Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Bill Gammage - The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels write "nature, the nature that preceded human nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin)". They were arguing that the natural world is transformed by humans, constantly recreated and rebuilt. It is an insight that kept returning to me as I read Bill Gammage's excellent book The Biggest Estate on Earth. Gammage's contention is that the Australian landscape as seen by European colonial explorers, settlers and convicts post-1788 (the date of first arrival of the British first fleet) was not natural, pristine or untouched and certainly not terra nullius. Rather as the author says, "there was no wilderness". The Australian landscape was shaped by thousands of years of careful, planned human labour.

But this is not what those arriving from Europe saw. Instead they tended to interpret the landscape as a natural collection of park-like spaces. As Gammage explains "Almost all thought no land in Australia private, and parks natural. To think otherwise required them to see Aborigines as gentry, not shiftless wanderers. That seemed preposterous."

The reference here to gentry relates to the fact that hundreds of European accounts (Gammage quotes dozens and dozens of examples) describe the landscape as often being "park like". Park, at this time, referred to the type of landscapes created by wealthy British landowners. They were rich enough to leave landscapes laid out for pleasure - not to produce food, or generate wealth. It is, as Gammage suggests, peculiarly myopic to see these perceived landscapes and equate them with parkland in Europe, and conclude that they cannot have been artificial. It is also a view imbued with racism and class.

Much of the book looks at exactly how and why the aboriginal people shaped the land. There is a brilliantly illustrated section (in full colour) that uses paintings and old photographs as well as contemporary images to show how the landscape changed after 1788 when the land wasn't burnt back. Burning was the key way that land was cleared and the clearance allowed food to be grown or helped with the hunting of animals like kangaroo. The changes also meant that the destruction of aboriginal communities was also written into the landscape. Take this picture Mills' Plains by John Glover (circa 1832-1834).

Gammage writes:
Glover shows Tasmanians. They were not there in 1832, for in 1828-30 they were shot or rounded up by bounty hunters like Glover's neighbour John Batman. Glover knew this. He captioned his [painting] Batman's Lookout, Ben Lomond (1835) 'on account of Mr Batman frequenting this spot to entrap the Natives'. Yet he depicts not only their presence, but their absence. His Mills' Plains foreground shows young gums, wattles and casuarinas which all regenerate quickly after fire. They are young because Tasmanians burnt the old; they are there because Tasmanian burning was stopped. They are the first generation for decades not to get burnt, so their height measures the end of Tasmanian dominion.
Ironically the lack of burning also meant that some flora and fauna went extinct. The burning encouraged particular growth, or created ecological niches that were needed by certain animals. The end of burning led, for instance, "to the extinction or decline of over a third of small desert animals species."

The recent extreme bushfires in Australia have reawakened debate about how a return to regular backburning could help prevent future catastrophic fires. Gammage certainly provides ample evidence that this is true. But he also makes it clear that it wouldn't be easy. The Aboriginal people had thousands of years of experience and even sympathetic attempts to recreate this have failed: "They knew which fire regime worked" he writes. That said, the effects could be dramatic. As Gammage explains, Aboriginal people rarely had to deal with enormous fires because they rarely happened - because "people had to prevent it, or die". Gammage recounts a story from the 1870s:
When a fire menaced the station while its men were away, an [Aboriginal] elder studied the flames, then organised women and children to light spot fires in five staggered rows across the advancing front. This broke up the fire and it was put out."
But these skills with fire arose from long experience and a particular understanding of the natural ecology. I don't have space to cover Gammage's explanation of Aboriginal understanding of their relationship to history and space. But the "Law" he describes is an obligation on everyone to manage and protect the land as it was and is.
All must care for the and and its creatures, all must be regenerated by care and ceremony, no soul must be extinguished, no totem put at risk, no habitat too much reduced. That mandate, not the theology, made land care purposeful, universal and predictable. This is true of very part, even what might seem untouched wilderness, and even where ecologists today can't see why. The parks and puzzles Europeans saw in 1788 were no accident.
Thus the shaping of landscape was not technological, it was something that arose out of the very understanding that Aboriginal people had of the land and their place in it. There's a tragic story that demonstrates this, told by Gammage, of a small band of Tasmanian people, decimated by the colonial powers, who continued to fire the landscape, doing the work of ten times their number, to try and maintain the land - even though the smoke would betray their existence.

