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Audio: Giles Fraser meets geneticist Adam Rutherford

January 23, 2020 - 5:04pm

Giles Fraser’s interview with geneticist Adam Rutherford about his new book, How to argue with a racist, tackles the difficult — and controversial — subject of race and science.

Questions dealing with sports, purity of ancestry and intelligence all feature, but as Rutherford notes in the interview, rarely do they lend themselves to calm, dispassionate discussion in today’s febrile cultural climate. That is made harder when, at the other end of the spectrum, the far-Right is “obsessed” with talking about genetics.

Rutherford charts the history of the relationship between race and science back to Enlightenment figures like Kant and Voltaire who were also notorious racists. Before the age of colonialism, he said:

“You begin to see European men try to categorise people by what we recognise as races. It starts with people like Linnaeus, Voltaire and Kant and they’re trying to say “these people are one category of people”… What is happening here is the co-opting of science in order to describe this taxonomy with the purpose of subjugating people… In all of the descriptions of racial taxonomy, there is a clear hierarchy—and see if you can guess who comes out on top of that white hierarchy? It’s always white Europeans”
- Andrew Rutherford

But Rutherford stresses that does not mean we should abandon the study of race and genetics altogether. “We have to recognise that there are differences, but what are the weight of those differences?” because the relationship between culture and biology is “the central and most difficult question in the whole of human genetics”.

To suggest that humans are determined entirely by their culture and nothing else (the blank slate theory) is ascientific, he adds; it is a fact, for example, that out of the 56 male finalists to have competed in the 100 metres in the Olympics since 1980, only one has been white.

It would be dishonest to ignore such data points, says Rutherford, though it might be tempting in an era people are more and more afraid to say anything. Perhaps that is why his biggest fear, after getting the science wrong, is “sacrificing science at the altar of political correctness”.

He hopes this book will “equip non-scientists with the tools” to combat racists in day-to-day life. Have a listen…


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