Book review – Science in Black and White: How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide

6-minute read

Some time after I reviewed Angela Saini’s book Superior, I was contacted by medical anthropologist and science writer Alondra Oubré, offering me the opportunity to review her new book. The overall aim of Science in Black and White might be the same – the debunking of the biological arguments used to justify racist thinking – but Oubré shows there is more than one approach to get there.

Science in Black and White

Science in Black and White: How Biology and Environment Shape Our Racial Divide, written by Alondra Oubré, published by Prometheus Books in April 2020 (hardback, 376 pages)

Scientific racism has a long history, so the first third of this book provides plenty of background information and history to get you oriented. This includes the origins of the nature vs. nurture debate, social Darwinism, and eugenics. The rise and fall of the blank slate, the notion that the human mind is shaped solely by the environment. The rise of both behavioural genetics, which studies genes associated with behaviour, and Darwinian medicine, which looks at evolutionary explanations for why some genetically related groups are more prone to certain diseases. The basics of natural selection, DNA, SNPs (single-nucleotide polymorphisms – the single-base-pair mutations that much research has focused on), and the method of genome-wide association studies that allow you to rapidly compare whole genomes for numerous such mutations. But also the concepts of gene × environment interactions, epigenetics (inheritance through other mechanisms than DNA), and biological plasticity. And, finally, a primer on brain architecture.

In case you were in doubt, Science in Black and White is an information-dense and intensely data-driven book that is meticulously annotated. Hundreds of endnotes reference the studies that Oubré draws on to back up her statements and claims. In discussing this background, she already reveals a long history of trying to justify exploitation, colonialism, and white supremacy with scientific arguments. Most of that has now been shown for what it is: flawed research, full of confirmation biases and faulty assumptions. And yet, there remain plenty of right-wing scholars happy to use the latest research tools to push their agenda, while others continue to misinterpret new results.

The remaining two-thirds of the book thus samples a wide range of modern research and what it is and is not telling. This covers purported ethnic differences in IQ, the use of MRI to show racial differences in brain features and anatomy, and the use of candidate gene association studies that result in those headline-grabbing claims of “scientists have found gene for X!”. But Oubré also covers studies on sexual maturation and age of puberty onset, with the accompanying claims that African American girls start earlier – the not so subtle hint being that this makes them more prone to adolescent behavioural problems, teenage pregnancies etc. And there is the tale of testosterone and now the AR or androgen receptor gene, with some scholars seeking to pin increased violence and incarceration rates of African Americans on hormones.

“By the end of the book, it is hard not to feel that some people are just incorrigible racists, hell-bent on proving some link, any link, to support their notion of black inferiority and white supremacy.”

These chapters offer plenty of asides that might not immediately deal with racial science, but that serve to place it in a wider context and explain technical details. Nevertheless, a clear pattern emerges. In chapter after chapter, Oubré shows how simplistic claims of racial differences in behaviour or personality traits that are pinned on genetics do not stand up to scrutiny. Further research invariably shows that things are, well, complicated. By the end of the book, it is hard not to feel that some people are just incorrigible racists, hell-bent on proving some link, any link, to support their notion of black inferiority and white supremacy.

To expound on this a bit more, pro-nature advocates love to flaunt statistically significant results, but they rarely discuss the extent of variation around averages. Nor do they consider effect sizes, i.e. are minuscule but statistically significant differences actually biologically or socially relevant? And the correlations they show do not equal causation, though this is frequently overlooked or conveniently forgotten. Their claims are thus already on shaky ground by themselves.

What complicates such attempts at straightforward genetic explanations further are environmental influences, which can completely overrule genetic tendencies, and epigenetics, which add another layer of complexity. Some examples discussed here include brain structure (powerfully shaped by nutrition and early childhood development), intelligence (influenced e.g. by the socioeconomic status of the family you grew up in, but also by epigenetics, e.g. the chemical substance DNA methyltransferase that can tweak the activity of genes associated with intelligence), or the effect of genes on aggressive behaviour (which can be completely annulled by growing up in nurturing environments free of abuse). Furthermore, the genetic basis of many traits is complex, influenced by thousands of genes with tiny contributions each (so-called polygenic traits – Robert Plomin makes a notable appearance here).

“This book is not driven by a pro-nurture agenda; Oubré repeatedly hammers home the message that nature vs. nurture ought to be replaced by nature plus nurture. Both play a role.”

Intelligence has been a hot and recurrent topic over the decades in this kind of research, and one oddity struck me: Oubré takes as a given the reality of the IQ gap, the idea that white people are smarter than black people because they score higher on intelligence tests. I might be mistaken, but I was under the impression that this gap is subjective, notably because IQ tests are notorious for their inbuilt (cultural) biases and are thus of questionable value.

Aside from that, I found Oubré’s dispassionate approach a breath of fresh air. I greatly appreciated her neutral post-mortem of the Samuel Morton–Stephen Jay Gould debacle on braincase volume and its link to intelligence*. Where racialist scholars have a point, Oubré will readily grant them it. And while for Saini all research on ethnic differences is suspect by definition, Oubré is level-headed, highlighting its value in understanding why ethnic groups differ in their vulnerability to certain diseases (e.g. the increased risk of prostate cancer in African American men). This book is not driven by a pro-nurture agenda; Oubré repeatedly hammers home the message that nature vs. nurture ought to be replaced by nature plus nurture. Both play a role. Her epilogue, which highlights that clan or family genetics might offer a new perspective is remarkable in that sense.

Science in Black and White is not necessarily the easiest book to read and I can see people getting bogged down by the rich technical detail provided here. But if you want to engage with the nitty-gritty and go deeper into the claims of racialist scholars and understand why they are mistaken, this book is the ticket.


*Gould shot down Morton’s ideas in his book The Mismeasure of Man, but later, more careful reanalysis found that Gould’s approach was not free of confirmation bias either, causing no end of glee in certain quarters.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

You can support this blog using below affiliate links, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases:

Science in Black and White hardback or ebook

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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