A new book explores how racist biases continue to maintain a foothold in research today
Scientists, including those who study race, like to see themselves as objectively exploring the world, above the political fray. But such views of scientific neutrality are naive, as study findings, inevitably, are influenced by the biases of the people conducting the work.
The American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois once wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” His words were borne out, in part, by science. It was the century when the scientifically backed enterprise of eugenics—improving the genetic quality of white, European races by removing people deemed inferior—gained massive popularity, with advocates on both sides of the Atlantic. It would take the Holocaust to show the world the logical endpoint of such horrific ideology, discrediting much race-based science and forcing eugenics’ most hardline adherents into the shadows.
The post-war era saw scientists on the right-wing fringe find ways to cloak their racist views in more palatable language and concepts. And as Angela Saini convincingly argues in her new book, Superior: The Return of Race Science, published May 21 by Beacon Press, the “problem of the color line” still survives today in 21st-century science.
In her thoroughly researched book, Saini, a London-based science journalist, provides clear explanations of racist concepts while diving into the history of race science, from archaeology and anthropology to biology and genetics. Her work involved poring through technical papers, reports and books, and interviewing numerous scientists across various fields, sometimes asking uncomfortable questions about their research.
“Mainstream scientists, geneticists and medical researchers still invoke race and use these categories in their work, even though we have been told for 70 years that they have no biological meaning, that they have only social meaning,” Saini says.
Superior tells the disturbing story of the persistent thread of belief in biological racial differences in the world of science.
After the horrors of the Nazi regime in WWII, the mainstream scientific world turned its back on eugenics and the study of racial difference. But a worldwide network of unrepentant eugenicists quietly founded journals and funded research, providing the kind of shoddy studies that were ultimately cited in Richard Hernstein’s and Charles Murray’s 1994 title, The Bell Curve, which purported to show differences in intelligence among races.
Scientific research has struggled with concepts of race for centuries, often proposing misleading or erroneous explanations of racial differences. Contentious debates among Europeans about the origins of modern humans began in the 19th century, and many of the continent’s leading scientists believed firmly that Europeans exemplified the most evolved and intelligent humans. Human fossils in Europe provided the first data points in the budding field of paleoanthropology, but the region was in reality just where European archaeologists happened to start looking. Fossils, as well as cave art, DNA samples and other evidence later uncovered around the world pointed to a more complex picture of human origins: Elements of modern humans emerged throughout Africa, and those people migrated east and then north and west in waves.
Rather than distinct races, groupings or borders, the continually mixing populations produced only gradients, with some traits slightly more common in some regions than others. Lighter skin color in northern climates emerged late; some Britons were shocked to learn that Cheddar Man, the remains of a man who lived in southwest England almost 10,000 years ago, would today have been considered black.
In the 1950s, geneticists began to confirm what some archaeologists had already surmised: “Individual variation within population groups, overlapping with other population groups, turned out to be so large that the boundaries of race made less and less sense,” Saini writes. The conclusion was that no “pure” races exist that are distinct from others. Despite this evidence, those eugenicists still practicing sought to prevent their supposedly superior race from being overrun by immigration, miscegenation and higher birth rates among other ethnicities.
A handful of researchers with similar beliefs, including former Nazi scientist Otmar von Verschuer and British eugenicist Roger Pearson, had trouble getting their research published in reputable journals and formed their own journal in 1961. Mankind Quarterly became a platform for race science—a place to publish questionable research under the trappings of objective science. Intelligence, a more respected psychology journal that’s published by the major publishing company Elsevier, also occasionally included papers with pseudoscientific findings about intelligence differences between races. Until recently, that journal had two eugenics supporters, Gerhard Heisenberg and Richard Lynn, on its editorial board. But by the time Saini finished her book late last year, after interviewing the journal’s editor-in-chief, she saw that the pair had been removed from the journal’s list of board members.
“The extreme stuff poses a dilemma for legitimate scientists, since you can’t read every crank’s work and falsify it,” says Aaron Panofsky, a sociologist of science at UCLA and author of the book, Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics. Researchers don’t want to endow these papers with more legitimacy than they deserve, but they don’t want to ignore them and risk fueling conspiracy theories, either.
While Mankind Quarterly has managed to hang on into the 21st century, “hard-core scientific racists are mostly old white men, and they’re not being reproduced in academia,” Panofsky says. Even so, plenty of racist, young white men continue to promote concepts of scientific racism, such as the participants in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—an event that even the scientific journal Nature felt the need to condemn.
Even more well-meaning epidemiological scientists nonetheless still use race as a crude proxy for myriad social and environmental factors. Saini cites an example of a 2017 study with statistical errors claiming that race and biology indicate that the airways of asthmatic black Americans become more inflamed than those of asthmatic white Americans. Black Americans do suffer more from asthma than whites do, but they’re also affected more by environmental hazards like air pollution from highways and factories as well as disparities in access to high-quality healthcare. These many forms of inequality and structural racism—which sociologists have documented for decades—were swept under the rug in favor of a race variable that led to findings that could be easily misinterpreted.
In another example, Saini describes the ill-fated 1990s Human Genome Diversity Project, which analyzed the genetic variations of small, remote populations referred to as “isolates,” including the Basques in Europe, the Kurds of eastern Turkey and Native American tribes. Indigenous rights activists, understandably sensitive to being exploited, resisted the project, surprising the naive scientists.
Time and time again, groupings by race, even if they don’t use the term “race,” can be dangerous and misleading to people looking for inherent biological differences. But Saini doesn’t think we can be “colorblind” or “post-race” in scientific research either. Scientists who claim to be so tend to have the same problem as the asthma study, ignoring racial inequalities all around that influence a study’s findings. Saini also explores the possibility of affirmative action policies, reparations or environmental justice advocacy, all intended to mitigate structural, historical and scientific racism.
