Amazon deletes top-rated review of Angela Saini's 'Superior'
You may recall that in 2019, Angela Saini wrote a book titled Superior: The Return of Race Science – which argued that nefarious claims about biological group differences had been safely put to bed by Science, only to be reanimated by deplorable “scientific racists” in the last few decades. It wasn’t very good.
One minor problem for Saini, as Bo Winegard and I noted in our review, is that groups clearly do differ biologically, as you can tell by looking at them. (Europeans and Africans living in the same environment are not indistinguishable.) She tried to deal with this problem by drawing a neat line around what she called “superficial” traits. Skin colour, hair texture, facial structure – sure, those things do differ for biological reasons. But only a “scientific racist” would think that other traits might differ for biological reasons too.
Of course, “superficial traits” is not a real scientific category. (At one point, Saini lumps together “skin colour” with traits “that are linked to hard survival”.) It’s a category based on the fact that certain traits generate much stronger emotional reactions from people with egalitarian political convictions. For such people, it doesn’t “matter” if genes explain why some groups have darker skin and some have lighter skin, or why some groups are diagnosed with certain diseases at higher rates. But it would be really “bad” if genes explained why some groups score lower on IQ tests.
Another problem for Saini was that some of the scholars who told her what she didn’t want to hear had the annoying habit of being world-leading geneticists. She went to talk to Harvard’s David Reich, who explained that “there may be more than superficial average differences between black and white Americans, possibly even cognitive and psychological ones, because before they arrived in the United States, these population groups had this seventy thousand years apart during which they adapted to their own different environments.”
Reich did only say “possibly” (going by Saini’s summary of his remarks). But of course, “possibly” implies that the question of whether genes explain group differences in cognitive ability is scientific – contrary to much foot-stamping and placard-waving by “anti-racist” activists. I suppose Saini deserves credit for including Reich’s testimony in her book, given that it kind of undermines the entire argument.
Since publishing Superior, Saini seems to have gone off the radar. The last I heard, she’d gotten into a spat with fellow “anti-racist” science writer, Adam Rutherford. (He is the author of How to Argue With a Racist, which Bo Winegard and I also reviewed.) In February of 2020, Saini tweeted that “a certain science writer” had not only “ignored me since last year” but had “refused to credit or acknowledge the work he had used of a scholar and friend of mine, a woman of colour”. Rutherford subsequently announced that he and Saini had been “congenially discussing this offline”.
Then in March of 2020, she published a bizarre op-ed in Nature denouncing UCL for not engaging in enough self-flaeggelation over its “historical links” to eugenics. This prompted a response from several UCL geneticists, including Rutherford, who took umbrage at her claim that they “had been willing to overlook” their department’s “sordid history”. The geneticists pleaded that they had in fact taught the “pernicious history” of their discipline to “tens of thousands of students who have taken our courses”.
Returning to Superior, the book received a number of other critical reviews besides mine and Bo Winegard’s. One of these, titled ‘Far too short on actual science’, was published on the book’s Amazon page. And as of 6 November 2021, it was the top-rated review, having been designated “helpful” by 335 people. (Finding something “helpful” is Amazon’s equivalent of giving something a “like”.) The next top review, which was also critical, had been designated “helpful” by 199 people.
Mysteriously, however, the top-rated review has now vanished. In other words, it’s nowhere to be found on the book’s Amazon page. Checking the Internet Archive reveals that it disappeared sometime after 6 November 2021. Perhaps the reviewer’s account was zapped after being accidentally flagged as spam? Nope, that’s not what happened. His account is still active. In fact, under “Community activity”, his page indicates “5 Reviews”, yet only four are actually listed. This suggests the review was deleted on purpose because someone objected to its content. (The reviewer informed me that he didn’t nuke it himself.)
‘Far too short on actual science’ is highly recommended. Of particular interest are the final two paragraphs, which now look remarkably prescient. The reviewer contrasted research on race differences with “whiteness studies”, a new-fangled discipline which assumes that “any observed difference between races must be directly or indirectly the result of white racism”. Noting that concepts from this discipline had motivated the students who bullied Bret Weinstein out of Evergreen State College in 2017, he made the following prediction: “If individuals such as Saini succeed at suppressing this research, and Whiteness Studies becomes an intellectual orthodoxy without its premises ever being challenged, I fear that the events at Evergreen State College may foreshadow the future of Britain and the United States.”
These words were written in May of 2019. By the summer of 2020, whiteness studies – a branch of critical race theory – had become ascendent. This was when left-wing activist David Shor was fired for sharing an academic study which found that race riots reduce the Democratic vote share. And it was when communications scholar Greg Patton was suspended for pronouncing a Chinese word that sounds like a racial slur. I’ve appended the full text of the review below. Do give it a read.
