Review of How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference by

Book cover for How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference

As a few other people on Goodreads have remarked, the subtitle of this book is more accurate than the title. How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference definitely discusses genetics as it relates to race. It is less useful if you’re looking for rhetorical tips on arguing with or debating racists or white supremacists. Adam Rutherford clearly and coherently lays out why such people are wrong to base their beliefs on a genetically-codified notion of race. Nevertheless, he dances around the ultimate problem with arguing with racists. I’ll come back to that later in my review. For now, let’s talk about what’s actually in this book, which I received for free via NetGalley and the publisher.

Rutherford starts with a history lesson of racism-as-science. Some of this was familiar to me, but he keeps it interesting and doesn’t go too far into the weeds. Basically, he examines how the post-Enlightenment world’s obsession with categorizing and classifying everything included classifying people, and many scientists used this as an opportunity to try to codify their particular biases and prejudices. Yet the fact that no single, reliable system of linking race to actual biological attributes has emerged after over 3 centuries of trying really demonstrates that race is socially constructed. Rutherford emphasizes that this is true for genetics as well, pointing out the flaws inherent in breakdowns of one’s ethnicity provided by private genomics companies like 23andMe. I particularly like his point regarding the resolution of genetic data available to these companies. Rutherford points out that 23andMe can only compare your genes to the genes it already has on file—i.e., to anyone else who has paid to have their genome sequence, i.e., disproportionately people from wealthier countries that are often descended from a European population. This type of selection bias is, of course, notably absent from these companies’ marketing material.

The next part of the book questions the utility of linking gene-tracing with ancestry. This had a lot of interesting mathematical and scientific points that were new to me. For example, Rutherford points out that, mathematically, it’s impossible for you to go back more than a handful of generations before you encounter overlap in your family tree. As a result, for any given population, we can trace backwards to a most-recent common ancestor—in the case of the entire world, it’s 3400 years. That means that claims like “all of my ancestors come from this one place in Scotland” are spurious—if true, you would be very, very inbred, because there just aren’t enough unique individuals within that population to create an unbroken lineage as far back as you care to trace it. Indeed, Rutherford’s overall thesis throughout the book is that global migration of human populations, and the resulting admixture of genes, makes it impossible to establish any concrete definition of race on a genetic level.

The final part of the book is devoted to challenging claims that we can easily connect genes to certain types of superiority, be this intellectual or physical. Are West Africans genetically predisposed to being the best at sprinting 100 m? Rutherford points out that there’s precious little evidence for such a belief. Not only does he outline the problem of using elite Olympic athletes (small sample size) for such research, but he points to the numerous environmental factors at play, not to mention the overriding confirmation bias (the idea that certain types of people are better at a sport means we invest more in finding and training those types of people, so of course more of them go on to excel in that sport). Similarly, while Rutherford provides an interesting defence of IQ tests as general indicators of large populations, he challenges the idea that an individual’s IQ test is a meaningful metric for evaluating them; moreover, he points out that the link between genetics and intelligence is still not well-understood.

All of this is well and good, and I enjoyed spending about 2 hours hanging out with Rutherford and listening to him refresh me on what I learned in Grade 12 biology and then stretch my understanding further still.

And yet.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this book doesn’t fundamentally deliver on the promise implicit in its title. I suppose the idea is that, armed with these scientific facts, you’re supposed to bravely go forth and use them next time someone in your company spouts a racist line of reasoning. I guess? Except that it’s fairly well established that facts don’t change people’s minds. I can easily anticipate a racist with whom I’m arguing falling back on one of the numerous conspiracy theories Rutherford himself acknowledges in this book: scientists know that race exists, but they just refuse to admit it because it’s politically incorrect; the Jews are controlling the scientific establishment; look at this one article by a discredited and very racist scientist that repeats all the garbage I just spent fifteen minutes debunking … and so on.

I don’t think we’ll win debates with racists with facts. Truth be told, I‘m not interested in debating racists at all. I’d rather deplatform them.

That being said, if you are interested in being anti-racist and having a better understanding of why scientific ideas of biological race are bunk, you couldn’t do much better than read this book. You’ll come away with an accurate, up-to-date-as-best-we-know-right-now understanding of how our genes actually influence our development. I’m going to follow this up with Superior by Angela Saini as soon as possible for a look at the socio-historical side of this as well.

So, I highly recommend this book, but maybe not for the reasons implied in its title. Educate yourself; try to educate the racists if you feel like it but don’t hold your breath that logic is going to win the day here.

Engagement

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