Superior - Critical summary review - Angela Saini

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Superior - critical summary review

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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Superior: The Return of Race Science

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0807076910

Publisher: Beacon Press

Critical summary review

In the second half of the 20th century, postmodernists attacked the idea of superiority, or dominant ideology, promoting a politics of difference. Since then, our society has seen the rise of feminism and other movements that fight discrimination, and consequently, became more aware of existing inequalities: gender, social, political, and racial. However, the belief that certain groups enjoy more privileges just because of their different physical traits persists, even after the horrors of the Holocaust. More devastatingly, some scientists are trying to find scientific proof for it. The book ‘’Superior’’ by Angela Saini tells a disturbing story of the destructive nature of race science. So, get ready to abandon the belief that scientific thought is always objective. 

The dark sides of colonialism

  The phenomenon of racism is deeply interwoven with colonialism. The moment when the invaders would enter a territory and encounter the indigenous people living there was the beginning of intolerance and wrong judgment encouraged by a self-centered perspective. When Europeans came to Australia, for example, they first wondered why the Aboriginal people weren’t more like them. This unwillingness to understand the life, history, and culture of Australia's first inhabitants suited European colonists at the time, as it served their Eurocentric perspective and belief that they could rightfully claim the territory for themselves. ‘’There was certainly little respect for the remarkable systems of understanding and land management that indigenous Australians had cultivated over millennia,” explains young Australian historian Griffiths. Colonists considered Aboriginals primitive, a part of the past, and therefore, in their logic, at the edge of extinction. 

  Diseases brought to the Australian continent by invaders mostly contributed to the decline of the indigenous population. Hundreds of massacres by the British additionally shrank it by 80%. When it comes to cultural genocide, the British put bans on the usage of local language and cultural practices as well. From 1869, children were taken from parents and raised in monasteries and dormitories until they were old enough to provide cheap labor. 

  The mother and grandmother of Gail Beck, an indigenous activist in Perth, were among those who were forced to live in this way. Gail, now in her 60s, found out the truth about her indigenous ancestry when she was in her 30s. Her mother was scared that the authorities would take Gail away from her and, therefore, told everyone she was Italian. Shamefully, Gail and her ancestors were just one of many who were inferior in the eyes of European colonists.

Shocking facts about human zoos

    The tragedy of Aboriginals doesn’t end with the exploitation in their homeland. Colonists brought them to Europe and used them as laborers, in scientific exploration, and also, sadly, to amuse themselves. In 1899, Parisian scientists planted tropical crops in the garden of Bois de Vincennes to see how they would develop in that climate. The site also recreated parts of the world that French colonists had conquered. The exposition soon went a step further - it displayed people in houses typical of those they had left behind. There were five mini “villages’’ there, designed to look as realistic as possible so that visitors could experience what everyday life was like for these foreigners. ‘’It was an Edwardian Disneyland, not with little dolls but with actual people,’’ explains Saini. The human zoo with the circus elements attracted two million visitors in just six months. Sadly, Paris wasn’t the only city with this type of attraction - other European colonial powers organized similar events. In 1810, London’s Morning Post announced the arrival of Hottentot Venus, a girl who was transported to Europe from South Africa. Her real name was Saartjie Baartman and she was kept in a cage to parade in front of visitors who poked and pinched her to check if she was real. Her life ended a few years after she came to Europe, but her body was on show for 150 years after her death. A celebrated French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, dissected her body and displayed its parts at the French Academy of Sciences. Finally, in 2002, at the request of Nelson Mandela, her remains were moved from Paris and buried in South Africa. 

    In the United States, corpses of African American slaves were also dissected and used for scientific purposes. ‘’It’s ironic that much of our modern scientific understanding of human anatomy was built on the bodies of those who were considered at the time less than human,’’ concludes Saini. 

Race science and its roots

    The history of the world is a continuous fight for power and domination. In that fight, many aspects of life, including science, became a political construct. Race science emerged during the rise of colonialism from a need to make people as homogenous as possible, so that they could be more controllable. In fact, modern theories of racial hierarchy appeared in the period of European colonialism: in that way, white supremacy could be scientifically and morally justified. It proved for the colonists that the biological characteristics of the enslaved were responsible for their disadvantageous positions. 

    For example, American scientists Josiah Clark Nott and George Gliddon published the book ‘’Types of Mankind’’ where they argued that Africans bore more of a resemblance to apes than to humans. To illustrate their claim, they compared skull sketches of white and black people to the skull sketches of the apes. The skull anatomy of European people resembled the classical sculpture, while drawings of African faces had exaggerated features that made them look like chimpanzees and gorillas. A medical doctor living in the 19th century, Samuel Cartwright, believed that black slaves had a medical condition that caused them to run away from their masters. 

    In 1871, Charles Darwin published ‘’The Descent of Man’’ where he opposed the idea of racial superiority based on genetics and claimed that all human species had a common ancestor. Yet, Darwinism didn’t slow down racism. As a matter of fact, despite the idea of a common ancestor, Darwin left open the possibility that people gradually developed differently. This was just another justification for racists to secure their beliefs. 

    ‘’The reason anyone pursued the scientific idea of race was not so much to understand the differences in our bodies as it was to try to justify why we lead such different lives,” writes Saini.

