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.

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