Rules need to be broken:
Technically, Angela Saini's Superior is not from my backlog of "too busy to read while in the throes of my Ph.D." titles. But, in the wake of George Floyd's murder in late May, concurrent with the harassment of birder Christian Cooper, and the numerous other grave injustices that have come to light, this book was too important not to break my arbitrary and self-imposed blogging guidelines.
I'm a geneticist. During my dissertation research, I spent some 5,000 hours considering how populations of coyotes and wolves can be defined by the genetic differences among them, and if any of these genetic differences have functional relevance, particularly for behavioral traits. Though the only time I worked on human genetics was when I accidentally sequenced my own mitochondrial DNA, it would be an understatement to say that this book hit me particularly hard when considering the widespread biases in research design and execution.
What is race science?
Superior contains no shortage of terrifying accounts of racial persecution, supposedly in the name science. However, it was not the most extreme cases- the Nazis, the slave trade- that truly scared me. Of course, there is no way to adequately state the horrors of the slave trade, the Nazis, or the eugenics movement more broadly. Still, in a more enlightened time, these actions are all recognized as racially motivated. Instead, it was Saini's recounts of well-intentioned scientists that sent my head into a tailspin, questioning if I have a firm grasp on what it means to be racist in science.
Take the Human Genome Diversity Project, a multi-university collaboration that began in 1991, riding the wave of enthusiasm for human genetics generated by the Human Genome Project one year earlier. The project's initial goals were to sample genetic material from several hundred small indigenous populations, to be interpreted alongside archeological and linguistic data. Ultimately, the results from the project were expected to paint a cohesive story of prehistoric human migrations.
When I first read this part of the book, I did not immediately recognize how the Human Genome Diversity Project could be considered race science. After all, while they obviously aren't humans, hadn't I done the same thing with coyotes dozens of times? Sample some coyotes from the north, some from the south, throw in a few from the east, run the data through a series of analyses to delimitate genetically similar groups, compare the results to natural history records, and now people call me "doctor." Well, my mom does, anyway.
I won't go into the various ethical considerations needed when researching humans versus other animals, but at first glance, the basic underlying principles of this project and my own research were unsettlingly similar. As I kept reading, Saini did outline the critical distinction. Before collecting any data, the scientists behind the Human Genome Diversity Project had already decided that specific indigenous populations were likely to carry genetic differences, despite a lack of evidence that these populations were even small and isolated. If the scientists behind the project truly wanted to understand human genetic diversity, the correct approach would have been to sample individuals from all over the globe, without any preconceived notions of results.
The Human Genome Diversity Project is just one example that happened to be close to my research field. Superior is full of similarly unsettling anecdotes from other fields, most notably biomedicine. Anyone with interest or experience in scientific research needs to read this book.