Social Science and the Origins of Race

Subject: Sociology
Pages: 15
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Study level: Undergraduate

Huxley’s famous work was his Man’s Place in Nature (1863).

This was the first comprehensive overview of what was known at the time about primate and human paleontology and ethnology. It was also the first attempt to apply evolution explicitly to humans. Darwin avoided much mention of human evolution in The Origin, stating only in the conclusion that in research fields that would open up in the future, “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” Huxley had immediately begun to collect the evidence for human evolution, the links between Homo sapiens and his apelike ancestors. And he directly confronted theological beliefs that man arose through divine creation.

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During the discussion on the origin of race, one can confront various questions as to whence our race has come; what are the limits of our power over nature and of nature’s power over us; to what goal we are tending; these are the problems which present themselves anew and with undiminished interest to every man born into the world. Most of us, shrinking from the difficulties and dangers which beset the seeker after original answers to these riddles, are contented to ignore them altogether or to smother the investigating spirit under the featherbed of respected and respectable tradition.

The social aspects of race lie not so much in the differences themselves as in the attempts to give them meaning. Theories of race and of race differences are of much more recent origin than race and have been responsible for more conflict, arrogance, and persecution. These theories have, in many cases, not even pretended to be scientific. Being political and social in both character and inspiration, the dominating motive has more often been action than the quest for truth.

Race theories have a natural history, and this history is of great importance to the study of race relations. For the origins of these theories, we must look not to anthropology but to those events and complex currents of social thought which began to take full expression in the eighteenth century. This period witnessed the conflict of the new and liberal ideas regarding the rights of man with the older doctrines of the divine right of classes. The arguments, philosophic and scientific, in defense of the rights of remnant feudal classes were articulated bluntly, perhaps, for the first time, with the expansion of knowledge concerning the different peoples of the world. Following the Age of Discovery and the further explorations of Science into language and culture, these arguments tended to crystallize around race. These cross-currents of thought are of such great importance in the history of race theories that they should be given more than a passing reference.

Slavery, as well as feudalism, had long existed in medieval Europe, but both of these had involved class and culture rather than race. The progress of the natural sciences during the Renaissance had helped to shake off the ancient domination of the medieval church and to turn attention from otherworldliness to man’s humanity. Scientific knowledge, significantly, was extended to the field of geography, which led to exploration and discovery and the first consciousness of new people and, more important still, new wealth. The doctrine of the rights of man was a normal outgrowth of the earlier emphasis of the Renaissance on the good life and the perfectibility of human personality. An idea brought to classic maturity of expression by Rousseau and Montesquieu. The French philosophical writers of the period reveal a constant contest of ideas between the new rights of the masses and the remnant prerogatives of the nobles.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the nobility had looked with scorn upon the common people. There is, indeed, a familiar pattern from this period in the claim of the nobility that the peasants, who of course were not Negroes, were descended from Ham and condemned by Noah to slavery. Before the notion of race was introduced as an explanation, the nobles, seeking some justification for their class position, had referred their origin to certain legendary heroes.

The families of mixed racial origin had a position of advantage in point of history similarly. They also tended historically to be concentrated in the towns, and, since much of their early employment was domestic, they were in closest and most sustained exposure to the most advanced members of the white population. Codes and standards implicit in the culture of the white group could thus more readily be absorbed. They sought for their children the same education provided for the white children. There were, too, many who were related by blood to these families and took pride in their heritage similar to that of the full white issue of their fathers. It is a familiar fact that for many years mulattoes were favored in the matter of occupations. Their marginal position made them more restless under restrictions which were the common experience of Negroes. They have often been most bitter in their racial attitudes. Many of the early Negro leaders were of such mixed origin, and for many years the cultural advance of this group over unmixed Negroes was explained as a result of their “white” blood. This explanation is not so often heard in recent years since the emergence of the unmixed Negroes, largely of the plantation type and their rapid cultural development.

