The familiar paradigm of five human races was born in the year 1795—at the transitional moment between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the emotional fervour of Romanticism—when a German doctor, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, set out the distinct characteristics of those groups he called Caucasians Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays.
Though he saw these races as all part of one human species and believed they could develop separately and eventually die out, this easy-to-memorize listing has had lasting afterlife with unfortunate consequences. Mostly ignoring modern discoveries and changes in methodologies, the same paradigm became the common go-to justification for legal, social and political racism. Roughly two-hundred years later, in 1997, the US government classified people originating from Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa as white and had them sitting at the top of an assumed hierarchy of ethnic intelligence.
These arbitrary “populations” were framed as the “natural winners”, writes Angela Saini in her book Superior: The Return of Race Science that gives the myth of racial science and racisms a serious dressing down. Race science and racism are never far apart. In 2007, French president Sarkozy infamously said, “Africa has not fully entered into history” – well, apart from the fact the history of modern anatomical humanity probably started in Africa. Sarkozy’s present-day American counterpart talked of “shithole countries”.
These two world leaders are not alone in painting their – largely invented – enemies as ugly foreigners, while seeing subordinate as inferior. The trick is done through ideologically invented “natural hierarchies” that seek to give meaning to arbitrary racial types. Unfortunately for the racists, almost all scientists agree that we all started off as non-white human beings about 100,000 years go when the first anatomically modern human beings developed the ability to make complex art. Recent evidence even goes back at least twice as far and assigns the earliest manifestation of symbolic thought to the Neanderthals (and some add, the Denisovians).
Whoever these original symbol-making people were, one thing they were definitely not is white in the sense of Caucasian or Aryan. If things don’t look that way superficially, we have to learn to see beyond illusions and delusions. In Africa and elsewhere after the arrival of European colonists during the 15th century, the creation of indigenous art sharply declined and so did the indigenous populations through warfare, torture, massacres and disease carried to distant places, mostly by the much acclaimed “superior” white people.
Not long after Blumenbach’s categories were taken as unquestioned evidence of racial differences, whiteness had become a visible measure of modernity. It was used during the Slavers/Abolitionist debates in ante-bellum America and lingered into the framing of Jim Crow laws after the South was forced to free its slaves and a raft of progressive Reconstructionist tried to correct old faults in the system (see the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the US Constitution).
The notion of Caucasian superiority became an official policy found in the “White Australia Policy” (1901) that restricted non-European migration to Australia even though Australia’s beloved white settlers always carried round 4% Neanderthal DNA gained most likely through sex-acts thousands of years ago. The myth also justified the hunting down of Native Americans in California in the nineteenth century and Aborigines in Australia well into the twentieth century.
Still, the illusion was an unquestioned truism: that race is a fixed feature that people inherited in their blood. Think of the Apartheid regime in South Africa and the treatment of Koreans in Japan. Race and racism categorize and stigmatize clusters of people in easy-to-spot colours: red, white, yellow, and black: a simple prism for the simple minded!
It is by no means a historical surprise that race and race science were invented in the context of colonial ideologies supporting oppression and exploitation. Racism was used to justify slavery until – at least in the UK – it was “officially” (!) ended with the 1823 Parliamentary prohibition of the trade in slaves. Slave Trade Act of 1807. Undeterred, the peculiar system of slavery and its ideology of racism carried on in many parts of the world. At an 1841 meeting, for example, Charles Caldwell “claimed that your African bore more of a resemblance to apes than humans”. Unfortunately for Caldwell, underneath their brown fur, chimpanzees look very much like him when he takes his clothes off; in other words, they are white.
Out of post-Revolutionary France came a new milestone in the history of race science in the form of Joseph-Arthur, Count de Gobineau’s influential The Inequality of the Human Race (1853). Gobineau argued that there were three races: yellow, white and the “negroid variety as the lowest”. Naturally, there was and still is no hard scientific evidence for any of this nonsense. Interestingly, the French aristocrat also believed that the “glorious Aryans…had existed in India many centuries ago”. Very regrettably for him, six years later, Charles Darwin “demonstrated that we could only have evolved from shared origins”. Despite the ensuing Monkey Debate, “Darwinism did nothing to slow racism”, and a German zoologist linked black Africans to primates in 1862.
Not long after, the pseudo-science of racialism really took off in Germany when the predecessor of today’s Max Planck Society, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Advancement of Science was established in 1911. Decades before the rise of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists or the publication of Mein Kampf, Nazis the learned society promoted the teaching of racial theory and racial hygiene at German universities. This included the subject of eugenics, that is, the purifying of the Master Race through the breeding of pure Aryans – racial hygiene – while other inferior dark-skinned races were to be “gradually eliminated”.
