Book review: Superior: The return of race science by Angela Saini

Sonia writes her review of Angela Saini's book

Sonia Shinhmar

At the beginning of lockdown I joined an online seminar with Angela Saini, hosted by the Life Sciences and Environment department. I saw the email and I didn’t really know about the author or her books, but was encouraged to join the seminar by a fellow book loving friend. So, during the talk, Angela spoke about the research she did concerning race based science, and she also spoke about racism within the science community, so really, I didn’t know what her latest book was going to be about. Twenty-four hours later the book was in my hands and I couldn’t put it down! The book itself is 300-ish pages, an easy week/month read, or if you are just as interested as I was, three days! 

The book begins with a trip to the colonial celebration referred to as The British Museum (anyone else triggered yet?). Angela mentions a few artefacts (stolen objects) here and there, including the Rosetta stone and Ancient Chinese statues, and she makes a comment about how, when tourists and visitors enter the museum, we’re all drawn to the exhibitions that relate to our own heritages, and how there is this innate desire within us to find out more about our past and ‘our people’! This thought expands throughout the book as she defends the thought process of people wanting to find out about their genetic heritage, but explains how ultimately this has led to dangerous thoughts about race, intelligence, and power.  

There are eleven chapters and each one is well worth the read. A recurring story in each chapter is the mis-use of power by researchers aiming to develop experimental techniques to determine genetic differences between races, and intelligence, allowing the mistreatment of people based on their skin colour, and levels of melanin expression, to be justified. The history of eugenics is explained along with how the attitudes to such research had morphed post World War Two. Spoiler: It wasn’t widely frowned upon in the UK before the Nazis! Furthermore, there was funding for such research, which, given the difficulty in procuring full funding for research nowadays, is shocking! If you’re reading this article thinking eugenics is for you, there is a journal or two still publishing today, with articles of poorly performed research used to justify racist thoughts of superiority of the ‘white race’. 

The book goes on to further explore the history of the IQ test, human zoos (exactly what you think they are), and the good old Cheddar Man (spoiler alert: he was black!). Most interestingly, the attitudes towards Neanderthals following the announcement that there are more Neanderthal genes found in white people than black people, saw a shift of their descriptions in news publication from unintelligent and animalistic characteristics into ‘resourceful’ and ‘too smart for their own good’. 

I won’t share any more about this book, as I highly recommend you read it yourself and take what you need from it! For a more detailed review you can listen to the podcast ‘The Control and The Variable’, Episode 6.