BOOKS: The tip of the white iceberg

THE RACE GALLERY: The Return of Racial Science by Marek Kohn, Cape pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
AT ONE time it looked as if the horrors of Nazism would discredit scientific racism once and for all. Since the Second World War science has seemed to speak with one voice: the old view that humanity fell into a hierarchy of quite distinct types - with "whites" at the top and pretty much everyone else at the bottom - was not only unpalatable, it was also incorrect. Of course there are differences between us, but these merely represented variations upon a single type. As the 1950 Unesco Statement on Race put it, "mankind is one". This consensus, however, is now under threat, or so Marek Kohn argues in this well-documented and disturbing book.

You don't have to look far to see his point, no further, in fact, than the great success enjoyed by Richard Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's The Bell Curve - a hotly contested survey of IQ research which purports to show that blacks are less intelligent than whites and Asians.

Kohn's point, however, is that Herrnstein's and Murray's charming essay is just the tip of an iceberg - a snow-white (or, in the jargon, "Caucasoid") iceberg, of course. The scientists Kohn describes do not amount to an organised group, but many have some sort of link with the journal The Mankind Quarterly. Its first editor, Edinburgh's Robert Gayre, combined a belief in the yeti with a devotion to white South Africa: his successor, Roger Pearson, is an American academic who favours eugenics and argues that the Nordics are the highest form of life nature has produced. This blatant racism notwithstanding, the journal has been able to gather together an impressive list of honorary advisors and contributors, including London's Hans Eynseck and Professor Richard Lynn from the University of Ulster in Coleraine. Its sister journal in Germany Neue Anthropologie has direct links with the Nazi movement, past and present.

Scientific racism has, of course, changed since its heyday. One change is that traditional arguments from brain size or skull shape have given way to an almost exclusive reliance on IQ tests; another is that nowadays Asians ("Mongoloids") are often elevated above even whites on the racial hierarchy, thus reflecting our worries about the economic rise of the Far East. But, as Kohn shows, the wild conjecture, the illogicality and stereo-types characteristic of traditional race science (and so well described in Stephen Jay Gould's The Measure of Man) persist.

According to Herrnstein's and Murray's statistics, about one in five black people have an IQ which puts them on the borderline of mental retardation. But this is as nothing compared to Richard Lynn, who garnered figures from IQ tests carried out in Africa to suggest that half its black population is mentally retarded. Lynn, who recently penned a piece for the Times entitled "Is Man Breeding Himself Back to the Age of the Apes?" supports abortion on demand "as a way of reducing the fertility of less competent and less intelligent people". Robert Gordon, an American researcher and leader of "the Project for the Study and Intelligence of Society", has similarly called for a campaign to discourage the unintelligent from breeding. J Philippe Rushton, a professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, has even reverted to the old argument that blacks' brains are smaller than those of other races. The problem with his position is that it suggests that women are less intelligent than men. Luckily Richard Lynn rescued Rushton with an argument that women are indeed less intelligent than men.

Rushton is also convinced there is an inverse relationship between sexuality and intelligence - the old view that black people are stupid but libidinous - and on this hypothesis he has shown an dubious interest in penis size and ejaculatory powers of blacks, whites and Asians. Many of these researchers - Pearson, Rushton, Lynn - have had their work financed by the Pioneer Fund, founded in 1937 with the aim of fostering research into heredity, eugenics and "race betterment".

It is easy to laugh at this stuff - the race gallery turns out out to be a freak show. What is more disturbing is that these attitudes find an echo in the wider scientific community. For instance, a survey of American psychologists in the late 1980s found that about half of them believed that the differences in IQ scores observed in different races were partly genetic in origin. In a separate development, the US government has given $600,000 to geneticist Robert Plomin to fund a search for genes associated with high intelligence.

And as Kohn demonstrates, the re-emergence of racial science is having serious political consequences; in the US Herrnstein's and Murray's book has been embraced by right-wing Republicans looking for a justification to cut spending on black communities; in the former Yugoslavia scientific racism has played its part in the rise of Serb nationalism; and in Slovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, scientists and politicians talk loosely of the inferiority and "unadaptability" (a favourite term amongst the new social Darwinists) of the Romana or Gypsy population.

Kohn does not always seem sure of himself when handling the larger, more abstract issues that he raises and his book has a slightly meandering, even slap-dash quality. Scientists like Lynn, Rushton and their ilk tend to appear in his pages, for instance, without any introduction. But he has done a service in gathering so much of this ominous detail, and there are moments, especially when he is ridiculing the more extravagant claims of race science, when his book comes alive.