How to Argue with a Racist: Adam Rutherford at The Cambridge Union

Paul Norris 10 February 2020
Image Credits: BBC

According to Nietzsche, science has its limits, and ‘spurred by its powerful illusion, speeds irresistibly’ towards them. The result is disastrous: ‘logic coils up at these boundaries and finally bites its own tail’.

Racism is the pseudo-science of boundaries, categories and limits. As Adam Rutherford points out, it has a long-standing relationship with science, but racist ‘science’ is the kind that bites its own tail. So arguing with a racist, which Rutherford’s talk at the Union aimed to equip its audience to do, should be pretty easy.

The problem is that overt, self-conscious racism, the kind that throws bananas onto football pitches, is quite rare, in this country at least, compared to what Rutherford calls ‘well-intentioned’ racism. It is the latter kind he is more interested in. This is clearly rife: almost 20% of people surveyed would be unhappy for one of their children to marry a black or Asian person while 40% would be unhappy with a Muslim in the family.

Rutherford made no bones about calling this kind of attitude what it is: racism. But he believes the general arc of history is progressive, something he evidenced more with the horrendous beliefs of the past than the enlightened views of the present. This should have been a familiar story, but Rutherford made it seem lively and new.

I realised how little I had known about the unenlightened attitudes of Enlightenment philosophers. Our concepts of race date to the seventeenth century at the earliest. Until writers like Kant (better known as a natural scientist than a philosopher in his own time), Linnaeus and Voltaire became obsessed with categorising people based on skin pigment. These categorisations were invariably hierarchical, with white Europeans placed at the top.

The earliest conception of race as we know it, however, originated in the Islamic world. Avicenna wrote about skin pigment in relation to the Islamic slave trade in the tenth century. His categorisations were just as hierarchical as his European Enlightenment successors, and like them placed people like himself at the top: Africans were dismissed as fickle, and Europeans as ignorant.

It became clear from Rutherford’s history that race categorisations sprang up opportunistically to justify cruelty. Although people might naturally favour those who look and speak like them, there is nothing natural about mapping this prejudice onto racial categories. Prior to the postulation of races, people tended to be more concerned with places of origin or language than skin colour. Ancient Greeks, for instance, were fiercely xenophobic but did not particularly associate this prejudice with pigmentation.

Race is a social construct, created by the powerful to establish a hierarchy where those at the bottom can be excluded from moral consideration. Kant’s ethics are based (in part) on the principle that people cannot be used as means rather than ends in themselves. The designation of some races as subhuman allowed him to exclude people from moral consideration when convenient.

Racial categories are an invaluable tool of colonialism. Not only did they establish imperialists at the top of a hierarchy, but also created divisions in the people of colonised countries which made them easier to subdue, and which endure to this day. The British Empire cultivated the caste system in India, while the Belgian government issued official identity cards to demarcate Tutsis and Hutus in 1930s Rwanda, in order to favour the lighter-skinned, milk-drinking Tutsis. Both policies have had horrific consequences.

It goes without saying that the scientific basis for such distinctions is extremely flimsy. The white supremacist Richard Spencer, who coined the term ‘alt-right’, is fond of drinking obscene quantities of milk, associating his tolerance for lactose with his racial superiority. Rutherford drew attention to his apparent ignorance that many pastoralist societies have developed lactose tolerance independently, including the Tutsis, so using it as a basis for white supremacy is ludicrous.

The variation in human genetic material does not map onto racial categories, and there is no agreement even among racists how many races there actually are. Estimates vary from one to hundreds. It’s a fool’s errand: all humans are related, and genetic variation between groups does not have any sharp distinctions. 3,500 years ago, every living person with a line of descent to the present day was an ancestor to everyone alive now, a point called the isopoint.

I wanted to ask Dr Rutherford if any of this information was actually capable of convincing people. I had my doubts that racism was the kind of opinion that could be reasoned with. I had doubts that it was an opinion at all: more a mental pathology. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to ask him: as he was giving this lecture for the first time, he had no chance to check how long it would be, and he overran by half an hour with no time for questions.

I had my doubts that racism was the kind of opinion that could be reasoned with. I had doubts that it was an opinion at all: more a mental pathology.

Many would regard science as an apolitical practice, and Rutherford admits that this had been his view too for a while: ‘I’m pretty sure I thought that for a long time, and I don’t think that at all now’. He elaborates on why he thinks the attempt to extricate science from the political sphere is untenable: “Science is only neutral in principle, but as long as it is done by humans it will always be political, and that does go as far as the gathering of data. […] You can say harvesting of genetic information is a non-political act, but it absolutely is [political] because it’s predicated and built on hundreds of years of scientific racism, so whatever questions you’re asking carry that weight with them.”

This was a point he developed in his talk, speaking about how little genetic research had been done on people in Africa. Recent studies by Nina Jablonski, Sarah Tishkoff and Brenna Henn suggest that there is far more genetic diversity within Africa than between Africa and other continents. But these have only happened in the last decade, until which time there was a myopic focus on European and North American data. He called the lack of research an ‘absurdity’: science has failed to research genetics in the region where fallacies about genetics affect people most acutely.

