Race and Science

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Race and Science

Throughout American history, scientific thinkers have offered varied explanations for the visible, or phenotypic, differences between the peoples of the world, commonly referred to as races or racial groups. Although the concept of race did not originate as a scientific ideaits use is most likely traced back to descriptions of the breeding of domestic animalsscience has often been turned to for biological justifications of racial types, as well as a scientific vocabulary for describing beliefs about the relationship between race and physical, social, and intellectual traits. At various times in American history racial science has sought to justify slavery, define the capacity for citizenship of nonwhites, and make claims about the intellectual and physical inferiority of African Americans and other groups.

Racial science is not solely an American phenomenon. After all, scientific racism's intellectual pedigree can be traced to European thinkers such as the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus and other Enlightenment-era scientists including the Frenchmen Louis LeClerc (the Comte de Buffon) and the German Johann Blumenbach. In the Systema Naturae (1735), Linnaeus, the founder of modern scientific taxonomy, divided the human species into four groups: Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeaeus, to which he assigned physical, social, and behavioral characteristics. In his taxonomy, for example, Africanus were described derisively as "black, phlegmatic nose flat; lips tumid; women without shame crafty, indolent, negligent governed by caprice," whereas Europeaeus were described sympathetically as "white, sanguine, muscular eyes blue, gentle inventive governed by laws."

Since the early days of the Republic, American racial scientists have proffered their views, developing uniquely American perspectives on race and science. Just ten years after he asserted that "all men are created equal" in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and one of its early racial scientists, wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia that the difference between the races "is fixed in nature" and hypothesized that blacks were "originally a distinct race."

The nineteenth century was especially fertile for racial scientists as America debated the future of racial slavery. Americans such as Samuel Morton, a Philadelphia physician, and Josiah Nott, a Mobile, Alabama, physician, contributed to the early development of racial science, their theories offering a variety of explanations for the nature of white racial superiority. Morton, founder of the American School of Anthropology, popularized the theory of polygeny, the idea that a hierarchy of human races had separate creations. Morton was also known for a body of work that linked cranial capacity to race and intelligence, which suggested Africans had the lowest cranial capacity and hence the lowest intelligence. These studies were the empirical foundation of polygeny and focused the attention of racial scientists on the relationship between race and intelligence, an emphasis that continues today. Toward the end of the twentieth century, evolutionary biologist Steven Jay Gould discovered that Morton, hailed in his time as "the objectivist of his age," based his conclusions on racial difference on fundamentally flawed data. Gould concluded that Morton's a priori beliefs about race influenced his methods and conclusions.

In the twentieth century, explanations for difference shifted from linking race to measurable human traits such as skin color and cranial capacity to linking racial characteristics directly to genetics, a shift that was driven in large part by the emergence of the fields of eugenics and genetics. Eugenics correlated certain negative and deviant social behaviors with particular ethnic and racial populations and claimed these behaviors to be hereditary and genetic. Eugenic teaching on heredity suggested that race and racial differences in social and intellectual traits were unalterable through education, change in environment or climate, or the eradication of racism itself. For example, the eugenicist Charles Davenport's Race Crossing in Jamaica sought to prove the genetic basis for mental differences between whites and blacks, while eugenicists Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson, in their influential textbook Applied Eugenics, sought to justify segregation by arguing that African-American physical, emotional, and mental inferiority prevented blacks from becoming part of modern civilization.

Response to the speculations of racial scientists played an important part in the development of antiracist thought. In the late 1820s abolitionist and political essayist David Walker challenged the underpinnings of Jefferson's racial science in An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. In the early part of the twentieth century Kelly Miller, dean at Howard University, and W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP and editor of The Crisis, were among those who offered stinging critiques of racial science. In the 1920s Du Bois even debated the notorious eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard on this subject. The work of many anthropologists and biologists during the first half of the twentieth century also rebutted racial scientific thought. For example, the work of anthropologist Franz Boas, who dedicated his career to antiracism, showed that skull shape varied within human populations and that cranium size even varied within an individual's lifetime. In a later study of American immigrants, Boas also discovered that changes in environment could influence skull shape and size. These studies helped to illustrate the dynamic nature of human populations and also discredited notions of cranial differences between racial groups.

The intellectual and theoretical discussions about race, science, and medicine have had, since the days of slavery, real and sometimes horrific consequences for African Americans. In the nineteenth-century American South, slaves were sometimes used against their will in the course of scientific and medical experimentation. Less than a year into his presidency, Thomas Jefferson used two hundred slaves to test whether Edward Jenner's cowpox vaccine protected against smallpox. The vaccinations were successful and contributed to the acceptance of cowpox vaccination in Virginia and across the United States. Georgia physician Thomas Hamilton used a slave to carry out a brutal experiment testing remedies for heatstroke. The goal of his experiment was to find ways to help slaves withstand work during hot days. Finally, Alabama surgeon J. Marion Sims, considered to be a pioneer of gynecological medicine, used slave women to perfect a procedure to repair vesicovaginal fistulas. His test subjects underwent repeated operations without anesthesia until the procedure was perfected.

The belief by many racial scientists in the biological inferiority of African Americans, and the association of such diseases as tuberculosis and syphilis with African Americans, led to predictions that the race would eventually die out. The consequences of being viewed by the scientific and medical establishments as either constitutionally weaker or more vulnerable to a variety of ailments led to both stigmatization and poor medical treatment, and also a subsequent distrust by many African Americans of the medical and scientific community. Syphilis rates among African Americans were, for example, often ascribed to biological factors or the inherent moral inferiority of blacks rather than to social conditions or the nature of Treponema pallidum, the pathogen that causes syphilis.

The most notorious example of the intersection between race, science, and medicine is the Tuskegee study, conducted in Macon County, Alabama, by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. The study examined the effects of late-stage untreated syphilis on 399 generally poor and illiterate African-American men who were recruited into the study with incentives that included burial costs and free medical care. When the study was exposed in 1972, it was discovered that study participants were never told the nature of their condition, that there was no formal protocol for the experiments, and that the men were not offered treatment for their condition, even after penicillin was found to be effective in the 1940s. The Tuskegee study is an unfortunate reminder of the damage theories of racial inferiority can wreakdamage to the individuals and their families who suffered as study subjects, damage to the integrity of the scientific and medical communities, and damage to the trust that is necessary between patient and doctors, or in this case, between the African-American community and the medical establishment. In the 1970s the moral outrage at the treatment of the Tuskegee study participants triggered the development of government-mandated protections for human subjects in scientific and medical research.

In the second half of the twentieth century, natural and social scientists, including anthropologist Ashley Montagu, psychologist Kenneth Clark, and biologist Richard Lewontin, challenged scientific notions of race. For example, Lewontin's studies in the 1970s showed that more genetic diversity exists within named racial groups than between them. In the early twenty-first century, the results of the Human Genome Project confirmed the belief that human genetic diversity and human differences cannot be accounted for by the concept of race. Yet, despite the data and the rebukes, science continues to be used to buttress and rationalize America's view of race and American racism.

See also Du Bois, W. E. B.; Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment; Walker, David


Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1996.

Jones, James. Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. New York: Free Press, 1993.

Savitt, Todd L. Medicine and Slavery: The Diseases and Health Care of Blacks in Antebellum Virginia. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1978.

Smedley, Agnes. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999.

Walker, David. An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. New York: Hill and Wang, 1965.

michael yudell (2005)

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