Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Angela Saini

Paige Patchin: Hi everyone and welcome to the Sarah Parker Remond Centre's podcast. My name is Paige Patchin, and I'm a lecturer based at the centre. I’m here today with science journalist, Angela Saini, who has written a number of award-winning books on science and culture; these include Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World and Inferior: The True Power of Women and the Science that Shows It. Her book Superior: The Return of Race Science is what we are going to talk about here on the podcast today; and this book has really helped me think about the relationship between biology or genetics and identity, and to just come to grips with some of the reasons why the idea of biological race remains so powerful. So, thank you so much, Angela, for being with us today, and for sharing your thoughts and your wisdom.

Angela Saini: Thank you for having me.

Paige: With this in mind, I want to start by asking you about the small dedication that you have just before the table of contents in your book, which says, "For my parents, the only ancestors I need to know". And when I was reading this I thought this so interesting and I understood it as linked to all of the arguments you make in the book, so can you tell me about your decision to start the book in that way?

Angela: Well, dedications are normally written at the end, and in this case it wasn't very serious, so I'm not saying that I don't care about my grandparents or my ancestors before that, or my extended family; it's just that I grew up as a second generation immigrant in Britain and the only family I really knew intimately growing up were my parents. I didn't really have a great deal of exposure to the rest of my family; that's not to say we didn't visit them, we did, I did see them sometimes in the holidays and things. But my values, my sense of self, a lot of my cultural ideas came from my parents. And that dedication was, in a way, a dig at these ancestry testing companies above all, who kind of claim that they can give you a sense of self or a sense of identity by scanning your DNA, which is just nonsense. That's not where identity and culture come from. That's not where we should get our sense of self - from some kind of idea that it's biologically rooted inside us - it's not, it comes from the experiences that we have, the lives that we live, the way that people treat us, our relationship to society. So, I was just poking fun at that really rather than making any profound point.

Paige: Yeah, that's great. Can you tell me a little bit more about- a dig at the ancestry companies, why is this such a popular and profitable idea today to look into DNA as the root of who we are? Why is that idea so seductive?

Angela: I think partly it comes from the fact that not everybody has any other tangible way of getting to their family roots. So, I remember a few years ago I was in Dublin, and somebody took me to the Irish Emigration Museum; it was founded and paid for by a very wealthy Irish-American - I say Irish-American, but this is an American whose family had come from Ireland very long ago, so using it in that sense - and most of the visitors to this museum used it as a way to trace their Irish ancestry, or to learn about their Irish ancestry, so most of the visitors were Americans. And for them, over generations, they must have lost touch with their family - they presumably didn't have very much family anymore and if it was family it was very distant family - and that speaks to this need that many of us have to understand the history of ourselves, where we sit in the world and what our ancestors have done; we draw a sense of pride from that, a sense of ourselves from that; we can't help it, a lot of people do it. This is why genealogy is so fascinating to so many people, it's such a popular hobby. But let's just say you don't have that; say you're an African-American whose ancestors were slaves, ripped apart from their culture, ripped away from their identity, names changed, their children often taken away from them; so, all of that becomes very piecemeal and precarious, and you want to be able to claim those things. That's why ancestry testing is so popular among African-American groups, but I think also among those who don't have that history anymore, because it feels real, especially in the age that we live in, which is a very genetically deterministic age; DNA testing is meant to tell us who we are, it's meant to give a blueprint or catalogue of who we are and what our future is going to be like even, not just our past but also our future. And so, I think people see it on a par with going through letters and records and historical data like that; they see it as the same kind of thing. It's not really the same kind of thing, and we know that because we can see how problematic it is when we take these tests for ourselves. Now, I have no need to take these tests, I know where my family have lived for generations on both sides of my family. I can even go to my dad's old village where he grew up, and he still has family there and they have their big house and I can see it and I can go there and be part of it, so it's less relevant to me. But I did have a test done for a TV programme I was making - we didn't use it in the end - and I was curious, and I had a look at the results, obviously, and they told me that I was 96% South Asian. So, that doesn't narrow it down very much and it was no information I wouldn't have had even if I hadn't known who my parents were, it wouldn't really have narrowed things down for me very much at all. But that's the nature of these tests, they can't be very exact because we are not so genetically dissimilar from each other. We are most genetically close to our closest relatives; so let's just say that everyone on the planet had a DNA test done, well, in that case it would find my relatives everywhere; it'd find them in the US, all over Asia, all over Europe; what would that tell me about myself that I don't already know? So, it's just a very weird fraught way of pinning down identity; but I can also understand when you've got nothing else, then I can understand why people resort to it.

