Of Skulls and Buttocks

February 23, 2010 Topics: Society Regions: Americas Tags: UndefinedRacismSociology

Of Skulls and Buttocks

Mini Teaser: Europeans came to believe everything beautiful emanated from the Caucasus. The journey of their swarthy Mediterranean forebears was transformed into a caricature of the white marble statues they left behind.

by Author(s): Anthony Pagden

Boas's work, and that of his celebrated pupils Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, raised questions about the deeply incoherent manner in which the race scientists handled their data and the very dubious scientific procedures they employed, but it ultimately failed to discredit Ripley and his ilk, even in the eyes of fellow anthropologists, let alone the general public.

By the early twentieth century, the focus on race had narrowed further still. Whiteness was being chopped into smaller and smaller slices. The result would be a distant prelude to genocide. Now it was not enough to distinguish between Anglo-Saxons, Alpines and Mediterraneans in order to prevent wholesome Anglo-Saxon Americans from committing what Theodore Roosevelt called "race suicide." In the 1880s, a former traveling salesman turned religious dogmatist named Oscar McCulloch had begun to argue, in print and from the pulpit, that not all Anglo-Saxons were the same. Some of the settlers who had come to America from England, although seemingly of the same blood as the proud New Englanders, were nonetheless "degenerate," descended from "the old convict stock which England threw into this country in the seventeenth century." Could this be even worse than the evils of genetically transmitted poverty? All of this degeneracy was, of course, hereditary. The idea was soon taken up by academe and transformed into another pseudoscience, possibly the most sinister and ultimately the most damaging race science of them all: eugenics.


THE FOUNDING father of the eugenics movement and inventor of the term (meaning "breeding well") was Charles Darwin's cousin, Sir Francis Galton (who also coined the phrase "nature versus nurture"). He believed that there existed a necessary link between what he described as "genius" and genetics or, as he put it, "that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance." Eugenics applied to individuals and their families much the same criteria as Carlyle and Emerson had applied to races, including a diffuse concept of beauty.

In the United States, Galton found some eager acolytes. Charles Davenport, for instance, who had taught at Harvard and the University of Chicago, moving inexorably from the study of chickens to humans, set out to demonstrate to an enthusiastic public the "value of superior blood and the menace to society of inferior blood." "Heredity," he warned in Popular Science Monthly in 1911, "stands as the one great hope of the human race, its savior from imbecility, poverty, disease, immorality."2 

The following year, another eugenicist, David Starr Jordan, then president of Stanford, published a detailed study of a mass of so-called degenerates. England's defectives, he discovered, had left a "trail of pauperism and crime from Virginia across Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Missouri, even California and Oregon." The process, he complained, was far from over as Europe continued to send these less desirable members of society to the United States to breed "the same inefficient men, sickly women, frowsy children, starved horses, barking cur dogs, carelessness, vindictiveness, and neglect of decency." For Jordan, degeneracy, it would seem, was contagious enough to be passed on to other species.

Then there was Henry Goddard of New Jersey and the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys. In 1912, Goddard published a study of the genealogy of one of his charges whom he dubbed Deborah Kallikak (coined from the Greek kalos, "beauty," and kakos, "bad"). Goddard demonstrated that Deborah, to whom he ascribed a mental age of nine which, he believed, would deprive her of "moral judgment," was the descendant of a man who at the time of the American Revolution had bred, out of wedlock, with a "feeble-minded girl." The consequences of this illicit union had been dire. Over the years, the Kallikak family had produced, according to Goddard, thirty-six illegitimate children, thirty-three "sexually immoral persons, mostly prostitutes," three epileptics (epilepsy was then believed to be a hereditary disease), eighty-two dead babies, three criminals, and eight keepers of "houses of ill fame."

It was but a short step from such compelling family histories as these to the recommendation that such peoples be prevented from inflicting any further damage by sterilization. In 1924, the state of Virginia, assisted by the Eugenics Record Office, which Davenport set up in 1910, passed the first compulsory sterilization law for the mentally retarded.3

What is most striking about the eugenics movement, indeed about all race science, is that, with very few exceptions, its exponents were not fringe rabble-rousers, demented religious leaders or even opportunistic politicians. They were solid, respectable and respected men from prosperous, secure families and some of the best universities in the country. By the 1920s, however, the whole edifice of the eugenics movement was beginning to crumble. Eugenics, wrote the Johns Hopkins biologist Raymond Pearl in 1928, was a "mingled mess of ill-grounded and uncritical sociology, economics, anthropology, and politics, full of emotional appeals to class and race prejudices, solemnly put forth as science."