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The last two factors of migration and education have been chiefly responsible for the emergence of the Negroes from that vast group indiscriminatingly classified as “the masses.” The movement away from the farms, between sections, and to cities, which began promptly after Negro emancipation, has gradually extended the cultural horizon of all Negroes. It has brought greater knowledge and sophistication and exposure to those standards implicit in the complexity of city life: schools, hygiene, newspapers, and the myriad tools by which one gains control over the forces of his civilization. The northward migration, with all its shock and initial disorganization, has, on the whole, tended to advance the general culture of the group. It is frequently overlooked that disorganization in family life or disorganization expressed in crime is the inevitable accompaniment of the complexity of an advanced culture. In any complex civilization, the two elements of balance and imbalance are found together. The test of a “civilized” or “cultured” person is the ability to reorganize his personality upon a new basis of greater control. Negro migrants from the South to the North have to a considerable degree achieved this balance. Finally, the factor of education has proved, perhaps, most important of all aids to this cultural development.

Race: The History of an Idea in America

Blacks in America became the nation’s second source of race relations problems. As Thomas F. Gossett so eloquently explained the situation, the English colonists already had a race problem with Indians when they imported another, with the arrival in 1619 of the first boatload of Negro slaves. The first African blacks in America were twenty indentured servants sold to Virginia settlers just one year before the Mayflower arrived. Black slavery gradually emerged as a legal institution. While white indentured servants had the prospect of gradual freedom, lifetime servitude for blacks and their children became the rule in Virginia, Maryland, and other Southern states. The view of a black person’s social status became one of permanent social inferiority as slaves formed a large part of the labor force of the South. Black women and children, together with black men, became an essential feature of the plantation economy.

Reconstruction shook the very foundations of the old South and, for a period, threw it in truly revolutionary turmoil. A century later, we are painfully trying to recapture the gains achieved temporarily during Reconstruction, and we are still falling short of them in the political sphere. Why then did Reconstruction eventually fail, and how did the counter-revolution succeed in re-establishing white supremacy on a new basis in the South? Reconstruction failed largely because it was a “revolution from the top,” directed by a segment of the dominant group, with little active support and push from the masses of the freedmen. Obviously, this is not to imply that most Negroes did not welcome the demise of slavery and that significant numbers of individual Negroes did not play important, indeed distinguished, roles in the various Reconstruction regimes of the South. Du Bois has conclusively shown that a number of Negroes were not passive recipients of the blessings of Reconstruction but active participants in it. It remains true, however, that Negroes were “junior partners” in the revolution and that the mass of Negroes was too atomized, politically untrained, and unorganized to constitute an independent political force in the South.

The aftermath of the Civil War marked an abrupt change from a paternalistic to a competitive type of race relations, partly as a result of the disruption which followed the defeat of the Confederacy and partly as a consequence of wider and more profound transformations which affected the entire country. The old agrarian, the feudal world of the slave plantation was destroyed, and with it the traditional master-servant model of race relations. Freed Negroes migrated in great numbers to the cities of the South, and to a lesser extent outside the South, and entered for the first time in direct competition on the labor market with the poor white farmers of the South and the urban white working class of both the North and the South.

Several trends, which began to manifest themselves on a large scale at the time of the Civil War or just before, made the second half of the nineteenth century the most dynamic period in United States history and exacerbated racial competition. The two years preceding the mid-century marked the beginning of two momentous events and the end of a third one. The California gold rush was the final phase of the territorial expansion of the United States by the process of land encroachment and frontier wars between white settlers and a number of small Indian groups. It took several more decades to beat the last remnants of the indigenous population into total submission and to reduce the last Indian lands to the status of human zoos for the amusement of tourists and the delight of anthropologists. However, by 1850 the Pacific Ocean had become the western frontier of the United States. The war of conquest against Mexico marked the beginning of the United States as the great imperialist power in the Western Hemisphere and almost gave the United States its present continental frontiers. Finally, the Irish potato famine triggered off the mass immigration of Europeans in response to the rising demand for industrial labor. Through European immigration, the nonwhite population was gradually reduced to 10 percent of the total.

The immediate pre-Civil War era also marked the massive development of the heavy iron and steel industry, and of railway transportation, and the early phase in the growth of monopoly capitalism. The United States was in the process of becoming the first major non-European industrial power. Indeed, the Civil War was the first major conflict in the world in which warfare itself could be described as largely industrialized. Rapid urbanization, the mushrooming of working-class slums, high unemployment, massive internal migration, and all the disruptive forces and conflicts of early capitalism contributed to the complete change in patterns of race relations and to a steadily rising tide of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry.

