Race, Scientific Theories of

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Race, Scientific Theories of

Although physical differences among peoples had been recognized by the ancients, those differences were invariably interpreted as local, not global. It was not until the late seventeenth century that European scholars began seeing physical variation in terms of continents, in other words, contrasting "the African" with "the European." This was doubtless connected to the political economy of the age, involving the slave trade and long sea voyages; when long voyages were taken over land, the peoples could be seen to intergrade into one another. By the early nineteenth century, race and subspecies had been roughly synonymized, and became the framework for any scientific study of the human species. Scientific racism and the marshaling of empirical data to support theories of racial inferiority/superiority intensified during the early 1800s after the expansion of knowledge within the biological sciences enhanced the professional status of science in Europe and America. By the late eighteenth century, however, Enlightenment philosophers had already laid a foundation for later typologists with a series of natural history treatises that classified "races" according to environmental and geographic conditions.

David Hume's Of National Characters (1748) and Baron Montesquieu's Spirit of Laws (1748) both explained how local climatic factors had produced the human "varieties" that Europeans encountered during imperialist voyages. The influential classification system of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, with its five continental typesCaucasian, Mongolian, Ethiopian, American, and Malayanwould, at century's end, provide an important typological framework for empiricists who increasingly assigned race significance as a static, natural entity.

Scientific theories of race in Europe and America during the first half of the nineteenth century were directly linked to speculations on the role of evolution in the development of plant and animal diversity. Monogenists asserted that all human races could be traced to the traditional biblical story of Adam and Eve, but that a process of "degeneration" left each distinct type at various stages of mental, moral, and physical development. Polygenists, on the other hand, maintained that God created an Adam and Eve for each racial group and that immutable biological differences among races belonging to individual species resulted from these separate acts of creation.

Polygenism was popular in the South because it seemed to provide a scientific rationalization for the practice of slavery in the United States and imperialist expansionism abroad. One northern adherent was Louis Agassiz, a Harvard naturalist, whose lectures during the 1840s reinforced societal fears about the alleged deleterious evolutionary effects of miscegenation, or race mixing, between blacks and whites. Abolitionists, on the other hand, tended to gravitate to monogenism, which emphasized the genealogical unity of all peoples.

Samuel George Morton, in Crania Americana (1839), measured the skull volume of representatives of different races and assembled a scale of development that demonstrated the superiority of Europeans. Josiah C. Nott and George R. Gliddon, two indefatigable champions of polygenism, built on Morton's work. Their most famous publication, Types of Mankind (1854), declared that zoological investigations proved that races constituted "permanent" types, and ranked them in a predictable fashion.

The intellectual revolution brought on by Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859) had little effect upon scientific racism. By the early nineteenth century, pre-Darwinian scholars were making associations between non-Europeans and the apes, although not acknowledging actual biological connections between the human species and the ape species. Cuvier's famous dissection of the "Hottentot Venus" (a southern African Khoe woman called Sarah Baartman, displayed in Europe in the early 1800s alive and after her death, and ultimately repatriated to South Africa in 2002) emphasized her apelike qualities, although Cuvier was no evolutionist. The first generation of post-Darwinian biologists, such as Thomas Huxley in England and Ernst Haeckel in Germany, were faced with the absence of fossil materials connecting the human species to the apes. Their response was to link Europeans to the apes through the nonwhite races, capitalizing on the preexisting creationist imagery.

Among racial typologists, the cephalic index developed by Anders Retzius (a measure of skull shape), and the facial angle developed by Petrus Camper (a measure of the profile), supplied important statistical dimensions for craniometric studies into the twentieth century. They commonly were invoked to reinforce the animality of non-Europeans. Many physical anthropologists inferred as well that high mortality rates among late nineteenth-century black Americans forecast imminent "extinction," and that mental and physical distinctions (rather than the economic and political disfranchisement that characterized the experience of blacks in post-Reconstruction America) explained the high disease rates.

Darwin's work also became a catalyst of hereditary and genetic explanations of racial distinctions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when eugenicists launched aggressive campaigns for human action to transform the evolutionary process with social policies designed to promote good "breeding" among the better "stocks." Charles B. Davenport pioneered the study of human genetics in the United States at the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, New York. The American Eugenics Society was founded in the 1920s as a mainstream scientific organization to promote the sterilization of "feebleminded" people and to restrict the immigration of poor Italians and Jews, entering America in large numbers and living in urban slums. Davenport's friend, a New York lawyer named Madison Grant, articulated these arguments in his 1916 best seller, The Passing of the Great Race, which was lauded in the journal Science and admired by politicians as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler.

During the first half of the twentieth century, significant challenges to biological and genetic characterizations of race stressed the importance of environmental and cultural factors in human behavior. Franz Boas and other reform-minded anthropologists criticized earlier scientific research and pointed to overlapping physical variation, while social scientists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois, and reformers, such as Anna Julia Cooper, provided stark analyses of the persistent socioeconomic conditions that maintained racial disparities in health, education, and general economic status. By the mid-twentieth century, a coalition of cultural and physical anthropologists, empirical sociologists, and geneticists would also advance the biological data from population genetics that affirmed overlapping genetic variation to undermine static portraits of race and intelligence depicted in many IQ studies.

The most powerful statement rejecting the biological model of race was articulated in the UNESCO Statement on Race in 1950, drafted principally by the anthropologist Ashley Montagu, and subsequently revised following a rightwing backlash. The "new physical anthropology" articulated by Sherwood Washburn in the 1950s would focus on local populations rather than on artificial aggregates, on adaptation rather than on classification, on evolutionary dynamics rather than on static typologies, and on the diverse ways of being human rather than on the parochial ranking of human groups.

There was, however, an inevitable reaction against these new scientific sensibilities. Physical anthropologist Carleton Coon's The Origin of Races (1962) was widely brandished against the civil rights movement by segregationists for its assertion that blacks had evolved 200,000 years after whites. Psychologist Arthur Jensen (1969) asserted that intelligence was a largely innate property, gauged accurately by IQ tests, and that the average differences between black and white populations in America were caused by innate differences in intellectual capacity. This was reiterated a generation later by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political theorist Charles Murray in their 1994 best seller, The Bell Curve.

During the public uproar over The Bell Curve, it emerged that a New Yorkbased foundation, the Pioneer Fund, had been clandestinely funding scientific racism for decades. One of its largest beneficiaries, and later its president, was Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, whose theory is that evolution has produced a racial spectrum with law-abiding, intelligent, and undersexualized Asians at one end, and their African antitheses at the other. The interesting historical note is that in this scheme Europeans fall in the middle, having apparently been leapfrogged by Asians.

The lesson to be drawn is that in a society in which science confers legitimacy upon ideas, there is always strong pressure to package political ideologies in the science of the day. This is no less true in the modern United States than it was in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany. The American eugenics movement achieved two notable successes: the Johnson Immigration Bill (restricting immigration in 1924) and the Supreme Court's decision in Buck v. Bell (1926, allowing states to sterilize citizens against their will, on the basis of poor genes). Even after the eugenics movement had begun to fade in the United States, the Tuskegee Study on the Effects of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (19321972) showed that American science is indeed susceptible to popular prejudices about the unequal value of human lives. It need hardly be pointed out that where political inequality is pervasive, it is expedient to explain the inequality as an outgrowth of natural differences, rather than as the historical products of human agency and human evil.

See also Identity and Race in the United States; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race


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gerard fergeson (1996)

jonathan marks (2005)