Adam Rutherford: taking on racism with the help of genetics

Despite its tainted origins, genetics provides many of the essential tools for challenging racist thinking, argues UCL fellow and science broadcaster

February 5, 2020
Adam Rutherford
Source: Stefan Jakubowski
Adam Rutherford

There were several reasons why geneticist Adam Rutherford, an honorary research fellow at UCL, felt the time was right to publish a book titled How to Argue with a Racist.

One was a political climate, in Britain and beyond, where “nationalism appears to be on the rise”. There were signs even in the way people now responded to his own heritage.

A couple of years ago, he told Times Higher Education, “my Wikipedia page was changed to describe me as a British Indo-Guyanese scientist. While that is effectively accurate, I have never described myself as such and have no Indian or Guyanese cultural input. I think of myself as from Ipswich.”

Furthermore, “a huge recent rise in genetics ancestry kits has had the effect of reinforcing some ideas about biological essentialism which we were trying to erase from genetics”, added the science broadcaster, whose media appearances include his position as presenter of BBC Radio 4's Inside Science.

There were also factors relating to Dr Rutherford’s own discipline and institution. When he arrived at UCL at the age of 18 as a student, he writes, he was “enrolled in the Galton Laboratory, which was once called the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, and was taught by the Galton professor in the Galton Lecture Theatre”.

“My entire field of human genetics is based primarily on the work of Francis Galton,” Dr Rutherford said, and thus on “a science built by racists in order to demonstrate the racial superiority of white men”. It was through setting up the National Eugenics Laboratory at UCL that Galton laid “the foundations for what is now the genetics department that I am still a member of”, he continued.

Although Dr Rutherford felt “no ambiguity about saying that Galton was a scientific genius: much of genetics, statistics and behavioural psychology is built on the work which he did in the late-19th and early 20th century”, he was also “unequivocally racist”. A UCL inquiry, looking into the connections with eugenics of Galton, mathematician Karl Pearson and Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, should announce its findings soon.

Genetics, in Dr Rutherford’s view, has now fortunately put its past behind it and is indeed a crucial tool in the battle against racism. “There is now a vanishingly small number of geneticists and evolutionary biologists who [dispute] that genetics has clearly demonstrated that race is not a biologically meaningful categorisation,” he said. It was “a beautiful irony” that the science built by Galton on racist premises had also proved to be “the science which demonstrates the fallacy of his ideas”.

Yet, as someone who constantly engages with the public, Dr Rutherford was well aware “of a massive disconnect between what we are saying within the walls of the academy and what people think”. His book is designed to provide ammunition to challenge the views not only of hard-line white supremacists, but also “your slightly racist uncle” and even “basically well-intentioned people who say black people are better at sport or Jews are better at intellectual pursuits”.

In addressing some of the common assumptions about race, Dr Rutherford started with the broad point that “literally everybody is descended from everybody else”.

He continued: “We are really bad at understanding how family trees actually work. After a few generations, they become enormously matted webs. There are no pure ancestries, no pure lineages.”

Yet it remained true, Dr Rutherford admitted, that “nobody has seen a white man in the final of the 100-metre sprint in the Olympics since 1980”. So what could be said to people who point to such facts and claim that they reveal, as Dr Rutherford put it, “a natural ability among those descended from the enslaved to be good at explosive-energy sports”?

If that argument was right, he said, “where are such people in sprint cycling or swimming, which has featured one African American in the history of the Olympics?” Similar arguments could be used against those who attributed the striking presence of Jews among composers and performers of classical music to innate talent, while ignoring cultural factors and other genres such as hip hop and jazz.

Even when such notions were seemingly used in a positive sense, Dr Rutherford went on, we must keep in mind links to a long history of offensive stereotyping.

He pointed, for example, to “a study looking at several thousand comments in the media about elite athletic success. These referred to innate physical abilities for a black athlete – and hard work, intelligence and industriousness for a white elite athlete. Such stereotypes are just baked into our culture.”  

Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue with a Racist: History, Science, Race, and Reality is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 6 February.

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Reader's comments (3)

Is it a scientific purpose to try to "erase" biological essentialism from genetics, any more than Galton's supposed purpose to "demonstrate the racial superiority of white men"? Essentialism has made a come back in philosophy (Kripke). Surely the point is to investigate.
Maybe Rutherford can explain why despite outnumbering blacks in American high school sports like football and basketball by a 5-1 ratio, blacks are vastly overrepresented not only in pro sports but also in major college sports. Rutherford threw up a red herring concerning blacks not dominating in bicycling or other not greatly popular sports. He does not discuss the dominance of blacks in certain very popular sports because he knows he can't explain it. Maybe he can explain why in the last fifty years every sprinter for the U.S., both male and female, has been black. What are the statistical chances of that happening if everybody is physically equal? Can we say in the billions...trillions? Maybe Rutherford can explain why humans are the only mammals who do not have physical or mental differences and are immune from genetic discrepancies. Or maybe he thinks we'll start see Clydesdales running in place of Arabian thoroughbreds in the various big horse races worldwide.
It surely makes sense to point out that white supremacy has no basis in biology. However an appeal to base similarity on "racial identify is the same argument that Equalities and Diversity strategy make when they promote Black History month or related initiatives. And it is equally false. All around my university are pictures of iconic "black" examples of outstanding achievement. But there is no reason why black staff or students should identify with them any more than I as a "white" i.e. North European should. I may have more genetic similarity with someone like Mo Farah from East Africa than someone whose heritage is from Jamaica. To be clear, this is not an argument against initiatives that take on and expose racist tropes or to undermine efforts to overcome institutional racist attitudes. Just that scientific evidence is used consistently lest Science be attempted to be undermined by other vested interests