Cover Image: How to Argue With a Racist

How to Argue With a Racist

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A concise, readable rejoinder to those who try to use simple arguments about race, sports, and IQ to make racist claims.  The author did a great job explaining genetic concepts, discussing what different genetic studies can and can't say about people, and dove deep into the major limits of race as a genetic concept.  But I'm left somewhat unsatisfied.  None of that is the fault of the author; it's more the fault of reality.  Racist arguments are malicious and evil and wrong and misleading and a perversion of science, but they are simple and easy to soundbite and communicate.   Reality, and especially the way genes and environment interact to create thinking, feeling, and behaving, is complex and messy and takes time and nuance to explain.  It's incredibly frustrating to not have a simple valid argument better than "it's a lot more complicated than you are saying it is."
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I think the title might be doing a deservice to the book. It makes the reader think this book will discuss the art of arguing in both content and techniques. It does not. You have to look at the subtitles : this is a book about genes ! It WILL give arguments, but they are not very easy to use for someone that isn't familiar with genes (like me).

Positive thoughts :
- Very interesting and educational
- Well vulgarized
- Broke many race related myths about genes I used to think were true
- Does have effective antiracist arguments

Negative thoughts :
- I don't know that I'll be able to use all this information, as I'm not competent enough in the subject matter
- Some parts were a bit tedious
- Could have taken the conversation a little farther from the facts and a bit more into the interpretation and exemples of those facts
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What works to win an argument?   Can facts actually overcome feelings?  Adam Rutherford, a British geneticist,  seeks to do just that in How to Argue With a Racist.
Adam Rutherford opens with a Note on language and then a discussion for why he wrote this title -- to show how science, genetics in particular, is no friend of racism, but should instead be a tool against it.  After an Introduction that covered the intersection of science and racism along with his personal stake in this tale, he flows into four parts.  
Part One  - Skin in the Game - looks at how pigmentation determined by our genes shape our views of those around us.  And is not just skin, but hair, eyes, and blood types that are affected by our genes.  Yet everyone has the same genes, just expressed differently to provide the spectrum of the human race. 

Part Two - Your Ancestors Are My Ancestors - looks at how genes and genealogy participate in arguments with racists' beliefs about who really is white/black of "pure stock" and the like.  But many racists are surprised regarding the so-called race of their ancestors when they send off their 23and Me sample.  Everyone is related to everyone else via their ancestors.  

Part Three - Black Power - looks at sports and the perceived role that "race" seems to play in who finishes first in sprinting and long distance running.  Does the success of an athlete depend solely on their ancestry or are other factors in play?  Does success depend upon opportunity, perhaps, or national attention to a sport?  These and other questions are examined in this section 

Part Four - White Matter - looks at race and intelligence.  Rutherford is rightly aware that there are pitfalls and no easy answers when examining this topic.  Cognitive abilities do vary among individuals and groups.  But the question has to be asked - what do we mean when describing cognitive abilities?  And is it determined solely by genetics?  Does society and opportunities play a part in a person's abilities?  

In summary, Adam Rutherford works hard to make the point that facts are needed to build an argument, but you need to communicate with someone, not at someone to have a chance of changing their mind.  Listen to the Monty Python Argument Clinic sketch for an example of someone trying to wear down their opponent.  Rutherford, instead, works on proving his point without denigrating his opponent, i.e. trying to make an enemy an ally instead.
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If you’re interested in genetics and history, then this book is for you!

A brief summary: Rutherford presents a delightfully conversational discussion on genetics, DNA, and its relationship to (or lack thereof) to race.

My thoughts: While I found this book interesting, I felt a bit let down – from the title, I had the impression that I would be armed with arguments aplenty to combat everyday racists, but this book isn’t quite meant to be used that broadly. It would be a useful tool, though, for arguing with racists that build their arguments around genetics, like skin color and DNA.

Overall: If you like scientific evidence, then this book will definitely hit the spot for you because the author, a geneticist himself, gives countless examples of evidence to tear down racist claims. I also enjoyed how he weaved together a picture of our history with a scientific lens – he brings the reader through tumultuous times in science and the world, from colonization to the evolution of scientific fields, pointing out revolutionary scientists that were also racist but intelligent individuals.

At times, the genetics jargon was a bit overwhelming for me – sometimes things were explained later, other times it felt like the reader was supposed to take for granted what Rutherford was saying. The majority of the text though, I found to be interesting, accessible, and incredibly informative. The author sprinkles in random fun facts that are perhaps not as well-known (while informative, not necessarily so useful in the book’s context); did you know that, even though homo sapiens evolved from Africa (around present-day Morrocco), diverse skin color existed even before that?

Adam Rutherford is exemplary in his use of snark as well, clearly letting the reader know when he believes something to be folly or just plain wrong (uses of phrases like “hulking beefcake” provided me endless amusement throughout reading). He also had snippets of wisdom mixed in, too, such as the quote below:


For such a simple statement, I found it to be a phenomenal and poignant observation of white supremacy.