As Painter argues, what finally put an end to the plausibility of eugenics' claims was, however, the gusto and ruthless efficiency with which its methods were used by another group of impeccable Teutons: the Nazis. As soon as they gained office in 1933, the Nazis introduced forcible sterilization for all "defectives," which included not only the mentally ill and handicapped but also the deaf and the blind. Faced with the revelation of the enormity of Nazi war crimes, no educated person after 1945 was prepared to endorse the claim that criminality, lasciviousness, indolence and simple poverty were inherited racial characteristics. The broader belief that the world is divided into distinct races, separated by color and physiognomy, whites, blacks, Asiatics, Semites and the like, survived-for a while at least-but the sorry story of race science which Painter chronicles so compellingly was at an end.


MODERN GENETICS has demonstrated conclusively that no such thing as race exists. Thanks to the mapping of the human genome, we now know that each person shares 99.99 percent of his or her genetic material with everyone else. Similarly, skin color and physiognomy are now no longer regarded as the most obvious ways of classifying peoples by the scientific community. There are more significant indicators of human difference, and these tell quite another story than the one narrated through the Greco-Roman model.

Fingerprints link Europeans, black Africans and East Asians together in one group; Mongolians and Australian Aborigines, in another. Cerumen (earwax) is of two types-wet and sticky, controlled by a dominant gene; and dry and waxy, controlled by a recessive gene. This connects most Europeans and most Africans (who have the sticky variety), but distinguishes both from most Asians, while body-hair types link Europeans to Australian Aborigines and to the Ainu people of northern Japan. And as for blood: the A/B/O system (in any case now thought to be rather primitive) links the English to the Icelanders to the Sami to the Melanesians. It also seems that greater blood variations occur within human populations than between them. There is also, of course, no evidence linking any of these things to behavior-or intelligence.

Yet a concept of race lingers; America remains obsessed. The U.S. census (unlike its equivalent in any European country) still seems to believe in its importance, as do the nation's police forces, and who knows how many other state bureaucracies. (Traffic tickets demand a record of the offender's sex, race, hair color, eye color, height and weight.)

And in a categorization cacophony that appeals to the centuries-long U.S. need to label, divide and specify, there is that other ambiguous term "ethnicity." We come full circle to the Greco-Roman need to classify. The term "ethnic group" has become a polite way of marking all the various, and essentially political and cultural, distinctions within humanity. On these grounds, the English, the Germans and the Anglo-Saxon Americans all now constitute ethnic groups. But just what ethnicity is, apart from the sum of a people's cultural habits, is not at all clear. As Painter points out, the distinction between it and race is sometimes a fine one.

The collapse of race science may have stripped away the foundations for what was always, and has been everywhere, an instinctive fear and suspicion of outsiders. But it would be naive to suppose that this will do much to diminish the fear and suspicion itself. Differences between custom and belief, or what we now call "culture," have come to dominate the debate about the "other." Today, if anything those divisions are growing stronger. The great experiment of the "melting pot" in which, in Painter's words, "immigrant ‘ethnic types' would melt into ersatz Anglo-Saxons" was a palpable failure. Immigrants to the United States, or indeed to anywhere in the developed world, no longer seek to erase their identities, lose their languages, change their names (as film stars routinely did in the 1930s and '40s) or otherwise hide their origins. Hyphenization-"Italian-American," "African-American," "Chinese-American" and so on-and multiculturalism, which seeks to privilege and preserve every and any form of cultural behavior and belief merely because it exists, have indubitably granted minorities in the United States a degree of freedom and respect they never enjoyed before. It is also perhaps indicative of the fact that within the "West," the "nation-state" as a cultural entity is now on its slow and tortuous way to extinction. The model for the future may well be something like what the Roman Empire or the Austro-Hungarian empires once were (or claimed to be), and the European Union is rapidly becoming: states, not nations, bound together by an understanding of citizenship and the rule of law, but which leave every other aspect of human life strictly to the personal wishes of the individuals of which they are composed.

Essay Types: Book Review