Racialism and eugenics

In the second article in a four-part series Mike Belbin looks at the many and varied classifications of race

In the 16th and 17th centuries - the period of mercantile capitalism - the justification of a nature-based inequality had been down to interpretation of the Bible and certain laws regarding the treatment of jobless ‘vagrants’.

The use of slavery on sugar plantations and mineral mining in the Americas had expanded the wealth basis of Europeans, even as ideas of freedom and free trade had battled with the crown and monopolies. The slave trade was abolished in 1807 and the 1861-65 war was fought in the US which included amongst its aims the ending of slavery. Nevertheless, the concept of there being culturally advanced nations justified further colonialism with the expansion of imperialism in Africa. This encouraged notions of advanced and backward nations, which could be based on ‘scientific’ classification.

During the 1880s - the era of the ‘new imperialism’ and the colonisation of Africa - Europeans began classifying in an extensive way. For some, this involved phrenology: measuring the dimensions of the head to support statements about the inclinations of different minds. The Englishman Francis Galton (1822-1911) came up with the study of twins to test the hypothesis of heritability - the inheritance of mental characteristics, such as intelligence (assertions about twins would return in the 20th century). In a letter to TheTimes in 1873, Galton suggested that the Chinese were a group capable of “high civilisation” and should, in his opinion, migrate to Africa and replace the indigenous populations.

From 1890, typologies of race had a field day. Vacher de Lapouge (1854-1936) classified humanity in a table which listed groups from the Homo europaeus to the Teutonic Protestant, the Homo alpinus, the Turkish - not forgetting the “brachycephalic”: the “mediocre and inert” Jew.

In response to this, Chaim Zhitlovsky came up with a counter in his own classification of the Yiddishkayt or Ashkenazi Jewishness. Moses Hess joined in by asserting the idea of history as a struggle of races and began to shape a vision of the Jews as more than a religious community, but a race and a nation. The Zionist movement built on this, as well as the idea that Europe was unsafe and that Jews were threatened with a great massacre. Security could only be had by acquiring a territory of their own. The movement was offered Uganda, but rejected it. Calling on the Bible story of the Israelites, the movement fixed on Palestine, though it was not clear whether the land’s current inhabitants were descendants of the pre-diaspora Jews or not.

European thinkers could not agree on how many races there actually were. Lapouge with his table had declared that in Europe alone there were three races, while Joseph Deniker said there were 10 in the world - six “primary” and four “sub-races”. English theorists like Julian Huxley preferred terms like “ethnic group” or “type” and as late as 1939 the Harvard anthropologist, Carleton S Coon, in The races of Europe divided homo sapiens over the millennia into a spectrum of races from Caucasoid to Australoid. But then which of them had invented fire?

By the end of the 19th century race no longer meant only division by colour: white Europeans themselves were being divided into various hierarchies too. In a book also entitled The races of Europe (1899) William Z Ripley had come up with three races inside Europe - the Teutons, Alpine and Mediterranean. Teutons was another term for what previous race theorists, like Arthur De Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, had called the Aryan, the Indo-European or Germanic. These all had the same physical characteristics of fair hair, tall frames and longer heads. Ripley further divided the contemporary citizens of Poland into two racial types - blond, tall types and short types, calling them ‘high brows’ and ‘low brows’ - a division later used in the US to describe different attitudes to culture: high brows liked classical music; low brows popular song.

The race theorists might defend themselves by saying they were only going by physical features, but many consistently linked physique to cultural qualities - Friedrich Nietzsche thought fair-headed Aryans were the ‘creative’ people, while archaeologist Carlton Coon referred to Nordics as the ‘corded ware culture’ - inventors of beakers and artefacts that are now acknowledged as an advance on the early Stone Age. In practice, race thinking rarely separates physique and culture in these accounts.

Not all 19th century theorists based race classification on biology. Ernest Renan, the French writer famous for his Life of Jesus (1863), came up with a list of generalised cultural differences: “The Chinese race … have wonderful manual dexterity and admit no sense of honour … [whereas] a race of tillers of the soil [is] the Negro … [and] a race of masters and soldiers [is] the European race …” This being the era of struggle for empire in Africa, soldiering was important to Renan: “the nations are military creations and maintained by the sword; they are the work of peasants and soldiers ... towards establishing them the Jews have contributed nothing.”

For Renan, the Semitic peoples - Jews and Arabs - were contrasted with the Aryans, whom Renan identified with the ancients of Greece, India and Germany. The historical Jesus, of course, had been a Jew, but Renan argued that he had managed to become Aryan by rejecting “Jewish traits”. Christianity too, Renan pointed out, had managed to break away from its Jewish beginnings. His theology was based to a great extent on the Gospel of John - the last, most mystical and Romano-Greek gospel. In contrast to Nazi doctrine, Renan thought that the Jewish mind was limited by “dogmatism”, so Jews were lacking in “a cosmopolitan concept of civilisation”. Later the Nazis thought the World Jewish Conspiracy would adopt any belief system to get its way - liberalism, Marxism, Christianity, assimilation - proving they were far too cosmopolitan: that is, anti-nationalist. Gilles Manceron (2005) described Renan’s brand as “republican racism”.

