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Pseudo-science and Racial Otherness

Jay Willoughby

2001-07-01 00:00:00

With the ascendancy of science during the eighteenth century, European scientists sought scientific support for considering slavery and colonization as natural and even a blessing. Casting off monogenism (all people are descended from Adam and Eve), they adopted such new ideas as progress, the linear progression of history from primitive to modern, evolution, survival of the fittest, and racial hierarchies.

Another important ingredient was their refusal to consider variations within a given race. As shown below, findings were extrapolated to cover an entire race, regardless of original sample size, and undesirable individual variations either were explained away or qualified to obtain the desired results. Given their discovery of new animal and plant species due to variations within the overall species, it is surprising that they did not extend this to people. Even more surprising is that this continues in our own time.

All of these led to one conclusion: the white race is forever superior to non-white races. Results have been and continue to be devastating.

Early Pseudoscience

During the Age of Enlightenment, objective scientists tried to prove that a races intelligence is determined by the distance between the navel and the male genitalia, skull size, slant of facial characteristics (distorted to make Africans appear more like gorillas or monkeys), brain weight and size, facial features (blacks have longer faces than whites, and so are closer to apes) and the assumed time of closing of sutures in the brain (non-white ones closed first in the brain's front, where intelligence was asserted to be located; those of whites closed last). When the data did not give the desired results, theories were dropped, heavily qualified to give the right data, or sometimes forged outright. The result always was the same: Whites were superior to non-whites. A related theory held that the races evolved at different rates. This time dark-skinned Australian Aborigines came in last, followed by Africans.

Such leading figures as Voltaire and Hume compared Africans to animals who could never hope to equal Europeans. Cornelius de Pauw wrote that the sun had destroyed the most delicate and subtle organs of the [Africans'] brain. The damage was irreversible.(1) Other scientists devised various racial groups, always placing whites on top.

Scientific Racism in America

Looking for ways to justify slavery and genocide against Native Americans in a self-proclaimed land of human equality and liberty, Americans turned to science. When combined with the mania for measurement in the second half of the nineteenth century, racism became more acceptable. Several theories were developed, as follows:

Polygenism: Each race had its own Adam and Eve. Louis Agassiz, a major polygenist who emigrated to America in 1840, stated that the Biblical account referred only to Caucasians. Blacks could have equal legal rights with whites, but certainly not social equality, for they had the intelligence level of children. And, as they were not the same life form as whites, they did not need to enjoy equality. This theory never gained wide acceptance in the American South, where Biblical justifications for slavery and racial hierarchy held sway.(2) American pre-Adamites claimed that the Negro was a beast of the field created by God on the fifth day to labor for the ultimate object of God's creation: white people.(3)

Crainiology: This European pseudoscience held that skull size determined intelligence. Samuel Morton

(d. 1851), a leading American scientist, used it to rank races. Practitioners made their work appear to be scientific by accepting their prejudices as facts and then working backwards to discover supporting data. Any incorrect results and methodological errors were explained away, severely qualified, or ignored.

Physiognomy and Phrenology: Adherents taught that physical variations in color and appearance cause intellectual and moral differences. Physiognomy involved telling one's mental and moral capabilities by studying his or her face. Phrenology asserted that mental faculties are located in brain organs on the brain's surface. As usage determines the organ's size, the skull's bumps and indentations disclose a person's emotional and intellectual functions. Phrenology was discredited in the 1830s, but remained influential in England, Australia, and America until the end of the century.

Laying the Foundations for Genocide

The Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century allowed certain European countries, and then America, to attain military and economic superiority. When combined with prevailing prejudices and Darwin's findings during the mid-nineteenth century, some members of the elite saw the disappearance of inherently inferior peoples as natural and even desirable. For example:

Herbert Spencer, Social Statistics (1850): The forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incidental suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way. Be he human or be he brute”the hindrance must be got rid of.(4)

Eduard von Hartmann, Philosophy of the Unconscious (1869): The true philanthropist, if he has comprehended the natural law of anthropological evolution, cannot avoid desiring an acceleration of the last convulsion [the extinction of savages who are on the verge of extinction], and labor for that end.(5)

W. Winwood Reade, Savage Africa (1864): We must learn to look at this result [the extinction of Africans] with composure. It illustrates the beneficent law of nature, that the weak must be devoured by the strong.(6)

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871): At some future period not very distant as measured in centuries, the civilised races of man will almost

certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races.(7) Darwin's struggle for survival and survival of the fittest made the disappearances of whole peoples, even races, inevitable and therefore acceptable.

These people were among the leading intellectuals of their time.

The Result: Nazi Germany

Germany was one of the most advanced European nations of this time. Basing itself firmly within this tradition, the Nazis began to determine who had the right to live. Surprisingly, or maybe not, they were helped by American scientific data.

