2. SCIENTIFIC RACISM
The 19th Century use of racial categories as credible scientific concepts is the main focus of this episode, which covers the French aristocrat Count Arthur de Gobineau’s considerable contribution to the history racist ideas. Gobineau believed that miscegenation would lead ineluctably to the degeneracy of the Aryan race. He described race-mixing as ‘Semiticization’, since he believed that the peoples of North Africa and the Middle East were the product of the regrettable racial admixture between Europeans, ‘Negroes’ and ‘Asiatics’. He was particularly troubled by this prospect because in his racial schema, Arabs and Jews occupied the very lowest rung of the human evolutionary ladder.
In this respect, he was at odds with another distinguished European intellectual. The naturalist Georges Cuvier has been described as the Aristotle of his age. In addition to his influential work in zoology, he made major contributions to the early development of several important academic disciplines, including geology, palaeontology, and comparative anatomy. He applied his knowledge of the animal kingdom to the question of race, and concluded that Africans were, “the most degraded of human races, whose form approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular government.” He went on to assert that, “The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose, to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also superior to others by its genius, courage and activity … Experience seems to confirm the theory that there is a relationship between the perfection of the spirit and the beauty of the face.”
Like Gobineau, Cuvier drew on many pseudo-scientific studies to prove that a racial hierarchy existed. He was not alone: his contemporaries included the phrenologists, whose measurements of cranial capacity and skull shape was used to support the hypothesis of innate European superiority. Hitherto, concerns about contradicting the Christian doctrine of the Creation had prevented European intellectuals from suggesting that members of other races belonged to different species. But in the post-Darwinian scientific and intellectual context, the gloves came off. In Europe, race theorists sought to prove that man’s origins were polygenic, and that (for example in the work of the American writer Samuel Morton), Africans belonged to an entirely different species from Europeans.
The British social theorist Herbert Spencer had also drawn upon developments in 19th Century science to produce a theory which became known as ‘Social Darwinism’ – an attempt to apply Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to the study of human societies. These ideas were later developed by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton. He was a polymath, who had achieved successes as a meteorologist, inventor, psychologist and anthropologist and traveller - but he was also one of the founding fathers of European eugenics. By the 1880s, Galton was a leading advocate of the policy of compulsory sterilisation – a necessary intervention, he believed, to prevent those of ‘inferior genetic stock’ from ‘breeding’.
We show how Europe’s 19th Century intellectual culture supplied colonialists and imperialists with a moral - indeed ‘scientific’ - imperative to claim new territories, crush resistance and impose their rule. Science offered racists the theoretical justification for Europeans to fulfil their ‘manifest destiny’ – to impose their rule over all ‘lesser breeds’. We see how the ideas that emerged from pseudo-science paved the way for the principle of ‘racial hygiene’ – one of the ideas that would serve to justify several of the genocides of the 20th Century – including The Holocaust.