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Superior

The Return of Race Science

By Angela Saini
15-minute read
Audio available
Superior by Angela Saini

Superior (2019) tracks the history of race science, from its origins in the Enlightenment to its hidden – but growing – presence in the twenty-first century. The uncomfortable truth is that science is not always apolitical, and the theory of biological race lives on in subtle ways, despite the mounting evidence against it. Groups of people might look, sound, and do things differently – but genetically, we’re very much the same. 

  • Students of human biology, genetics, and anthropology
  • Anyone searching for the truth about the science of race
  • People of color and those considered minorities

Angela Saini is an award-winning British journalist and BBC radio presenter. In 2009 she was named the European Young Science Writer of the Year by the Association of British Science Writers, and in 2015 she won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Gold Award. She has written two other critically acclaimed books – Geek Nation: How Indian Science is Taking Over the World and Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, the latter of which was named the Physics World Book of the Year in 2017. 

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Superior

The Return of Race Science

By Angela Saini
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
Upgrade to Premium Read or listen now
Superior by Angela Saini
Synopsis

Superior (2019) tracks the history of race science, from its origins in the Enlightenment to its hidden – but growing – presence in the twenty-first century. The uncomfortable truth is that science is not always apolitical, and the theory of biological race lives on in subtle ways, despite the mounting evidence against it. Groups of people might look, sound, and do things differently – but genetically, we’re very much the same. 

Key idea 1 of 9

The study of archaeology can easily play into racist beliefs.

Forty thousand years ago, Homo sapiens weren’t the only human-like creatures roaming the planet. There were also the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, and Homo erectus. But only we, Homo sapiens, ultimately survived. That means there must be something special about us – right?

We’d like to believe so. Even scientists often can’t resist referring to Homo sapiens as “better,” “faster,” or “superior” compared to other human-like species – despite the blurry boundary separating us.

The belief that Homo sapiens is a superior species set the stage for a more sinister thesis: that within Homo sapiens there are superior and inferior races. Are some races more “human” than others? Throughout history, countless people, from ancient Egyptians to sixteenth-century European colonizers, have believed the answer is yes. And archaeologists have plumbed humanity’s origins for proof. 

The key message here is: The study of archaeology can easily play into racist beliefs.

In the West and in Africa, the most widely accepted origin theory for Homo sapiens is the out of Africa hypothesis. It states that all humans can trace their ancestry back to Africa, and that some people began migrating to other parts of the world around 100,000 years ago.

Of course, not all academics agree with this theory. In China, for instance, the multiregional hypothesis is commonly accepted by both scientists and the public. People who back this theory don’t think all humans originally migrated from Africa – instead, they believe they descended from ancestors who evolved in different parts of the world. 

All of this theorizing could be taken as an innocent investigation into humanity’s past – but it isn’t. 

During the Enlightenment, white Europeans set the first standard for what it meant to be a member of Homo sapiens. Philosophers reinforced the idea that humans were the superior species, and the earliest archaeologists focused their studies primarily on European fossils. As Europeans colonized the world, they came across indigenous populations that didn’t exactly match European standards for humanity. And the colonizers used this to justify the brutal subjugation of those populations.

Theories like the multiregional hypothesis hearken back to Enlightenment science; they easily play into the idea that some “types” of humans are superior to others. But we’ll probably never determine the exact origin story of humanity. Together, we as a society have decided that everyone is human and deserving of individual rights – so why isn’t that enough?

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