The Society’s members willingly cooperated with the so-called Spartacus Educational programme spelled out in 1939 by Herman Rauschning, rationalizing with pseudo-science the Nazis Racial Laws. Under the direction of German race science’s leading proponent, Professor Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer was a willing executor. To kick start this attempt of making Germany great again, Jewish scientists were expelled from the Institute.
Otmar von Verschuler’s protégé, Dr. Josef Mengele, proved one of the most evil characters of Nazism infamous for making selections at arrival of cattle-cars full of doomed Jews, torturing twins in the name of racial purity, and pursuing other sadistic experiments. Much of this was done in accordance with a mockery of Blumenbach’s outdated paradigm.
Despite the illusion of neutrality and objectivity, ever since Plato’s put-down of the Sophists, Galileo Galilei we know that “science is always shaped by the time and the place it is carried out in”. If racists wanted race science, the experts found it. Worse, if Nazism’s hygienic science needed to rationalize the steps to genocide, Verscheuer and Mengele provided the excuse. And it all “didn’t originate in Germany alone”.
The University College London’s own Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie, “generally regarded as the father of modern Near Eastern archaeology” also wrote about racial superiority. Before him, Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911) – known affectionately as the godfather of eugenics – advocated the use of social controls (such as, selective breeding and mandatory sterilization) to improve the health and intelligence of future generations, dreaming of a utopia of highly bred super-people [Übermenchen], a true dystopia.
Even the establishment philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested imposing heavy fines on the wrong type of people for giving birth to degenerate infants. The world’s first voluntary sterilisation law, however, was passed in the American state of Indiana in 1907. By 1914, the word eugenics was used frequently, often as a synonym for being healthy. These racial ideas supported what was the first racially-motivated mass killing in modern history, the 1908 murder by colonial troops of tens of thousands of Nema and Horero people in German Southwest Africa – now Namibia.
A few years later, an American lawyer, Madison Grant, published The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (1916) which Adolf Hitler called “my bible”. After the defeat of the Third Reich, the former top Nazi scientist von Verschuer became a professor of human genetics at the University of Münster (Germany) in 1951. Like many other party leaders and race scientists, his earlier support for Hitler was airbrushed away in the decades after the war.
The academic and social system of the Federal Republic simply ignored the racist past of its intellectuals. The fact that the term race in itself is racist never entered their thinking. Today, most western scientists agree that mankind is one species and argue that even ethnic subgroups defy fixed categorizations. Homo sapiens cannot not be divided into illogical racial hierarchies. Scientists agree, too, that all people belong to the same species – anatomically modern human beings. After all, there are “far more variations within people of the same race than between supposedly separated races.”
Key to this evidential consensus among scientists and statesmen is the 1951 United Nations’ UNESCO declaration on The Nature of Race and Race Differences. With that it became crystal clear that the study of race no longer had a place within the realms of biology. Race (in the sense of the human family) should not be confused with differences in culture, nationality or language. So-called racial categories are ideological constructs and the terms should be eschewed in political and legal discourses.
Yet white supremacists are undeterred by such legal niceties and historical facts. German biochemist Gerhard Meisenberg founding editor of one of the more racist crypto-academic and rather obscure journals, Mankind Quarterly tries to tell the world that human races exist. Even in 2020, Meisenberg’s co-editor, Richard Lynn, continues to publish this pseudo-scientific magazine white supremacist journal on Racial and Ethnic Differences.
In its attempt to sound politically correct, Mankind Quarterly uses the term ethnicity to smokescreen the underlying ugliness of old-fashioned racism. A quarter of a century ago, the editors’ attempts got a strong boost when a book was published with the innocuous-looking title The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life 1994). Penned by psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray proclaimed that black Americans are less intelligent than whites and Asians, pointing to evidence of IQ tests. In a vicious circle, the authors cited five articles from Mankind Quarterly. In a stinging review, the official journal of the profession, the American Behavioral Scientist, branded the Bell Curve a “fascist ideology”.
In short, for those interested in peddling their racist ideology, science (as though there were one “science”) like the Scholastic professors in a medieval university could point to such an “authority” as proof. Whenever someone tells you, “I am objective” or “I am apolitical”, it is time to for the bells to ring and the lights to flash: become very watchful. Perhaps even more so when race science is framed as “identity” and “human variations”.
