The Dark Side of Modern Science: A History of Scientific Racism

Reference for 2nd picture: Caption: British trader being carried by a Sikkimese woman (West Bengal, India). URL: afrikan-mapambano | African history, Historical photos, British men (pinterest.co.uk)

A terrifying story of the consequences of pseudoscience

Writer: Priyanka Peres
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Tahira Siddiqi

As global movements against racism move further into the socio-political spotlight each day, it is important to understand how the concept of ‘race’ became as ubiquitous, divisive and damaging as it is. The scientific community has unfortunately played a large role in creating these harmful ideas, which means it also has the responsibility of educating itself and the public on how far ‘scientific racism’ is from the truth. 

Scientific racism is the pseudoscientific belief in the genetic superiority of certain subgroups, or ‘races’, within the human species, that has been repeatedly disproven by modern genetics and anthropology. The idea first arose in the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, which coincided with the scientific revolution and a surge in European colonialism. Prior to this period, human populations were largely defined by language, religion or geographical region. However, colonialism and primitive, Eurocentric science demanded a wider narrative ‒ one based on skin colour ‒ to morally justify the subjugation and enslavement of certain groups. 

The idea of race itself ‒ that our species is fundamentally divided into discrete groups ‒ entered Western public opinion at this time, and was influenced by polygenic beliefs. In early science, polygenism postulated that each human ‘racial group’ had a separate evolutionary origin, meaning that they differed on a species level. Many of the prominent early scientists who endorsed scientific racism subscribed to polygenism. That said, many who instead advocated monogenism did so for its corroboration of Biblical creationism, rather than any explicit rejection of racism. It was questioning along the lines of the polygenism vs. monogenism debate that led pre-Darwinian scientists to hypothesise false concepts of race. 

Carl Linnaeus, a taxonomist and founder of the binomial nomenclature system, made one of the earliest attempts to classify human beings in 1758. In the 10th edition of Systema Narturae, Linnaeus divided Homo sapiens into five sub-groups: Afer, Americanus, Asiaticicus, Europæus and Homo sapiens monstrosus. Afer, Americanus and Asiaticicus are represented poorly in his work and are characterised as ‘cunning’, ‘stubborn’ or ‘greedy’. Europæus, on the other hand, are described as ‘inventive’, ‘gentle’ and ‘law-abiding’.

Today we see such opinions as painfully uninformed, but in their time they heavily influenced the scientific community and were taken as fact. Alongside Linnaeus, views on this matter were directly informed by the likes of Johann Blumenbach, who who classified humans into ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘yellow’, ‘brown’, and ‘red’ sub-groups, Charles White who worked to prove polygenism in his Account of the Regular Gradation of Man, and even US President Thomas Jefferson, who investigated the ‘inferiority’ of certain races. Not all of this research was racially motivated or done with malicious intent – it is likely that some of it came from observing differences in populations and ignorantly attempting to explain them. It is also important to note that there was some rebuttal to scientific racism at the time – Johann Gottfried von Herder argued that there are no discrete subgroups of human beings, but rather individuals with a continuum of differences, which actually aligns with current thinking. 

Unfortunately, what may have started as scientific enquiry grew into something a lot more harmful and distinctly racist. Many damaging stereotypes that continue to pervade our society are rooted in erroneous scientific research. For example, in The Outline of History of Mankind, Christopher Meiners separated the human race into ‘white’ and ‘black’. He stated that all non-White races were “ugly, inferior, immoral and animal-like”, felt less pain and lacked emotions. Influential philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted that skin colour was innately linked to morality, character and intelligence. Herbert Hope Risley, in addition to separating Indian people into Aryan and Dravidian races, postulated the existence of seven biologically distinct caste-based subgroups within India, which provided scientific evidence for the discriminatory caste system. 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific racism was further cemented into the pseudoscientific understanding of humanity. This misinformation had catastrophic global consequences ‒ scientific racism was specifically cited by perpertators of slavery in the US, the Holocaust, South African apartheid and global colonisation. Othering subjugated parties on supposedly scientific lines allowed those in power to morally justify their actions. 

It was not until after the Second World War that the tide began to turn. Scientific racism was formally denounced by UNESCO’s antiracist statement The Race Question in 1950. It distinguished the social concept of race as real and the biological concept of race as a myth. In 1972, Richard Lewontin’s The Apportionment of Human Diversity used a fixation index statistical analysis to show that racial classification has no biological significance: the majority of genetic difference exist within ‘races’, not between them. Numerous studies confirmed this idea since then. The search to understand differences between groups of human beings still continues, but to a large extent it is no longer a pseudoscientific process. 

Science now largely accepts that race is a socio-cultural phenomenon, not a biological one. For the most part, the human race exhibits continuous differences across individuals, as opposed to races or subgroups. We now understand that although some groups of people may appear different, this has no bearing on their character, abilities or morality. Regrettably, it has taken us a long time to get to this point, and although science is on the path to fixing its mistakes, those ideas have already permeated and damaged society in irreparable ways.

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