Adam Rutherford: scientists have to be better at history

Geneticist warns of the dangers of ‘fetishising’ DNA and turning a blind eye to racism

November 17, 2021
Source: iStock
DNA analysis is crucial, but it cannot replace many other methods of studying the human past

Scientists who fail to address the troubled histories of their disciplines can easily repeat the errors of the past.

That was the central argument of geneticist Adam Rutherford, an honorary senior research fellow at UCL, in a conversation on “Why Science Needs History”, which formed part of this year’s Being Human festival of the humanities.

His own field of biology, he told festival director Sarah Churchwell, professor of American literature and public understanding of the humanities at the University of London’s School of Advanced Studies, had tainted origins. It did not develop “in parallel with European expansionism and colonialism…but in service to them…It starts with [Carl] Linnaeus, who [in 1758] classifies four types of humans: Homo Africanus, Asiaticus, Americanus and Europeanus. The first three are described…with value judgements about being haughty, lazy, unintelligent and sexually capricious, while Europeanus is described as white, blond, beautiful, governed by laws and elegant and inventive…Linnaeus’ taxonomic system is what biologists use to classify all organisms – and the roots of that are fundamentally in the service of white supremacy.”

Another classic case of how science – or pseudoscience – can be used serve political goals came in the 19th century when Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, developed eugenics as a way to “mould human populations to be better”, to “purge the weak and enhance the characteristics deemed positive”.

All this remained highly relevant in an age of DNA testing.

DNA analysis had certainly proved crucial, Dr Rutherford pointed out, in demonstrating that “Neanderthals are not our evolutionary cousins, they were our ancestors” and in identifying the bones found in a car park in Leicester as those of Richard III. Yet it was still just one tool that needed to “sit alongside all the traditional forms of knowing the past in a complementary way. When it began to emerge as plausible way of understanding history, people got overexcited and some geneticists started behaving badly in assuming our evidence is better than yours.”

This had sometimes led, Dr Rutherford suggested, to “a fetishisation of what DNA is and what it can do…I spend a lot of time hanging around racist, neo-Nazi and white supremacist forums online – and they are obsessed with DNA tests, racial purity and race mixing, because their whole ideology depends on a notion of white purity.”

Asked by Professor Churchwell how we can “reframe the narrative”, Dr Rutherford replied that “scientists have to be better at history…there is a tendency among my brethren to regard our evidence base and academic standards for the pursuit of truth to be somehow higher. A lot of scientists think that history is easy.”

Yet many scientific researchers, he went on, were very rigorous in assessing evidence from their labs but “really, really casual about reading Wikipedia or one book and thinking that they understand the cultural context of an idea related to their field…A lot of scientists don’t go into science to learn about the histories of their field, but maybe that’s not a choice. Otherwise we just do the same shit over and over again.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Rather than "troubled", "tainted" or "supremacist", natural science should confine itself to "true" and "false" - and perhaps "useful" or "not useful". The history of science is an interesting subject, but not a substitute for the study of ethics.

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