Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2638

The return of ‘scientific’ racism

This article is over 5 years, 4 months old
Far right biological determinism is creeping back on to campuses. Alistair Farrow looks at its horrible history and why we need to resist the pseudoscience of race
Issue 2638
Bruno Beger, a Nazi anthropologist, measuring a Tibetan man’s head in 1938. He went one to measure the skulls of the victims of Aushwitz during the Holocaust
Bruno Beger, a Nazi anthropologist, measuring a Tibetan man’s head in 1938. He went one to measure the skulls of the victims of Auschwitz during the Holocaust

Racists and the far right are ­fighting for their ideas at every level of society—from the White House to the dreaming spires of Oxford and on the streets.

Alt-right groups such as Generation Identity are trying to spread Islampohobia and “Western values”.

Right wing academics, emboldened by the rise of the far right, are ­crawling out from beneath their rocks. They publish racist work to add another layer of legitimacy to the far right’s arguments.

One, Noah Carl, is an academic at the University of Cambridge.

He was handed a research fellowship towards the end of last year, provoking outrage and protests. Carl’s “research” includes a paper which argues that stereotypes about the supposed criminality of ethnic groups are “generally found to be quite accurate”.

At the heart of this is ­biological determinism—the idea that your genetic makeup determines your attributes.

This has a vile racist ­history that paves the way to gas chambers and other horrors.

What’s the end result of ­viewing particular ethnic groups as “problems”? To get rid of the problem.

Throughout the twentieth century tens of thousands of women in the US were forcibly sterilised, often without their knowledge.

This is the brutal reality of where racist biological determinism ends up if followed to its logical conclusion.

Central to this drive was scientific racism. In southern states it was explicitly designed to keep the black population down. In California Latino women were targeted.

It’s also estimated that between 1970 and 1976 over a quarter of all Native American women were sterilised.

How genes failed: Hilary Rose and Steven Rose on the limitations of biological determinism
How genes failed: Hilary Rose and Steven Rose on the limitations of biological determinism
  Read More

After the US took control of Puerto Rico in 1898, a Eugenics Board was set up.

Eugenics is the idea that a ­population can be genetically purified through removing certain “inferior” groups from the gene pool, either through extermination or selective breeding.

By 1965 one third of all Puerto Rican mothers between the ages of 20 and 49 had been sterilised.

Noah Carl attended a semi-secret conference on racial eugenics at University College London, the London Conference on Intelligence.

Carl’s so-called research is part of the right wing attempt to legitimise racist ideas.

He publishes ­mainstream sociology papers in peer-reviewed journals, but puts his more overtly racist propaganda on the OpenPsych website, which he co-edits.

OpenPsych published one piece which ends saying, “Muslims immigrants have values that are disharmonious with those of people living in Western countries ­resulting in crime against the native population.”

Carl’s arguments, and many of the arguments circulating on the far right, come from a common thread of “scientific” racism. In general these hold that people from ­different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds are more likely to have certain traits.

The struggles waged against oppression have pushed back the idea that personal traits are biologically determined by race or gender.

For instance, the right have had to retreat to talking about “culture” and “religion” to attack Muslims.

But ideas aren’t static. The political crisis gripping the ruling class has meant ideas that give ideological cover for the far right—Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment—have been given space to flourish.

The resurgence of scientific racism is another step in this process.


As the biologist Stephen Jay Gould put it in his book The Mismeasure of Man, “Resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political ­retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government ­spending on social programmes, or at times of fear among ruling elites, when disadvantaged groups sow serious social unrest or even threaten to usurp power.”

We are living through such a period now.

The far right is pushing for the acceptance of their ideas in the academic establishment as part of a strategy to normalise their worldview.

Figures such as the racist Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson are regularly invited onto Radio 4 programmes to talk about “white male identity”.

A key modern text for the right is The Bell Curve. In it Charles Murray argued that certain ethnic groups are more intelligent than others, and that men are more intelligent than women.

The book’s arguments—based in part on the size of people’s brains—have been widely discredited.

Yet Murray remains a public figure and continues to be cited by figures on the right such as the Republican leader of the US senate Paul Ryan.

The ruling class has long sought ideological arguments to justify class rule.

Scientific racism was developed during the ­transatlantic slave trade as a means of ­justifying it.

But it did not end with the transatlantic slave trade. Its purpose shifted to justify ­imperial conquest.

And racism is not the only way that pseudoscience is used to divide ordinary people or to justify capitalist society.

Presenting the origin of traits such as intelligence as hereditary rather than random or societal is yet another way of justifying the way society is organised.

The poor are poor because of their innate qualities, not their social position.

In other words, your place in society is determined by your individual qualities, which in turn are determined by our genes.

US President Donald Trump is fond of showing off about his allegedly high IQ.

“Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the ­highest—and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or ­insecure, it’s not your fault,” read one tweet.

He’s not just vainfully ­boasting. Trump is tapping into the decades-old theory that IQ is inherited.

This was popularised by the US psychologist Arthur Jensen, among others.

Coupled to this was Jensen’s idea that black people and other ethnic minorities have lower IQs than whites.

This was not in the 1860s, but in the 1960s—and Jensen was a professor at the University of California.

As Charles Darwin put it, “If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

Biological determinism gave the ruling class an explanation for racism and social inequality which lays the blame at the door of the people their system has abused.

Today it serves the purpose of pulling debates around crime, poverty and race to the right.

Every time it rears its head it must be challenged.

People such as Noah Carl are testing the boundaries of how far it can be pushed.

That makes ­protesting against them important—their racist ­pseudoscience gives Nazis such as Tommy Robinson and his ilk the cover they need to ­operate in.

A history of hate

Eugenics is the belief that it is possible to breed “better” human beings.

Mainstream 19th century scientists argued that blacks were less intelligent than whites, and women less intelligent than men.

Francis Galton founded the subject. For him “the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own.” And that, “the Jews are specialised for a parasitical existence upon other nations”.

Racism is not just about colour
Racism is not just about colour
  Read More

He graded all the races “statistically”.

The “evidence” used to back these claims up were measurements of brain and skull sizes.

One US advocate was Charles Davenport. He claimed that the capacity to be a naval officer was an inherited male trait because there were no women in the navy.

He went on to become a Nazi.

In the 20th century IQ tests took over from skull measuring. Lewis Terman developed the first standardised intelligence test. They reflected his racist bias.

He wrote of children who scored low in his test, “their dullness seems to be racial.”

He warned that they could “drift easily into the ranks of the anti-social or join the army of Bolshevik discontents”.

The eugenics movement was discredited for a generation after the Nazis took these destructive ides to their conclusion.


But their influence continued. Cyril Burt had a huge influence on British education policy throughout the 20th century. He provided the “facts” for the argument that intelligence is inherited.

He published completely false data, invented facts and indeed a number of imaginary researchers, to support his view.

He invented groups of twins then gave them IQ test scores identical to three decimal places.

His contribution to post-war education was recognised with a knighthood.

Those he considered not intelligent were he believed “beyond all hope of cure”.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance