Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Race Science and Racism

Socialists in the SPGB have been from the start clearly opposed, on principle, to racism. For us the only significant division is that of class, and we as a party work to build up an organisation united on the principle of the class struggle “without distinction of race or sex”. Only such a party can hope to unite the working class and develop an organisation capable of putting an end to class exploitation.

The revival of racism, in Britain, the US, and many European states, with the recent rise of so-called ‘populism’, has been supported by those pseudo-scientists who peddle an ideological ‘race realism’. But how did this race science survive and recover after the horrors of the Nazis’ racist genocide? Where in academic circles did it find sponsors and experts in the half century since the end of the Nazi regime?

In a new book, SUPERIOR- THE RETURN OF RACE SCIENCE (4th estate, London 2019), Angela Saini explains this shadow ‘science’, exploring the concept of race and the various theories and modern data of science. She brings up to date the findings of modern geneticists and anthropologists, and argues that ‘race’ is not a biological fact but a social construct.

Racism is related to claims about power and inequality - as for instance in this quotation, about a ‘just war’, from the Greek philosopher Aristotle:

War is, strictly speaking, a means of acquisition, to be employed against wild animals and against inferior races of men, who, though intended by nature to be in subjection to us, are unwilling to submit: for war of such a kind is just by nature (The Politics).

To ancient Greeks like Aristotle theirs was a superior ‘race’ which entitled them to treat all others as subjects or slaves. The god of the Jews seems to have had a similar view as many Bible passages tell of how the Chosen People slaughtered or enslaved other peoples. Later Europeans, discovering Africa and setting up plantations in the New World, developed chattel slavery, and there were always arguments from the Bible to justify this.

Many argued that these ‘savages’ were not actually human. The 18th C scientist Linnaeus, famous for his classification of plants etc, also took to measuring and assessing these various human species or sub-species. And in the 19th C, Charles Darwin in THE DESCENT OF MAN indicated how much confusion there was: no-one seemed to know just how many races there were.

Darwin himself was uncertain about what he thought about ‘race’ e.g. writing of “the so-called races”(Introduction, p.3). But he also wrote about ‘race’ without questioning its reality (e.g. Chap. XX, p. 924, Kerr edition). His attempts at a definition were frustrated: he thought of a ‘race’ as similar to a biological species, but he knew that inter-breeding was possible and he found that humans universally express emotions in much the same way.

As Shylock argued: “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” (Shakespeare - THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Act III, sc. i)).

With Darwin and his uncertainties on the subject of race, the 19th C also gave us his friend T H Huxley (the ‘survival of the fittest’) and Darwin’s cousin Galton, founder of the eugenics movement.

Darwin himself argued, as s good Malthusian:

Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind ... all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty ... and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs ... from rearing the largest number of offspring (Chap. XX1, pp. 944-945).

Eugenics became a powerful ideology and its influence was popularised (e.g. via the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA). It supported ideas about Empire and the role of the white man in bringing the ‘blessings of civilisation’ and religion to the benighted ‘heathen’. It influenced government policies on health (e.g, forced sterilisation). It fitted in well with Malthusian ideas about the feckless poor.

The influence of racist eugenics was used to legitimate slavery and later the former slave states of the US practised segregation policies. Even now the life experiences of African Americans are very inferior in those states, with a far greater likelihood of ending up in jail after being sentenced by an all-white judge and jury. When the slave trade was abolished, compensation for their grievous loss of property was paid to slave-owners and traders! But no compensation came the way of those lucky former slaves now ‘free’ - free to become exploited wage-slaves. Out of the frying pan into the fire!

With eugenics there came the idea that social and economic inequality was innate, inherited - i.e. natural. Such an ideology is of course very convenient to those who benefit from the social and economic inequality of capitalism. It is after all just a secular version of the Christian belief in “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate”- class difference being self-evidently the will of god.

Significantly the 1950 UNESCO draft statement about race met strong opposition especially on this point:

The statement that “biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood, for man is born with drives towards cooperation” came in for the most frequent criticism.
Introduction THE RACE CONCEPT UNESCO, 1952, p7

For anthropologists, used to studying ‘natives’ in the tropics and colonies, the idea that all humankind is on a par, at least biologically, was clearly a dangerous heresy.

