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To What Extent Did Scientists In The 20th Century Reject Race?

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Scientists in the 20th century focused on previous research based on race and whether or not it had any substance today. The term ‘race’ is often rejected by scientists due to its prejudicial and mythical nature. Scientists today often claim that race is a human construct, not a scientific one. They reject scientists who argue that race is true, as they do so based on a sense of false ‘scientific’ evidence. Despite this, some scientists maintain race to be true, which I will outline in the following essay. I will argue that scientists today reject race to a large extent, as it is not biological – it is a social construct built up over the centuries.

‘Race’ can be defined in short as “a group or population characterized by some concentrations, relative as to frequency and distribution, of hereditary particles (genes) or physical characters, which appear, fluctuate, and often disappear in the course of time by reason of geographic and/or cultural isolation.” W. E. B. Du Bois, an American sociologist, once wrote, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line.” This was largely due to there being much uncertainty regarding the meaning of race and what the distinctions between races meant for both society as well as the human race in general. ‘Scientific racism’ first began with Samuel Morton in the 19th century whereby he collected different skulls and divided them into 5 races: Caucasians, East Asians, Southeast Asians, Native Americans and Blacks. The Caucasians were described as the most intelligent and the Blacks were at the bottom. He was praised in a journal for “giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.” By outlining scientifically, the fact that one race is superior to another, scientific racism was born. This distinction of race was adopted by some 20th century scientists who believed this to be true. [1: Excerpts from UNESCO (United Nations) statements on race, 1950–1967, pp.30-1] [2: W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.] [3: Charleston Medical Journal, 1851]

Many scientists in the 20th century reintroduced and reconstructed the practice of eugenics which was first introduced in 1883. Eugenics is the practice of selective breeding in order to ‘’improve’’ the future human race. The term ‘’eugenics’’ is the practice of selective breeding in order to bring about a specifically desirable outcome of an improvement in the genetic composition of the human race. The terms literal meaning is ‘’good birth’’ which suggested that some races were composed of good genes and some were not. This meant that race was something scientists believed to be an important subject to look into. Those that were said to have ‘’bad’’ traits were largely those from poorer backgrounds, lower incomes, low social standings, immigrants and minorities. In the 20th century, the study of eugenics led to the efforts of reducing the spread of ‘’bad’’ traits as well as in spreading the ‘’good’’ traits instead.

The eugenics movement was first introduced in 1883 by a British scholar, Sir Francis Galton. He outlined that the human race could directly improve its future by selectively breeding people who have ‘’desired’’ traits of being ‘’well-born.’’ The practice of eugenics is often associated with negative connotations as an ‘’improvement’’ of the human race meant that Galton believed the elite, mainly Caucasian people, had good genetic makeup. As a result, those of other races, backgrounds and poorer social standings, were seen as the ‘’undesirable’’. This thinking negatively found itself in other countries whereby some scientists in the 20th century continued the study and practice of eugenics. This movement of eugenics highlighted scientist’s belief in race, and it had historical connotations which “tie it to the selective breeding programs, horrifying concentration camps, medical experiments, and mass exterminations promoted by Germany's Nazi regime in World War II.” [4: Goering, Sara, Eugenics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .]

However, it could be argued that the eugenics movement was not a stress on race which would lead to negative effects, but on encouraging those in good health to reproduce whilst discouraging those who were disabled or carried certain diseases from reproducing. This was the main purpose of eugenics, it is argued, as these positive eugenics would help the future generations and human race in the long term.

Despite the distinction on what eugenics focused on reducing, it is known that in some cases, race was a factor which would unknowingly be affected. Some eugenicists believed factors such as poverty or prostitution could be passed on to their children. Moreover, eugenics became well-known in the U.S. which led to the formation of The Eugenics Records Office (ERO) in New York. Their research found that those of lower income backgrounds had these undesirable traits because of their genetics. This led to the ‘’sterilization’’ of those found to be undesirable in 33 states across America, whereby 65,000 people were sterilized and increasing immigration rules. Many scientists in the 20th century found that the study of race and selective breeding was an important aspect of society which would benefit them in the long term.

A prime example of the negativity arising from the practice of eugenics can be seen in Nazi Germany where eugenics was seen as extremely agreeable to their regime. German scientists used the principles found in eugenics to introduce policies which would directly increase or decrease certain races. For example, they encouraged the selective breeding of those with blond hair and blue eyes and banning breeding between certain groups. Eugenics also justified the killing of Jewish people in World War II as they were seen as undesirable to the human race and essentially needed to be wiped out. As a result, this led to the set-up of horrifying concentration camps of groups they found to be inferior, in order to encourage the promotion of Germany’s ‘’health.’’ Sara Goering outlined that “racism falsely claims that there is a scientific basis for arranging groups hierarchically in terms of psychological and cultural characteristics that are immutable and innate. In this way it seeks to make existing differences appear inviolable as a means of permanently maintaining current relations between groups.” [5: UNESCO, p.51]