Image: Charles Darwin, English naturalist
Far too short on actual science
The title of this review is similar to the title of my review of Zoë Lescaze's book Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past, and that isn't a coincidence. Both books are about scientific topics--the effort to reconstruct the appearance of prehistoric animals, and the effort to understand the differences between human races or populations--but both are written by authors with no scientific background in these areas. In Lescaze's book the author's lack of expertise wasn't a fatal flaw, but in Saini's book, it is.
Both Lescaze's book and this one place a heavy emphasis on the early histories of their fields, but the two books handle these respective histories very differently. As is the case in many areas of science, the earliest attempts at paleoart in the mid-19th century were extremely crude by today's standards, and Lescaze presents these early reconstructions within the context of the history of paleoart, showing how the field has evolved from its primitive origins up to the rigorous reconstructions made by 21st-century paleoartists. Saini, on the other hand, has set out to prove that contemporary population geneticists such as David Reich and Luigi Cavalli-Sforza are making the same mistakes that were made by the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scientific racists who believed that indigenous Australians were not fully human. One must recognize what an extraordinary assertion this is: to claim that some of the most prominent geneticists in the world are continuing to make a fundamental error that has gone uncorrected for over two hundred years, but that a journalist with no background in genetics is able to detect the error.
Saini's book is primarily structured as a series as interviews with various prominent researchers about genetics and/or intelligence, including the aforementioned David Reich, Robert Plomin, and Richard Haier. Each interview is punctuated with Saini's comments about the ways that she believes these scientists to be naïve and/or wrong, often with an assertion about how the actual state of research in these fields contradicts these scientists' opinions. However, in most of the cases where Saini claims to know better than these professionals, her statements about the current state of research are incorrect. There are too many examples of this pattern to list, but I'll provide a few that are representative.
On page 183, Saini says: "But to date, no scientific research has been able to show any average genetic differences between population groups that go further than the superficial and are linked to hard survival, such as skin colour and those that prevent a geographically linked disease." The context of this quote is discussing David Reich's assertion that we cannot rule out the possibility that genes affecting psychological traits will eventually be found to differ in their distributions between human population groups. There are a few dozen genetic studies that have found differences between human populations that go beyond superficial traits or disease resistance, but given the context of her statement, one study stands out as particularly relevant.
Guo, Jing, et al. "Global genetic differentiation of complex traits shaped by natural selection in humans." Nature Communications 9.1 (2018): 1865. This study found differences between African, East Asian, and European populations in the distribution of genetic variants affecting ten traits, including four health-related traits (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, coronary artery disease, and type II diabetes), and three psychological traits (risk of Alzheimer's disease, risk of Schizophrenia, and years of educational attainment). The last of these, years of educational attainment, is often used as a proxy for intelligence in genome-wide association studies.
On page 221, Saini says, "The question of whether cognition, like skin colour or height, has a genetic basis is one of the most controversial in human biology." To be clear, this sentence is referring to the causes of individual variation in cognition, not the causes of differences between group averages. The question of whether or not group differences have a genetic basis is indeed controversial, but in 2019, making such a statement about the heritability of individual variation is equivalent to saying that it's controversial whether or not global warming exists. Ideas such as the existence of global warming or the heritability of cognitive ability are controversial among some political activists, but among professionals in the relevant fields, these questions have been regarded as settled for more than twenty years.
Around a year ago, I wrote an article for the evolution blog Panda's Thumb giving an overview of what's currently accepted in this area. Amazon doesn't allow external links in reviews, but my article can be found by Googling for its title, which is "General intelligence: What we know and how we know it". An older source that discusses the heritability of human intelligence, and demonstrates how long this conclusion has been accepted, is "Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns", a report published by the American Psychological Association in 1996.
On pages 227-228, discussing her interview with Robert Plomin, Saini says: "he (Plomin) would still be left with the challenge of finding a single mechanism, one biological pathway, to explain how any of these genetic variations acts on the brain and leads to what we see as someone's general intelligence. We know, for instance, that X-linked mental retardation is a genetic condition, identifiable in a person's DNA, reliably leading to certain intellectual disabilities. [...] But for everyday intelligence, scientists don't have anything like this." Saini is wrong about this, too, and the data that she is claiming doesn't exist has existed for several years.