Fritz Lenz (1887-1970), a leading German racial hygienist in the 1920s, argued that race is the ultimate principle of value, for genes determined mental and physical traits and environmental factors have no discernable effect. He based his claims on WWI US army intelligence tests. When black test scores did not fit in, he claimed that extensive admixture of white blood has contributed to raise the intellectual level of the colored population.(8) He asserted that blacks suffer developmental retardation after puberty and thus are inherently cruel, childlike, irresponsible, sexually promiscuous, and lack self-restraint. He had only this praise: they are good with their hands and can be trained in the manual crafts. The effects of slavery, Jim Crow legislation, social exclusion, and enforced ignorance, among other social realities, meant nothing. In Outline of Human Genetics and Racial Hygiene (1923), which was praised in America, he cited Plato's social hierarchy of gold (rulers), silver (artisans), and bronze (slaves) as a justification for social inequities.

Nazi leaders claimed to have learned from other American precedents, such as:

Sterilizing inferiors. This began in America, when Indiana became the first state (1907) to sterilize the mentally ill and criminally insane. Other states followed; the Nazis just expanded the definition to racial, political, and other undesirables who had no right to live because they were a burden on the German Aryan race.

Outlawing racial intermarriage. The Nazis outlawed Aryan and non-Aryan intermarriage (1935), drawing on the American South's and South Africa's antimiscenegation laws. Earlier, in 1908, Germans were forbidden to marry natives of German Southwest Africa (now Namibia), and all such marriages were voided on the grounds that only defective individuals would result.

Controlled immigration. America passed a series of immigration restriction laws in 1924. H. H. Goddard, a popularizer of Binet's work in the field of intelligence measuring, linked undesirable behavior to supposed mental deficiency. He and his associates would determine whether arriving immigrants at Ellis Island should be admitted or not. Possible influences of the lack of education, the trauma of immigrating, being tested in an unknown language, illness, effects of a difficult sea voyage, and other mitigating factors were raised and then dismissed in favor of hereditary. According to his scale, four-fifths of all Jewish, Hungarian, Italian, and Russian immigrants were feeble-minded. He recanted his theories in 1928.

American Variants

Such pseudoscientific theories have fallen into disfavor due to the horrors of Nazi race-based genocide and medical experimentation, the social and legal reform policies of the 1950s and 1960s, and scientific and social research showing the biases and flaws of such research. However, old ideas often appear in a new garb, as seen in Richard J. Herrnstein's and Charles Murray's controversial The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1996). IQ Tests: IQ (intelligence quotient) tests remain a standard feature of American education. Its originator Alfred Binet, disillusioned with crainiology and the supposed physical traits of criminals and other inferiors, developed this technique in 1904 as one part of determining a child's mental level. It consists of a series of random tasks ranked in order of difficulty. When the child stops, his or her mental age is calculated. Binet said that intelligence is too complex to capture with a single number, and wanted to free a beautiful native intelligence from the trammels of the school.(9)

Ever since, American researchers have tried to prove him wrong, even though there is no agreed-upon definition for intelligence. Criticisms of this methodology abound. Scholars assert that IQ tests are culturally biased in favor of urban whites and ignore non-white social realities. A major reality is white flight from increasingly non-white inner cities, for minorities tend to settle in large cities. Lost tax revenues mean less-qualified teachers, deteriorating facilities, and non-current technology and curriculum. This causes an exodus of good students to private schools, which deprives the remaining students of inspiring peer group role models. When added to such other urban realities as poverty, poor nutrition, violence and gangs, drugs and alcohol, many minority students give up. They see racism blocking their parents or relatives, even if they are educated. If education cannot free them from racism, why should they pursue it? Completing a vicious circle, the resulting low IQ test scores prove intellectual inferiority.

As IQ scores are held to be unalterable, minority students are forever stigmatized as somehow intellectually deficient.(10) Psychosurgery: This procedure, after finding little success in Europe, spread to America. It claimed to calm agitated mental patients and others, without harming other mental functions, by severing nerves connected to the temporal and frontal cortex, which control emotional behavior and aggressiveness. Walter Freeman and James Watts developed the Freeman-Watts Standard Procedure for prefrontal lobotomies. Freeman later developed the ice-pick lobotomy, which was as grisly as it sounds. Dr. Antanio Egas Moniz received the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology (1949) for creating the prefrontal leucotomy. Popular from 1939-51, it gradually fell out of favor due to ethical concerns, medical drugs that treated the same symptoms, and devastating side effects. During its acceptability, it was used in America and elsewhere to control prisoners, the insane, political dissidents/rebels, and even unruly children and troublesome relatives.(11)