This approach can be contrasted with the settlers who saw the land with very different eyes. It is summed by a quote from 1864 by a surveyor WCB Wilson who wrote:
heavy showers fell which had a wonderful effect upon the hitherto parched up ground innumerable bulbous roots shooting up their long green stems in every direction and clothing the earth with a profusion of flowers.... It is very delightful to contemplate Nature in her holiday garbs, but unfortunately both the flowers and the coarse green grass are intrinsically worthless.
Gammage comments that Wilson "didn't value anything much". But here, summarised, is the new capitalist approach to land as a source of value. The landscapes that the Aboriginal people created where particularly prized by settlers, not simply for the clear areas, but also for the management of water courses, or the holding back of particular plants. But once they had control the Settlers couldn't maintain these landscapes and massive bush-fires are just one ecological consequence. Before 1788 Australia was very different, but so were the societies that lived there. Gammage concludes:
'Man' made such country home for at least 20,000 years. People civilised all the land, without fences, making farm and wilderness one. In the Great Sandy Desert women replanted yam tops and scattered millet on soft sand, then watched the seasons: millet crops a year after its first rain. This is farming, but not being a farmer. Doing more would have driven them out of the desert. Mobility let them stay. It imposed a strict and rigid society, but it was an immense gain. It gave people abundant food and leisure, and it made Australia a single estate. Instead of dividing Aborigines into gentry and peasantry, it made them a free people.
Marx and Engels pointed out that examining the economic basis to a society enabled you to understand its structures and social relations. Aboriginal society was based on a different relationship to the land and that enabled a much more equitable and sustainable world. Capitalism is the negation of that. Replacing capitalism with a sustainable world will not mean a return to the aboriginal communities from before 1788. But it will mean learning from their relationship with the land to ensure that future generations can enjoy it.

Bill Gammage's excellent and book is a powerful exploration of how we can understand non-capitalist social relations. He shows how modern Australia arose out of the destruction of a way of life, and consequently a landscape. He challenges racist myths about Australia's indigenous people and reminds us that things do not have to be like they are.

Related Reviews

Pascoe - Dark Emu: Aboriginal Australia and the Birth of Agriculture

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

C.J.Sansom - Heartstone

*** Spoilers ***

By the time you've reached the fifth volume of CJ Sansom's books about the Tudor lawyer Matthew Shardlake you really do know what you are going to get. Near on 1000 pages of well written, convoluted plot about a mystery set around key moments in the reign of Henry VIII. Heartstone is set in the Summer of 1545 as a powerful French fleet is preparing to invade England in the aftermath of Henry's failed invasion of France. Shardlake is asked by Queen Catherine Parr to investigate a mystery brought to her by an old servant who claims that her son died in mysterious circumstances. Her son had been tutoring two young children who were wards of a wealth landowner Sir Nicholas Hobbey.

Shardlake makes the trip to Hobbey's manor house, which conveniently for the story teller is near Portsmouth where Henry is gathering his forces to attempt to repel invasion. Conveniently for Sansom's main character, this is relatively near to the possible home of Ellen, a woman that Shardlake has been looking after who lives in Bedlam. Desperate to solve the puzzle and keen to learn more about Ellen, Shardlake manages to immerse himself in a variety of dangerous escapades which ultimately lead him to be trapped aboard the Mary Rose as she sales on her ill-fated voyage.

A former lawyer himself, Sansom's own legal knowledge often imbibes the books with a sense of realism. In this novel he is able to explore the Court of Wards, a Tudor institution ostensiasly set up to look after those who are too young to manage their estates. For Henry VIII it's also a way to drum up much needed wealth. Sansom gives a real sense of a population tired out by Henry's reign. There's a drunken clergyman Reverend Seckford who complains that his vicar is a radical reform, while he finds "the new ways difficult". There's a palpable sense of weariness to the soldiers, villagers and workers that Shardlake meets and as with the other novels much of the enjoyment comes from exploring the Tudor world that Sansom evokes.