The story gets even more sticky for the white supremacists when a respected Cambridge/Stanford geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza states categorically, “There are simply no races in humankind.” He made it even clearer when pronouncing “the sheer unscientific absurdity of racism”. Today, we know that racism is socially, politically and ideologially has no basis in real science.
With DNA and genetic-testing to prove the basic facts of human lineage, there is no excuse to listen to or act on the absurdities of race science. Moreover “genetic testing is only an educated guess about where your relatives may have lived”. Britain’s so-called Cheddar Man, held up as the ancestor of all ancestors in the UK. It turns out that the 10,000 year old Cheddar Man had dark skin. By today’s standards “he would be considered black”.
But knowing the colour of his skin, or cranial size, or shape of the jaw, or any other supposed anatomic feature, proves nothing about intelligence, cultural achievements or social disposition. All it does is show how stupid racists really are. Just as on the continents of Europe, America or Asia, the African continent is incredible diverse genentically. There is no original or single racial standard. Our primeval ancestors moved about, following changing climates, retreating from adverse conditions, interbreeding when convenient, and sharing tool-making techniques and symbolic ideas. Sometimes these near cousins disappeared into the mists of history – or persist as particles of DNA information in our genome
Even more dreadful for race science, ignorant racists, nincompoop white nationalists or supremacists, and those who want to build walls against the tide of history, the fact is that “almost everyone on the planet is the decendant of a migrant from somewhere”. As science moves forward, it gets even more gloomy for the well-being of bigots.
Mathematics also works against them. Just five generations ago, each of us had as many as 32 possible ancestors contributing to our genetic makeup. Nine generations ago, the number rises to 512 and 15 generations ago, it is 32,768. Go back further and the number reaches millions. This, of course, is impossible. We are not stacks of wheat multiplying exponmentially. The only explanation is that we are all at least a little bit inbred.
The hallucination of race science is still around, just as stupid people want to wrap themselves in colourful flags and pretend to be immune from reality. The situation is actually so bad that the prestgious science journal Nature carried an editorial in 2018 which said that extremists misuse scientific results for misleading ends and that “people out there are activley abusing science for rascist purposes”.
The very same applies to the myth of “intelligent genes” and the fable of a racial gap of around 15 IQ points. Not only have scientists been unable definitively to isolate intelligence in human DNA, but the very idea of an IQ [Intelligence Quotient] is another delusion. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) burst that bubble convincingly—to all but the recalcitrant and the pig-headed, such as college admissions heads.
In other words, there is no IQ gene. Instead of a DNA-IQ link, we know that the “environment matters in IQ test results,” in fact to such a degree that such tests are worse than useless; they serve only to exclude the non-middle classes, the non-western immigrants and the young men and women who grew up in poor, disadvantaged households. In addition, there is no average intelligence gap between the sexes or other culturally-constructed groups of people.
Finally, to cap this list of inanities, there is the case of “the world’s first black pill…marketed solely to African Americans”. It was a drug called BiDil and touted itself as a specific treatment for high blood pressure, a disease Afro-Americans were uniquely prone to suffer from. The Lancet, the acclaimed British journal of the medical profession, concluded: “Race became relevant in the creation of this drug not for medical reasons, but for legal and commercial reasons”. A short anecdote can conclude our overview of the situation.
An American pediatrician, Richard Garcia, once described the case of a friend who repeatedly failed to receive a correct diagnosis for cystic fibrosis because it was thought to be a white disease, and she was black. Only when a passing radiologist happened to spot her chest x-ray, without knowing to whom it belonged, was her condition instantly spotted. She had to wait until she was eight years old, and her skin color had to be invisible, before she could be diagnosed.
In the end, then, Angela Saini’s Superior proves one thing: race science remains utter nonsense. It is an ideology, not sciences. Despite overwhelming scientific evidence against the concept of race, race science, racism and even intellectual racism inside the annals of scientific discourse is still with us. In some corners of the medical and related professions, there still lurks “a toxic seed of racism”, says Saini.
As for the proponents of the superior white race, the lack of scientific evidence might not deter the hard-core believers, just as it did not deter Adolf Hitler in his nefarious search for a Final Solution to the Jewish Question. Then, as today, race science remains dangerous. Yet, to the question – will history repeat itself? – we already know the answer. History never repeats itself exactly. Today we know what happened when blood-based ethnicity became a state-sanctioned ideology. We know that race hygiene can end at a train station. And at that train station, there is still a sign that reads “Arbeit Macht Frei” – Auschwitz.