‘We need to abandon the idea that race is biologically real’

24 May 2019

Angela Saini speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

From World War II to modern day, Angela Saini explores how the concept of race has evolved in scientific circles.

Do we still talk about race today the same way we did a century ago? That was a question that concerned Angela Saini as she began to see parallels between our seemingly archaic ideas of race and modern-day science.

Saini is no stranger to Siliconrepublic.com, having featured in both our Women Invent 100 and our latest edition of the Sci-Tech 100. An award-winning science journalist and broadcaster, she has produced work for the BBC, The Guardian and Wired.

At Inspirefest 2019, she took to the stage to speak about her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, taking us through a disturbing timeline of how racial issues have permeated the field of science.

Saini began her talk with the idea of racial inferiority stemming from the Holocaust in World War II.

Even though the global population appeared to come together in the wake of the horrific war and unite under the UNESCO principle that we are all one human species, Saini said it was too late for some scientists. “They couldn’t imagine a world where race didn’t matter.”

Using the examples of Nobel prize winner James Watson, who recently came under fire for his controversial views on race, and Charles Darwin, Saini said that even renowned figures in the scientific field are not immune to the societal beliefs surrounding them. “Science does not operate in a vacuum. It works with the assumptions and ideas that are available at the time – and if these happen to be racist ideas and society is still racist, then we will always resort to them, however hard we try.”

‘Race is not about biology – it’s a story we tell ourselves’

Another example is Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Though widely respected in the field of population genetics and known for his anti-racist political stance, Saini pointed out that he often referred to mixed-race people as ‘hybrids’. “In his lifetime, this is how scientists in his field had been taught to think about people of different ancestries mating with each other – as ‘hybrids’, as though we are different breeds.”

She noted that although there was seemingly an end to mainstream scientific racism in the 20th century, the idea of biological race remained, and a new avenue for existing views was born: population genetics. She said this field arose as a way of bridging the old race science with the new modern genetics. “Population geneticists could study human differences between groups of people but they wouldn’t use the term ‘race’.  They would use every other word but not race,” said Saini.

“And they won’t talk about racial difference, they will talk about the statistical probability of gene frequencies between groups. But they are still grouping people and trying to look for differences between those groups.”

Looking at a particular example, Saini delved into the practice of doctors administering medication based on racial differences, ie white people receiving different drugs to black people, namely ACE inhibitors. She said in the UK and US, being black is described by medical professionals as a risk factor for hypertension, leading to the approval of a “racially specific” drug called Bidil in 2005.

After highlighting some research by Jay Kaufman of McGill University, however, Saini noted that not all white people responded in the desired way when prescribed ACE inhibitors. It was also found that black people would have benefited from this drug that they are typically denied, which means that assigning treatment hypertension based on race “is about as useful as flipping a coin”.

She denounced the validity of race as a factor in some facets of science, arguing that society is the real driving force behind certain beliefs. “Race is not about biology – it’s a story we tell ourselves. Its meaning is embedded not in our bodies but in these stories.”

She continued: “Our ideas of race are not eternal; they come from a time in history when there was a certain racial world view written by those who happened to be in power at the time, and it’s this game that we’ve played for hundreds of years and we are still playing it now.”

Saini concluded by urging the audience to try understand the real facts about human difference as well as our history “to finally abandon the idea that race might be biologically real”.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

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Shelly Madden was sub-editor of Silicon Republic