Searching blindly for the truth in black and white

January 6, 2006

That old taboo, racism, endures in the collective unconscious - and in science, too, argues Kunal Basu

Race is taboo. Few words prompt as much noise - or silence. Fewer still have enjoyed comparable antiquity or currency. Through slavery and holocaust, race has held its draw, even bubbling up in our post-modern lives - in New Orleans and Paris, London and Sydney. Despite decades of tolerance training and multiculturalism, it has persisted in objectifying humans - Arab terrorists, black criminals. It is a taboo with a bright future - for racists.

Why does it persist? Besides its weight of legacy in the collective consciousness, it has repeatedly drawn nourishment from that great enterprise called science. Indeed, the search for "objective", verifiable markers for racial types has been relentless. From craniology in the 19th century to intelligence tests in the 20th, scientists have striven to establish what is innate about difference. Not just race, but natural bases of all human difference: propensity to disease, gender, even sexual preference.

While race science changed its techniques over time, its grand philosophy remained the same: take two samples and try to determine the cause behind their difference. Observed differences and their presumed causes, in turn, guided attitudes towards the samples themselves, confirming beliefs about superiority or inferiority. Notwithstanding a failed theory or two, the "objectivity" of race science strengthened one of two primitive notions about the "other race": they are utterly unlike us; or they are one of us, unfortunately, but we are better.

The search for "better" is opening new doors in the science of human variety.JGenetic manipulation is likely to equip us with the means to invest embryos with "superior" qualities. Eugenics' new boost will be propelled this time by choice rather than coercion. What is seen as the final frontier of biology could turn out to be that of race as well, leading to a scientific cleansing of uncomfortable differences.

In writing Racists , a novel about 19th-century racial science, I conceived of an experiment. Two infants, one white, one black, are raised by scientists on a barren island and exposed to the dangers around them.

Growing up without speech, civilisation, punishment or play, the children will develop as their primitive natures dictate. What will be left when the experiment is over? Which child will be master, and which the slave? In reality, such an experiment would be forbidden, of course. Yet I believe the fiction of the experiment could have much to tell us about us: about scientists and plain citizens, about winners and losers.

As the dance between race and science heats up, with scientists smelling victory in the discovery of that magic marker demarcating human types, it is important to keep sight of what really has been achieved. If anything, history has shown repeatedly that today's good science usually turns out to be tomorrow's absurdity. As it was with craniology, so it may be for genetics. Except the "certainty" of our discovery might lead us into creating newer categories of humans, and perhaps, a fresh brand of prejudice. What specifically would have been achieved if a "natural" distinction between humans were discovered? Anyhow, critics would point out that the physical essence of a human being is far from the whole essence. And it is, of course, the whole essence that guides anything remotely significant.

Despite unrelenting scientific analysis of human variety, it is indeed a mystery how we have managed to make it this far as a species. We owe it perhaps to that other great human enterprise called compassion. Rather than being just seekers of difference, it has made us seekers of sameness too, blind to observable differences in sharing all things precious. It has created roadblocks to pure science, questioned not simply its techniques but the value of its all-consuming questions. Why must we study human difference? What worth does it bring to civilisation and its progress?

Rejection of race, then, is as much a part of our condition as race itself. Pitted against each other, these two traits have shaped history. Going forward, that contradiction could become even more marked, calling into question our notions of choice and natural inheritance. Yet it is a bind that is inescapable, unlikely to leave us with a resolution of racial questions, revealing instead our ageless struggle to make sense of our perceptions and ultimately transcend them. Is this then the ultimate truth about human variety? Not so much a heroic progress as a muddling through, a frustrating crabwise journey.

Kunal Basu teaches at Oxford University. Racists is published this month by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99.

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