The disturbing revival of ‘race science’ – which is properly called pseudoscience

The rise of the far right politically in Europe and elsewhere has been accompanied by a growing resurgence of their associated doctrines. Once discredited, these ultranationalist ideologies are experiencing a revival under an academic guise. One of those ideas is scientific racism, which has festered for decades.

Once mainstream, notions of a linkage between race, intelligence and genes were marginalised especially after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Its doctrines of inherent differences between races was consigned to the dustbin. However, race pseudoscience has made a comeback. The claim that races – biologically distinct populations – have heritable differences in intelligence is conducive to the recycling of ‘respectable’ scientific racism.

In the era of Trump, we have told ourselves that only the ignorant are racist; while there are ignorant racists, we cannot escape the reality that the educated have done their bit to promote racist pseudoscience. In fact, today’s ethnonationalism has its roots in the intellectual respectable forebears of eugenics, the latter a scholarly attempt to categorise people into ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. While Nazi Germany was the most extreme practitioner of race pseudoscience, it was the United States that provided the international template of scientific racism.

Pseudoscientific racism, rather than don the apparel of the KKK and wave the Confederate flag, adopts a scholarly appearance. Wrapping itself in the mantle of respectable academic inquiry, the eugenicists were able to maintain an active – though decidedly small – network of like-minded individuals after WW2. Rejecting the post-war consensus that race is a social construct without any scientifically-sound meaning, the work of racist scholars was portrayed as ‘swimming against the tide’, uncovering supposedly ground-breaking pathways while being stifled by the leftist-multicultural authoritarian establishment.

There is no such thing as a single ‘intelligence’ gene. Scientists are still identifying numerous genes – at least 40 at last count – that each play a role in intelligence. And even then, biologists are quick to caution that we still cannot predict a person’s intelligence based exclusively on their genetic makeup. Genes are definitely not the ultimate determinants of destiny. Genes interact with the environment to produce phenotypic outcomes. Education, parental nurturing, community living – all these factors also impact on individual intelligence.

Even skin pigmentation is determined by multiple genes, and is also impacted by environmental influences. An individual’s skin coloration is the product of genetic and environmental variants, and is not the result of a linear progression straight from genotype to phenotypic manifestation.

The subject starts to get messy and controversial if and when we mix ‘race’ and heritability together. As William Saletan argues in Slate magazine, the heritability of a trait is a legitimate line of inquiry – but do not confuse heritability with racial classifications. Heritability is a statistic used in genetics to determine the variation of a phenotypic trait that is due to genetic markers between individuals of a given population – not between populations. The messiness begins when scientists sloppily substitute ‘populations’ with the word ‘race’, and the scientific flaws start to deepen.

The IQ genes versus nature debate has a long and tortuous history too excessive to go into here. Suffice it to say that the United States has sustained a historical practice of racial classification and built a society on a racially motivated hierarchy. The dubious psychology of ‘race science’ was used to rationalise and reinforce structural economic and racial inequalities. In the early 1950s, UNESCO, a branch of the UN issued documents denounced racism, and rejected the notion of ordering humanity into biologically-hierarchical races. International consensus rejected any claim of genetically differentiated levels of intelligence.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s overturned decades of legally sanctioned racial segregation, and challenged claims of white genetic superiority. African Americans debated authors of racist tracts, and scientists challenged the shoddy logic and flawed ‘science’ which underscored white nationalism. With the decline of the political Left in the early 1990s, and the onset of a generalised capitalist breakdown, outdated and obsolete ideas, once festering in the margins, have clawed their way back into the mainstream.

To be sure, the rise of genomics in the 1990s also provided a conducive environment for the resurfacing of genetic explanations for social behaviours. The claim “it’s in the DNA” became an easy go-to formula to purportedly explain behaviours from warfare, to rape, to socioeconomic inequalities.

Our obsession with DNA ancestry, tracing the minutest details of our genetic forebears is a harmless pastime, until it starts to convey the underlying falsity of the racist worldview – supposedly fixed, inborn biological differences between races. No, not everyone who uses DNA tracing is a vicious racist. But the genomics industry is helping create a climate where ‘DNA’ has become a shorthand for race. Tracing individual DNA is distracting us from searching for health and environmental outcomes to redress inequalities.