Okbay, Aysu, et al. "Genome-wide association study identifies 74 loci associated with educational attainment." Nature 533.7604 (2016): 539-542. This study found that the genetic variants associated with educational attainment are disproportionately found in genes that are expressed in fetal brain development. Many of the developmental pathways by which these genes are expressed are also known, allowing for a picture of the mechanism by which variance in them affects cognitive ability. The relation between these variants and cognitive ability has been replicated in a second study: Lee, James J., et al. "Gene discovery and polygenic prediction from a genome-wide association study of educational attainment in 1.1 million individuals." Nature Genetics 50.8 (2018): 1112-1121. In addition to how these genes are expressed in fetal development, the supplement for this paper also examines how they impact the structure of brain cells themselves.
The preceding three quotes might give the impression that the focus of Saini's book is on attacking the data underlying the science of genetics, but the greater portion of her book makes a different argument. Throughout the book, the argument she makes most often is that research about race and genetics, or about genetics in general, is unethical because of its potential to be abused and the ways that it's been abused in the past. For example, on page 224 Saini argues that studies comparing the degree of similarity between identical and fraternal twins, the most widely-used method of measuring heritability in behavioral genetics, are "tainted" because they are reminiscent of Josef Mengele's human experiments conducted on twins at Auschwitz. Saini doesn't mention the critical distinction between Mengele's experiments and behavioral genetics: modern twin studies are always conducted with the subjects' consent, and don't involve harming anyone.
Saini has a tendency to take it for granted that readers will regard these sorts of arguments as an adequate basis for rejecting research that is otherwise highly-regarded. As another example, in her discussion of Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, Saini (pp. 150-151) argues that Cavalli-Sforza and his colleagues "had somehow fallen into the trap of treating groups of people as special and distinct, in the same way that racists do", and that "They were using similar intellectual frameworks to pre-war race scientists, but with fresh terminology". The implication is that this accusation makes Cavalli-Sforza's research invalid and/or unethical, but Saini never offers an explanation as to why his research is discredited by its vague resemblance to unethical research that had been conducted a century earlier.
It's disturbing to see the number of people who are praising this book, and apparently welcoming Saini's disparagement of scientists such as Plomin and Cavalli-Sforza, who are respectively among the most prominent figures in the fields of behavioral genetics and human population genetics. In our society's zeal to eradicate racism in all its forms, is it now considered okay to reject large swaths of biological research that is, by most measures, well-established and uncontroversial? The majority of this book's positive reviews have focused on Saini's discussion of research about race and intelligence, which only makes up about ten percent of the book, while saying little of her attacks on behavioral genetics and population genetics more generally. The attitude appears to be that if the only way to discredit research about race and intelligence is by discrediting the two entire fields that this research builds upon, so be it.
It is difficult to imagine how any line of research could be so dangerous that it's worth paying such a price to eradicate it. One basic problem with this assumption is that all scientific discoveries, beginning with early humanity's mastery of fire, have the potential to be used for either good or evil. (For an example of a paper making this argument, see: Davis, Bernard D. "The moralistic fallacy." Nature 272.5652 (1978): 390.) Even leaving that argument aside, though, I think that there is a more important flaw in the perspective of Saini and her supporters, which was raised in one of this book's other reviews, from the user "CapitalismAndFriedman".
In the field known as Whiteness Studies, one of the foundational premises is that since racial categories have no relation to biology, they were instead created by whites as a means to enforce oppression of other groups, with the existence of a caucasian or "white" race is having been socially engineered to act as a ruling class. This is the basis for the concept of "toxic whiteness", which underlies racially motivated actions by leftist activists such as the student takeover of the Evergreen State College Campus in 2017. Saini may be concerned about a resemblance between Cavalli-Sforza's research and 19th-century scientific racism, but in modern discourse about race, there is another resemblance that is at least as concerning. Watching Mike Nanya's documentary about the Evergreen protesters, including their eventual attempt to physically hunt down the professor who had opposed them, it's hard to ignore the similarity between the actions of these protesters and the intimidation tactics that were used by the Nazi Brownshirts in the 1920s.
When defenders of these sorts of tactics justify their actions, they inevitably point to racial disparities in various areas of society as proof of the pervasiveness of white supremacy, and of the need for drastic measures to counteract it, with the assumption that any observed difference between races must be directly or indirectly the result of white racism. These assertions about the causes of racial disparities are empirical claims, that could potentially be proven or disproven by research about race, and it's essential to critically examine such claims before using them as a basis for the sort of social revolution that's being attempted. This is the most important reason society currently needs research about race and genetics, and why books such as Saini's are dangerous. If individuals such as Saini succeed at suppressing this research, and Whiteness Studies becomes an intellectual orthodoxy without its premises ever being challenged, I fear that the events at Evergreen State College may foreshadow the future of Britain and the United States.
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