‘Skin Deep’ peels race science

 

 

SKIN DEEP: JOURNEYS IN THE DIVISIVE SCIENCE OF RACE by Gavin Evans (OneWorld)

Gavin Evans used to work at this publication, three decades ago when it was The Weekly Mail. He is now a lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, and the author of several books. His new book, Skin Deep, develops out of his previous work, Black Brain, White Brain (2014), as well as drawing on his experiences of growing up and living in South Africa.

Skin Deep takes a long, careful look at race science and scientific racism, especially as they operate in the area of intelligence measurement. The core argument of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s infamous 1994 book, The Bell Curve, was that different “races” showed different levels of intelligence, and that this intelligence was genetically determined and inherited — basically, that black people are stupid and white people are clever.

This view goes back a long way, to the “social Darwinists” who twisted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection into an ideology of white supremacy, using it to justify colonialism, and on into the era of racial eugenics so beloved of the Nazis. Such “racist genetic determinism” has been debunked time and again but, as Evans notes, it is enjoying a resurgence in the age of Donald Trump, the alt-right and the re-emergence of anti-immigration and fascist politics in Europe. Thus, as he says, it’s time to debunk it all again.

An example of this kind of pseudo-science is that purveyed by Richard Lynn, a professor emeritus at the University of Ulster. He’s now 89 and “the source most cited by the authors of The Bell Curve”. Lynn used intelligence studies of the San to “prove” that at the bottom of the (racially grouped) intelligence stakes were “Bushmen, Hottentots and Pygmies”. He claimed the average San intelligence, as measured by IQ (intelligence quotient) tests, was 54, “at the low end of the range of mild mental retardation in economically developed nations”.

“An IQ of 54 represents the mental age of the average European eight-year old child,” he wrote.

Lynn went on to claim, based on studies conducted in apartheid South Africa (and tweaked further by him), that the average African IQ is 75 — that’s 25 points lower than that of white Americans and 10 below that of black Americans. Lynn saw genetic inheritance as at least 50% responsible for this alleged difference in intelligence, and The Bell Curve agrees. Race science needs to find not only such differences but to ascribe them to racial heredity.

Evans shows how Lynn and others’ race science distorts real scientific knowledge, driven by a desire to give the “soft sciences” (such as social studies) the credibility of hard sciences such as physics — it’s the lure of all those irrefutable numbers. He goes back as far as humanity’s earliest migrations out of Africa to show how evolutionary science has been misapplied and how false assumptions about heritability warp the results, even when they’re not deliberately stretched into shapes that suit the race scientists.

He looks deeply into what intelligence is, how it has been measured and why IQ tests are a very unreliable yardstick of anything: the definitions are dubious and the calculations involved are highly manipulable.

Skin Deep is a comprehensive study of several broad, overlapping fields, pitting fake science against real understanding (and doubt), and linking these to the political currents driving such arguments today. It’s a fascinating book, written in a lively, engaging way, offering strong counter-arguments to the kind of racist “knowledge” that underpinned apartheid. We need such works to help fight against the kind of neo-apartheid thinking now re-emerging all over the world.

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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