Author: Adam Rutherford
Publ: Orion Publishing
Reviewer: Ngozi Ugochukwu
‘Every Nazi has Jewish ancestors ... Every white supremacist has Middle Eastern ancestors. Every racist has African, Indian, East Asian ancestors, as well as everyone else ... Racial purity is pure fantasy.’ So says Adam Rutherford in this, his latest book.
Rutherford was born in Ipswich to Guyanese and Indian parents. A regular broadcaster, he has a PhD in Genetics and is an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London. Here he aims to give the reader a way of countering the myths around race and racism by breaking it down scientifically.
He considers issues such as: whether there is such a thing as ‘racial purity’; can genealogy testing really prove someone is 100 percent white; are black people better at running than white people, and can DNA tell you where you are ‘really, really’ from. As he says, these so-called racial differences are just skin-deep. Genetics do not support popular notions of race. Rutherford argues that we have a tendency to say, ‘race doesn't exist’ or ‘race is just a social construct’.
Yet, race does exist because it is a social construct, and racism is real because people fixate on it. As it has become harder to get that elusive gift for your loved one, a new pastime of tracing where you are from through DNA testing has boomed. Yes, testing can tell you biologically who your father is, or inform you of any health issues genetically, but only in that moment because science is constantly changing.
However, the notion that one can identify your country of origin from a spit sample is fanciful. If we take an African-American and try to trace their ancestry today, could we accurately pinpoint where they were born? This is especially difficult when the number of children produced through sex between slave owners and slaves has already diluted the gene pool.
Rutherford shows that it is virtually impossible to ascertain descendants of a slave's country of birth purely by looking at the maths. Consider that generations are separated by 25 years. If we go back in time, every generation doubles; two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. If we take 1,000 years, that would generate more than a trillion ancestors.
On another level, the proportion of people from black communities who send off for DNA testing kits is much lower than from white communities, which means there is little data. Not only that. Rutherford argues that even if there were the data there is also more genetic diversity on the continent of Africa than in the rest of the world put together.
Did I enjoy the book? I'm not sure. I was blinded by the science on some of the points. And would a racist stick around long enough for me to get my arguments out? Should I even be arguing with a racist? Saying that, this is an intriguing read and, as Rutherford argues, it should be brought out whenever science is distorted and misrepresented to make a point or justify hatred.