Race, Racism, and Psychology: Towards a Reflexive History

By Graham Richards | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Psychology and 'Scientific Racism' 1860-1910

INTRODUCTION

From the mid-1850s, and especially following the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859, evolutionary thought supplied an overarching integrating framework for fields of Psychological enquiry hitherto relatively distinct. 1 Animal behaviour, child development, individual differences, physiological psychology, social psychology, psychopathology, emotion and the very nature of 'Mind' itself-all could be cast as facets of the single task of studying human psychology from an evolutionary perspective. Other cultural factors greatly facilitated this, notably growing governmental needs for techniques of 'managing individuality' in the expanding urban and industrialised societies. 2 Also, as Morawski (1992a, b) points out, US culture was, at this time, psychologically confused at many levels, creating a situation in which Psychology both expressed and exploited the wide-felt need for guidance in construing 'subjectivity' and what 'human nature' was really (i.e., scientifically) like.

This evolutionary orientation profoundly affected scientific views of race, 3 at one stroke moving matters beyond the earlier 'monogenism' versus 'polygenism' debate. In the now extended, albeit still very hazy, time-scale, a common human ancestry could be conceded while retaining much of the thrust of the polygenist case. Different 'racial stocks' could be understood as diverging from a main stem at various times in the long distant past, with some subsequently failing to evolve as far as others. 4 Tree diagrams of this became commonplace. 5 The 'biologisation' of human diversity was thus consolidated; not only physical appearance but temperament and culture reflected a people's innate evolutionary status. 6 It was easy to draw up the rankings; white Europeans at the top, Chinese, Indians and perhaps Arabs jostling for silver and bronze medal placings and at the bottom Australian Aborigines, Bushmen, Hottentots and Tierra del Fuegans, lapped so often it was hardly worth considering them as any longer participating in the event. In the last twenty years the rise of this 'Scientific Racism' has received much historical attention and it will not be rehearsed again here in any detail. 7 Nevertheless some observations on it are relevant to our current concerns.


ASPECTS OF SCIENTIFIC RACISM

The legacy of earlier time-perspectives proved inescapable even though intellectually acknowledged as erroneous. Perceptions were automatically 'presentist'.

-13-

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