“This book is a weapon.” That is the first sentence of Adam Rutherford’s pacy, power-packed How To Argue With A Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality. Speaking directly to his readers, the geneticist and popular science writer explains he wants “to equip you with the scientific tools to tackle questions on race, genes, and ancestry. It is a toolkit to help separate fact from myth in understanding how we are similar and how we are different.”
Rutherford is an outstanding communicator, whose resume includes the excellent 2016 A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes, last year’s acclaimed Humanimal: How Homo Sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature, and numerous BBC television and radio programmes. In this new livewire of a book, he marshals all the evidence necessary “to be brandished when science is warped, misrepresented or abused to make a point, or to justify hatred”.
The effort is perfectly timed because, somewhat unexpectedly, we find ourselves besieged anew by inter-connected bigotries in the name of race, caste and religion, shadowed by the burgeoning of exclusionary politics in different parts of the world. “Nationalism is on the rise, and discussions of race seem to be more prominent in the public arena than in years,” Rutherford writes. “Stereotypes and myths about race are expressed not just by overt racists whose voices are amplified by modern technology, but also by well-intentioned people whose experience and cultural history steer them towards views that are not supported by the modern study of human genetics.”
By now, at the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century, things were supposed to be different. We were told America had become “post-racial” after the election of Barack Obama, and similarly encouraged to celebrate multiculturalism’s triumph in “cool Britannia”. In India, the ascendant Bharatiya Janata Party pledged to take everyone to progress with their slogan “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. But none of those promises were kept. Instead, much of the world turned sharply right, into what Human Rights Watch describes as “racism, xenophobia, misogyny and nativism [which] poses a dangerous threat to laws and institutions that promote dignity, tolerance, and equality”.
Rutherford has faced the edge of some of this himself, as his mother is Guyanese-British of Indian descent. “In the last couple of years, in response to writing to talking about human history, genetics and race, strangers have called me a Paki, a Jewish rat and a race traitor with ‘insidious influence’…I have been told that I should be grateful for colonialisation and the British Empire as, without it, I would not exist – technically this argument is correct, though, it’s pretty nuts,” he admitted.
Those kinds of slurs will be painfully familiar to anyone from elsewhere who has tried to assimilate into the dominant cultural paradigms of the west. There appeared to be some hope in the 1990s, when the harshest rhetoric was forced underground for a time (although I have angry memories from even those years, of being assaulted by the N-word when playing basketball for University of London) but as Amit Chaudhuri has eloquently described, “the old cliches have proved astonishingly tenacious”. Rutherford notes, “The vocal expression of racism feels more prevalent today that it has been in decades.”
How To Argue With A Racist cuts directly to the chase, with tightly argued chapters entitled “Skin in the Game” (about the folly of assigning scientific value to pigmentation), “Your Ancestors Are My Ancestors” (on the canard of pedigree), “Black Power” (which carefully disproves any connection between physicality and race) and “White Matter” (an exquisitely weighted disquisition on cognitive abilities). Its impressively Solomonic summation: “Race is real because we perceive it. Racism is real because we enact it. Neither race nor racism has foundations in science.”
Scattered throughout are explosive nuggets of information, and it would be a shame to reveal too many of them. But here’s one set that I found compelling: “Every Nazi has Jewish ancestors. Every racist has African, Indian, Chinese, Native American, aboriginal Australian ancestors, as well as everyone else, and not just in the sense that humankind is an African species in deep history, but at a minimum from classical times, and probably much more recently. Racial purity is a pure fantasy. For humans there are no purebloods, only mongrels enriched by the blood of multitudes.”
These irrefutable facts of biology contradict the most cherished prejudices of chauvinists of every stripe, including the lunatic Indian obsessions with “purity” that have extended from Hindu casteism into every other religion and section of society. Earlier this month, for just one ugly example, various residents of Hathras – even after the widely-publicised barbaric rape and murder in their midst – blithely informed the media that some of their neighbours “are from an inferior caste. How can they be put on the same pedestal as us?”
As it happens, from felicitously akin motivations to Rutherford, the straight-talking veteran journalist Tony Joseph’s terrific, award-winning 2018 Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From has compiled and analysed all the available scientific research about the origins of the inhabitants of the subcontinent. His conclusion: “There is no such thing as a ‘pure group’, race or caste that has existed since ‘time immemorial’ [and we] are today a uniquely Indian civilisation that has drawn together many population groups with different migration histories, and its impulses, culture, traditions and practices come from multiple sources, not just one singular source.”