Paige: Well, you recently wrote a piece in The Lancet, Stereotype threat, on Covid and the idea that certain racial groups are more predisposed to death as a result of the pandemic. Do you think you could spell out some of the linkages there between how dangerous this idea that genetics can be and how this folds into medical research as well?

Angela: I think many of us have lived with these folk myths about race and health. For example, you go to your doctor and if you happen to be of Asian origin they might say you're more likely to have diabetes, or you're at higher risk of this, this and that; and that if you're black, you're more likely to suffer hypertension. So, we do have a lot of these racial myths spinning around us all the time, and that can give the impression to people that there is something deep-down, genetically, that makes us more predisposed to certain conditions. Hard though it is to believe, race is a very poor proxy for health differences and racial differences even when it comes to health. And the example a lot of people will raise when I mention this is sickle cell, for instance. Now, sickle cell, if you see why people have sickle cell trait, it's because it occurs in those parts of the world where malaria is common because the trait itself confers, if you have it, some resistance to malaria; so that's why it has survived, otherwise, a condition as debilitating as that wouldn't survive in the population unless it gave you some other advantages. Now, malaria is not just found in certain African countries, it's found in many countries where people have pale white skin. So, like I said, it's linked to malaria. Geographically, globally, it does not look like a black/white condition, it just depends on the region that you're from; parts of Africa you will see it, not all parts, but certain parts of Africa and certain parts of the rest of the globe where people don't have black skin. The reason that we associate it or that we think of it as a black condition in the countries where we do think this, like in the UK and the US, is because of demographics. For example, in the US, if most of the white population is Western European or European from regions where malaria is not common, and most of the black population happens to be West African origin or West African heritage, where malaria is common, then demographically in that environment it's going to look like a black/white condition, even if it doesn't look like that globally. So, this is just a demographic issue, it's not really a biological issue anymore. But even then, statistically, because it does occur in white people too, when some time ago a number of US states wanted to screen just black babies for sickle cell as a cost saving measure, because we know it to be more common in black babies than white babies, but when they looked at the statistics they realised that the likelihood of seeing sickle cell trait in a black baby, because of demographics, was of the same order of magnitude as seeing it in any baby, they screen all babies irrespective- those states now screen all babies, irrespective of race, because the black population is smaller and white people also have sickle cell. So, when you take all of that into account statistically, then it makes sense to screen all babies, irrespective of race. But in our imagination, it still plays out that way. And certainly doctors, that can sometimes blind doctors to recognising conditions in certain people because they associate it with a different group. So, there's a case I give in the book of a doctor, Richard Garcia, whose friend wasn't diagnosed with cystic fibrosis - which is a really incredibly debilitating serious condition - until she was eight years old, so quite late in her life, because she was black and doctors associated CF with white kids. And it wasn't until her X-ray was on a screen, so the passing doctor didn't know what colour she was, they could only see her X-ray, they could only see inside her body, that they realised this person clearly has CF and then she was diagnosed. So, we have to be very careful that even if there are statistical - small statistical - differences between very large populations, that doesn't really tell you anything definitively about any one patient. That's the problem with medicine, that even if you see tiny differences between millions of people, that doesn't mean you can say anything about one person. And it's tricky because doctors are still under the sway of this, and under the sway also of a lot of racial myths that existed in the 19th century. There was a survey done a few years ago at the University of Virginia, I think - I'm recalling here, so I may have got these facts wrong - but I think it was the University of Virginia of medical trainees that showed that half of these trainees still believed at least one pseudoscientific racial myth, for example, that black people don't feel pain in same way, or that their bones are thicker, or their skin is thicker or their bones are denser. So, one of these nonsense pseudoscientific myths from the 19th century, they still believed, these young trainees still believed. There are so many aspects here of race and health that we need to pick apart; the social history of it, the politics of it, why people want to believe the things they do, and the statistics and demography of it. And the point I was making in The Lancet article that you mentioned, was that in the Covid-19 pandemic, why were, early on, so many medical professionals speculating about the possibility of genetic differences between racial groups that could explain the statistics we were seeing in the US and the UK - not globally, because globally the picture did not look this way at all, statistically it was the opposite if anything - but to explain within the countries that they were in what we were seeing. It just didn't make any sense. There have always been racial disparities in health, obviously, because of the way we live, the same way that there are class disparities in health. So, of course they were going to play out in the event of a pandemic, you would expect them to; not least because in the UK Covid-19 hit London first and London is a minority white British city; what do you expect the statistics to show you when most of the front-line workers in healthcare, doing public transport, driving taxis, working the airports, are largely ethnic minorities? Of course the statistics are not going to look the same way they would look if every person in the UK was given Covid-19 evenly at exactly the same time, and yet people were behaving as though that was what was happening. And I wrote that piece really just to remind doctors about remembering that race is a social construct. No matter what you think and what you imagine, whatever myths you have floating round your head, race is still a social construct.

