Ghosts of Bell Curves Past

By Gould, Stephen Jay | Natural History, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Ghosts of Bell Curves Past

Gould, Stephen Jay, Natural History

I don't know whether or not most white men can jump (although I can attest, through long observation, that Larry Bird cannot--but, oh Lord, could he play basketball!). And I don't much care, although I suppose that the subject bears some interest and marginal legitimacy in an alternate framing that avoids such biologically meaningless categories as white and black. Yet I can never give a speech on the subject of human diversity without attracting some variant of this inquiry in the subsequent question period. I hear the "sports version," I suppose, as an acceptable surrogate for what really troubles people of good will (and bad, although for other reasons).

The old days of overt racism did not engender such squeamishness. When the grandfather of modern academic racism, Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau (1816-82), asked a similar question about the nature of supposedly inborn and unchangeable differences among racial groups, he laid it right on the line. The title of the concluding chapter to volume one of his most influential work, Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of Human Races), reads: "Moral and Intellectual Characteristics of the Three Great Varieties." Our concerns have always focused on smarts and decency, not jumping height and susceptibility to cardiovascular arrest.

And Gobineau left no doubt about his position:

The idea of an innate and permanent difference in the moral and mental endowments of the various groups of the human species, is one of the most ancient, as well as universally adopted, opinions. With few exceptions, and these mostly in our own times, it has formed the basis of almost all political theories, and has been the fundamental maxim of government of every nation, great or small. The prejudices of country have no other cause; each nation believes in its own superiority over its neighbors, and very often different parts of the same nation regard each other with contempt.

Gobineau was undoubtedly the most influential academic racist of the nineteenth century. His writings strongly affected such intellectuals as Wagner and Nietzsche and inspired a social movement known as Gobinism. Largely through his influence on the English zealot Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Gobineau's ideas served as a foundation for the racial theories espoused by Adolf Hitler. Gobineau, an aristocratic royalist by background, interspersed writing with a successful diplomatic career for the French government. He wrote several novels and works of historical nonfiction (a history of the Persian people and of the European Renaissance, for example), but became most famous for his four-volume work on racial inequality, published between 1853 and 1855.

Gobineau's basic position can be easily summarized: the fate of civilizations is largely determined by racial composition, with decline and fall usually attributable to dilution of pure stocks by interbreeding. (Gobineau feared that the contemporary weakening of France, largely to German advantage, could be "traced to the great variety of incongruous ethnical elements composing the population," as his translator wrote in introducing the first American edition of 1856.) The white races (especially the dominant Aryan subgroups) might remain in command, Gobineau hoped, but only if they could be kept relatively free from miscegenation with intellectually and morally inferior stocks of yellows and blacks (Gobineau used these crude terms of color for his three major groups).

No one would doubt the political potency of such ideas, and no one would credit any claim that Gobineau wrote only in the interest of abstract truth and with no agenda of advocacy in mind. Nonetheless, it does no harm to point out that the American translation, published in Philadelphia in 1856, as Dred Scott stood before the Supreme Court near the brink of our Civil War, surely touched a nerve in parlous times--for Gobineau's distinctive notion of racial purity, and the danger of inter-mixing, surely struck home most strongly in our nation of maximal racial diversity and pervasive inequality, with enslavement of blacks and decimation of Indians. …

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