Race, Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History

By Graham Richards | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

The pre-evolutionary background and the roots of Scientific Racism

The Psychological story proper begins with the rise of Spencerian and Darwinian evolutionary theory in the 1850s, when Herbert Spencer and Darwin's cousin Francis Galton opened the Psychological discussion. This chapter is confined to identifying some relevant aspects of the topic's previous history, necessary for an understanding of Spencer's and Galton's views. For fuller coverage readers are referred to the numerous histories of the topic which have appeared in recent decades. 1


THE CHRISTIAN VIEW

In traditional Christian cosmology, 'Mankind's' basic unity was an article of faith: we are all descendants of Noah's sons and daughters-in-law. This seemingly explained the main varieties of physique and colour with which Europeans were familiar-white Europeans, brown Asians and black Africans. 2 Since the Bible reports that Ham was cursed (for seeing his drunken father naked) our 'common humanity' was reconcilable with the view that Ham's descendants (those with black skin) were eternally ordained to be inferior 'hewers of wood and drawers of water'. 3 This argument was used by Christian racists down to recent times (for example, among sections of the South African Dutch Reform Church). Religious belief systems do not simply determine attitudes, their complexity often supplies a resource for justifying them. 'Christian' arguments can be deployed to oppress as well as humanise.

Prior to Linneaus (founder of modern biological taxonomy in the 1730s), typological classification barely extended beyond this tripartite division. From the early 16th century writers tried to fit the indigenous peoples of the New World into this scheme (for example, Sir Walter Raleigh 4). Their efforts were never satisfactory, but this was seen as due to human inability to interpret the biblical account correctly. 5 The savagery of 'savages' and barbarity of 'barbarians' was usually viewed in cultural rather than biological terms as arising from ignorance, wickedness, folly and lack of exposure to the message of holy scripture, although the humanity of South American Indians was questioned in Spain late in the 16th century. 6 Excepting the numerous legendary dog-headed cynocephali, tailed, air-eating or one-footed peoples whom nobody had ever closely encountered, biological features (such, notably, as blackness of skin) symbolised rather

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