Ideologically, the last third of the nineteenth century was characterized by a syndrome of laissez-faire capitalism in the economic sphere, of jingoism and imperialism in foreign relations, and of racial and ethnic intolerance in the domestic social sphere. The writings of Theodore Roosevelt and of other American racists like Madison Grant and Charles Carrol epitomize this era which could be termed the Golden Age of Racism. Social Darwinism and economic liberalism were fused to rationalize the survival of the wealthiest in the industrial jungle and to give racism the accolade of Science.

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World War I marked the first indications of new changes in race relations. As a response to demand for labor and industrial expansion in the North, Negro emigration from the South accelerated, thereby scattering the nonwhite minority more and more widely over the nation and correspondingly reducing the Negro percentage in the South. In 1910, 89 percent of the Negroes lived in the South, and 30 percent of the Southern population were Negroes. By 1930 these percentages had dropped to 79 and 25 percent. Negro migration was also a process of increasing urbanization in both the South and the non-South. In summary, the Negro population left the rural Black Belt in spite of progress; consequently, the level of racial conflict, frustration, and alienation has risen in the past few years. The present situation is probably more explosive than ever before. Second, the real progress which has been made in the past seven years is the result of mass militancy and of the adoption of unconventional methods of protest such as passive resistance and civil disobedience by the oppressed minorities, rather than of magnanimity and benevolence from the Federal government or the dominant group at large.

The Mismeasure of Man

Racist thinking reflects a philosophical conception of reality which holds that life forms exist on a hierarchy with humans at the top. As “superior” life forms, humans are viewed as having the right to use and even destroy other life forms for their own benefit, based on the rationale that the “superior” human brain knows what is best. Acceptance of this hierarchy has led to a conception of human groups as also existing on the hierarchy. Gould has described and critiqued a history of craniometric and psychometric research that has attempted to document the genetic superiority of Caucasians in the evolutionary chain.’ This hierarchy, which is almost always expounded by the group that sees itself on top, suggests the same rationale for human exploitation of nature: those with “superior” brains or “superior” culture know what is best and therefore have a right to exploit and assume authority over people they view as lower on the hierarchy. Thus, racism has legitimated and made psychologically okay the conquest, enslavement, and exploitation of people of color and is an integral part of the self-definition and feeling of self-esteem of most whites in western societies, regardless of class.

The philosophical worldview underlying racism is intertwined with class relations, but not the same as class relations, nor a subset of class relations. In the United States and increasingly in England, in order to understand social class, racism and race relations have to be taken into analytical schemata. Racism is a dominant ideology that supports and encourages a stratified economic structure. It impacts daily upon people (both as individuals and as groups) in our society. Racism is ever-present, widespread, and definitely influences the work roles, goals, and privileges people receive. Because the receipt of privileges is directly connected to one’s race, we argue that there exists a strong, direct correspondence between race and social class. This correspondence demands that an examination of one necessitates the examination of the other. An examination of some of the privileges that a person receives because of the race will help to illuminate our argument.

Consider, for example, that up to the eighteenth century, the dominant theory of the origin of rocks held that ‘rocks’ resulted as ‘precipitates from a universal chaotic fluid.’ Nobody ever found the fluid. It was a real gaffe. Consider, further, that the Comte de Gobineau believed ‘every race capable of developing a civilization develops one peculiar to itself.’ Such opinions as this formed the basis of nineteenth-century racism, which insisted that ‘racial difference produced the cultural difference.’ In this generalization necklace, there are two concepts, ‘race’ and ‘culture,’ and one relationship, that of ‘production.’ However, Boasian anthropology provided evidence that failed to observe any connection between race and cultural change. The gaffe, then, is that the concept of ‘race’ does not accurately represent whatever it is that produces a cultural difference.

Gaps, voids, and gaffes concern the generalizations of a single thinker. ‘Holes’ are located when it is observed that a number of thinkers have similar gaps, voids, and gaffes in their theorizing.

There is considerable literature expressing misgivings about sociobiology. These studies tend to fall into two categories. The first category is of investigations that demonstrate a poor validation record for sociobiological generalizations. The second category is of studies that reveal a conservative bias to sociobiological generalizations, which show that the rich and powerful as well as the poor and weak are the way they are because of their biology. The politics come in because, after all, it’s in their genes, and what can you do about that? So sociobiology is both unpromising and promising. On the basis of the facts, its generalizations are unpromising. On the basis of its politics, it promises to help keep the poor and others who are disadvantaged secure in their disadvantage. 4 But sociobiology claims to derive its positions from sound theory. After all, no generalizations would seem approximately truer than those of Darwinian evolution. However, the view that genes, either directly or somehow in some ‘last instance,’ determine behavior seems to fly in the face of the truth of human evolutionary biology.