Shardlake's own weaknesses betray him. He jumps to conclusions, gets things wrong and misses the thing in front of him, as one character warns him. The ending is not particularly positive, as Shardlake realises that he has gone too far in delving into Ellen's background. He makes the classic assumption that the outcome he seeks is also desired by the other person.

Volume five is up there with the other books in the series, though I felt it a little too contrived in places - especially the shenanigans getting Shardlake on the Mary Rose in time for its sailing. That said it's one for the fans of the earlier books.

Related Reviews

Sansom - Dissolution
Sansom - Dark Fire
Sansom - Sovereign
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Thursday, February 20, 2020

Matthew Cobb - Life's Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code

There are some iconic "races" in scientific history. US President Kennedy's 1962 challenge to put a "man" on the moon by the end of the decade is perhaps the most famous. More infamous is the US drive to get the atom bomb before the Germans and Russians. Others are less famous, and of these, the story of the rather more elongated race to "crack the genetic code" is probably the most important.

The same year that Kennedy made is speech, James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the noble prize for their work in understanding the shape of the DNA molecule. The event is well known, particularly in Britain where it's celebrated as a British success story. Ignored at the time, though increasingly better known today, was the work of Rosalind Franklin whose leg work laid the foundations for the discovery which was announced in April 1953.

But this was just one moment in a long, convoluted exploration of the biological structures and processes that allow leaving things to pass on information to their offspring. Matthew Cobb's book is a detailed and entertaining account of that story, which begins long before the discovery of DNA and has a cast of fascinating and sometimes eccentric scientists.

Cobb begins not with the practical science, but the theoretical studies by physicists and mathematicians who hoped to develop understanding of heredity science through understanding flows of information. Surprisingly then we're treated to such diverse, but important, subjects such as the development of automated anti-aircraft guns. Such early attempts to model behaviour formed the theoretical backdrop to latter attempts to understand biological information in genes.
But these approaches ultimately failed. Cobb explains:
None of the hypothetical codes dreamt up by the theoreticians were correct, because they made assumptions that were logical, rigorous and hopelessly wrong. The physicists' appetite for elegance and the biochemists' naive assumptions about natural selection led them to assume that the code had to be extremely economical, that it would look as though it had been designed along logical principles. But that is not how biology works. The genetic code is a product of biology and is messy, illogical and inelegant. It is highly redundant, but to bewilderingly varied degrees...Explaining this patter on the basis of chemical, physical or mathematical principles has so far proved difficult. Whatever logical there may have been has been overlain by billions of years of evolution and chance events. As Jacob put it in 1977, natural selection does not design, it tinkers with what is available.
Cobb points out though, that "at first glance the genetic code does indeed look like an artificial code", which lead many up the wrong path. In the 1950s many scientists tried and failed to crack the genetic code through theoretical approaches because they didn't (or couldn't) understand a key point:
Interpreting the genetic code in terms of precise analogies, strict definitions and exact parallels to artificial systems will almost certainly fail, because the genetic code, like every other aspect of biology, has not been designed. It is part of life and has evolved. It can be properly understood only in its historical, biological context. That was the lesson of the doomed attempts to break the code in the 1950s and it should guide us today in trying to understand what is in our genes.
Watson and Crick's key moment is recounted quite early on in Life's Greatest Secret. Large chunks of the book are devoted to what happened afterwards as working out the shape of DNA was only one break-through. There are a succession of other noble prize winners in these pages, many of whom were doing science that I found quite difficult to follow. Indeed, one of the problems with this book is that despite Cobb's accessible writing style, if you lack knowledge of biology, much of the science is inaccessible. Personally I'd have found a extra chapter on the basics of genetics and cellular biology invaluable, but to be fair to author and publisher, I doubt that I was the target audience.

That said, this is still a book that contains a great deal of well presented, excellent information (as well as not a few entertaining anecdotes) and insightful comment. The final discussions on contemporary debates around genetics is also very useful. Readers with a better grasp of basic biology than me will find it very stimulating, but even those like me who took other GCSE and A-levels will enjoy the work.

