Book Review

How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford

Race is real because we perceive it. Racism is real because we enact it. But the appeal to science to strengthen racist ideologies is on the rise – and increasingly part of the public discourse on politics, migration, education, sport and intelligence. Stereotypes and myths about race are expressed not just by overt racists, but also by well-intentioned people whose experience and cultural baggage steer them towards views that are not supported by the modern study of human genetics. Even some scientists are uncomfortable expressing opinions deriving from their research where it relates to race. Yet, if understood correctly, science and history can be powerful allies against racism, granting the clearest view of how people actually are, rather than how we judge them to be.

How to Argue With a Racist is a vital manifesto for a twenty-first century understanding of human evolution and variation, and a timely weapon against the misuse of science to justify bigotry.

I don’t set many reading goals and I have no target of reading x books this year.  That said, I do want to incorporate a little more non-fiction into my reading schedule with the aim of reading one non-fiction book per month.  This month, I’ve chosen Adam Rutherford’s How to Argue With a Racist

I’ve read one of Rutherford’s other books – A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived – which I found really interesting.  Rutherford is a geneticist, but his books are easy to understand even for those who – like me – took biology no further than GCSE level (the exams we sit at age 16 in the UK).  In How to Argue With a Racist, published in early 2020, Rutherford looks at the pseudoscience that is “race science”, explaining why those who have attempted to use genetic research to support their prejudices are incorrect. 

The aim of this book is to anatomise and lay out precisely what our DNA can and can’t tell us about the concept of race.

I won’t attempt to rehash his arguments as I’d no doubt do it badly, but Rutherford looks at four topics – skin colour, ways in which we’re all interrelated, sporting prowess, and intelligence – debunking myths and also giving the more likely factors such as geographical, cultural, socioeconomic etc. that explain some of the differences observed in humans and our appearance and abilities.  And it’s fascinating.  He covers some big ideas from genetics research but in an easily accessible manner, looking at the ways in which traditional racial groupings have been used as a reason for an observation, and then explaining why that argument is incorrect. 

It would be farcical to say that our genes play no role whatsoever.  Our height is largely determined by our genes, and at 5′ 1” (155cm if you prefer), I’m unlikely to make it in topflight basketball.  So yes, genetics plays a part.  But there are those who would argue that the science proves their ideologies, and that is simply not true – genetic differences do not account for the seeming aptitude that some populations have in certain disciplines.  While the whole book is interesting and informative, I particularly enjoyed the section dealing with sporting prowess and why long-distance running has been dominated by those from Kenya and Ethiopia in recent years.  Clue – it isn’t genetics!

This book is a weapon.

There seems to be a growing trend amongst some groups to attempt to use science to argue their prejudices. Rutherford makes it very clear in this book that genetics is very much on the side of the anti-racists, and How to Argue With a Racist is a timely reminder that race is a social construct with no basis in science.  There is a long way to go in understanding the human genome, but the fact that nothing has been found to date that supports the segregation that some would apply to certain portions of the human race is strongly suggestive that it simply isn’t there.  Even if it was, viewing a group as being somehow lesser than another is wrong and is an affront to human dignity.  We’re all worthy of respect.  Period. 

How to Argue With a Racist is available now in hardback, digital, and audio formats. The paperback is due for release on 4 February.


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