Certainly, in lower orders of animals, genes have some influence on particular behaviors. Entire species have built into them by their genes a few behavioral tricks concerning how to address reality. Sea slugs, for example, do not have many tricks; but they do have the trick of doing something when the water temperature is cold and, then again, something else when it is warmer. Birds have more tricks, most famously that of migrating when the air temperature goes down, though it is known that much of what occurs during migration is learned. However, neither birds nor sea slugs went through the Great Encephalization. This, we have just recalled, added major association areas, especially in the PFC, and the neural networks connecting these new areas to the older, previously evolved areas like the limbic system. This means that the dorsolateral, orbitofrontal, and medioventral cortices of the PFC must have greatly evolved. It means that the dense feedback networks running back and forth between the PFC, especially the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala, were put in place. These new cortical networks are a fact of the Great Encephalization. As facts, they cannot be ignored. They are terribly important because they are the material structures of a new way in which animals deal with reality.

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From here, it is but a short step to consideration of scientific racism: the misuse of the notion of ‘race’ to perpetuate stereotyping, legitimize discrimination and institutionalize injustice (Hodson, 1993a; Hodson and Dennick, 1994; cf. Rattansi, this volume). Suitable examples for presentation to students are the nineteenth-century misuse of the Darwinian principle of natural selection to argue that white Europeans are superior to Africans in evolutionary terms, thereby justifying colonization (Fryer, 1984; Gould, 1981); misinformation about sickle cell anemia to exclude

On this latter subject, Brush (1989) provides powerful food for thought in his description of the way racial prejudice fuelled the development of the Stanford-Binet IQ test, still widely used as an objective measure of intellectual capacity and the basis of the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs). Since SAT scores are used to control entry to selective colleges and hence to positions of power and privilege in US society, Science is seen to play a key role in sustaining institutional racism in American society. The history of sickle cell anemia research provides another striking example of racially-driven scientific priorities. For decades, the disease (which primarily affects those of African descent) was ignored by US scientists. When it did gain a measure of attention, funding was directed to the ‘elitist aspects of the biochemistry of the sickling process’ rather than to screening and counseling programs.

In 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Swiss American Harvard Professor Louis Agassiz, one of the inventors of scientistic racism, developed his racial views in a series of letters addressed to the former abolitionist Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who had become a member of the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission and requested scientific advice. While Agassiz expressed his conviction that the black race would endure in America, perhaps in black states in the South, he doubted whether racial mixtures would be able to survive.

On the one hand, Agassiz warned Howe against any policies that might transform the United States from a “manly population descended from cognate nations” into “the effeminate progeny of mixed races, half Indian, half negro, sprinkled with white blood.” He alluded to the fearful example of Mexico where the Spaniards could no longer be rescued “from their degradation” and concluded with an expression of horror at the prospect of similar development north of the border: “In whatever proportion the amalgamation may take place, I shudder from the consequences.”

On the other hand, however, Agassiz was also convinced that in the United States, the problem would resolve itself by the “natural” weakness of the hybrid offspring, which he repeatedly described in terms of “effeminacy” as opposed to the “manliness” of pure races. His analogy between race and sex summons an image of “unnatural” half-bloods that resembles some popular negative representations of homosexuals, and his language also evokes the sense of incest-toned sterility that is at times associated with aristocrats in bourgeois literature.

Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition

The theory of Darwin on the Origin of Species, from a psychological perspective, is that it does not culminate in despair and pessimism. What Darwin calls the “Struggle for Existence” is inevitable and unrelenting, leading inexorably to the replacement of one species by another as conditions change. Unlike the imagining of a Christian God who loves every hair on each human head, Darwin’s nature is not concerned with the failure or suffering of individuals. Appleman describes it,

“As more individuals are produced than can possibly survive, there must in every case be a struggle for existence, either one individual with another of the same species, or with the individuals of distinct species, or with the physical conditions of life.”

Darwin’s description of how evolution works, however, is not simply factual and objective; it is also evaluative. In order to regard nature as “beautiful,” Darwin must take the long view; he must think of time not on the human scale of generational love extending to children and to grandchildren, but on the scale of millions of years in which individual identity and achievement are imperceptible.

