By Pranoti Chirmuley
06 July, 2007
Book Review: Kunal Basu-
Racists- Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2006, pp.214 ISBN-0-14-306225-5,
Price: 250 INR.
'RACISTS' concerns about
the West's obsession with proving the supremacy of a particular race
during the early 18th and 19th century. The book narrates, an experiment
being conducted on a remote island by two a British craniologist (Samuel
Bates) and a French scientist/polygenist (Jean- Louis Belavoix). In
their urge to solve the mystery behind the superiority of the races,
these scientists bring as subjects two infants, a black boy and a white
girl taken care by a 'dumb' nurse. The experiment has been planned to
spread over 12 years and is placed just before the publication of Darwin's
Origin of Species. The characters seem to be devoid of a feeling of
discomfort with experimenting on humans, especially infants whose opinion/consent
is assumed to have been taken. Kunal Basu has casually avoided mentioning
where these children were picked up from, there seems to be no trace
of their origin. It depicts a typical Enlightenment drive towards 'scientificity
and evidence based work.' The ideals that dominated the scene THEN were,
of rationality, scientificity (evidence). Ethical concerns perhaps were
never addressed during this period. Enlightenment was a phase like the
very word itself implies, to bring people to light, to free them from
the domination of the Church. In other words it was to make people learn
the basic tenet that evidence based work was the only way to reach truth.
However it gradually assumed a very Eurocentric tone where the West,
became the reference point, which is evident in the exchanges between
Bates, his wife Louisa and her friends.
Definitions of 'science'
continue to be limited to taking detailed 'measurements', which is depicted
in Bates constant attempt to measure the infants by the craniometer.
The two scientists conduct some key tests which would supposedly help
them arrive at the conclusion to the debate. However Belavoix is not
in favour of such tests defining the fate of the experiment. The mud-slinging
between Belavoix and Bates, is such where the former believes that all
races are different from each other and the only determining factor
is each one's aggression against the other. For him the murder of one
infant by the other would give the conclusion to the experiment. Bates
strongly goes by the instincts of measurements and tests which would
obviously prove that the white race is superior. And for him his tests
were proving his instincts true.
The author very skillfully
puts across the problems or challenges that science or scientific research
faces like that of funding, of the authorities/ institutions, like the
Royal Society, not taking up the responsibility for the experiment.
Basu perhaps wants us to come to terms with several ideas like; a premier
institution in science which supports the experiment refuses to take
responsibility midway only because of the fear that it might upset the
(European) academia. The other side of this very argument is perhaps
the Royal society's own anxiety of the results (the Eurocentric world
view gradually dissolving) that this experiment would reveal. However
all these worries do not seem to discourage Bates drive to keep the
experiment going even if it meant selling the skulls (his most precious
totems) to draw up some finances!
Basu raises intriguing questions
but answers only a few! His way of portraying Louisa's friends who would
sit in the settee to discuss the fate of the experiment is an illustration
of the Ivory tower intellectuals. Their sudden concern for the infants
is a typical example of this genre of intellectuals who discuss matters
of grave concern to society, behind closed doors. They speak in the
language of welfare of the poor, downtrodden and those discriminated
against. Bates reacts to this superficial concern for the samples in
an aggressive way. Bates is no different; he belongs to this very camp
of people concerned about this experiment. He represents the Western
intelligentsia which creates this uproar about scientificity and the
requirement of evidence to prove any hypothesis. And to please the fancies
of his funder wife he has worked diligently to prove the worth of his
study so that she does not stall the experiment. His response to this
is perhaps a feeling of being deceived by his own people.
It is raising several ethical
issues here. In this rush (in any research) to prove a certain hypothesis,
can one forfeit the need to safeguard the subjects' basic rights? Does
the researcher have any obligations towards his/her subjects? Each research
begins with a research problem. However what the researcher considers
as a (research) 'problem' perhaps is not a problem at all for the people
who are plausible subjects of the experiment. The point is that no matter
the lofty goals of any scientific research like the concern for the
greater good of the greater number should not overlook the interests
of the subjects. This is the reason why the concept of 'consent' holds
crucial space in any research.
A fundamental concern is
that can we really have babies/infants being used for experiments? They
are vulnerable as they do not or cannot have an opinion for themselves,
does that mean that their fundamental rights of care, health care, adequate
and accurate treatment (read humanity and love) would not be provided
for? These children are minors and in that case consent for their participation
in the experiment has to be sought from their parents. As mentioned
earlier this book has clearly kept away from this debate. There is also
a question of harm, injury, risk and treatment in any experiment. In
(this book) the experiment – the subjects i.e. the children need
some humane treatment of love, care. The 'dumb' nurse, no trace of words
or language, no special treatment or instructions are kept away from
these children. All the elements that are part of a human being's life
are not provided for. Treatment is not to be given only because they
suffer or would suffer from some disease. It is a requirement but that
is not provided for because of the selfish interests of the scientists
and more so of those who fund such projects. Questions of perceived
risks are thus asked prior to a study being conducted in any setting.
However the scientists in this experiment chose to assume that the experiment
would not hold any harm or risk for its subjects. In no way does it
mean that if this experiment were to be done on elderly individuals
it was ethical!
Racists, ends in a rather
inconclusive manner which is perhaps a depiction of reality. The only
question then is that do we need to get to a conclusion? And would it
in any way help stop the prevalence of discrimination?
I did my postgraduation (MA and M.Phil in Sociology) from Jawaharlal
Nehru University. After which I came back to Mumbai, from where i hail
from, and started working on a small UNESCO-PARZOR project on Parsi
Youth in India at TISS and then worked for a short while for a project
on Sexual violence in marriage. Since Dec 2005 I have been working with
Centre for Studies in Ethics and Rights (Bandra). My current work involves
collaborating with 5 NGOs across the country to help them develop efficient
monitoring and Evaluations at their organizations. I also part-time
teach Sociology to IAS aspirants in Pune and Mumbai.
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