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Despite this, once scientists realised the negative effect of eugenics, particularly in Nazi Germany, the practice of eugenics lost all favour and they rejected the idea that some races were superior to others. The horrific events that took place weakened the credibility of the ‘scientific facts’ as they found it to encourage racism. Furthermore, anthropologists believe that “all men living today belong to the same species and descend from the same stock”and that ‘the division of the human species into ‘races’ is partly conventional and partly arbitrary and does not imply any hierarchy whatsoever. Moreover, the discovery that Britain’s oldest human skeleton, known as the Cheddar Man, had blue eyes and dark brown skin suggested that ‘individual variation within population groups, overlapping with other population groups, turned out to be so large that the boundaries of race made less and less sense.’As a result, many scientists of the 20th century believed ‘race’ was a term that should be rejected as this distinction held no truth. [6: Ibid., p.50.] [7: Ibid., ] [8: Saini, p. ]

Despite there being some rejection of race by scientists, other scientists claimed that there was solid proof to suggest that some races were more superior to other races. In particular, black people were seen as inferior to white people. James Watson, a DNA scientist, argued that tests of intelligence showed differences based on the races of those tested. This was seen as racist thinking as he outlined that “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.” Angela Saini found that “mainstream scientists, geneticists and medical researchers still invoke race and use these categories in their work, even though we have been told for 70 years that they have no biological meaning, that they have only social meaning.” Some scientists today maintain that race is a biologically known fact, not socially constructed. Their proof lies in IQ tests which show distinctions between different races. [9: Amy Harmon, James Watson Won't Stop Talking About Race, New York Times, January 1, 2019.] [10: Angela Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science, Beacon Press, 2019, ]

Despite this, many scientists today reject race as they argue that scientific claims regarding race is “often used as a justification to propose, project, and enact racist social policies.” Scientists who had researched and put forward their ideas on race had undoubtedly affected social and government policies around the world. Arthur Jensen found that “not only were African Americans intellectually inferior to Whites, but that there would always be a 15-point IQ differential between the two groups.” His article undoubtedly highlighted the fact that black people were inferior to white people. The effect of his research meant that “advocates of segregation used Jensen’s tentative data to fight the desegregation cases lodged against many school districts in the South.” [11: Rutledge M. Dennis, Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race, The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 64, no. 3, 1995, p. 243] [12: Dennis, p. 247.] [13: Ibid., ]

In America, anti-immigration laws and policies began to increase due to the increasing scientific racism that began to appear. Charles Davenport outlined in his speech in 1920 that “it is not sufficient that a community or a state should purge itself of the ‘’inferior strains.’’ Furthermore, following scientific research involving race and its relationship with eugenics, America passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned those wishing to come to America from Asia. This is said to have “played a role in reconceptualizing racial categories.” As a result of this increase in segregation between different groups, we can understand that there were a large group of scientists in the 20th century that did not reject race. Scientists in the 20th century had undoubtedly “confirmed all the common prejudices of comfortable white males – that blacks, women and poor people occupy their subordinate roles by the harsh dictates of nature.” [14: MICHAEL YUDELL and J. CRAIG VENTER, CHARLES DAVENPORT AND THE BIOLOGY OF BLACKNESS, Race Unmasked: Biology and Race in the Twentieth Century, by, Columbia University Press, NEW YORK, 2014, p.35] [15: Excerpts from Stephen Jay Gould, Measuring Heads: Paul Broca and the Heyday of Craniology, in The Mismeasure of Man (New York: Norton, 1981), p.106.]

However, many scientists today reject the idea of race as they find that often, those that study race leave room for misinterpretation, as they do not clearly define exactly what they mean. They tend to “believe in their own objectivity and fail to discern the prejudice that leads them to one interpretation among many consistent with their numbers.” [16: Gould, p.106.]

Anthropologists’ today argue that race is a clear social construct, usually based on the colour of someone’s skin. The science of race first came about from presumptions and prejudice which was wrong in every sense and should be rejected. It is a social myth which has damaged society enormously. Anthropologists reject the use of biology to justify racism and argue that “the human problems arising from so-called ‘race’ relations are social in origin rather than biological.” Racial biology is said to be “the greatest enemies of science” as it is largely used to “justify political ambitions, economic ends, social grudges and class prejudices.” [17: UNESCO (United Nations) statements on race, p.51.] [18: J. S. Huxley, A.C. Haddon, and A.M. Carr-Saunders, ‘Preface,’ in We Europeans: A Survey of ‘Racial’ Problems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939), p.7.]

Huxley, Haddon and Saunders (1939) argue that, “in a scientific age, prejudice and passion seek to clothe themselves in a garb of scientific respectability; and when they cannot find support from true science, they invent a pseudo-science to justify themselves.” Most scientists, such as Anita Foeman, a professor of communications, are in agreement “that race is a human construction doesn’t mean that we don’t fall into different groups or there’s no variation’, however, she believes ‘we can make new categories that function better.” [21: Anita Foeman, Bessie Lee Lawton & Randall Rieger, Questioning Race: Ancestry DNA and. Dialog on Race, 2014. ]

To conclude, whilst there is a small group of scientists that believe race is a biologically known fact that distinguishes the human race into different categories, a large majority in the 20th century reject this. They believe the term ‘race’ has preconceived racist notions within in that is based on social and political ideologies, not biological. Therefore, I believe scientists in the 20th century reject race to a large extent.

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