Related Reviews

Cobb - The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis
Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science
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Monday, February 17, 2020

Carys Davies - West

What happens when a passing fancy becomes an obsession? It's something that many novels have dealt with but few perhaps do it with such style as Carys Davies' West. Rightly it has won multiple awards and much praise, and its taken an age old subject and cast it anew.

Cy Bellman is a mule breeder some where in the American east. He has a few dreams, mostly about breeding more mules and moving west to find somewhere to do that better. But one day he reads a report of enormous ancient bones found in a swamp, and comes to believe that giant animals are still living in the unexplored far west of America. Unable to stop thinking about them, he abandons everything, including his beloved daughter Bess whom he leaves with his straitlaced God fearing sister, and buying a new hat, heads west.

If the book simply followed Cy's travels it would be a classic. Davies' prose is brief but descriptive - she evokes the lands brilliantly as weeks become months and years on Cy's fruitless search. The country he travels through are wilderness to him, but are of course inhabited by Native Americans from whom Cy buys supplies and assistance from with shiny trinkets.

In Cy's absence, Bess becomes a young woman, and she too is obsessed with her absent father. Long dismissed by the rest of their village as insane, Bess holds out hope that Cy will return - at the same time with dealing with all her own changes.

Of course, to us Cy's quest is insane. We know there are no dinosaurs or mammoths out there. But to his generation it wouldn't have been impossible and some well read people certainly thought it possible. But really Cy's quest isn't about the giant animals he draws in the dirt for Native Americans when he asks them if they've seen a mammoth. It's also a quest to understand (or even find) is dead wife. Bess comes to realise this and at the finale she is, rather suddenly confronted, by the metaphorical return of both her parents. The strange, and somewhat unpleasant, climax to the book required several re-readings. My initial dismay being replaced with satisfaction as I realised that Cy and his daughter had reached a redemption with themselves that no one else could really understand.

At slightly less than 150 pages the book packs a lot in and reminded me as a devoured it, that many authors today could learn a lot from the sparsity of words which paint a very detailed picture. Highly recommended.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

David Miles - The Tale of the Axe: How the Neolithic Revolution Transformed Britain

I've been looking forward to reading The Tale of the Axe for some time as there is a lack of popular studies of the stone age tools that our ancestors used for much of human history. As the subtitle of David Miles' book suggests, these tools were fundamental to the transformation of human society from nomadic hunter-gathering to sedentary farming communities.

Disappointingly, however, stone age technology is not really the subject of the book. In fact the title is a bit of a misnomer, as there is no real tale of the axe here. Instead this is a decent over-view of how our understanding of ancient human history has developed and a summary of contemporary understanding, which particularly focuses on the British Isles.

Unfortunately the book suffers from trying to do too much, and becomes a bit of a mish-mash of ideas and subjects. There is quite a bit of skipping back and forth, and at times I was frustrated because I didn't really get what the author was arguing. It is refreshing to see someone engaging critically with the work of Gordon Childe and the ideas of Engels in the context of archaeology, but I didn't really find out whether he found them useful or not. Instead Miles appears to take bits and pieces of what he finds useful and apply them to particular situations without really giving me a sense of his actual framework.

While there is actually much of interest here (and some absolutely stunning photos and illustrations) I was quite frustrated by the book and the author's style. His tendency to throw in random facts and contemporary quotations was deeply distracting and left me annoyed rather than illuminated.

These criticisms aside, David Miles' book does have some interesting details and he draws on his long career as an archaeologist to illuminate specific sites and periods. But ultimately I was disappointed.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Bellwood - First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies
Mazoyer & Roudart - A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis
Lewis-Williams - The Mind in the Cave
Mithen - To the Islands
Green - A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm
Reynolds - Ancient Farming
Flannery & Marcus - The Creation of Inequality

Monday, February 10, 2020

John Wyndham - Jizzle

As a big fan of John Wyndham I was very pleased to discover this collection of short-stories that I was previously unaware of. First published in 1954 the stories appear mostly to date from the early 1950s. Reading these today I'm struck by how familiar they seem. Perhaps this is because their subjects and structures have been much emulated over the years. As such the tales lack the punch from their twist endings that readers probably enjoyed when the book was first published. That said, I enjoyed the stories as much for their contempory social comment as their plots.

