Darwin & Racism

Wow! Things have been busy. School just started this week and it’s been crazy. Haven’t had much time for blogging. During one of my classes this week we watched a PBS video called “Race: the power of an Illusion.” It traces the way race as a concept has been strategically deployed throughout the history of the US in order to serve specific political, economic and social interests. One of the more interesting facets of this treatment of race was the discussion of the ways race has been handled by the scientific community. The popular conception of science in our society and in the popular media is that science is in some sense objective. The scientific method ensures that the individual agendas of scientists are suppressed so that the ultimate findings of science are more or less objective truths. The video undermines this understanding of science in several ways. The primary thrust of the video’s treatment of science is to show how the questions that individual scientists find interesting, or want answers to, will affect the answers they find. There is no objective means in the scientific method for selecting questions to ask and hypothesize about. All the same, the choice of what question to ask has a great deal to do with what answers are found, and subsequently declared to be objective truths.

In the antebellum US, race was a tremendously potent issue in the minds of American people. Shortly after Jefferson wrote the famous words “all men are created equal,” he wrote another document called “Notes on the State of Virginia.” In this book he “advanced it as a suspicion” that Black people were inferior to Whites “in the faculties of both body and mind.” The video suggests that it was this suspicion that eased the tension for Jefferson between his words “all men are created equal” and his holding of more than a hundred Black people as slaves.

During the nineteenth century people began to look to science for answers to their questions about race. Where Jefferson had only a suspicion, folks now wanted objective answers. Science responded in force by applying all of the faculties at its disposal to the question of what made Black people inferior. Since the question being asked was “What made Blacks inferior,” that was the question that got answered. Hypotheses were crafted, data was collected and hypotheses were tested. Those hypotheses that fared best were reckoned to be true and entirely objective. The president of Harvard University even published research describing American Whites as biologically superior and ordering all other racial groups in descending categories with Black people at the bottom. Separate sub-species were defined to account for the differences such as Homo Sapiens Africanus and Homo Sapiens Europus. One thing that this episode in the history of science shows is how science can be mustered not just to discover truth, but also to reinforce the stories that a society tells about itself. These stories in turn, are presented as true and objective and serve to justify the ways the society behaves.

In the American history, these stories about race were deployed to justify not only the enslavement of Black people, but also the invasion of the Philippines, the dislocation and conquest of Native American tribes and the disenfranchisement of many nonwhite peoples. In addition to telling and scientifically reinforcing stories about race, this phenomenon also affected gender. Studies that demonstrated the mental and physical inferiority of Blacks also demonstrated the inferiority of women. This work was used to defend inferior treatment of women, commensurate with their “scientifically demonstrable mental and physical inferiority.”

One aspect of all of this that interested me, is the connection between the role of race and science in mid-nineteenth century America and evolutionary biology. I’m not a hard-sciences person. I haven’t taken a class in the hard sciences since I was a junior in high school. The social sciences is what I know, so I’ll approach the issue from the social sciences direction.

First, Darwin’s theory of adaptation by natural selection as an explanation of the origin of species was not in any way separate from the white supremacist discourses of biological science at the time. Quite the contrary, Darwin’s seminal book “On the Origin of Species” was part and parcel of this discourse. What isn’t usually mentioned in modern biology classes is that the full title of the book is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” In 1859, when this was published, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what this concept implied in the context of the discussion in the scientific community about Homo Sapiens Europus and the way it related to Homo Sapiens Africanus. It provided a convenient intellectual justification for the subjugation and even the extermination of those races that were not “favoured.”