Racial Science

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RACIAL SCIENCE in America is nearly as old as the United States itself. Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) included a discourse on racial physiology (and supposed inequality) that was among the earliest intellectual treatments of the subject. Systematic scientific attention to the issue began in the early 1800s and has continued in various forms to the present day.

Two competing theories defined early nineteenth-century racial science debates: monogeny and polygeny. Monogeny, the idea that all humans derived from a single pair of ancestors and that racial differences arose from inherent adaptability, drew on biblical creation as well as enlightenment rationalist ideals of the unity and perfectibility of humankind. The foremost advocate of this theory exemplified its diverse influences: Samuel Stanhope Smith was both a minister and president of what is now Princeton University. Polygeny was the theory that human races were created separately and thus have innate and immutable differences. Influential support for this hypothesis came from anatomist Samuel George Morton's Crania Americana (1839) and Crania Aegyptiaca (1844), morphological analyses of hundreds of skulls that included the first racial cranial capacity studies. Josiah Nott and George Gliddon expanded upon these works in their landmark polygenist synthesis Types of Mankind (1854). This new and controversial "American School of Anthropology" received important scientific credibility when the world-renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz publicly espoused it from his position at Harvard. Proponents of this school used their quasi-scientific studies to justify slavery or the restriction of civil rights for non-whites, and decried miscegenation (racial intermarriage) as akin to interspecies mating.

Although Darwinian theory (1859) changed the parameters of debate, polygenist theory continued to thrive under the guise of human evolution. Racial hierarchies formerly explained by separate creations remained intact, justified instead as separate racial divergences from primitive ancestors. Investigators in the emerging field of physical anthropology adopted racial classification as their primary focus, utilizing large amounts of raw data collected from Civil War soldiers, Native Americans, immigrants, and other groups to reinforce older racial hierarchies and introduce new ones. Adding the new statistical and biological advances of the early twentieth century to their analytical arsenal, physical anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists sought to quantify and rank racial differences through head shape, I.Q. tests, blood type, and even the structure of internal organs. These studies not only reinforced prevailing stereotypes of non-whites, they also became purportedly impartial justifications for the exclusion of immigrants from "inferior" southern-and eastern-European groups.

Even as scientific racism reached its high tide, it faced serious challenges from a growing number of scientists. Johns Hopkins biologist Raymond Pearl, widely respected anatomist T. Wingate Todd, outspoken anthropologist M. F. Ashley Montagu, and famed Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas were among the leading figures in their fields who (along with their former students) sought to discredit racial determinism from a scientific standpoint. Between these critiques, the increasing unpopularity of German racial science under the Nazi regime, and the development of population biology and the neo-Darwinian evolutionary synthesis, defenses of racial inequality ceased to be part of mainstream scientific thought by the 1950s.

Despite its retreat, racial science has endured. Although the American Association of Physical Anthropologists officially rejected the concept of racial inferiority in 1956, its members still research human variation. In fact, great advances in biogenetic techniques from the 1980s on spurred a resurgence of ethnic and racial variation studies in physical anthropology and forensics, albeit without the overt inegalitarian overtones of the past. In contrast, workers from other fields continued to champion the idea of racial inequality. In the 1960s and 1970s, University of California educational psychologist Arthur Jensen claimed to have proven racial differences in intellectual abilities. Similarly, political scientist Charles Murray and Harvard psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein asserted the existence of significant racial differences in I.Q. in their controversial book The Bell Curve (1994). Although the mainstream American scientific community (led by such notable figures as Harvard's Stephen Jay Gould) countered these works with detailed critiques, these well-publicized debates demonstrated that scientific racism, an idea tracing back to the birth of the United States, still lingered at the dawn of the twenty-first century.


Barkan, Elazar. The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Haller, John S. Outcasts from Evolution: Scientific Attitudes of Racial Inferiority, 1859–1900. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971.

Stanton, William. The Leopard's Spots: Scientific Attitudes toward Race in America 1815–59. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Kevin F.Kern

See alsoEugenics ; Race Relations .