Today Wyndham is mostly remembered as a science-fiction author, but his writing was actually often closer to fantasy or horror. Several of the stories in Jizzle are actually horrific, the title story for instance, deals with the consequences of a circus monkey that can draw, and how its extremely accurate pictures of people in compromising positions with others, lead to tragedy.

Several of the stories deal with a favourite subject for Wyndham - time travel, including a rather clever one involving a love-lorn woman who has just been dumped and visits a fortune teller. Rudely dismissing the predictions, she fails to hear the warning "that was your second marriage" and the reader is left to fill in the delightful gaps.

Women play a central role in many of these stories, though often as individuals looking for love. I'd like to suggest that Wyndham was breaking the mould in how women were portrayed but his characters tend to fall into various stereotypes. Because the books very much reflect the period they were written in they share some other stereotypes. One of the stories has a child playing with her dolls in a tea party. The gollywog in her game is the "naughty" character. I doubt that Wyndham was making a deliberate racist comment, but it certainly jarred when I read it 66 years after publication.

Chinese Puzzle is a comic story dealing with the arrival of a Chinese dragon in Wales. Ignoring the crude attempts to portray a Welsh accent in print, the story follows a rather predictable path, with the exception that a central role is played by the local Welsh Communist activist who sees the creatures' arrival in terms of the successful Chinese Revolution. Unfortunately the arrival of a red Welsh "peoples' dragon" turns the conflict into nationalism versus communism. The slightly predictable ending disappoints, but the premise is clever and there are some amusing digs at over-inflated egos in the Communist movement and the Nationalists. I loved Confidence Trick a story in which the London Underground plays a key role, proving that over-crowding on the tube is not a recent development at all!

Some of the stories felt very dated. Does anyone know what a flea circus is these days? But others have stood the test of time. Contemporary concerns about the impact of technology are dealt with neatly in The Wheel, which looks at a future where the wheel has been banned and the Church deals with heretics who try and make one.

Despite these being more fantasy, questions of science and technology run through many of the stories, including the consequences of misusing science (or indeed magical situations) to achieve personal profit. There's a definite sense of karma to most of the tales, protagonists get what is due to them.

All in all this is an entertaining collection that will probably be of most interest to those who are existing fans of John Wyndham. The stories didn't quite have the sense of relevance as The Kraken Wakes did when I re-read it a few years ago. But they are neat and tightly written, reminding me it is possible to tell a story in a few pages, just as well as several hundred.

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Wyndham - The Kraken Wakes
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Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Angela Saini - Superior: The Return of Race Science

The election, and re-election, of right-wing governments around the world has encouraged the growth and confidence of racists and fascists. Racism is not a rational world-view, but racists, and those who want to encourage them often need to justify and explain their ideologies. Pseudo-scientific racist ideas have been around for some time - arising in particular out of attempts to justify the African slave trade. But, as Angela Saini's important new book explains, there has been a revitalisation of scientific racism and this is helping give confidence to right-wing ideologists today.

That these ideas should return is itself a shock. For most people the scientific justification of racism was closely linked to the Holocaust, and in the aftermath of the defeat of the Nazis, these ideas were banished. In fact, as Saini says, it seems impossible that rational minds could conceive of such ideas. Writing about the Max Planck institute, a prestigious scientific organisation in Germany which, in 2001, had to "accept responsibility for historic crimes committed by its scientists" under the Nazis:
The truth - that it is perfectly possible for prominent scientists to be racist, to murder, to abuse both people and knowledge - doesn't sit easily with the way we like to think about scientific research. We imagine that it's above politics, that it's a noble, rational and objective endeavour, untainted by feelings or prejudice.
She continues, "the answer is simple: science is always shaped by the time and the place in which it is carried out. It ultimately sits at the mercy of the personal political beliefs of those carrying it out." But there is a problem says Saini. The unique horrors of World War Two have made race science abhorrent. But, "were scientists in the rest of the world so blameless?" In fact, as my reference to the slave trade above indicates, "the well of scientific ideas from which Hitler and others... drew their plans for 'racial hygiene', leading ultimately to genocide, didn't originate in Germany alone. They had been steadily supplied for more than a century by race scientists from all over the world, supported by well-respected intellectuals, aristocrats, political leaders and women and men of wealth".

