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Racists

By Pranoti Chirmuley

06 July, 2007
Countercurrents.org

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?

Pranoti Chirmuley
pranoti.26@gmail.com
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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