How scientists supported the Nazi regime

“The Kaiser Wilhelm Society tolerated or even supported research among its ranks that cannot be justified on any ethical or moral grounds ... I would like to apologize for the suffering of the victims of these crimes – the dead as well as the survivors – done in the name of science.” This was part of a speech by Hubert Markl, the biologist from the Max Planck Society, a German scientific institution that employs more than 14,000 scientists, publishes 15,000 scientific papers, has an annual budget of 1.8 billion euros, and has produced 18 Nobel Prize winners. In 2001, the Max Planck Society accepted responsibility for crimes committed by scientists during the Nazi regime. At that time, the institution had a different name, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and it funded the works of scientists who wholeheartedly supported the Nazis from their beginnings. One of them was Otmar von Verschuer (vehr-sure), an anti-semite, who openly praised Adolf Hitler, believing that Jews were a threat to a nation’s racial purity. His student was Josef Mengele (mang-elle-aei), famous for his cruel experiments on people at concentration camps in Auschwitz. It’s difficult to believe that a renowned scientific institution helped develop the ideology of racial hygiene, which culminated during the Second World War. ‘’The truth - that it is perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist, to murder, to abuse both people and knowledge - doesn’t sit easily with the way we like to think about scientific research. We imagine that it’s above politics, that it’s a noble, rational, and objective endeavor, untainted by feelings or prejudice,’’ writes Saini. 

The idea of racial purity, which led to genocide under Hitler’s regime, didn’t originate in Germany. Race scientists all over the world supported it in the 19th and 20th centuries. They belonged to renowned intellectual circles and called themselves eugenists.

Who were eugenists? 

The father of eugenics was Francis Galton, a young cousin of Charles Darwin, who was born in 1822. Using Darwin's theory of natural selection, he developed his theory on racial purity, believing that, ''A race of people could be improved if the most intelligent were encouraged to reproduce and the stupidest were not.‘’ Saini explains, ‘’He made creating such a perfect society his lifelong mission.’’ Galton often traveled to Africa to collect data for his research, and those journeys made his racist assumptions firmer. “I saw enough of savage races to give me material to think about all the rest of my life,” said Galton after he returned from one of his journeys. 

In 1904, on Galton’s request, the University of London set up the world’s first Eugenics Record Office, dedicated to measuring human differences, in the hopes of finding out how to improve the population in Britain. The office soon became known as the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics. 

The theory of eugenics found fertile ground in the United States. In 1910, the Eugenics Record Office was established at Cold Spring Harbor on Long Island, and one of the board members was Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. American company IBM supported numerous eugenics projects and provided the Nazis with the technology they used to transport victims around the concentration camps. 

In the first half of the 20th century, in many other countries, eugenics theories found passionate followers as well. For example, in China, a politician Wang Jingwei claimed that a state is stronger if it is composed of a single race. Other Chinese politicians advocated racial intermarriages to produce children with whiter skins.

According to Saini: ‘’Each nation used the idea of race in its own ways, marrying it with science if it could be of use. Eugenics, then, became just another tool in what were longstanding power dynamics.’’

The revival of race science after the Second World War

    Many people assumed that race science ended after racism reached its peak in the Second World War. However, the belief that some races are superior to others remained alive in some intellectual circles. The key figure in one of these circles was Roger Pearson. During the war, Pearson was an officer in the British Indian army. After the war in 1950, he started publishing newsletters with the topics of race, science, and immigration. His publications quickly connected pre-war academic scholars who were doing work on eugenics and race. The first edition of one of Pearson’s publications, ‘’Northlander,’’ complained about ‘’the illegitimate children born as a result of ‘Negro’ troops stationed in Germany after the war, and also about immigrants arriving from the West Indies into Britain.’’ At the beginning of the 1970s, Pearson moved to Washington DC, where he founded several publications. In April 1982, a letter arrived for Pearson from the White House, in which Ronald Reagan praised him for promoting scholars who supported “a free enterprise economy, a firm and consistent foreign policy and a strong national defense.” 

    ‘’Mankind Quarterly’’ is one of Pearson’s publications that still exists today and brings together writers from all over the world. One of them is Ralph Scott, now an emeritus professor of educational psychology. Almost every one of his papers is on the theme that genetically different black students hold back white students at integrated schools. 

The 1994 book ‘’The Bell Curve,’’ whose main idea is that black Americans are less intelligent than whites and Asians, also confirms that the ‘’Mankind Quarterly’’ is a platform where race scientists can present their views. The authors of this book cited five articles from ‘’Mankind Quarterly’’ from 17 researchers who had contributed to this journal.

Final Notes

    At the end of her book, Angela Saini cites Barry Mehler, an American social scientist: “I have a lot of relatives who survived the Holocaust. They are prepared for things to cease to be normal very quickly because that was their experience.” Many people today find it hard to imagine that atrocities of the previous century could happen again. Unfortunately, history often tends to repeat itself. ‘’Superior’’ warns us that as long as the belief in biological racial differences exists, there is a risk that political ideologies will misuse it.

12min Tip

    The inability to understand those who are not the same as us creates unnecessary boundaries. Always try to accept people whose appearance, behavior or beliefs are different from your own.

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Who wrote the book?

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist, author, and BBC broadcaster. Her work has been published in ‘’The Guardian,’’ ‘’New Scientist,’’ ‘’Wired,’’ ‘’New Humanist,’’ and ‘’National Geographic.’’ She has won two significant aw... (Read more)

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