Paige: Building on that - it's a social construct - so, where does it come from? The subtitle of your book is The Return of Race Science, so for me there are two questions there for our listeners: what is race science? And then did it ever go away or what do you mean by the return?

Angela: Well, it never went away, but the popularity of these ideas does wax and wane. And I think particularly now - with the rise of the far-right, the rise of ethnic and religious nationalism, with the lack of regulation of social media and the Internet - these ideas, some very heavily debunked pseudoscientific ideas, conspiracy theories almost around race, have resurged and have become popular among these groups again. That's not to say that there isn't an unbroken line over the last few hundred years of these ideas anyway, but certainly now is a moment in which they're being circulated like they haven't before, for lots of different reasons. I think also when we're talking about the fringe, or when we're talking about the far-right, that feels like something separate- it feels less separate now given what we saw happening at the Capitol and what we see happening across Europe, it doesn't feel as distant and marginal as it used to; but I think also we have to look at the mainstream equation in this. Mainstream academia, by and large, is not affected by the myth that race is not a social construct, although disciplines like medicine are more under the sway of it than others; but these myths are still there and as we've seen during this pandemic over the last year, they're always bubbling under the surface, waiting for when we're off-guard, they somehow just pop up again and you realise they never really went away, that it only takes a little nudge or prod and suddenly people are spouting this nonsense all over again and you have to debunk it all over again. For me, very often, it's just about narratives, the story that we build around human difference and how we present this story. There's lots of different ways to present it, all of which are true; for example, you could say that we are a very homogeneous species but there are slight statistical differences between populations if you look very hard - that's true, but what do you focus on? You could focus on the fact that we're very homogeneous as a species and present that as a story; or you could focus all your story on looking for the differences at the margins. And I worry that sometimes scientists spend so long looking for the differences in the margins, and very often don't find them or if they do find them, they're very, very slight; but they focus so much of their energy on that that the first story gets lost. And I certainly think that when scientists are speaking to the public, they need to emphasise that first story; we are pretty much the same underneath ultimately, we are so homogeneous as a species. The biggest differences between us lie genetically at the individual level and socially at the cultural and linguistic level, in terms of how we draw boundaries between nations, between nation states and values and culture. Very little of any of it is genetic, hardly anything, and certainly not enough to warrant the kind of speculation that we see around racial differences in health or anything else.

Paige: So, there's this excellent part in your book where you talk about how the figure of the Neanderthal changed over time in these early and then later explorations of the origin of the human species. Could you say a little bit more about that?

