ 120-128 range, (found in 6.84% of the population), they will also be contributing bright children though at a slightly lower rate, leading to real social mobility. Some very bright children will come from all social classes.

Page 234 Saini reports James Flynn saying that the IQ gap between developing and developed countries could close by the end of the 21st century. Indeed he did, in a special edition of Intelligence I edited in 2013. She could have added that he accepted Meisenberg and Woodley’s estimate it could take 40 years on PISA assessments, and 341 years to never on the TIMMS tests.

G. Meisenberg and M.A. Woodley “Are cognitive differences between countries diminishing? Evidence from TIMSS and PISA. Intelligence 41 (2013) 808-816.

Page 272 Saini explains how silly it would be to search for a “use of chopsticks” gene. Agreed. Genetic studies tend to look at far broader categories than use of table utensils.

Page 284 on Satoshi Kanazawa, “the unproven assumption that populations have different cognitive abilities”. Populations do have different cognitive abilities. The argument is about how to explain that finding. If you object to intelligence tests, try looking at country differences in arithmetic.

Page 284. Saini says of the Lynn estimate of IQ 70 for sub-Sahara that when Wicherts investigated this figure he “found that they could have arrived at it only by deliberately excluding the vast majority of data that actually shows African IQs to be higher.” No. Lynn argued Wicherts should not have included university samples in estimating general population levels, a valid objection. Wicherts estimated African IQ 82 to Richard Lynn’s 70, and said that Africans were not at European levels. Rindermann estimated IQ 75. Saini’s report does not do justice to the debate.

Page 285. Saini criticizes Jason Richwine and assumes that he must be wrong. In May 2013 I issued the following challenge: a bottle of fine French wine sent to the first person who can show that Hispanic/Latino American intelligence and scholastic ability is on the same level as European American intelligence and scholastic ability.

The bottle is still unclaimed.

Saini gets into a delightful tangle about Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, because she struggles with the concept of an anti-racist doing research which tacitly accepts the concept of race. Cavalli-Sforza wrote to Saini that marriages between people of different races did not lead to damaged children, but on the contrary, you only have to look at “the beauty and vitality of hybrids, children of partners coming from genetically distant groups” for proof of this. Far from being happy about this, Saini confesses:

It was his use of the phrases “hybrids” and “genetically distant” that disturbed me. This kind of language might have seemed at one time scientifically acceptable, but is it any more? It implies that human populations are like different breeds, even different species.”

No. If they were different species they could not interbreed. As to “breeds” not being acceptable, human populations do come in different varieties. This should not come as any surprise to Saini, because she is writing a book about them. Call them breeds, races, sub-populations, lineages, or whatever word is deemed acceptable this year or next: neither their names nor the changing nature of political sensibilities can wish them away.

Saini claims to be against the use of racial categorizations, yet is happy to discuss her Indian origins and what they mean for her, including her pride at Indian scientific and technological achievements, her sense of not belonging in India or England, which Nobel Laureate Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul so tellingly likened to being In a Free State: an unsettling disjunction between cultural and genetic identities. “Ni chicha, ni limonada”, as Victor Jara sang in another time and place, before they killed him.

To Saini, motives matter a lot, often, it would seem, as much as facts. The case of Cavalli-Sforza disturbs her. Saini is not absolutely convinced of his purity. Supposedly against categorizing people, Saini is an avid categorizer, and it really bugs her that she cannot categorise him as a pure anti-racist. She judges him to have (page 146) “unimpeachable political credentials” but finds his conclusions not quite up to her requirements. (I think he wanted to study genetics, and said whatever anti-racist stuff was needed to keep the thought police off his back, and out of his lab).

There is a pronounced disdain for impure thinkers, described as “dripping with pus”. I may be too optimistic, but I sense that even the most virulent critics of genetic research are having to adjust to new findings. They are against the word “race” but are trying to get comfortable with the synonyms. Perhaps, they muse, I can still be an anti-racist but accept that there are certain “clusters” from which my ancestors were drawn. Saini finds she is not “comfortable” with certain findings. How is this relevant to whether they are true? Should crypto-racists be denounced or shielded because of their good qualities as individuals? Quite what is to be done about Cavalli-Sforza and his work? If racists read him, can he be left un-denounced?

Saini quotes Jobling (page 151) saying that “the divisions between us are so blurry that humans can theoretically be grouped any way you like”. Many geneticists use principal components analysis (as shown below for the 1000 genomes study). “Any way you like” is not a fair description of current methods.

Sometimes Saini seems to throw in the towel, as when she says (page 154): People who are related are of course close to each other genetically, and historically we have tended to live near our relatives, which is how clustering of genetic similarity happens”. She does not go on to say that she now understands the basis of genetic trees and genetic distances.

Her great fear seems to be that some groups will be shown to be better than others. Why do people fear this? Weren’t the Allies better than the Nazis? I think they were, and that the historical record shows it. That does not imply they will always be better, and that nations do not change their ways, but again that depends on the evidence. Are Brahmins brighter than other Indians? Do European Jews have greater intellectual accomplishments than European Gypsies? The reasons may be cultural or genetic, or very probably both, but difference exist. Why not debate these claims? Pronouncing that all people are equal in ability can lead to the mistaken belief that differential outcomes must be proof of conspiratorial exploitation.

Saini says this is the book she has wanted to write since she was 10 and that she has poured her soul into it. That is the problem. She soulfully laments that others are prejudiced, driven by their horrible motives into twisting the truth, seeing racial differences where none exist. Those awful people have poured their souls into their work: evil souls in this case. Is Saini above her own strictures on the matter of bias? Her condemnation of many researchers is severe, her self-examination occasional. Is she really above the audit? James Flynn does not regard himself so:

Scholars should stop playing games and let science do its job. Those of us who have turned their research into a contest rather than a diagnosis should be ashamed. I am not exempt from this censure.

All of us find it hard not to be partisan, but Saini is not a reliable guide to the literature, either in her sampling of papers or in her interpretations. She fails to give balanced evaluations of the debates. She makes sweeping judgements which I would rate as contrary to the facts, or more charitably, highly biased. For example: “the unproven assumption that populations have different cognitive abilities”. On the contrary, most intelligence researchers accept that there are population differences in cognitive abilities, but differ in their views as to how much of that is due to genetics. Over the last 30 years, researchers have increased their estimates of the genetic component.

In addition, there are some muddles in the reporting which, though they favour her argument, are probably simple misunderstandings.

It may seem unnecessary to review this personal book, but it has been promoted to reach a wide audience. It is not a superior guide, but a polemic. Part of its stridency and partisanship may come from the realization that formerly dominant cultural and sociological accounts of racial differences are being challenged by genetic research. This book is not a fair guide to that literature. That anyone should think so is of more significance than the book itself.

• Category: Science • Tags: Political Correctness, Race, Racism 
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