‘Applied’ genetics

The general interest in evolution and genetic determinism led to various proposals for applying this knowledge to actual human populations: the practice of eugenics. At the time of the Boer War (1899-1902), the British state discovered that those joining the armed forces were of a very low physical quality, as to height and weight, though they were probably less puny than many today on our high-sugar diet. The very same Francis Galton who wanted to fill Africa with Chinese was a half-cousin of Darwin’s, and in 1883 was the first to take a systemic approach to promoting good breeding among humans. Galton believed that desirable qualities of physique or character were hereditary and might be promoted through legal and medical interference - measures such as support for those deemed ‘fitter’ to reproduce, together with the use of sterilisation and prohibitions on marriage for those deemed ‘unfit’, like people with disabilities.

In the early 20th century, special organisations or ‘societies’ were set up in Britain and America to promote the magic bullet of eugenics. One policy that gained support during the 1920s was the sterilising of patients in mental asylums and this was implemented in Belgium, Brazil, Canada and even Sweden. More recently, with the development of reproductive technologies like IVF and the fashion for chemical solutions like Prozac, eugenics has begun to be reconsidered. Troy Duster, a Berkeley sociologist, has argued that the trend to gene research is a back door to the revival of eugenics - either surreptitiously ‘forced’ by states or consumer-led by those who can afford ‘enhancement’.

No-one rejects finding better conditions for health, but there is a debate over what an improved human being actually is or indeed whether improvement actually works without adverse side effects. The first stiff criticism of the notion that interference with heredity could ‘improve the stock’ was made by Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1915. Morgan used fruit flies to demonstrate that major genetic changes could occur outside of inheritance, arguing furthermore that the idea of intelligence was subject to different definitions and could therefore not be linked to heredity as a single cause.

More doubts about eugenics were raised as to its claims to effectiveness. Disease traits in children could be severely reduced, but not eliminated, unless the complete make-up of all members of the gene pool was known. Eliminating a gene was not like removing a pimple or tattoo; any ‘improvement’ could result in side-effects, such as greater vulnerability to disease or the extinction of positive traits. Conditions like sickle-cell disease and cystic fibrosis, for example, confer immunity to malaria and resistance to cholera respectively; the careful proviso being that stamping something out may have unintended consequences.

These reservations about eugenic meddling are worth remembering when we hear talk about a future in which gene manipulation will lengthen our lives and enhance our offspring. Ethical debate also continues as to whether conditions like autism or deafness are ‘illnesses’ rather than human differences like height or skin shade. On the horizon, but still lacking in authoritative support, are related policies, such as sterilisation, or what one academic called “moral enhancement” - for example, making people more docile through the water supply.

Racialist culture

The widespread European belief in racial hierarchies and trust in eugenic experiments was inherited by the Nazis. An adaptation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection proposed that there existed a war of survival between physically specified groups. This had been used to support Europeans running empires - particularly the English and French. However, rather than racial or national excellence, the supremacy of the English had been a piece of luck, due to them being ‘late comers’ to the bonanza of the slave plantations. The Spanish and Portuguese, first to reach the Americas, had mined silver and gold; the English had cultivated sugar and tobacco. These did not run out in mines, but could be grown afresh.

They had used the massive resource of African bodies to expand these plantations, even if many of the workers died early deaths. This wealth from the trade led to wage-labour becoming relatively expensive in Britain. Investment in a search for labour-saving technology followed and it was the new technology of ships, steam and electricity that built the empire. None of this was down to planning or special qualities of foresight or intelligence. Nevertheless the Asiatic, black and various aboriginal peoples were judged to have lost because they were ‘backward’ in coming up with the new science.

The Nazis drew not only on eugenics, but the works of the Englishman, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who added a political dimension in his 1899 book The foundations of the nineteenth century. Chamberlain praised European - in particular German - culture for its creativity and idealism, while denouncing “Jewish” selfishness and materialism. The Jews were a threat, because their liberalism and their socialism threatened the ‘purity’ of the German spirit. The infamous Protocols of the elders of Zion blamed a secret Jewish conspiracy for the threat of democracy to the old order. In fact the text was concocted by Russian ministers to convince the tsar himself to have no more to do with modernity. This forgery from Russia was simply rewritten to portray a Jewish threat to other Europeans.

Hitler admired all these works, aspiring not only to create a Greater Germany - Grossdeustchland - but to becoming the defender of all Europe against liberalism and Marxism, which he named Judeo-Bolshevism. In their bid to build a community of sturdy men and hardy mothers the Nazis discriminated against all so-called defilers of the nation’s health, such as the disabled, gays and racial minorities. To do this, they called on a specific interpretation of post-Darwin gene theory, associated with Gregor Mendel. This reinforced the proposal that people did not just inherit physical particularities from their parents, but also mental proclivities, such as inventiveness and criminal behaviour.

Racialism as an overt policy was required to justify mass slavery and as part of a fascist programme, but it was unstable as a policy when racism was simply structural. In the USA when this, the legacy of slavery and imperialism, was combined with ‘democratic ideas’ and a meritocratic market ideology, it led to the area becoming the crucible of a civil rights struggle leading to multiculturalism.

But, whereas the various tables of racial-cultural superiority have vanished, along with overt colour prejudice, the interest in biology, in genes, in being the fittest, is not dead. Respectable scientific ideas may no longer find human character in group membership - that is, ‘race’ - but plenty of researchers are looking for it in an individual’s physical make-up, in people’s genetic ‘nature’, which will mark the individual as one of life’s losers.

The third part of this survey will consider the ideas about genetic inheritance of character that are growing more popular with fund-seeking researchers.