Scientific Racism

Science has a long and fraught history of entanglement with the social myth of biological race. The modern sciences of biology and physical anthropology were founded on the conviction that racial difference was real, fundamental, and key to understanding the proper relationships between human groups. Advances in these very sciences, however, have shown that race is in no way an objective, natural category. While there are certainly biological differences among human populations, these differences are both relatively trivial and impossible to map onto conventional racial divides. Genetic research, similarly, has yielded no statistically significant patterns of variation by race (Marks 2002). However, this is not a simple story of scientific progress, in which bad ideas are systematically displaced by better ones. The rise and (incomplete) retreat of scientific racism is an eminently political story.

In general terms, scientific racism is characterized by two central fallacies: a classificatory fallacy (race formalism) and a fallacy of reductionism and determinism in which complex phenomena such as intelligence or the capacity for self restraint are reified and explained as resulting straightforwardly from apparently simple causes, such as genes. Race formalism is the idea that humanity can be subdivided into groups that form “real,” objective, natural units, sharing significant biological, and usually cultural and behavioral, characteristics. Originating in the rage for classification in Enlightenment science and philosophy, this idea reached a peak of scientific respectability in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century.

In Systema Naturae (1740), Carolus Linneaus, the father of zoological classification, proposed four subdivisions of humankind: Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, and Afer, or African. In a 1795 revision of his seminal work On the Natural Variety of Mankind, the German naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach elaborated on this scheme, identifying five “races,” the first and most perfect being, in his coinage, “Caucasian.” Along with his invention of the Caucasian race, Blumenbach is remembered for introducing an explicit hierarchy into the Linnaean scheme. Nevertheless, Blumenbach recognized clearly that boundaries between races are artificial, and in fact his classification reflected the widely shared Enlightenment belief in the essential unity of humankind, with any variations explained in environmental terms.

As debates over slavery heightened during the nineteenth century, however, this view of humanity’s natural history was rejected by many who argued that human races were in fact unrelated, hierarchically ranked species. Known as polygenesis or ”multiple creations,” this theory reached its height of popularity around the time of the American Civil War. Polygenetic theories spurred the collection of reams of physical data, particularly relating to skull size and form, meant to define race differences. (This data and its uses have been effectively critiqued by Gould 1996.)

After the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), polygenesis was largely displaced in scientific discourse by notions of races as groups sharing a common origin but occupying distinct rungs of an evolutionary ladder (though many scientists persisted in labeling these groups as separate species). The late decades of the nineteenth century saw intense interest both in using evolutionary frameworks to understand social reality and in racial classification specifically. (This was particularly so in the United States following the abandonment of Reconstruction era attempts to establish civic equality for freed slaves.) These trends were most prominently expressed in attempts to explain social hierarchy in terms of relative evolutionary fitness (social Darwinism, associated with Herbert Spencer), to measure and quantify racial difference (ethnology), and to reconstruct the evolutionary history of Europeans through study of living groups of ”savages” (an enterprise known as the ”comparative method”).

Efforts to systematize racial classification, however, proved elusive. The 1911 Report of the Dillingham Commission on Immigration to the US Senate illustrates this difficulty. The report’s ”Dictionary of Races or Peoples” (even the title is indecisive) follows a racial classification recognizing 5 races, 6 ”stocks,” and 64 ”peoples.” At the same time, it acknowledges five distinct, competing schemes, proposing as few as 3 and as many as 29 races. However, the difficulty of imposing racial boundaries on human diversity, while it frustrated many biologists and physical anthropologists, did not by itself lead many to abandon the attempt. This required the confluence of external, political events with the efforts of scientific activists.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the physical characteristics of race were generally seen to be associated with behavioral characteristics as well, almost universally in ways that favored Europeans over other races, with ”Negroes” or ”Africans” at the bottom. The dissemination, just after the turn of the twentieth century, of Gregor Mendel’s theories of heredity lent support to the idea that these behavioral traits were fixed, hereditary, and determined by what eventually came to be called ”genes.” These reductionist and determinist notions fueled the American eugenics movement, which defended the regime of racial segregation and advocated (with considerable success) anti miscegenation laws, immigration restriction, and compulsory sterilization of the “unfit,” all in the name of racial purity and “betterment.” They were also linked to a series of attempts to quantify (and map the racial distribution of) human potential, as with the development of IQ and other mental tests. The emerging discipline of industrial relations also used racial classifications, attempting to determine which groups were best suited to particular kinds of work. To be sure, such ideas were not confined to the United States. Arguments about the biologically determined inferiority of non white groups figured in justifications of European colonialism broadly and helped to legitimize the regime of segregation that would come to be known as apartheid in South Africa, for instance.

Eugenics would see its most complete and horrific expression in Germany, where ”race hygiene,” as the movement was known there, helped to justify the Holocaust. Nonetheless, American scientific racism was particularly virulent and influential. (The first compulsory sterilization law promulgated by the Nazi regime was in fact copied from a model drafted by American eugenist Harry Laughlin.)

Widespread revulsion provoked by revelations of Nazi atrocities helped fuel an international reaction against scientific racism in the post World War II era. The United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a series of ”statements on race” signed by leading social and natural scientists beginning in 1950 (Montagu 1972). These statements, while not entirely unambiguous, were generally understood as a collective statement by the scientific community declaring racial doctrines to be harmful ideology without basis in natural science. They were the long delayed fruit of lobbying efforts by activist, anti racist scientists, led to a significant degree by anthropologist Franz Boas, to combat scientific racism (Barkan 1992). These efforts largely discredited scientific racism within the main stream science and larger academic communities. More broadly, over the ensuing decades the US civil rights revolution and decolonization in Asia and Africa worked to delegitimize popular racism to an extent, decreasing the appeal of scientific racism in and outside the academy.

Nevertheless, scientific racism is far from gone. Even in the immediate aftermath of the first UNESCO statements, white supremacists continued to try to turn racialist theories to political advantage, for example in a series of lawsuits aimed at overturning Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing racial segregation in American schools. More recently, a number of attempts to explain racial stratification in biological terms have surfaced since the 1980s, probably the best known of which is Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994). While widely criticized and largely discredited within mainstream science, scientific racism continues to tap into widespread folk ideas about racial difference and hierarchy.


  1. Barkan, E. (1992) The Retreat of Scientific Racism: Changing Conceptions of Race in Britain and the United States Between the World Wars. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  2. Degler, C. N. (1991) In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. Oxford University Press, New York.
  3. Gould, S. J. (1996) The Mismeasure of Man, edn. W. W. Norton, New York.
  4. Marks, J. (2002) What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee: Apes, People, and Their Genes. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  5. Montagu, A. (1972) Statements on Race. Oxford Uni­versity Press, New York.
  6. Stepan, N. (1982) The Idea of Race in Science. Archon Books, Hamden, CT.
  7. Stocking, G. (1968) Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Free Press, New York.
  8. Tucker, W. (1994) The Science and Politics of Racial Research. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.

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