Born loser: is destiny biological?
Did the notion of biological superiority bite the dust following the racism of the Nazis? In this first article in a four-part series, Mike Belbin traces the reformulation of an ancient idea of human character
“From the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule” - Aristotle
Someone once said that no-one holds people accountable for their inherited characteristics any more. Nor are there many, we are told, who believe that your character results from a particular biological group, race, gender or sexuality. Those who target people by such group definition are dismissed as prejudiced and even Nazi.
Yet society still relies on filling positions due to the difference between those who command or initiate and those who follow orders and serve - a difference which these days is discovered through educational or other tests. However, such talents are often referred to as having their origin in something inherent in the person. For, while overt racial or sexual advantage is no longer acceptable - unjust, arbitrary and unscientific - there is a growing movement, supported by research funds, for ‘geneticism’: the belief that, whatever the colour or religion of the individual, it is their biological make-up - in other words, their genes - which is the source of their character; the origin of stupidity, of violence, of greed.
Of course, not everyone has to believe in genetic determinism to make a difference to the treatment of others. A few with power and influence will suffice, like those at the top of the criminal justice system, those supplying healthcare and those promoting medicinal drugs. After all, the last defence of the current world system is that anyone can better themselves (low taxes and a good idea permitting), while those who cannot, or drop down, must have something wrong with them.
This is not to say that biology is the only justification these days for structural inequality, but, along with eugenics, it seems to be making something of a comeback, as the world system becomes shakier and less justifiable in terms of fair competition and rewards.
So what are the claims and assertions about there being inherent disposition? Do we come out of the womb winners or losers, stable or obnoxious, good or evil? Where does the concept of an inborn disposition come from?
First, it is a very old one. Most cultures have their rulers - their pharaohs, kings or chiefs - descended from or sanctified by the gods at birth. The ancient Greeks, having rejected kings, developed the ideology of the natural slave, a biological concept articulated by Aristotle, as quoted above. Their successors in empire, the Romans, thought an inherent slave was proved by slavish behaviour - like the Persians serving under a king or the Gauls going down to defeat in battle. This notion was inherited by the feudal system in Europe, though it was combined with the different rights of social orders - lords subject to kings, as well as ruling their own retainers - and a basic Christian equality of souls before god.
In any social formation the conservative tendency is provided by stabilised social forms - the relations of production - while the revolutionising tendency derives from the forces of production - including human beings with their wants and inventiveness, as well as, within capitalism, the commercial imperative.
From the 14th century feudalism began to break up, when the expanding practice of trade made some people richer than their forefathers. As various princes became richer, they entered into conflict over the resources that already existed, such as land and gold, especially in the newly discovered Americas - an economic approach known as mercantilism. The Catholic church found itself poorer in comparison and, to maintain its splendour, started to sell ‘salvation’, offering entry into heaven at death: that is, by Christians paying to have holy mass or buy pardons. The latter were called ‘indulgences’.
With the Reconquista (reconquest) of Muslim Spain in 1248, Spain and Portugal took over the north African slave trade. This was justified by reference to the Biblical injunction only to enslave “the heathen around you” or “the children of strangers”.1
This was initially taken to mean that western Christians could enslave Muslims and later eastern Orthodox Christians. Though Christians were forbidden to enslave Christians, they were granted permission by a succession of popes to enslave prisoners of war. In 1452 pope Nicholas V granted the king of Portugal the right to “invade, search out, capture and subjugate the Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ … to reduce their persons into perpetual slavery”.2 A crusade had already begun against Africa in 1418 and so it was the war against the Moors, African Muslims, which justified first Portugal and then Spain acquiring and selling slaves in the New World of the Americas.
With the discovery of the Caribbean by Columbus in 1492, and with the mining of gold and silver in America, vast reserves of labour were needed and these were obtained from Africa. However, as heathens they should be converted and as good Christians they became unenslavable. More justification being necessary, the Bible was consulted and this time the slavers fixed on the story of Noah in Genesis: Noah’s son, Ham is deemed unworthy, because he saw his father naked and therefore had become “the servant of servants”.3 Ham soon came to be seen as black: racism was born.