Angela: This is a really tricky story, because I don't think any scientist would ever admit or ever believe that they themselves have changed the way they think about Neanderthals just because we know now definitively that many Europeans, for instance, have Neanderthal ancestry as it's described, or that our long ago distant ancestors mated with Neanderthals- modern humans did. But it's really difficult to read the literature and see the history of the way that we have framed Neanderthals and not come away with the conclusion that they have changed the way that they think about them; whether it's subtle and subconscious, that may be true, but it's definitely happened. 100 or 150 years ago, when the first bones of Neanderthals were discovered in Europe, near Neander Valley in Germany- when they were first discovered one of the first things that researchers did was compare them to Aboriginal Australians- living people on the other side of the world. And the reason they did this was because there was this belief in an evolutionary hierarchy of races, where certain races were doomed to die out and others were higher up and more evolved than others; and the assumption was that because Neanderthals were a race that had already died out, that maybe they would have more in common with other races that they thought were due to die out. And, of course, Australia was the perfect example of that, the way that living modern human Australians were treated - Aboriginal Australians were treated - was as though they were going to die; that was kind of underpinning the White Australia policy, one of the most racist policies on the planet that essentially, in a genocidal way, was trying to breed the colour out of Aboriginal Australians and destroy their entire existence. So, their imagined affinity to Neanderthals was a kind of justification for keeping them out of the circle of humanity, that we are modern humans and Neanderthals and these other people are not modern humans. Now, skip forward to the present day and over the last 30 years or so it's become clear that modern humans mated with other human species that existed thousands of years ago, including Neanderthals, and modern day Europeans have some of the highest percentages of evidence of that happening in their ancestry. And you can see in the literature a kind of change in the way that Neanderthals are described; no longer this kind of brutish, slow-witted, doomed to die out kind of species that couldn't just keep up with humans, modern humans were just too fast for it; now, you read the newspapers and magazines and it's all about how they were just like us, they felt pain like us, they had diseases like us, maybe they were really quite smart but then something else happened and that's why they died out. We don't really know, we don't really know much about Neanderthals, we haven't got that much more information than we did before; but it's just interesting to me that now that we know that they have this relationship to modern day humans, particular Europeans, that Neanderthals are drawn into the circle of humanity; when a hundred years ago their supposed affinity was to Aboriginal Australians, living modern humans, was used to drive them, living modern humans, out of the circle of humanity. We are so much happier drawing Neanderthals in than we were drawing Aboriginal Australians into that same circle, even though they are living people like us, more alike to us than anybody else, any other species of human that has lived in past. That, to me, is racism in science in a nutshell.

Paige: Yeah, that's a really illuminating example about all the different moving parts here. I wonder if we can change tack just a little bit; before you wrote Superior you wrote Inferior, which I understand it to kind of unravel science on sex and gender in the same way that you unravel science on race in Superior. And I just wonder what some of the common themes are across these two books; how did one inform the other? How does it inform your thinking on both of these things?

Angela: There are some common themes; I didn't intend for the two books to have a relationship with one another, although both do look at bias in science and the way that scientists are affected by the world and the cultures around them and the systems of knowledge that they're trained up in. So, in that sense they’re very similar. One thing that did surprise me is that very often the publications - I'm talking about the fringe publications that I would look at that talk about race - very often, would also talk about sex differences. So, for example, the Mankind Quarterly, which is one of these journals - pseudo-journals - it was founded after the Second World War by Nazi race scientists and eugenicists in order to propagate the kind of scientific racism that wasn't acceptable in mainstream journals anymore, and it was pseudoscientific, it was all politically motivated. Well, these days, the Mankind Quarterly publishes just as much on sex difference as it does on anything else, it's really obsessed with sex difference and this idea that gender inequality is not down to oppression or inequality of opportunity, but just because men and women are different, we don't think the same way. And I think what that says or speaks to is their kind of worldview, that the world looks the way it does and the reason that all these disparities exist in the world is not because of history or culture or society, but this is just how things shake out naturally, this is just because we're deep-down different; there are deep-seated differences, evolutionary differences...

Paige: It's biology, it's nature...

Angela: ...it's all biology, it's nature; which is a very powerful argument for some economists and political scientists. So, a lot of the people who still make these arguments tend not to be geneticists or biologists, they tend to be political scientists and economists; some of the most active like Charles Murray, for instance, who's a political scientist; there's another guy at LSE who I write about, Kanazawa, he is at the LSE, he's not a biologist. So, I wonder if, for them, they see it as an overarching theory that can explain global economics and global history; it is a tool in that kit- it shouldn't be a tool in that kit because it's a very dangerous and pseudoscientific tool to be using, but it's still there and they keep branching it.

Paige: And it's a simpler story than saying 600 years of colonialism, for example.