Like many geneticists, Saini argues that since race is a social construct, it doesn’t belong in genetics research. Scientists in other fields have the freedom to study race, she writes, but with that freedom comes responsibility. They can’t afford to leave room for misinterpretation. Researchers using racial categories “should fully understand what they mean, be able to define them, and know their history,” Saini writes.
The rest of us, too, need to be aware of racial stereotypes, lest we fall prey to them. “That’s part of the reason that we’re fascinated by DNA ancestry testing,” Saini says. “The reason it matters to us is because we feel that these racial categories have some meaning, that they can tell us something about ourselves, and that’s just wrong. They can’t.”
Common European traits like pale skin evolved relatively recently in central and southern Europe.
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI—Most of us think of Europe as the ancestral home of white people. But a new study shows that pale skin, as well as other traits such as tallness and the ability to digest milk as adults, arrived in most of the continent relatively recently. The work, presented here last week at the 84th annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, offers dramatic evidence of recent evolution in Europe and shows that most modern Europeans don’t look much like those of 8000 years ago.
The origins of Europeans have come into sharp focus in the past year as researchers have sequenced the genomes of ancient populations, rather than only a few individuals. By comparing key parts of the DNA across the genomes of 83 ancient individuals from archaeological sites throughout Europe, the international team of researchers reported earlier this year that Europeans today are a mix of the blending of at least three ancient populations of hunter-gatherers and farmers who moved into Europe in separate migrations over the past 8000 years. The study revealed that a massive migration of Yamnaya herders from the steppes north of the Black Sea may have brought Indo-European languages to Europe about 4500 years ago.
Now, a new study from the same team drills down further into that remarkable data to search for genes that were under strong natural selection—including traits so favorable that they spread rapidly throughout Europe in the past 8000 years. By comparing the ancient European genomes with those of recent ones from the 1000 Genomes Project, population geneticist Iain Mathieson, a postdoc in the Harvard University lab of population geneticist David Reich, found five genes associated with changes in diet and skin pigmentation that underwent strong natural selection.
First, the scientists confirmed an earlier report that the hunter-gatherers in Europe could not digest the sugars in milk 8000 years ago, according to a poster. They also noted an interesting twist: The first farmers also couldn’t digest milk. The farmers who came from the Near East about 7800 years ago and the Yamnaya pastoralists who came from the steppes 4800 years ago lacked the version of the LCT gene that allows adults to digest sugars in milk. It wasn’t until about 4300 years ago that lactose tolerance swept through Europe.
When it comes to skin color, the team found a patchwork of evolution in different places, and three separate genes that produce light skin, telling a complex story for how European’s skin evolved to be much lighter during the past 8000 years. The modern humans who came out of Africa to originally settle Europe about 40,000 years are presumed to have had dark skin, which is advantageous in sunny latitudes. And the new data confirm that about 8500 years ago, early hunter-gatherers in Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary also had darker skin: They lacked versions of two genes—SLC24A5 and SLC45A2—that lead to depigmentation and, therefore, pale skin in Europeans today.
But in the far north—where low light levels would favor pale skin—the team found a different picture in hunter-gatherers: Seven people from the 7700-year-old Motala archaeological site in southern Sweden had both light skin gene variants, SLC24A5 and SLC45A2. They also had a third gene, HERC2/OCA2, which causes blue eyes and may also contribute to light skin and blond hair. Thus ancient hunter-gatherers of the far north were already pale and blue-eyed, but those of central and southern Europe had darker skin.
Then, the first farmers from the Near East arrived in Europe; they carried both genes for light skin. As they interbred with the indigenous hunter-gatherers, one of their light-skin genes swept through Europe, so that central and southern Europeans also began to have lighter skin. The other gene variant, SLC45A2, was at low levels until about 5800 years ago when it swept up to high frequency.
The team also tracked complex traits, such as height, which are the result of the interaction of many genes. They found that selection strongly favored several gene variants for tallness in northern and central Europeans, starting 8000 years ago, with a boost coming from the Yamnaya migration, starting 4800 years ago. The Yamnaya have the greatest genetic potential for being tall of any of the populations, which is consistent with measurements of their ancient skeletons. In contrast, selection favored shorter people in Italy and Spain starting 8000 years ago, according to the paper now posted on the bioRxiv preprint server. Spaniards, in particular, shrank in stature 6000 years ago, perhaps as a result of adapting to colder temperatures and a poor diet.
Surprisingly, the team found no immune genes under intense selection, which is counter to hypotheses that diseases would have increased after the development of agriculture.
The paper doesn’t specify why these genes might have been under such strong selection. But the likely explanation for the pigmentation genes is to maximize vitamin D synthesis, said paleoanthropologist Nina Jablonski of Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), University Park, as she looked at the poster’s results at the meeting. People living in northern latitudes often don’t get enough UV to synthesize vitamin D in their skin so natural selection has favored two genetic solutions to that problem—evolving pale skin that absorbs UV more efficiently or favoring lactose tolerance to be able to digest the sugars and vitamin D naturally found in milk. “What we thought was a fairly simple picture of the emergence of depigmented skin in Europe is an exciting patchwork of selection as populations disperse into northern latitudes,” Jablonski says. “This data is fun because it shows how much recent evolution has taken place.”
Anthropological geneticist George Perry, also of Penn State, notes that the work reveals how an individual’s genetic potential is shaped by their diet and adaptation to their habitat. “We’re getting a much more detailed picture now of how selection works.”