Christian intellectuals though were divided over the general question of whether people were fated to commit evil or not: that is, predestination. In 1465 a scholar at Louvain, Peter de Rivo, argued that prediction as to future action need not be true or false. He took the New Testament example of Jesus telling Peter that “You will deny me three times” .There could be a third truth-value, said de Rivo: true or false to be confirmed - Peter still had the freedom not to do it. Unfortunately in 1471 a new pope, Sixtus, denied such an idea - only miracles could contradict ‘actual truth in the articles of faith’. What Jesus had foretold must occur. Peter had to utter three denials: the pope had said it.
Over the15th century the European Christian church had faced criticisms from various reformers over such innovations as indulgences. These reformers broke with the church (now known as Catholic) and formed their own ‘Reformed’ or ‘Protestant’ sects - based purely, they said, on interpretation of the Bible. These ‘puritans’ were supported by certain princes, in Germany as well as in England (Henry VIII), who for various reasons asserted themselves against church authority.
One of the major reform thinkers was French: John Calvin (1509-64), who went on to govern the reformed church of Geneva. Calvin did indeed agree with other Protestants that the church had gone against the gospels and that grace was granted by god alone. But he went further: to the logical conclusion that, if grace could therefore not be something granted during the individual’s lifetime in exchange for a mass or a pardon, souls must therefore be born predestined to be saved or damned. As Calvinists later declared, some were “predefined to everlasting life”, while there are others whom god “pleaseth, for the glory of His Sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin”.4 The individual soul was predestined for either a good or bad end.
Other reformers like Martin Luther and Erasmus also believed that grace could not be earned, but did not go as far as Calvin. For them the individual soul was like a town - a place that could be laid siege to and taken by either god or Satan. Free will played a part in the struggle, but god ultimately decided the result by delivery of grace. “If God,” wrote Luther, “is absent, Satan is present and only an evil will is in us”.5 But awareness of sin helps - like a sentry who alerts others to danger, but cannot win the battle on their own. Erasmus, a more sophisticated Dutch scholar living in England, wrote that the good in us was supported by ‘reason’. However, evil could “obscure” reason: “the power of the will was not completely extinguished”, but it was “unable to perform the good”.6 The conscious sinner still needed help from god’s grace: they could not achieve it alone. In atheist terms, this intervention from outside might stand for something like the transformative effect of circumstances, luck, or the action of others, including new ideas or political movements. The mind is not an island.
Later bourgeois Protestants, though not free of god’s judgement, wanted to be free from earthly monarchs. Political freedom became a valued possession. Just as no cleric could tell you how to read the Bible (now in the vernacular), so authority in the state was suspect too, especially if associated with Catholics - as in England, where King Charles I had a Catholic wife. Protestant artisans, male and female, were especially oppositional.
After the anti-monarchical civil war (1642-51), philosophers began to develop theories of human freedom. One such was John Locke (1632-1704). Locke argued that people were born without ‘innate ideas’: that is, their knowledge in life was based on experience through their senses. The mind started as a ‘blank slate’, which took in skills and impressions. No-one was destined to be able to ride a horse, write a great poem or commit a murder.
However, Locke did believe in evil acts and that criminals should be punished: having to learn things did not preclude responsibility. As his disciple, Thomas Jefferson, put it in the Declaration of Independence, all humans were “created equal” and free, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”.7 On the other hand, slavery was permitted in one part of the United States, where black humans were neither equal nor free. Disagreement over this led to a civil war and in the end that contradiction had to be resolved - if it ever was.
The classification by ‘race’ - which could mean by colour or ethnicity, as opposed to nation or religion - is a defining characteristic of the modern period in Europe. But when the Englishman, Francis Drake, stole African slaves from the Spanish on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I, he composed no treatises or racial tables.