Darwin was aware that his theory of evolution would be seen as blasphemous by the pious, just as Job’s utterances questioning God’s justice were condemned by his comforters. Stephen Jay Gould points out in his essay “Darwin’s Delay” that Darwin “gave vent to his beliefs, only when he could hide them no longer, in The Descent of Man ( 1871) and the Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals ( 1872).” Further, Gould quotes Darwin’s letter to Karl Marx in which Darwin writes: It seems to me (rightly or wrongly) that direct argument against Christianity and Theism hardly have any effect on the public, and that freedom of thought will best be promoted by that gradual enlightening of human understanding which follows the progress of Science.

At the end of The Descent of Man, Darwin acknowledges his iconoclasm when he says: “I am aware that the conclusion arrived at in this work will be denounced by some as highly irreligious” and then he goes on to argue that if we can accept natural childbirth as part of a divine plan, we should be able to accept evolution also as within the parameters of religious belief. Thus, for Darwin, it is not more irreligious to explain the origin of man as a distinct species by descent from some lower form, through the laws of variation and natural selection, than to explain the birth of the individual through the laws of ordinary reproduction.

Although Darwin places his faith in that “gradual enlightening of human understanding which follows the progress of science,” his writing is replete with phrases that reveal both his aesthetic and his moral sense. He refers, for example, to the “dignity of mankind” or to the “wonderful advancement” that has come from the development of “articulate language.” Above all, Darwin focuses on the appearance of the human capacity for sympathy. He speaks, for example, of the “acquirement of the higher mental qualities, such as sympathy and the love of his fellows,” whose foundation lies in social instincts and family ties. The “distinct emotion of sympathy” and the “moral sense” are related by Darwin to the “high activity of man’s mental faculties.” When Darwin writes of an “advance of morality” or a “considerable advance in man’s reason,” he is not using such words as “higher,” “qualities,” or “advance” only to indicate man’s power of adaptation to his environment; rather, he makes an evaluation that is spiritual, as well as pragmatic. His concept of human advancement is not bound exclusively to his concept of the survival of the fittest.

Darwin says that the conclusion he has come to in The Descent of Man will be offensive: “that man is descended from some lowly organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many,” and from our vantage point, we must include him in that “many.” Darwin’s repugnance for the behavior of our human ancestors is unmistakable in his description of the savage “who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, practices infanticide without remorse, treats his wives like slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions.”

Darwin is optimistic, however, that humankind may improve its collective behavior and cast off its superstitions, but that hope is not based on an appeal to divinity, only on the evolutionary “fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there.” Thus Darwin’s “hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future” resides entirely in the human capacity for “sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature.” Darwin, like Job, turns back to the plenitude of creation, to the animals, and takes his comfort both from the spectacle of existence and in man’s “god-like intellect” that provides the sympathy which nature itself, and perhaps the God of nature as well, is lacking. Darwin ends his book, however, with a note of warning, reminding us of our human history, which we must be vigilant to remember: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Without the humility of such remembrance, we are doomed to remain what we have been for so long.

Those who suffer, as Darwin believes some individuals must, from “the war of nature, from famine and death” and those who are washed away, or crushed, or scorched, or blasted by flood, earthquake, fire, or whirlwind are not likely, in the agony of their unmerited fates, to sing praises to the designer of the universe. A human being, who possesses reason and language with which to cry out, will be tempted, rather, to appeal to a merciful God who empathizes with his or her suffering, a comprehensible God who offers comfort. The universe, however, has never offered such comfort. If comfort is to be offered at all, it is only within the capacity of other human beings to do so. Although the beauty of the universe, the wonder at physical existence itself, has always been a primal source of poetic inspiration, the magnificence of the created world will not appear to be sufficient compensation for the unwarranted pain of random death, either at the hands of other humans or as a result of worldly conditions, unless one can embrace Job’s or Darwin’s long view. Should one choose protest rather than acceptance and praise, one’s adversarial cry against nature would not reach even the nearest stars. One’s human cry would be too small, too fleeting, too personal. Other cries of other voices are waiting for their turns to live and die.


Gossett, Thomas. 1963. Race: The History of an Idea in America. Oxford University Press, 2nd edition.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1996. The Mismeasure of Man. 2nd. Revised Edition. New York, W.W. Norton.

Appleman, Philip, ed. 1979. Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 3rd edition.