The ultranationalist far right, and their billionaire patrons and supporters, have exploited the ongoing fascination with genes to promote the discredited ideas of genetically-based differences in intelligence between races. While the junk science is still shoddy, the debate has resurged with renewed vigour.

One recommendation; for more on this subject, read the book Superior: The Return of Race Science by science journalist and broadcaster Angela Saini.

Before David Attenborough, there was Jacob Bronowski – promoting the public understanding of science

David Attenborough is arguably the world’s best-known and appreciated science-nature documentary maker. His programmes are watched by millions around the world, and his pronouncements about science today carry enormous weight. Before him, though – and before Dawkins for that matter – there was a scientist small in stature but an intellectual giant who promoted the public engagement with science – Jacob Bronowski.

Born in Poland of Jewish heritage, Bronowski (1908-74) – Bruno to his schoolmates and teachers – migrated with his parents to England, where the young Jacob excelled academically. While earning a PhD in mathematics, Bronowski became an accomplished poet.

This is important, because he always stressed the artificiality of the arts-versus-sciences dichotomy. The arts – literature, poetry and so on – were said to be saturated with passion and emotion. The natural sciences were cold, objective and impersonal. Bronowski’s life work is testimony to the fact that this distinction is not only flawed, but harmful to the full development of human understanding.

During World War 2, Bronowski developed mathematical strategies for RAF Bomber Command, working in the field of operations research. He was part of a British team that traveled to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to document the effects of the respective atomic bombings of those cities. After studying the effects of those attacks, Bronowski – and a number of his physicist friends – stopped working for the UK military.

It was this experience that compelled Bronowski to examine the ethics of science, and prompted him to address the question of humanist values. He wrote of his observations while in Nagasaki:

On a fine November day in 1945, late in the afternoon, I was landed on an airstrip in Southern Japan. From there a jeep was to take me over the mountains to join a ship which lay in Nagasaki Harbour. … suddenly I was aware that we were already at the centre of damage in Nagasaki. The shadows behind me were the skeletons of the Mitsubishi factory buildings, pushed backwards and sideways as if by a giant hand….I had blundered into this desolate landscape as instantly as one might wake among the craters of the moon.

He continued his work on poetry after the Second World War, carried out research on biological and anthropological questions – elaborating the characteristics of australopithecines. Turning his attention to the history of science, it is through his magisterial documentary series, The Ascent of Man, that he is best known to subsequent generations. (And yes, by ‘man’ he meant humankind, not just men).

What Bronowski achieved through his documentary was make science accessible to a wide audience, increase public engagement with scientific literacy, and highlight the importance of ethical values in informing scientific research. His documentary series was first broadcast in 1973; sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1974. He never witnessed the tremendous popular impact his work produced.

Since that time, there have been numerous science educators and writers; the American analogue to Bronowski is the late Carl Sagan, the astronomer and planetary scientist who wrote the popular science book and series Cosmos. Sagan also brought a humanistic perspective to the scientific endeavour. In 1995, Sagan wrote the book The Demon-Haunted World, defending skepticism and the scientific method against pseudoscience and superstition.

Bronowski addressed the issue of dogma, distinguishing it from scientific inquiry and research. Dogma reduces people to numbers and churns through them with cold detachment – you may listen to his words on the subject here. Bronowski raised this issue while visiting Auschwitz, where racist dogma and arrogance combined to produce unimaginable horrors.

To be sure, science has had its own problems with pseudoscientific and dubious theories regarding race and racism. The United States has a long and disturbing history of scientific perversions, leading to the implementation of policies constructing a racially stratified society. The abuse of science to rationalise economic inequalities and racially divisive structures has a resilient presence in American society.

We will look at these issues in the next article – stay tuned.

For the moment, let’s remember the inspiring work and example of Jacob Bronowski.

The revanchist politics of 1930s Eastern Europe is alive and well today

“Why are you studying that?”

That was the usual question asked of me back in my university days, when I explained my area of interest – the interwar years in Europe (1919-1939), especially Eastern Europe. That inquiry, after I had elaborated my reasons, was followed up by ‘what can you do with that?”. As it turns out, contemporary history has provided the best answer – the nationalist politics of the 1930s is still being played out throughout Eastern Europe, the formerly socialist nations.

