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How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality (2020)

by Adam Rutherford

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3141173,858 (4.02)4
"The most up-to-date science on the genetics of who we are and where we come from, showing us a more scientifically enlightened way to talk colloquially about race"--
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The succinct answer to the title is, of course, "you don't!". Racists, just like flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths and Trump supporters, are impervious to rational argument: they believe what they will believe and there is no doing anything about it.

This isn't a long book, but it doesn't take two hundred pages to state that obvious fact. Clearly, then, there's more to it than that. It's not a book about genetics either. Genetics is a relatively new science as slippery as quantum mechanics and with even less in the way 0f solid facts about it, so even a brief introduction to the subject can't really be managed in those two hundred pages. What it is, is a warning: a warning that should be in every school library and on every thinking person's bathroom bookshelf.

From the first time one Homo sapiens noticed that another Homo sapiens was different, having blue eyes or swarthy skin or whatever, humans have divided humans into groups, usually themselves on one side and various kinds of inferior 'Other' to be kept at a distance, made war on or taken into slavery. Public awareness of genetics, especially since the first publication of the human genome sequence, meant the racists pounced on a new weapon to distance themselves from the Other. Non-white were incapable of all sorts of things because of their genes. But a little learning is a very dangerous thing. If cutting edge geneticists have only vague ideas yet about what genes do what and what particular genes do individually or severally, then untrained racists are clueless and making it up as they go along. Besides, some simple GCSE maths leads straight to one of the more eyebrow-raising truths of this book: if each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on, then going back to the Norman Conquest we each have over a trillon ancestors, about ten times more than all the humans that have ever existed. That's ten times the estimated human population of the whole world in 1066. Obviously they can't all be different individuals but even so, each of us either has a rich variety of heritage or is dangerously inbred. More alarmingly, anybody alive in Europe at that time who has any descendants living today is likely to be the ancestor of everybody living in Europe today. It gets stranger: go back to the height of the Roman Empire and you could probably say that about the whole world. But of course ultimately we are all of African descent.

Adam Rutherford is a geneticist by background and has a complicated family heritage along with first hand experience of overt racist, so one assumes he knows his subject. In recent years he's been one of the BBC's team of go-to science pundits and presents the Inside Science programme in Radio 4, where he is both informed and entertaining. Clearly he carries those skills through to his writing. This is a concise, readable and important book for our time. ( )
  enitharmon | Oct 25, 2022 |
Note: I accessed digital review copies of this book through NetGalley and Edelweiss.
  fernandie | Sep 15, 2022 |
Interesting read that made the topic of genetics accessible. I learnt a lot about genes though I’m not sure how much I would remember when arguing with a racist. ( )
  thewestwing | Aug 12, 2022 |
Concise. ( )
  eduardochang | Feb 3, 2022 |
If you’re interested in genetics and history, then this book is for you!

A brief summary: Rutherford presents a delightfully conversational discussion on genetics, DNA, and its relationship to (or lack thereof) to race.

My thoughts: While I found this book interesting, I felt a bit let down – from the title, I had the impression that I would be armed with arguments aplenty to combat everyday racists, but this book isn’t quite meant to be used that broadly. It would be a useful tool, though, for arguing with racists that build their arguments around genetics, like skin color and DNA.

Overall: If you like scientific evidence, then this book will definitely hit the spot for you because the author, a geneticist himself, gives countless examples of evidence to tear down racist claims. I also enjoyed how he weaved together a picture of our history with a scientific lens – he brings the reader through tumultuous times in science and the world, from colonization to the evolution of scientific fields, pointing out revolutionary scientists that were also racist but intelligent individuals.

At times, the genetics jargon was a bit overwhelming for me – sometimes things were explained later, other times it felt like the reader was supposed to take for granted what Rutherford was saying. The majority of the text though, I found to be interesting, accessible, and incredibly informative. The author sprinkles in random fun facts that are perhaps not as well-known (while informative, not necessarily so useful in the book’s context); did you know that, even though homo sapiens evolved from Africa (around present-day Morrocco), diverse skin color existed even before that?

Adam Rutherford is exemplary in his use of snark as well, clearly letting the reader know when he believes something to be folly or just plain wrong (uses of phrases like “hulking beefcake” provided me endless amusement throughout reading). He also had snippets of wisdom mixed in, too, such as the quote below:


For such a simple statement, I found it to be a phenomenal and poignant observation of white supremacy.

In the end, I enjoyed this book. I adored the author’s writing style – he uses the right amount of scientific snark and evidence to make his point without coming across as an ass. While this book may not help you argue with your everyday racist, it does provide you with a deeper understanding of how complex science is, and how genetics functions in regard to skin color, DNA, and evolution, and provides arguments against racist views and claims centering around these ideas.

I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  katprohas | Dec 16, 2021 |
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