That there was no scientific basis for eugenics was shown by the eugenics scientists themselves. The much-respected Sir Cyril Burt was found to have faked the results of his twin studies - just to prove what he wanted to prove. That was a classic case of fraudulent ‘bad science’.

Later some scientists set out to ‘prove’ that in different populations or ‘races’ you found differing distributions of the different blood groups. Another biological trait, popular in the 19th C, was the size of the skull so scientists set to work measuring skulls, ancient and modern. Later so did the Nazis’ tame scientists.

The eugenics movement was convinced that the ‘white race’ was innately more intelligent than all other races, just as, long ago, Aristotle had held firmly that the Greeks were superior to other races. After the invention of the notion of testing for innate, unvarying ‘intelligence’, the psychologists’ IQ tests were widely used for decades as a key predictor of a child’s potential ability, then assigning them to different types of school. Later those IQ tests were shown to be culture-dependent: British grammar schools found a majority of their pupils had teachers in the family - the kids were coached in how to pass IQ tests. So IQs were not inherited but taught..

The linkage between inherited IQ and race was controversially argued by a well-known 1950s psychologist, H J Eysenck. Not only was this racist but it implied the biological determinism which underlies modern ‘population genetics’ studies, with inbuilt assumptions that our abilities and success in life are down to what we inherited from our parents and ancestry. As Donald Trump’s supportive doctor put it: “the President has excellent genes”!

However so far there is no way of proving a correlation between differences between so-called races and different average IQs. For instance, much later a study in NATURE seemed to prove that a genetic difference between different groups meant that some groups had a “cognitive advantage”. But this genetic variation was not linked just to skull size or grey matter, and scientists were unable to replicate the original findings. Undeterred, a prominent pseudo-scientist, funded by the Pioneer Fund (established by a true believer and endowed with vast sums of dosh) set out to prove it by IQ testing. Result: the genetic variation was not linked to IQ

Later, after sampling skull size, IQ and blood groups, the latest attempts to fix the reality of race, by finding racial differences via the mysterious medium of DNA. Yet still ‘race’ remains undefined, an enigma for biologists and geneticists. Psychologists disregarding the role of culture and economic inequality can happily measure skull sizes and IQs, and draw their biased conclusions accordingly. But that is not science. As Angela Saini argues:

... scientists today universally recognise intelligence as a highly complex trait, not only influenced by many genes but also likely to have evolved during the far longer portion of human history, ending around 19,000 years ago, when we were all mainly hunter-gatherers...
... The notion that there are essential differences between population groups, that genetically ‘shit’ people come from ‘shithole’ countries, may be an old one. But the science of inheritance helped propel these racially charged assumptions into modern intellectual thought. It is the concept of genetic determinism that has made some succumb to the illusion that every one of us has a racial destiny
(pp.280 and 286).

Not all 20th C scientists were under the spell of racial genetics. Shortly after the end of World War Two, UNESCO published views on the concept of ‘race’ contributed by many leading anthropologists and geneticists (THE RACE CONCEPT - RESULTS OF AN INQUIRY, 1952).. These agreed that the concept of ‘race’ had no place in biological science, and that there were no pure races of humankind. In his comments, Penrose wrote:

The concept of the races of man is inexact... It belongs to an unscientific epoch and it cannot be used without perpetuating confusion and engendering discord (UNESCO, p24).

Theodor Dobzhansky, a geneticist, offered a definition:

Human races, just as races of other sexually reproducing organisms, are populations which differ in the frequencies of certain genes (UNESCO, p81).

From then on scientists accepted that ‘race’ was not a biological fact.

Whether all biologists liked it or not ... race belonged to the social sciences,, to the study of culture and history. It was understood to be a social and political construction, not borne out by biology (Saini, p94).

However in the shadows the old racist ideology was still influencing some researchers, and these found a publication (MANKIND QUARTERLY) and funding (e.g. from the Pioneer Fund), so they were able to to continue. Today, with a shift towards a much more reactionary politics, with overt racism and nationalism, led by Trump and the Brexiteers, such pseudoscience will probably sense a new opportunity.

Socialists however will continue to oppose such divisive ideologies. This is especially pernicious in that eugenics, like Malthusianism, is such a helpful prop to support the inequalities of the capitalist system. But the only issue that should divide the world is the class struggle, and the question for us is how to unite the workers of the world “without distinction of race or sex” so as to eliminate the exploitation of the working class.

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