A Race about Race: Race, Inter-Race and Post-Race in the Study of Human Genetics

By Vanouse, Paul | Afterimage, September-October 2002 | Go to article overview

A Race about Race: Race, Inter-Race and Post-Race in the Study of Human Genetics


Vanouse, Paul, Afterimage


In 1929, Charles B. Davenport, Director of the Biological Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor in New York, co-published Race Crossing in Jamaica, a 512-page study on the "problem of race crossing, with special reference to its significance for the future of any country containing a mixed population." (1) The island of Jamaica was chosen for its isolated pockets of "pure-blooded negro, mulatto and White" of similar economic class. The method of evaluation entailed primarily anthropomorphic and psychological examinations of hundreds of subjects from these three groupings. Anthropomorphic examinations included 60 measurements of body regions, including face breadth, cranial capacity and relative height in varied positions. Psychological tests included the Knox moron test and the criticism-of-absurd-sentences test. The book concluded that Blacks and Whites differ in both physical and mental capacities and that among the Browns, while some are equal to or superior to their progenitor races, "there appear[s] to be an excessive per cent over random variation who seem unable to utilize their native endowment." (2) In a concurrent solo publication of the same title, Davenport states this conclusion more forcefully. A population of hybrids "will be a population carrying an excessively large number of intellectually incompetent persons." In this publication he also suggests one method to make cross-breeding permissible: "If only society had the force to eliminate the lower half of a hybrid population then the remaining upper half of the hybrid population might be a clear advantage to the population as a whole, at least so far as physical and sensory accomplishments go." (3)

Davenport is probably the most influential and prolific eugenic scientist in the United States, but his texts were hardly the forerunners of racist science. An often discussed, early predecessor is Paolo Mantegazza, whose iconic Morphological Tree of the Human Races (1890) is a branching timeline of human development reaching its pinnacle with the Aryan race. In 1883, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, actually coined the term "Eugenics" (good in birth) as a science dedicated to improving human stock by getting rid of so-called undesirables and increasing the number of desirables. In its contemporary usage, Eugenics is defined as "a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed," (4) a distinctly more encompassing concept than Galton's. Yet, it is ultimately the socially conservative approaches of its main promoters (separation, segregation and sterilization) that we associate with the term. "Negative Eugenics," as it has been terme d, is concerned with limiting who can breed and with whom. For example, as Davenport laments, because of racial intermixing: "The standard races of mankind are rapidly disintegrating." (5) Improvement and conservation were key contradictory goals in many of the early eugenic writings on race. (It should be noted, however, that Eugenics was in no way limited to racial concerns, and, indeed, many of the most heinous sterilization campaigns in the U.S. involved persons convicted of crimes or deemed "feebleminded.")

Davenport's Jamaica study sought to definitively disprove the theory of "hybrid vigor," which was espoused by laissez-faire social Darwinists who felt that, in keeping with the theory of evolution, the fitness of the human race would be ensured because weaker, recessive genetic material would naturally be weeded out. Hybrid coupling, in Davenport's opinion, is only viable if undesirable offspring can be eliminated, whereas conservative inbreeding produces more reliable results and preserves the integrity of the existing racial groups. As theorist Paul Gilroy has noted, the concept of race was invented during colonization to justify sub-human treatment of enslaved and colonized peoples and to reify concepts of nation and national identity. …

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