Let’s focus the scope of our view, otherwise this article will be unnecessarily lengthy.

Thirty years after the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, we can see that virulent East European nationalism is on the ascendant throughout Eastern European. To understand that point, we must examine the revanchist, retaliatory nature of that nationalism, recycled and revived as it is from the interwar period. 1930s nationalism is being replayed in the official politics of East European capitalist states, and Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban provides a strong example.

Hungary, along with their East European counterparts, has advocated a revanchist, irredentist nationalism – focused on the recovery of lost territories, and the reclaiming of a purportedly wounded national pride. Orban has made public his intention to reverse the provisions of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which involved a defeated Hungary ceding territories to its neighbours. Restoring a ‘Greater Hungary’ is a goal of Orban’s ultranationalist administration – a policy that puts him in direct conflict with Hungary’s immediate neighbours.

The Trianon trauma as it is known by Orban and his ultrarightist advocates, involved Hungary losing two-thirds of its preWWI territory and 64 percent of its population. Embracing and mobilising this nationalist nostalgia is an adept technique – bemoaning loss of empire is a tactic employed by Tory Brexiteers in the UK. Orban’s revanchism also involves a sinister historian revisionism regarding the crimes of Hungary’s fascistic past.

Orban is obviously not going to declare open warfare against his neighbours to reclaim lost territories. He is however, aggressively pursuing an agenda to bind Hungarians living outside the current borders of Hungary to their nation in ways that actively destabilise his neighbours by focusing on ethnic irredentism. Tensions with Romania and the Ukraine have only increased during Orban’s tenure, producing divisions and disgruntlement within the EU and NATO alliance.

The region of Transylvania, currently administered by Romania, is home to thousands of ethnic Hungarians and was ceded under the terms of the Trianon treaty. In eerie parallels with the Nazi regime’s ‘championing’ of the Sudetenland Germans as part of Germany’s campaign to break up the Czechoslovak state, Orban has mobilised ethnic chauvinism to incite anti-Romanian feeling, and increase tensions with his Romanian neighbour.

Rehabilitating Horthy

Orban has deliberately cultivated a rehabilitative campaign for the interwar Hungarian regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy. The latter headed an authoritarian, clerically conservative anti-Semitic government, allied with Nazi Germany throughout the 1930s. Hungarian troops actively fought alongside Nazi German forces through WW2. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were persecuted and killed, labour and workers organisations suppressed, and a solid alliance with Mussolini’s fascist Italy was built.

The glorification of Horthy is inseparably bound up with the exoneration of Hungarian fascism and the promoting of anti-Semitism. Orban has purposely promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, blaming George Soros ( billionaire and Jewish) of fomenting various sinister plots to undermine and overwhelm Christian Hungary. In fact, Orban has cynically combined anti-Semitism with Islamophobia, blaming the international Jewish conspiracy for bringing Syrian Muslim refugees to Europe to dilute Hungary’s Christian character.

Racially paranoid notions of an ethnic-transformative Muslim invasion of Europe are nothing new. Orban’s vitriolic denunciation of fictitious ‘Muslim invaders’ cannot be understood without considering the racially exclusionary nationalism of Hungary, and Eastern European nations harking back to the 1930s. Railing against refugees and migrants today contributes to a campaign of anti-immigration chauvinism, and also distracts from Hungary’s own complicity in genocidal anti-Semitism.

Patrick Kingsley, writing for the New York Times, notes the following:

Under Mr. Orban, anti-Semitic authors from the Horthy era have been added to the national curriculum, and the Constitution has been rewritten to imply that the Horthy government was not responsible for its actions during the final 14 months of World War II, a period during which the vast majority of Hungarian Jews were deported and murdered.

Changing the curriculum is not just an exercise in historical revisionism; it is a deliberate strategy to salvage Hungarian supremacist nationalism from the stain of murderous culpability for racist crimes.

Studying the history of the interwar years in Eastern Europe is paying off after all.