In the 1950s, American physicians Vernon Mark, Frank Ervin, and William Sweet were given almost $1 million by the government to prove their theory: urban rebellions were caused by brain damaged individuals who could be cured by psychosurgery (lobotomy).(12) The social and economic reasons for such rebellions were not considered. Genetic Predispositions to Violence: The belief that everything has a chemical or medical solution is currently very strong in the American medical community and the general population at large. Even the government has lent its support. Consider the following examples: In February 1992, Frederick Goodwin informed the National Health Advisory Council of supposed similarities between monkeys and blacks: a tendency toward violence and killing off each other, links between hyper-aggressive and hyper-sexuality to perpetuate the species, and a loosening of social controls that whites have imposed upon themselves over thousands of years of their evolution. His reward, despite public outcry: appointed head of the influential National Institute of Mental Health. His first act: approved funding for the National Violence Initiative.(13) Calling it the government's highest science priority, he says it applies the tools of behavior genetics to detect biological markers in at risk inner city children and to treat them with drugs at a very early age before they have become criminalized.(14) One of his publications calls for more attention to biological and genetic factors in violent crime, more research on new pharmaceuticals that reduce violent behavior, and asks researchers to determine whether male or black persons have a higher potential for violence, and if so, why?(15) The Human Genome Project: This $3 billion effort is designed to map our entire genetic code so that cures for genetically related diseases can be found. Some of those involved in it, however, say that discoveries will help cure society of crime, poverty, and other social ills.(16) Racial Profiling: This practice is linked with the war on drugs, gangs, and terrorist threats. Made official policy during the Clinton administration, there is now a strong push to have it abolished due to police and airport policies that are considered harassment, unjustified, and race-based. High-profile cases have taken place in New York City (Abner Luima and Amadou Diallo, both black immigrants), Los Angeles (Rodney King), and elsewhere. Many other incidents go unreported and unpublicized.

Current Research

According to the Breggins, well-established opponents of such practices, we have reached the following point: Against this background of expectations and beliefs, scientists and doctors are attempting to address violence [among non-whites] as a disease: The U.S. Public Health Service has launched a public health campaign against violence, focusing upon vulnerable individuals. The most powerful psychiatrist in the federal government has publicly promoted the screening and preventive treatment of inner-city children”those with a presumed biological and genetic predisposition to become violent when they grow older. Federal agencies, foundations, and private industry are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into finding the genetic source of social behavior. Once it is found,drug treatments can be developed and administered to those who arebiologically or genetically disposed to violence. Supporters of the federal Human Genome Project suggest that science is on the verge of locating genes that predispose people to everything from poverty and unemployment to alcoholism and crime. Anticipating such discoveries, the Human Genome Project has funded a conference called Genetic Factors in Crime. Researchers and clinicians alike are frequently quoted in the media as citing genetic predispositions for every possible psychological and social problem, from inattentive behavior in school to alcoholism, schizophrenia, crime, and violence. The view that widespread violence can be best defined and treated as an individual disorder ignores other vast influences, including social, economic, educational, environmental and cultural differences in experience. The reduction of human experience to an expression of DNA or a wholly biological event shows an underlying bias and ideology”even though it is presented as objective research.(17)


Biological and genetic predeterminism seek to justify the status quo instead of trying to solve such existing social problems as, among others, race-based poverty, segregation, discrimination in housing and employment, substandard education, lack of equal opportunity, and violence. In this respect, they deny many core assumptions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: human equality and respect, individual responsibility, the value of education, the possibility of self-improvement, and the ultimate triumph of the human will by connection with the Divine.


1 Scott Foutz, Ignorant Science: The Eighteenth Century's Development of a Scientific Racism. Quodlibet Journal 1, no. 8 (December 1999). Online at:

2 Genesis 9: 20-27 was interpreted in such a way that Ham and his descendents were forever cursed to be a race of servants because Ham had looked upon Noah as he lay naked and drunk. The Qur'an does not mention this.

3 Robert Proctor, Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Cambridge, MA: 1988), 13.

4 Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes. Tr. Joan Tate (New York: 1996), 8.

5 Ibid., 9.

6 Ibid., 131.

7 Ibid., 107.

8 Proctor, Racial Hygiene, 48, 52.

9 Stephen Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New York: 1996), 180, 181.

10 These and other arguments are discussed fully in Claude Fischer et al., Inequality by Design (Princeton: 1996); Russell Jacobi and Naomi Glauberman, eds., The Bell Curve Debate (New York and London: 1995); and Ashley Montagu ed., Race & IQ Expanded Edition (New York 1999).

11 Renato M. E. Sabbatini, The History of Psychosurgery, Brain & Mind Magazine (June: 1997). Online at: historia/lobotomy.htm.

12 Mitchel Cohen, Beware the Violence Initiative Project ” Coming Soon to an Inner City Near You, Synthesis/Regeneration 19 (Spring 1999). Online at: This article recounts medical experiments conducted on minority children since 1992, and shows the close relationship between researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

13 Ibid.

14 Washington Post (29 July 1992). Online at:

15 Frederick Goodwin, Understanding and Preventing Violence, (National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council: 1992). Partially funded by the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Justice Department, and the National Science Foundation. Online at:

16 Ibid.

17 Excerpted from Peter Roger Breggin and Ginger Ross Breggin, The War Against Children of Color: Psychiatry Targets Inner-City Youth (Monroe, ME: 1998). Online at: breggin/ war_against_children.htm.

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