In the end, I enjoyed this book. I adored the author’s writing style – he uses the right amount of scientific snark and evidence to make his point without coming across as an ass. While this book may not help you argue with your everyday racist, it does provide you with a deeper understanding of how complex science is, and how genetics functions in regard to skin color, DNA, and evolution, and provides arguments against racist views and claims centering around these ideas.
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My review for this title is published at Shelf Awareness. It can be found via this link:
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s a few other people on Goodreads have remarked, the subtitle of this book is more accurate than the title. How to Argue With a Racist: What Our Genes Do (and Don't) Say About Human Difference definitely discusses genetics as it relates to race. It is less useful if you’re looking for rhetorical tips on arguing with or debating racists or white supremacists. Adam Rutherford clearly and coherently lays out why such people are wrong to base their beliefs on a genetically-codified notion of race. Nevertheless, he dances around the ultimate problem with arguing with racists. I’ll come back to that later in my review. For now, let’s talk about what’s actually in this book, which I received for free via NetGalley and the publisher.

Rutherford starts with a history lesson of racism-as-science. Some of this was familiar to me, but he keeps it interesting and doesn’t go too far into the weeds. Basically, he examines how the post-Enlightenment world’s obsession with categorizing and classifying everything included classifying people, and many scientists used this as an opportunity to try to codify their particular biases and prejudices. Yet the fact that no single, reliable system of linking race to actual biological attributes has emerged after over 3 centuries of trying really demonstrates that race is socially constructed. Rutherford emphasizes that this is true for genetics as well, pointing out the flaws inherent in breakdowns of one’s ethnicity provided by private genomics companies like 23andMe. I particularly like his point regarding the resolution of genetic data available to these companies. Rutherford points out that 23andMe can only compare your genes to the genes it already has on file—i.e., to anyone else who has paid to have their genome sequence, i.e., disproportionately people from wealthier countries that are often descended from a European population. This type of selection bias is, of course, notably absent from these companies’ marketing material.

The next part of the book questions the utility of linking gene-tracing with ancestry. This had a lot of interesting mathematical and scientific points that were new to me. For example, Rutherford points out that, mathematically, it’s impossible for you to go back more than a handful of generations before you encounter overlap in your family tree. As a result, for any given population, we can trace backwards to a most-recent common ancestor—in the case of the entire world, it’s 3400 years. That means that claims like “all of my ancestors come from this one place in Scotland” are spurious—if true, you would be very, very inbred, because there just aren’t enough unique individuals within that population to create an unbroken lineage as far back as you care to trace it. Indeed, Rutherford’s overall thesis throughout the book is that global migration of human populations, and the resulting admixture of genes, makes it impossible to establish any concrete definition of race on a genetic level.

The final part of the book is devoted to challenging claims that we can easily connect genes to certain types of superiority, be this intellectual or physical. Are West Africans genetically predisposed to being the best at sprinting 100 m? Rutherford points out that there’s precious little evidence for such a belief. Not only does he outline the problem of using elite Olympic athletes (small sample size) for such research, but he points to the numerous environmental factors at play, not to mention the overriding confirmation bias (the idea that certain types of people are better at a sport means we invest more in finding and training those types of people, so of course more of them go on to excel in that sport). Similarly, while Rutherford provides an interesting defence of IQ tests as general indicators of large populations, he challenges the idea that an individual’s IQ test is a meaningful metric for evaluating them; moreover, he points out that the link between genetics and intelligence is still not well-understood.

All of this is well and good, and I enjoyed spending about 2 hours hanging out with Rutherford and listening to him refresh me on what I learned in Grade 12 biology and then stretch my understanding further still.

And yet.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, this book doesn’t fundamentally deliver on the promise implicit in its title. I suppose the idea is that, armed with these scientific facts, you’re supposed to bravely go forth and use them next time someone in your company spouts a racist line of reasoning. I guess? Except that it’s fairly well established that facts don’t change people’s minds. I can easily anticipate a racist with whom I’m arguing falling back on one of the numerous conspiracy theories Rutherford himself acknowledges in this book: scientists know that race exists, but they just refuse to admit it because it’s politically incorrect; the Jews are controlling the scientific establishment; look at this one article by a discredited and very racist scientist that repeats all the garbage I just spent fifteen minutes debunking … and so on.

I don’t think we’ll win debates with racists with facts. Truth be told, I‘m not interested in debating racists at all. I’d rather deplatform them.

That being said, if you are interested in being anti-racist and having a better understanding of why scientific ideas of biological race are bunk, you couldn’t do much better than read this book. You’ll come away with an accurate, up-to-date-as-best-we-know-right-now understanding of how our genes actually influence our development. I’m going to follow this up with Superior by Angela Saini as soon as possible for a look at the socio-historical side of this as well.

