‘Is that a book on social narcissism?’ asked my friend with a Masters in Social Things That I As A Science Person Don’t Understand, as she caught me reading Superior by Angela Saini. Foolishly thinking that social narcissism had something to do with those people who get plastic surgery to look like Instagram filters, I looked it up:
“Collective narcissism (or group narcissism) extends the concept of individual narcissism onto the social level of self. It is a tendency to exaggerate the positive image and importance of a group the individual belongs to”
Yes, it is a book on collective narcissism, but not only that. Angela Saini, an Oxford Engineering alumni, former MIT fellow, and self-taught journalist, writes an impressive and obsessively researched book on race, science, and everything in between. What's in between? Well, people.
Scientists are people. Like everyone on this planet, scientists do not live in a bubble—they are influenced by their environment, their time, and even who is footing the bill for their research. This, in turn, colours their work. I, a once bushy-tailed and bright-eyed genetics student, naively assumed that race science started and died with the Nazi era. As Saini makes it clear, it only went underground, hiding in words like 'ethnicity’ and ‘population,’ lurking in journals where everyone cites each other, occasionally funded by white supremacist groups. Sometimes, it goes mainstream.
In a 1994 book called The Bell Curve, a psychologist and a political scientist argue that some population groups have lower IQs than others, and hint heavily at a correlation between intelligence and so-called race. In another case, certain blood pressure tablets are marketed heavily towards Africans Americans, but what makes them prone to high blood pressure: low economic status after years of slavery and Jim Crow laws, or their genes?
In the era of home genetics tests that tell you are 0.1% Native American (but don't tell you the possible shoddy science behind it), computers playing chess better than world champions, and hard sciences like physics and mathematics being the only ones that seem worthwhile, nurture seems to always be forgotten in favour of nature. In this book, not only can we see that our environment shapes our way of being, health, and success (however that is defined) to the point that it becomes difficult to assess what is genetic and what is not, but also this same environment affects how scientists see these differences in a neverending spiral.
All in all, Superior is one of those books that I wish I had multiple copies of in my bag to give out to racist uncles, ignorant yet well meaning coworkers, and Twitter trolls. Saini intersperses personal anecdotes about growing up Indian in South East London, travels seamlessly back and forth in history, interviews scientists (yes, even the racist ones), and gives a clear, comprehensive view on how modern science sees human variation and origins. A joy to read.
Superior: The Return of Race Science
By Angela Saini
352 pages. 2019
Buy it here.