Aimlessly Going Forward

blog by Tomas Sedovic

How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford

book, review, science

This review was originally posted at Goodreads and imported here later on with next to no spell/grammar checking.

5/5 stars

How to Argue With a Racist is an excellent book about the history, biology, sociology and genetics of human race. It does not cover the psychology of deeply held ideas or how to change minds, which makes the title a bit of a misnomer.

It will explain where the science stands on a lot of commonly held beliefs and debunk common racist talking points. But as the saying goes, you can’t reason someone out of a position they hadn’t reasoned themselves into.

Despite being (intentionally) quite short, it covers a wide range of topics: from the history of genetics, genealogy and their connection to colonialism and oppression, to the seeming domination of certain races in sports and the underlying biology (and lack thereof).

Rutherford convincingly argues genetics show no clear delineation of the commonly-used human races. For example, the African population that’s conveniently lumped together under the "black" moniker has far greater genetic diversity than all the rest of the world combined. Every trait commonly attributed to a certain group can be found elsewhere and the human populations have mixed much more than people think and that modern racists would have us believe.

But he does argue that race exists. It is, however, a social construct. One that historically arose from conquest and exploitation and it is still used for those purposes today.

He explains the current and likely fundamental limitations of the DNA-based ancestry testing and how they are being used and vastly misinterpreted in white supremacy forums. And how, even when used for less nefarious purposes, they paint a really misleading and incomplete picture.

When getting to sport performance, the book completely demolishes the "Black people are the best sprinters because they had to run in the planes of Africa" or that the African-American success is somehow linked to a selection during slavery.

There are genes associated with physical performance, but their numbers are vast and our understanding of their function is tiny. Even for seemingly clear and simple traits such as the eye colour the genetic story is much more complicated than I thought.

When it comes to things such as height, sport performance or intelligence, we’ve discovered hundreds or thousands of genes that are correlated somehow, but their exact contribution and how they interact is unknown.

And even then, while certain innate physical abilities definitely play a role and may be necessary for the absolute peak performance, they’re far from the whole story and they’re spread out through the entire human population.

Access to training facilities, coaches, resources, education, support, role models, culture — all these play a massive role in success. When you examine the "sport success depends on race" hypothesis with a just tiny bit of critical thought it crumbles. If people of recent African origin are so inherently physically superior in sprinting or long-distance running, why aren’t they dominating speed skating, sprint cycling and my favourite: climbing. All the "out of Africa" explanations should map equally well to climbing. Or, why aren’t South Americans dominating the Olympic sprinting alongside their North American neighbours? The slavery of Africans was just as vibrant there.

It just doesn’t add up, but this sort of lazy thinking is as common as it is inadequate.

"It seems absurd to say it, but the pivotal element in being able to swim is learning to swim. Rather than contesting some imaginary biological sinking factor."

Adam Rutherford draws into his scientific background in evolutionary genetics and his decades in science communication to put together a fantastic resource on human race. One of the few scientific books I would recommend to absolutely everyone.

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