Baruch Spinoza revisited – pantheism, rational thinking and the chosen people

Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) is an under-appreciated philosopher and ethicist, a rationalist whose place in the Enlightenment is assured, but whose ideas are largely sidelined. It is with great happiness that we welcome a renewed discussion of Spinoza’s ideas on god, pantheism, and rationalism on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s (ABC) The Philosopher’s Zone, authored by David Rutledge. Spinoza’s body of work has important relevance for today’s understanding of religion, political philosophy and notions of god.

Let’s disentangle this vast subject.

Born in Amsterdam of Portuguese Jewish origin, the Dutch Spinoza was raised in a traditional Talmudic community, but later grew up to rebel against the theological and ethical doctrines of the Jewish community. A philosophical renegade and innovator, he redefined the notion of god as inherent in nature, in contradiction to the monotheistic god of Moses and the biblical prophets. Denounced as a heretic, he was excommunicated in 1656 by Amsterdam’s Sephardi Jewish authorities.

Pantheism and combining the spirit with the material

Spinoza rejected the theological underpinnings of religion, and rebuffed notions of one eternal supernatural god. His notion of a god was a far cry from the god of Abraham, but rather a pantheistic vision – god was the universe and nature. Spinoza rejected the divine origin of the Torah, advocated the scientific method to understand the natural world, and rejected the Old Testament notion of Jews as a ‘chosen people.’

Spinoza insisted that the natural world was understandable to human reason and investigation, rather than the product of some divinely ordered creation. This claim was revolutionary at the time, and was opposed by religious authorities. Science was undergoing a revolution of its own at the time, and further areas of nature were being opened up to investigation by scientists.

Breaking with previous philosophers, Spinoza proposed that the mind, rather than being an immaterial soul, was itself the product of the material brain. Mind and matter, while traditionally discussed as opposites, are actually complimentary – the mind is the product of, and can comprehend, the material forces which constitute nature. By equating the notion of god as nature, Spinoza effectively neutralises the theological god of the monotheistic religions.

According to Spinoza, the god of the pantheist does not make pronouncements, perform miracles, or tell people how to behave. A noninterventionist in human and natural affairs, Spinoza’s god does not have any of the attributes described in the Torah. Neither supernatural nor transcendent, the god is nature interpretation landed Spinoza in huge trouble. After excommunication, Spinoza left Amsterdam, but remained in Holland. Unlike other renegade Jews, he never converted to Christianity to restore his career.

The Chosen People

Spinoza criticised the theological concept of the Jews as a chosen people. Proceeding from a materialist philosophical basis, he posited that claims of a ‘godly-elected’ chosen people were untenable. Even if one were to suggest the ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, that notion is borne of historical necessity, referring to a prosperous period in Israelite history.

The ‘chosen-ness’ of the Jewish people, derives from the social organisation of a state, a society that is run for the benefit of its people. Any notion of a theologically superior people, selected by god to be an example for the rest of the world is nonsense, according to Spinoza.

The philosopher elaborated that:

Nations, then, are distinguished from one another in respect to the social organization and the laws under which they live and are governed; the Hebrew nation was not chosen by God in respect to its wisdom nor its tranquility of mind, but in respect to its social organization and the good fortune with which it obtained supremacy and kept it so many years.

What Spinoza was saying is that every people is unique, in the sense of its own internal organisation and social structure, and the Jewish people are no exception. Natural laws govern the development of state structures, not divine or supernatural authority. The laws of nature are universal, and they apply equally to all nationalities. Far from being theologically privileged as a ‘chosen’ or ‘elected’ people, the Jews achieved their own distinguishing national trajectory, no better or worse than any other people.

Not a nationalist

We should be careful, in this regard, to avoid portraying Spinoza as a kind of proto-Zionist advocating the formation of a nationalistic Jewish state in Palestine. David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, attempted to cast Spinoza’s statements on state formation as a philosophical forecasting of an eventual Israeli state in Palestine.

Spinoza was hardly advocating a solid Jewish identity suitable for appropriation by modern nationalistic thinkers. He was not some secular saint of Zionism, but rather a rationalist philosopher who understood that nations are formed according to socioeconomic and political forces. Challenging religious authority, Spinoza defined, if it is possible, a rational god in contrast to the fire-and-brimstone version found in the monotheistic tradition.