So the book is in two parts. The first deals with the history of race science. The second part looks at how those ideas are used today. But really there isn't a separation between these two halves. As one researcher from the 1970s who studied the far-right commented many years later, "I didn't really understand that there were these structures and networks and associations of people that were attempting to keep alive a body of ideas that I had associated with at the very least the pre-civil rights movement... going back to the eugenics movement... These ideas were still being developed and promulgated and promoted." Saini unpicks these networks, the shadowy sources of funds and the journals that allow those with similar beliefs to publish. Publication in particular gives a sheen of academic veneer to right-wing ideologists who want to push race science.

Today race science isn't solely pushed by those who want to see genocide. It can, as Saini points out, be used for all sorts of ideological arguments, for instance that equal opportunity programmes are "doomed to fail". In fact, one of the problems with contemporary race science, is that it often builds on the work of anti-racist scientists who thought their research (into eg genetics) was undermining the very basis for racism. Writing about the Human Genome Diversity Project, a 1990s programme that tried to understand human evolution and migration through genetics, Saini comments that the well intentioned scientists "failed to connect what they were doing with people's rel-life experience of race, with the history and politics of this deadly idea. They thought they were above it all, when in fact they were always central to it." Discussing one of the scientists who was central to the project, the esteemed scientist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza who at the end of his long life maintained "there are simply no races in humankind", Saini points out that "it is also difficult to read his work and come away convinced that his generation of scientists had fully abandoned race science after the Second World War. Although they had ditched race in name, it wasn't clear that they had necessarily shed it in practice". So some scientists argue that there is so much variation in human genetics that the idea that there are only a few races is incorrect, instead there could be thousands of "social groups" having some biological uniqueness. But, as Saini says:
Canadian philosopher Lisa Gannett has similarly warned about the ethical limits of thinking about race in this new way. To some, it may not seem racist to think about average 'populations' rather than distinct 'types' of people. Certainly, early population geneticists such as Dobzhansky believed that racism was rooted in the assumption that within ethnic groups, people are all the same, whereas those like him believed that, within these groups, people are actually very different. But in the racist mind... it doesn't necessarily matter how differences are distributed, so long as they are there in some form or another. This conceptual loophole in population genetics - the fact that we're all different as individuals but that there is also some apparent order to his diversity - is what has since been seized upon by people with racist agendas. Gannett calls it 'statistical racism.
Modern science doesn't back up race science. But, as Saini points out, that doesn't matter, "racists will find validation wherever they can". The problem is exacerbated she argues, because we are increasingly locked into generalisations and categories that have little basis in reality.
We can't help it. We keep looking back to race because of its familiarity. For so long, it has been the backdrop to our lives, the running narrative. We automatically translate the information our eyes and ears receive into the language of race, forgetting where that language came from.
Even well meaning scientists fall into this trap, as do some anti-racists. In her chapter on "Black Pills" Saini shows how pharmaceutical companies are targeting "black" people for specific medical conditions, even though the causes of those diseases and illnesses are entirely social. Such an approach "lets society off the hook. It places the blame for inequality at the foot of biology. If poor health today is intrinsic to black bodies and nothing to do with racism, it's no one's fault."

In other words, it's not society at fault, for treating people differently, but genetics - and that cannot be helped. But as this book demonstrates, the truth is the opposite. Society both causes poverty and inequality, and the racism that is used to justify it. At best race science provides a cover for this, at worst it opens up the door to those who would like to encourage genocide.

Angela Saini's book is an urgent and important read for every anti-racist. But it should also be read by scientists, and not just those in biology departments. It makes it clear that tackling racism and bigotry needs more than just facts, but also requires an approach that understands the origins of these divisive ideas and can challenge them.

Perhaps we need a revival of left wing science - both in practice and organisation. There's a long tradition, particularly in the 1930s, of scientists collectively challenging dominant right-wing narratives. In an era when we see the revival of far-right politics and fascism and growing concern about climate change such networks of radical scientists could come together with anti-racist and environmental movements to push back the right-wing agenda. That would be a powerful weapon in fighting bigotry and the system that causes it. Angela Saini's book is crucial ammunition for that struggle

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