Angela: It's a very simpler story- but we love simplistic arguments. We love to have single explanations that can fully explain all these complex things that are going on in the world. We saw that happening during the Covid-19 pandemic as well when people started talking about vitamin D, 'vitamin D might explain why people with darker skin are dying at higher rates than others'. I have to say here, I've been taking vitamin D supplements for years, high-strength vitamin D because I was a little bit lacking in vitamin D a few years ago- it didn't stop me from getting Covid. Anyway that's not the point, one person is not a good example of any medical phenomenon, but the point is, why do we look to these single kind of technological or scientific or biological explanations for very complex social phenomena which very rarely have a single cause; they often have multiple causes. And maybe we like that it feels neat, it feels neat if we can explain the world that way.

Paige: Yeah, and it also doesn't require a change in the way things are as well, it's 'this is how it should be'. The last thing before we go, Angela, that I want to ask you- it touches on some of the things we've been covering across this whole conversation, but it concerns using the language of science for anti-racism, and you could also say for combatting sexism as well. Your book shows science to be both culture and politics, but you also use science and the science of DNA at times to refute the idea biological race; so, the big question then is, do you think the language of science, talking about narratives, is a good way to do anti-racist work? Or, is science just too wrapped up in the long history of racism to be useful in that way?

Angela: I think there's a bit of both there. I don't think science can be like a weapon against racism, because I don't think people are racist because they've read all the science and then have become convinced that this is why they think this way, even if they've cherry-picked the science. I think people learn a bigotry from somewhere, and they experience it or they want to believe it, and then they turn to science for support. This is what a lot of ethnic nationalists online do, is that they look in the journal articles, they try and find an academic who is sympathetic to what they're saying and then they latch onto them and they ignore everything else. If they really cared about the science, of course, they wouldn't do that. So, I do think it's useful to remind people that we are all the same underneath, for instance, that we are genetically very homogeneous, and all of this because it reminds us - not that we should need reminding, we shouldn't need reminding of this - but it reminds us that we are all just one species and that differences are superficial. But of course, that's not enough, that's not going to mean anything to a racist, it doesn't mean anything for them. And in fact, racists go to incredible lengths and mental acrobatics to try and justify the things that they believe any way they can. And I think the more interesting thing for me, then, is to understand why these myths persist; why do we want to believe these things so much? Including scientists- why do some scientists want to believe these things so much? Why do some scientists and academics devote their careers to making these claims, even when it goes counter to so much of what we know?

Paige: And how and why they become solidified at particular moments in time as well.

Angela: A lot of everyday scientists I meet will say to me 'I'm not racist, I don't have a problem, my department doesn't have a problem, we're good people, we're trying to do good work'. And then you say then why is everyone in your department white? Why do you not have any people of colour working in your organisation? This is how racism manifests; it doesn't just manifest in what you politically vote for, it manifests in the environment that you're in, the choices that you are making that other people don't get to make that lands you with the demographics that you have in the environment that you're in. It's being able to say to yourself 'well on Twitter I'm always fighting these racists', which some people have said to me, and yet in their actual work in their research they keep perpetuating these ideas in other subtle ways; you can't have it both ways. I know other scientists, geneticists for instance, who talk a really good game on anti-racism and yet never cite any black researchers, never cite any people of colour in their work, don't support non-white academics. Anti-racism is not just about what you as a person politically believe, it's your intentions and what you do in the world around you. And I think that's maybe where so many of us trip up, is that we think of it as a performative thing, anti-racism, and it's not, it's the way that you live; it's not just how you think, it's the way that you live and your actions every day.

Paige: I think that's a great place to end. Thank you so much, Angela, I really appreciate meeting with you today. Well, really quickly, what are your next plans? What's the next book?

Angela: Well I'm writing a book on patriarchy. It's a very difficult question, but I got asked it a lot when Inferior came out, because there's a chapter in there on male domination, and in there I say that we hadn't always been male dominated as species, and everybody kept asking me: 'then, when did things change? And how did things change?' So that's what I'm trying to answer.

Paige: Oh, excellent, I'll be the first one to read that. Alright, thanks again, this has been really fun.

Angela: Take care.

Paige: Bye.