When asked whether or not he believed in god, Einstein always responded with the ‘god of Spinoza’. That response is a kind of tactical manoeuvre, avoiding the strident confrontation with religious people usually encountered by Dawkins-type atheists. The pantheistic god, the god of Spinoza, is a bit similar to intellectual wallpaper – nice to have in the background to placate your guests, but having no real impact or influence on your life.

Let’s have a renewed appreciation for Spinoza, and use rationality to achieve a greater understanding of ourselves and our world.

Brown University study finds US war on terror has displaced at least 37 million people

A new study, published by Brown University’s Costs of War project, calculated that over the 19 years of the US war on terror, at least 37 million people – a conservative estimate – have been displaced or forced to flee their homes. US wars launched in the name of combating terrorism have had a horrifically catastrophic impact on the nations involved.

At a glance, the report – entitled Creating Refugees: Displacement Caused by the United States’ Post-9/11 Wars, lists the numbers of people displaced by US wars against numerous countries. The findings are summarised in Jacobin magazine as follows:

The interventions in Afghanistan have resulted in 5.3 million displaced people; Pakistan, 3.7 million; Iraq, 9.2 million; Libya, 1.2 million; Syria, 7.1 million; Yemen, 4.4 million; Somalia, 4.2 million; and the Philippines, 1.7 million. These numbers are “more than those displaced by any other war or disaster since at least the start of the twentieth century with the sole exception of World War II.”

You may read the report in its entirety here.

Professor David Vine, coauthor of the report, stated the following observation:

U.S. involvement in these countries has been horrifically catastrophic, horrifically damaging in ways that I don’t think that most people in the United States have grappled with or reckoned with in even the slightest terms.

Let’s remember those words; Americans – and I highly suspect, Australians as well – have not begun to grapple with the devastation and trauma of displacement. The title of the report starts with the words creating refugees. My fellow Australians need to bear in mind that the nearly-two decade US war on terror has generated millions of refugees – and Canberra has essentially gone along with these horrific policies.

The mandatory detention of refugees fleeing war and ethnic conflict only compounds the suffering and psychological trauma of life in exile. Being torn away from your home, family, social networks, occupation – this breakage cannot be adequately captured in numbers or statistics. The late Edward Said summarised the experience of exile as follows:

It [exile] is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement. The achievements of exile are permanently undermined by the loss of something left behind forever.

One aspect of the global war on terror that is underreported is the staggering economic cost. Brown University’s Costs of War project has documented that since 2001, the US government has spent $6.4 trillion dollars to fund its overseas wars. The Pentagon, and the US Congress under all previous presidents, has provided an unending – and steadily increasing – financial flow to ensure the continuation of overseas contingency operations.

This stands in stark contrast to the ongoing failure to rebuild the US territory of Puerto Rico, nearly three years after the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild its electrical and educational infrastructure. Reconstructing the decaying infrastructure of the United States does not seem to be a priority for the Trump administration.

Grief is not a scourge to be inflicted on other nations. No one is denying the tragedy of human suffering experienced by New Yorkers on September 11. What is being disputed is the deliberate cultivation of selective sympathy by Washington – and its allies – which negates the enormous suffering of other, mainly nonwhite, nations. Selective sympathy is the hallmark of tribal white American nationalism.

Since the end of the Vietnam war, the US authorities have assiduously cultivated the myth of the POW/MIA; our war dead are the only ones that matter. The millions of Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian war dead are deliberately excluded from a politicised memorialisation that privileges the mainly white, middle-class, military family aviators, to the exclusion of the nonwhite victims of the American war on Indochina.

The war on terror has gradually and surreptitiously mutated into a great power conflict. Inter-imperialist competition, in which the US is an active participant – has become the main military threat to humanity. In 2018, former US defence secretary and General James Mattis elaborated that interstate global competition, with Russia, China, Iran and others – is the new framework adopted by the US government, not the fight against Islamist groups.

Facing a growing ecological and humanitarian crisis, the uninterrupted spigot of funding for the US military needs to be turned off. By rebuilding a safer, sustainable economy, we can work towards societies that prioritise human and social needs above corporate profits. The US generals and war profiteers must be held accountable for their own actions, and made to pay the costs of rebuilding the societies damaged by their reckless policies.