The first English slaves were in fact white: a law under Edward VI was designed to handle the vagabonds created by peasants being turned off the land, so that sheep could be introduced.8 From 1547 anyone found without work could be adopted as a slave. Justices of the peace were allowed to hunt these vagabonds down and make them slaves of the parish - a practice that lasted well into the late 19th century. This was then what a Protestant state did to white English people.
It was, however, far away - in the Caribbean, on the island of Jamaica, acquired by Cromwell’s forces in 1655 - that the practice of slavery grew in volume. English plantation slavery was set up without sermon or proclamation, but assumed like a new fashion - a way of Protestants getting one over Catholics (the Spanish and Portuguese) and a business conducted by traders, pirates and planters that started small but grew like Silicon Valley. A major turning point occurred in 1662, when Charles II granted trading rights to the Royal Africa Company. The plantations and the trade in Africans expanded, as sugar consumption rose from 4lbs per person in 1700 to 20lbs in 1800.
In the 18th century, with rebellions by the slaves themselves and a growing abolitionist movement, arguments had to be marshalled to define why whites could rule blacks without even paying them. The fact that transported Africans had to be trained and acclimatised in ‘seeding camps’ showed that there was nothing natural about Africans working in the heat of the Americas. Africa had only been picked as the source of supply because the supply was so large, not because Africans were particularly fitted for this work. In fact many of those taken did not survive the conditions of the passage over the Atlantic, let alone the work in the fields.
The law itself had not changed that much - except for the Navigation Acts under Cromwell, which restricted the slave trade and consequent goods arriving at British ports to British ships alone. If justification, apart from profit, had to be offered for slavery, there was always the Bible: Leviticus 25 and the punishment of Noah’s ‘black’ son, Ham - ‘wild’ blacks needed to be disciplined. But throughout the 17th century, as the profitability of the slave trade and plantations grew, parliamentarians in England fought civil wars. Those free English in the Caribbean would defy the same parliament if it tried to interfere with their rights over the slave.
It was only when the abolitionist movement got going in the 18th century that a more ‘learned’ response was required. Philosophers David Hume and Charles-Louis de Secondat (Montesquieu) mused on the character of Africans and Edward Long, a historian and from a line of slave-owners, wrote his History of Jamaica (1774). In 1771 the House of Assembly parliament in Jamaica had taken steps to ban sexual relationships between black and white and forbade mixed children inheriting white men’s property. Long’s book adopted a racial hierarchy from the taxonomies of Linnaeus (1760s), where in every mental and moral way blacks were supposed inferior to whites - childlike, lazy and dangerous.
It was the mission of ‘free-born Englishmen’, as the planters declared themselves, to civilise the negroes, the planters’ name for slaves. (Incidentally, the term ‘white’ for Europeans first came into use on Jamaica.9) Long asserted that plantations were a mild institution anyway, and in some parts of the world slavery was inevitable. Other writers in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ also categorised the negro as marked by an animalistic and immature character, which might benefit from the right cultural institutions on an island in the sun.
Fortunes continued to be made and duly passed on to families and companies in the UK. Britain was flooded with money, wages rose relative to the rest of Europe and there came a need in the heart of Empire for cheaper labour-saving technology. This led to investment in what became known as the industrial revolution.10
In the next article of the series I will discuss the faux-science of racism - from the various kinds of race classification to eugenics.
1. Leviticus, 25, 44-46.
2. Papal bull Dum diversas.
3. Genesis, 9.25.
4. Westminster confession of faith (1646).
5. Luther On the bondage of the will (1525).
6. Erasmus On the freedom of the will (1525): www.sjsu.edu/people/james.lindahl/courses/Hum1B/s3/Erasmus-and-Luther-on-Free-Will-and-Salvation.pdf.
8. See K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 27.
9. D Olusoga Black and British: a forgotten history London 2016.
10. See RC Allen Global economic history Oxford 2011.