So, I highly recommend this book, but maybe not for the reasons implied in its title. Educate yourself; try to educate the racists if you feel like it but don’t hold your breath that logic is going to win the day here.
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I knew this would be an interesting book just from the title, but this has become one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time! There is so much history and science mixed together. The author immediately addresses his bias from the get-go and makes sure to acknowledge his own shortcomings from research and conclusions provided. Aside from that, there is so much information to consume, some of which I already knew and was impressed to see organized so well. Also, the author provides a lovely bibliography and an alphabetized index! I know I enjoy strange aspects of nonfiction titles, but this is truly one well-written, although it may be because I agree with the overarching theme of genetics disproving any scientific backing used in racist ideology.
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Rutherford does an excellent job establishing the background information behind race distinctions, and provides accessible explanations of the biological elements of race.  The book has taken me additional time to read because he provides so much information I find I have to stop and take some time to digest all the information periodically.
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Adam Rutherford patiently, persuasively, and knowledgeably walks readers through the complete lack of biological evidence for our concept of race. How to Argue With a Racist uses contemporary genetics research to disprove commonly held beliefs, and to reinforce the simple fact that humanity is complicated. Rutherford also articulately reinforces the idea that while race is not a biological construct, race and racism are very real concepts created by society that influence everyone and everything. 

Do I think you’d actually be able to argue with a racist using the information presented in this book? Maybe. It depends on if you’re dealing with a racist who believes in the reality of science. I think the prime candidates for persuasion by the arguments are those who know and understand that while they might not think of themselves as racist, they have likely engaged in racist thought, speech, or action. If you’re willing to learn about the history of race and humanity, this is an approachable primer on modern genetic understanding of both concepts. 

Recommended for: book clubs, individuals who are on the waiting list(s) for books like How to Be an Anti-Racist, and anyone who has ever questioned the why of racial stereotyping. 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for an honest review.
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A clear and enjoyable book on racism by a great science writer

This is the fourth book by Adam Rutherford that I’ve read, the others being “Humanimal”, “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived”, and “Creation”, and thought all were great. I therefore had high expectations for “How to Argue with a Racist” and I wasn’t disappointed. It was much more enjoyable than “Troublesome Science” by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, and a bit better than “Everyone is African” by Daniel J. Fairbanks. Rutherford explains the science clearly and writes with a conversational tone. I don’t usually recommend reading prefaces, but the one in this book is important. It discusses why science must respond to racism and the role of racism in current issues such as COVID-19 and ongoing protests in the US. I highly recommend this book.
Disclosure: i received a complimentary copy of this book via Netgalley for review purposes.
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The book is pretty easy to follow and a good overview of the genetics that contribute to race (other parts of the human genome are also discussed). I wouldn't say How to Argue with a Racist is the "how-to" sound of the title  ...  just walking through all the findings in a comprehensible manner. It includes explaining what services like 23andMe and AncestryDNA can, and cannot, do.
"Racial categories still vexing our societies do not align with observable genetic differences—and those differences are, in fact, so minute that they serve as evidence of our commonality."
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How to Argue With a Racist is filled with historical and scientific data. As a result, this book was more of a textbook and did not provide anecdotal arguments for the sake of examination and analysis.  A study in anthropology rather than psychology, if you will.
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This was totally insightful and thought provoking. If someone looks differently at another person just because of skin color and religion; it's definitely defined as racism. This book is that aspect but a whole lot more. I may favor some groups as opposed to others, but I have always kept an open mind, you can learn a lot from some of a different race or religion. Yes, there were some stereotypes in this book but it was full of great observations and is a wake up call to treat others with respect and the dignity they deserve.

This was well written and not at all boring. Read this in 2 sittings during self isolation for Covd. Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and author for an ARC in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

I didn't appreciate that the publisher didn't have an option to download to kindle. It made it quite frustrating to read and many conversations with NG support for help to download to read it. I was eventually able to read it on my laptop. Only reason I denoted a star.
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Posted on Goodreads.....

My favorite book on genetics is by this same author. (Link below). The book under review here was a strong reminder of how complex the science of genetics is. It takes a trained and experienced geneticist to understand it.

By contrast, “science reporters,” never mind journalists and political scientists, are not qualified to write knowledgably on this topic. I’ve read those books and they’re an exercise in confirmation bias, with a clear agenda for advocating racism for personal gain. 

For example, the often invoked 2006 study of Ashkenazi Jews (recently touted by an ill-informed columnist at the NYT) is grossly outdated and inaccurate. (It is perhaps telling that one of the authors of that study allied himself with a right wing, fascist group). 

“Race science” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. It has been most often invoked to justify slavery, imperial domination or, more recently, to deny the supposedly inferior social services, including education. 

Of course, the U.S. has a long history of injustice that we prefer to double down on rather than own up to. We'd rather opt for the specious arguments of the ill-informed. 



the unwelcome return of “race science”….
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*received for free from netgalley for honest review* great book, I want to carry this around to slap people across the face with because lets be honest they wouldn't read it (even when it hits then in the face lmfao) no but this is a really great and informative book and unlike many books that are like this, the author doesn't play devils advocate but acknowledge that they exist which doesn't sound likea huge distinction but when you read a book (obviously not this one) that argues child porn should be legal, you kinda really start to hate those kinds of authors. would love to own a copy or two!
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Very interesting look into the reasons we are as we are, concerning racial differences, from a scientific perspective. This book answered several questions about if certain ethnicities were really genetically better at some things, and dispelled a few myths. I love learning about human evolution, and sociology, so this was a great read for me.
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