In my quest for both truth and empathy, I discovered geneticist Adam Rutherford’s book How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (And Don’t) Say About Human Difference. I find combating racism to be very important, and I find great joy in reading about science. This book was a perfect mixture of both of these, which is great regardless of my preferences, because it turns out (unsurprisingly) that science is the best way to debunk racist claims anyways.
How to Argue With a Racist is a great book on an essential topic, executed brilliantly. The book is only 202 pages long and is divided into four parts (following 40 pages of preface and introduction). As Rutherford introduces it,
“This book is a weapon. It is written to equip you with the scientific tools necessary to tackle questions on race, genes, and ancestry. It is a tool kit to help separate fact from myth in understanding how we are similar and how we are different.”Rutherford, How to Argue With a Racist, p. 3
One qualm that I have seen in other reviews is that people aren’t convinced that How to Argue With a Racist is the most accurate title, and I understand. The title may imply a book containing a set of responses to give to specific claims while in the heat of an argument with a racist.
While the arguments themselves aren’t laid out verbatim (as they were in a previous book I reviewed), we do get a lot of ammunition to use in debates with racists. Something I found interesting, though, is that the racists that Rutherford focuses on aren’t the type that you might expect.
When I think of who a racist might be, I think of a person who discriminates against people of a different race, usually subconsciously. Almost always, when confronted, these people will say they’re not racist. Whatever they did was just a coincidence and it had nothing to do with race at all. These people are certainly racist—probably the most common kind—but they’re not really who Rutherford is equipping you to deal with.
Halfway through the book, Rutherford sheds some light on his racist opponents. His concern is with extremists. I don’t think there would be any way that the “White nationalists, White supremacists, and neo-Nazis” of forums like Stormfront, 4chan, and 8chan could claim to not be racist, even if they believe that they’re scientifically correct. These are the people who brag to be “pure White” and either comfort each other or threaten each other when one of them discovers that they have a drop of non-white blood.
The ways that Rutherford debunks these radically pseudoscientific racist claims is with genetics and genealogy. Just hearing those words makes me a little nervous, though; genetics was my worst subject in high school biology, and I still don’t have much confidence in it. Like any science that I don’t understand, I applaud those who do. But it is another feat entirely to be able to communicate about genetics in a straightforward but still meaningful way to someone like me who is worried that a whole book on it will simply be too hard.
My worry was for nothing. How to Argue With a Racist is not only readable, but it was engaging, informative, and even enjoyable. (I’ve learned not to go into books that deal with racism expecting to have any amount of fun, so it was quite a pleasant surprise.) The book’s explanations do debunk the outdated ideas of “scientific racism”, but there are stretches during which you could forget that we are fighting the insidiousness of White supremacy and just enjoy learning about genealogy.
For a presentation on my “cultural identity” (whatever that means) in college, I found my family tree on AncestryDNA. I went into it having been told I was “25% Irish and 75% German” but found that I had relatively recent ancestors both from the UK and Russia. I wasn’t sure if this actually meant I was British or Russian at all, especially since I could only reasonably follow a handful of a wealth of branches. Later, to learn more, I did a 23andMe analysis only to learn I was mostly British and Irish, followed by some French and German, and then a garbled mix of other European ancestry.
Reading this book helped me to understand why my results were so confusing. The first thing to be very conscious of is that these commercial genealogy companies are subject to a lot of uncertainty and their data pools are skewed to the DNA of other customers who are largely European. Also, these companies have to greatly simplify something that is unimaginably complex and not even perfectly understood by those who study it for a living. Rutherford puts it this way:
“The fudging of the data to say that you are ’40 percent British, 25 percent German, and 35 percent Greek’ or some other combination is confusing to me, and it doesn’t indicate the number or relation of the ancestors who have longer-standing Greek heritage. A more accurate result would say, ‘Despite the fact that your genome has significant genetic contribution from people who have recent geographical association with the modern nation-states of Germany and Greece, though we can’t be sure which of your ancestors these were, your family tree spreads all over Europe and, to a lesser but still significant extent, indeed the world. However, you remain 100 percent British because that is how citizenship legally is determined. Genetics won’t change that.'”Rutherford, How to Argue With a Racist, pp. 103-104
Of the four sections of the book—”Skin in the Game”, “Your Ancestors Are My Ancestors”, “Black Power”, and “White Matter”—the second, the one on ancestry, was my favorite. It thoroughly debunked the idea of anyone being racially pure, and came with some mind-bending facts. Perhaps the most fascinating fact stems from the most simple: all humans have had two parents. But here’s the crazy part:
“In the study of genetics, we assume a generational time of twenty-five to thirty years, and in every generation back through time, the number of ancestors you have doubles. What this means is that over a five-hundred-year period, you have 1,048,576 ancestors. By a thousand years ago, you have 1,099,511,627,776—that is, over a trillion. This number is about ten times more people than have ever existed.”Rutherford, How to Argue With a Racist, p. 82
Rutherford provides the answer to how this can be, although still it’s tricky. He writes,
“Our family trees coalesce and collapse in on themselves as we go back in time. You certainly must have a trillion positions on your family tree, but the further you go back, the more frequently these positions will be occupied by the same individuals multiple times. . . . The last common ancestors of all people with long-standing European ancestries lived only six hundred years ago—meaning that if we could draw a perfect complete family tree for every European, at least one branch on each tree would pass through a single person who lived around 1400 CE. . . .
Go back a few centuries further and we reach a mathematical certainty referred to as the genetic isopoint. This is the time in history when the entire population is the ancestor of the entire contemporary population today. . . . one branch of all European family trees cross through one individual in 1400 CE; at the isopoint, all branches of all family trees cross through all people for that population.”Rutherford, How to Argue With a Racist, pp. 83-84
Ultimately, I found the information in this book to be the perfect combination of culturally relevant and scientifically fascinating (and that’s most of what I look for in a book). I don’t intend to get in any arguments any time soon with white supremacists, but if I ever do, I’ll be ready. In the meantime, I look forward to exploring more books on genealogy and genetics, including Rutherford’s own A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.