October 04, 2019

Credit: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

During the Enlightenment, scientists sought a way to categorize and objectively understand the multitude of species inhabiting the Earth. And humans were included in this venture. Though the “science” of race never had any concrete underpinnings and couldn’t be proven, theories born during the Enlightenment still shape how we think about race today. 

Angela Saini, a science journalist and the author of “Superior: The Return of Race Science,” explains how prejudice was once justified through spurious science, and why she fears such approaches are making a comeback. 

Three Takeaways:

  • The word “Caucasian,” can be traced to the Caucasus, a mountainous region found at the intersection of Europe and Asia. When the 18th century German naturalist Johann Blumenbach examined skulls from this region, he determined Caucasian people to be superior to those from other places, so he expanded his definition of “Caucasian” to include people from Western Europe, North India and North Africa. 
  • Our conceptions of race change dramatically over time, says Saini. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was introduced in the U.S. to stem the flow of Chinese immigrants, who were often considered inferior and unable to integrate. Meanwhile, there were no regulations on the flow of immigrants coming across the Mexican border, since there was little political concern about those from Latin America.
  • Saini thinks it is irrational to believe we can trace our roots to a purer point in the past. Indeed, the categories in which we now think about each other seem to have been completely different thousands of years ago. For example, 2018 DNA tests of “Cheddar Man,” a 10,000-year old skeleton discovered in the UK, revealed that the early Briton had both very dark skin and blue eyes.

More Reading:

  • This National Geographic article explains how scientists used genome sequencing to determine that the first, modern Briton, Cheddar Man, had dark skin and hair.
  • Angela Saini writes for Wired about how our burgeoning understanding of genes has played a huge role in the return of race science. Saini makes a pointed argument about how racial bias still plagues science today, and that we have to remember that correlation does not equal causation. 
  • Listen to our interview with Georgetown professor Katherine Benton-Cohen, about how the U.S. immigration system was invented. 

science, race, Sci and Tech, Racism, Darwin, Angela Saini

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