All the while reading How To Argue With A Racist, I was reminded of Joseph’s book, and emailed him to say that. “There is no such thing as a pure race, and there is no population group in India today that does not bear the imprint of the major mixing between different migrant populations that happened between 4000 years ago and 2000 years ago,” he replied. “We are all mixed; we are all migrants and the largest portions of ancestry that all of us carry belong to the First Indians and the Harappans – who themselves were a mixture of the First Indians and a population related to the early farmers of Iran. And this is irrespective of what caste you belong to, what language you speak or what region you inhabit.”
Joseph added: “It is always important to bear in mind that all humans living today share 99.9% of their DNA. So the differences that we talk about are really minor when seen in perspective. Race today is a meaningless word because we know that all population groups that exist today are mixtures of earlier population groups, which themselves were mixtures of even more ancient population groups. We also know that repeated mass migrations in history are what shaped almost all population groups in the world today. If there are any exceptions to this at all, these would be very small and isolated populations in extremely remote locations who have no had no contact with people outside for, say, tens of thousands of years. As you can imagine, that is very unlikely. It is time that we stopped using the word race, except in athletics.”
In his final chapter, entitled Conclusion and Recapitulation, Rutherford points out that people who are “fixated on finding biological bases for racial differences appear more interested in the racism than the science” but “racism is not simply wrong because it is based on scientifically specious ideas. Racism is wrong because it is an affront to human dignity.”
That moral argument resonates intensely in our collective pandemic predicament, especially after the stunning Black Lives Matter protests that roiled so many cities around the world, so I reached out to Rutherford to ask if he agreed. He promptly wrote back to tell me he’s added a new chapter to address this, as “Covid-19 was racialised immediately, as in the UK, the US and elsewhere, Black, Asian, Hispanic and other minority groups were infected and died at a significantly higher frequency than White people. This is best explained by socio-economic reasons though, not be some imagined underlying genetics.”
Meanwhile, “as for George Floyd and BLM, this tragic event was far from unique in the recent history of the US. Black men being killed by police, and ensuing violence has occurred many times in the last few years, and the US has never come close to resolving its racist history. The main difference is that structural racism in the US, and elsewhere is now exposed like a nerve, and cannot be hidden.”
This underlines why the research he has compiled and presented is all-important. “We need weapons against the abuse of science to propagate bigotry because science is no ally to racism, and that is what is happening,” Rutherford said. “In its inception, science – or what we now regard as pseudoscience –
was co-opted into racist political ideologies to justify colonialisation and Empire, and slavery. Today, we are seeing that the latest advances in genetics and evolution are being misinterpreted and misrepresented by a vocal minority of fringe scientists and race hobbyists to assert that race is biologically meaningful, when all the evidence clearly says it is not.”
Since it is becoming increasingly complicated to combat vicious prejudice and discrimination, as it is being broadcast at the highest volume from the senior-most positions in our governments and societies, I listed three recent examples to Rutherford, and asked him how to deal with each situation.
First up was the Republican candidate for US Senate from Delaware, Lauren Witzke’s snide, witless tweet on October 7: “Most third-world migrants can not assimilate into civil societies. Prove me wrong.”
Rutherford was scornful, “That is such an idiotic thing to say that I can’t begin to answer it. Third World is a stupid and long-abandoned term anyway All people are migrants at some stage. Nigerian Americans are amongst the most successful groups in the US. [British] Indians are similarly successful and have been for decades. You’re talking to one.”
A few days ago, the UK government’s ex-chair of its own Race Disparity Unit said the prime minister – who previously proclaimed “this is not a racist country” – believes ethnic minorities “should stop wallowing in victimhood”. To this, Rutherford said, “Boris Johnson himself is an incompetent leader, and by his own pen a racist, so I’m not sure taking instruction from him on what is or is not a racist country is wise. Even if the UK is less racist than other countries, and less racist than it has been in the past (and these things are not easy to measure, but I think both true), the least racist country is still racist.”
Finally, I asked him about India’s caste neuroses, and Rutherford delivered an apt coda. “There is no such thing as racial purity; it is a biological myth,” he said. “This book – and indeed an understanding of genetics, genealogy, history and evolution – will not fix racism. But its key message is that you can be bigoted and racist, but you cannot claim science in your defense. Science is no ally to racism or racists.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.