A review of 'How to Argue With a Racist' by Adam Rutherford

The latest book by geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford is, according to the author, a “weapon”; specifically, one that will “provide a foundation to contest racism that appears to be grounded in science.” It follows in the same tradition as two other recent books warning against the misuse of science to justify racism: Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, and Skin Deep: Journeys in the Divisive Science of Race by Gavin Evans. Rutherford’s offering – How to Argue With a Racist – is neatly structured into four main parts. The first deals with the concept of race; the second with the related concept of genealogy; the third with group differences in sporting achievement; and the fourth with the particularly thorny topic of group differences in intelligence.

The book is clear, well-written and entertaining to read. There is relatively little to disagree with, so far as the science is concerned, in the first two parts. Rutherford provides a decent overview of recent findings from population genetics and what they tell us about the genetic structure of human populations. Likewise, his discussion of family trees turns out to be accessible and engaging. For example, you might assume that the last common ancestor of all Europeans lived five or perhaps ten thousand years ago, but – as Rutherford notes – the correct answer is only about six hundred years ago. Because the number of positions in your family tree doubles each generation you go back in time, more and more of those positions have to be filled by the same individuals. As a result, you don’t have to go back very far before a given individual fills at least one position in the family tree of every European who is alive today.

Rutherford offers a fair summary of the limitations of commercial ancestry tests, and his discussion of the problems that unexpected test results may present for the denizens of websites like Stormfront (e.g., anti-Semites finding out they have Jewish ancestry) is equal parts shocking and amusing. He is surely correct to note that, although many aspects of human genetics are messy and complicated, “We crave simple stories to make sense of our identities.” Rutherford also deserves credit for not shying away from certain controversial facts about human intelligence. For example, he acknowledges that “the heritability of intelligence is high (more than 50 percent)”, and points out that equating IQ with merely being good at IQ tests is “not a very clever thing to say”. 

Before detailing some specific quibbles we have with Rutherford’s arguments, we should state our main point of disagreement with him: we disagree that an appropriate way to “argue with a racist” is to insist that racism is not “supported by science”. Rutherford states, “Neither race nor racism has foundations in science.” He notes that “the racism expressed by white supremacists is not supported by science”. And he refers to racism “that is similarly impossible to justify from a biological perspective”. He even goes so far as to say, “It is effectively casual racism to suggest that biological ethnicity is more important than other factors”. All these quotes seem to imply that we can test whether a racist assertion is true by collecting data and running analyses. Yet as Steven Pinker notes, “political equality is a moral stance, not an empirical hypothesis”.

We already know (and Rutherford acknowledges) that individual differences in traits like intelligence are heritable. This means that some individuals have lower IQs than other individuals partly because of their genes. We also know that certain genetic disorders (such as Down syndrome or Fragile X syndrome) can give rise to severe intellectual disabilities. Does this mean that the expression of animus towards individuals with low IQs, or towards those with intellectual disabilities, is “supported by science”? Of course not. 

Note: we are not saying that various claims made by persons who frequent Stormfront (or other similar forums) are necessarily true (we suspect – as Rutherford argues – that many of these claims are false). However, we are saying it is possible for an individual with racist views to have scientifically correct beliefs about the world. For example, a white person who expressed animus towards black people purely because they had darker skin and curlier hair than him would be correct in believing that those characteristics were attributable to their genes. Hence we believe that the most appropriate way to “argue with a racist” is to put forward moral objections to racism.

Rutherford’s claim, “It is effectively casual racism to suggest that biological ethnicity is more important than other factors” is particularly surprising in light of what he says earlier in that same chapter (on sport). He quotes the black American sprinter (and four-time Olympic gold-medal winner) Michael Johnson as saying, “Slavery has benefited descendants like me – I believe there is a superior athletic gene in us.” Rutherford then notes that this is “an interesting argument, and is worth scrutinising.” Does Johnson’s statement qualify as both “an interesting argument” and “casual racism”? It is not clear.

We will now discuss some specific points of disagreement we have with Rutherford. First, in the chapter on ‘race’, Rutherford notes that the 18th century German anthropologist Johann Blumenbach “put humans in five taxonomic ancestral groups”. He then compares Blumenbach’s view with that of the philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, which he describes as “even more modern” on the grounds that Herder “saw human variation on a continuum”. (For example, he stated, “The colours run into one another…”) However, there is evidence that Blumenbach too was aware that much human variation is continuous. In his thesis On the Natural Variety of Mankind, he stated that “one variety of mankind does so sensibly pass into the other, that you cannot mark out the limits between them.” 

Second, Rutherford claims that “none of the historical or colloquial usages of race tallies with what genetics tells us about human variation.” While we broadly agree with Rutherford’s account of the genetic structure of human populations, we believe this particular statement is too strong. For example, one colloquial usage of ‘race’ is to refer to self-identified racial groups in the United States: blacks, whites, Hispanics and Asians. Since blacks and Hispanics are populations of mixed ancestry, and ‘Asians’ comprises both East and South Asians, these categories do not map onto the major ancestral populations from which individuals’ ancestries may be derived. However, they are correlated with those ancestral populations. A 2005 study by Hua Tang and colleagues found “a nearly perfect correspondence” between genetic clusters and self-identified racial groups in the United States. And several subsequent studies have reported similar results. 