But Rutherford is still trying to figure out the relationship between science and politics. When it comes to refuting racism or climate change denial, it is never clear where to ‘draw the line between generating information and data and becoming an advocate, a political agitator, based on that data’.

The views of the academy have become completely detached from public debates, which settle on pointless questions from which scientists have moved on decades ago. Rutherford notes that the “biological falsity of race has been established by genetics for ten, twenty, thirty, maybe forty years […] and yet I’m publishing a book tomorrow on the genetics of race […] because the conversation about race in the academy has been very different to the conversation I have as a communicator talking to various different publics.”

Rutherford learned to get over his distaste for using science for political purposes because racists and climate deniers “have no such reservations. They have no compunctions about not using every tool in the modern social toolbox to spread their messages. And so I wonder whether it’s good enough for us to sit back and say, It’s just the data, I’m just publishing the data, this is what the data says. So it’s a question; I don’t have an answer, but I think you can tell which way I’m leaning.”

Rutherford takes his inspiration for writing about science and politics from a diverse range of sources. He grew up reading comic books in the 1980s, just as they were beginning to ‘take themselves seriously’ by addressing social issues, including those of race and genetics. He admits he was not necessarily aware of the stories’ political implications at the time: ‘I certainly wasn’t reading X-Men when I was ten thinking, this is an interesting allegory for the Black Panthers’.

But as he’s grown older, having ‘failed to graduate into adulthood from a childhood obsessed with comics’, he has become increasingly aware of the political subtext of many of his boyhood favourites. Even the blandly omnipotent Superman carries an ideological weight: he is not only a strongman, but an alien, an outsider, created by two Jewish boys in the Midwest. That, for Rutherford, is what is interesting about the character.

Literature of various genre has also been a stylistic influence on Rutherford, who in addition to working on his books, writes frequently for The Guardian. Hemingway and Paul Auster shaped his taste for ‘short, punchy prose’, a taste which was particularly evident in Rutherford’s recent intolerance for Susan Greenfield’s ‘breathless, bewilderingly long sentences’ in A Day in Life of the Brain, which he reviewed quite critically.

When Rutherford admires a writer, however, his respect is immense, particularly for Auster. Rutherford admires how Auster can introduce a ‘radical peculiarity […] which turns the whole story upside-down’. He has less time for science-fiction, despite being interested in the kinds of questions it explores.

Auster’s work is quietly surrealist, exploring disjuncts in the reality of urban life. He takes genre stereotypes, often from detective fiction, and pushes them into ontological territory. When a sage appears in City of Glass to sort everything out, it is Auster himself, and he doesn’t sort anything out. A case of mistaken identity in Ghosts is a case of mistaking one’s own identity.

This is not the kind of reading for anyone who deals in fixed, propositional knowledge. It is literature which forces you to re-evaluate the nature of belief. It is far from what comic-book writer Alan Moore calls ‘the cold, stone parameters of an internal dungeon’ delineated by Newtonian physics. If my day job was arguing with people who held ludicrous, hateful and unscientific views I would probably develop a pretty strong certainty in my own beliefs, perhaps even an intolerance for dissent, but Rutherford skirts this danger.

A decade ago, he wrote compellingly about a more benign kind of non-scientific belief: evangelical religion. His ten-week Alpha Course left him with the conclusion that he was being encouraged ‘to think, but not too hard’, which I think is quite a neat description of a lot of Christian evangelism which purports to ‘ask the big questions’ only to provide a pre-packaged answer.

At his first meeting, Rutherford accidentally walked into an Alcoholics Anonymous group, before eventually finding the right room. It was a funny moment but struck me as oddly appropriate. I generally find my own religious belief is something I hold independent of any other propositional knowledge, something I probably could not defend against a hard-line atheist but hold onto because, for me, it works. This is not unlike the AA’s ‘goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee’ imagined by David Foster Wallace, which recovering alcoholics commit to with absolute sincerity because the alternative is death.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that all kinds of things we typically regard as beliefs are actually more like practices. As Nietzsche suggests, ‘there is no “being” behind doing, acting, becoming […] the “doing” is all’. Racism might be like this too: not something that is believed only by a small portion of people, but something practiced by almost everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. The term ‘racist’ might even be unhelpful, by exonerating all those not given the label. There’s a danger that discussing racists as a separate group might make us think, but not too hard.

The term ‘racist’ might even be unhelpful, by exonerating all those not given the label. There’s a danger that discussing racists as a separate group might make us think, but not too hard.

Arguing with racists assumes that we know our minds are constructed from propositional beliefs, but they are not. Along with the fallacy of race, the Enlightenment might be responsible for the fallacy that we can know ourselves. You cannot argue away police shootings or educational disparities. I might let race influence an employment decision precisely because I have no conscious understanding of how race shapes my worldview.

Rutherford’s work is valuable in subduing the most extreme outpouring of racial prejudice, but in his talk and our conversation, it was a shame he did not get a chance to cover how this can influence us as individuals who (hopefully) are not confronted by neo-Nazis on a daily basis. Rutherford’s great predecessor in writing about science and medicine, fellow East-Anglian Thomas Browne, wrote that we ‘carry within us the wonders we seek without us’. We carry the horrors too.