Third, Rutherford claims, “Racial differences are skin deep”, by which he presumably means that genes only contribute to differences between “races” on traits like skin colour, hair texture and epicanthic folds. Again, we do not consider this statement to be technically accurate. In a 2002 review of the literature, Valentine Burroughs and colleagues noted, “Pharmacogenetic research in the past few decades has uncovered significant differences among racial and ethnic groups in the metabolism, clinical effectiveness, and side-effect profiles of many clinically important drugs.” Likewise, a 2019 review of the literature by Deepti Gurdasani and colleagues noted, “There are several examples of population-specific variants that have been implicated in infectious and non-communicable diseases.” For example, mutations in the PCSK9 gene that are associated with risk of heart disease “were found to be more common in populations of African descent and are rare or absent in European populations.”

Fourth, Rutherford claims that biological explanations for the dominance of East Africans in long-distance running and West Africans in sprinting are “quite untenable”, but we are not convinced by his arguments. He notes that in the early 20th century, “Finnish people utterly dominated long-distance running”, and that their success was attributed to innate factors by at least one contemporaneous writer. However, neither Kenya nor Ethiopia – the two nations that dominate long-distance running today – took part in the Olympics until 1956. Rutherford acknowledges that body shape “is a factor in endurance running success”, noting that light and lean physiques “abound in East Africa”. However, he doesn’t develop the point further. As a matter of fact, several studies have shown that East African runners have longer, narrower legs, higher calf insertions, and longer Achilles tendons, all of which serve to enhance running economy. As David Epstein noted in his book The Sports Gene, having thin ankles seems to be particularly important in running because “the leg is akin to a pendulum, and the greater the weight at the end of the pendulum, the more energy is required to swing it”. We do not necessarily disagree with Rutherford’s suggestion that “a culture of running” contributes to the success of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, but there is good reason to believe that anthropometry matters too.

Rutherford calls into question biological explanations for West African (or rather, non-East African) dominance in sprinting by noting that only five men from Africa (as opposed to, say, Americans or Jamaicans with African ancestry) have competed in the Olympic 100m final since 1980. He states, “By this metric, African men are precisely as successful as white men.” However, if instead of Olympic finalists he had used men who have broken the 10-second barrier as his sample, he would have counted a larger number of Africans: ten Nigerians, six South Africans, three Ghanaians, two Zimbabweans, two Ivorians, and one Namibian. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that other factors – such as wealth or culture – affect sprinting success in addition to biological correlates of ancestry. Rutherford then asks why there are so few Africans in Olympic weightlifting. This again is most likely attributable to their body proportions, which are less advantageous in weightlifting. As Adam Storey and Heather Smith noted in a 2012 review of the literature, “In comparison to other strength and power athletes of a similar body mass and composition, weightlifters have proportionally shorter arm span and tibial lengths, larger biacromial breadths and are shorter in height.” 

Fifth, referring to race and intelligence, Rutherford notes, “It is often said that this is a taboo subject”. However, he goes on to say that he doesn’t “recognise this picture”, and claims that the frequency of discussions around race and intelligence “doesn’t speak of supposedly forbidden knowledge.” We would beg to differ. Since the 1970s there have been numerous controversies in the field of intelligence, many but not all of which relate to the subject of racial differences. Scholars interested in this subject have been protested, petitioned, punched, kicked, stalked, spat on, fired from their jobs and stripped of their honorary titles. In December of 2019, the New York Times was forced to issue a correction after it published an article which merely mentioned a study of Ashkenazi Jewish IQ. And in January of 2020, a journal that published a paper advocating free inquiry into the causes of group differences in IQ was subjected to an online petition calling for the paper’s retraction (the journal refused).

Sixth, while Rutherford deserves credit for attempting to grapple with the hypothesis that genes contribute to group differences in IQ, we do not find his arguments very persuasive. He only engages with a small amount of the relevant literature, and spends most of the chapter criticising a single research paper. Referring to the lower average IQ scores observed in Africa, Rutherford notes that “while it is not possible to fully exclude genetic factors, these seem unlikely due to the immense genetic diversity that is now well established across that continent”. However, it is not clear why the high level of genetic diversity in Africa would make a genetic contribution to population differences in IQ scores “unlikely”. (Practically all Africans have dark hair, for example.) Rutherford mentions the Flynn effect – the increase in average IQ scores over time – as something that could explain a “big part” of the “alleged discrepancy” in average IQ between Europe and Africa. Yet his discussion leaves out important caveats, such as that some IQ tests may not be capturing real differences over time.

Regarding the hypothesis that genes contribute to the particularly high average IQ observed in Ashkenazi Jews, Rutherford asks, “Is it not simply more scientifically parsimonious to suggest that a culture that values scholarship is more likely to produce scholars?” However, he does not explain why “a culture that values scholarship” has boosted the IQ scores and scholarly achievements of Ashkenazi Jews but not those of other Jewish populations. We agree with Rutherford that it is too early “to make definitive statements about evolutionary selection” when it comes to group differences in IQ. Hence we were somewhat puzzled by his blanket assertion in the conclusion that genes “do not account for differences in academic, intellectual, musical or sporting performance” between populations. Given the complexity of the subject matter, and the current lack of dispositive evidence, surely it makes sense to remain agnostic about the relative contribution of genes and environment to persistent group differences in cognitive ability?

How to Argue With a Racist is an entertaining and well-written book, but one that does not really achieve the aim set out in its title. If researchers discovered that a substantial portion of the difference in average IQ between Africans and Europeans was explained by genes, would this mean that racists were right all along? Surely not. Rutherford would have been more persuasive if he had avoided ill-defined terms like ‘scientific racism’ and had argued forcefully that racism is wrong regardless of what the causes of group differences turn out to be. A successful guide for how to “argue with a racist” does not need to insist on something as implausible as the athletic and psychological sameness of human populations.

Image: Charles Darwin, English naturalist


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