Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race

By Dennis, Rutledge M. | The Journal of Negro Education, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race


Dennis, Rutledge M., The Journal of Negro Education


Tracing the philosophical underpinnings of scientific racism from the early work of hereditarians Darwin, Spencer, and Sumner, to the intelligence testing movement led by Galton and Binet, and lastly to the contemporary race and IQ studies of Jensen, Herrnstein, and Murray, this article maintains that science is often used as a justification to propose, project, and enact racist social policies. It begins with a review of the philosophy of Social Darwinism and of its assumptions about race and human abilities, and ends by analyzing a largely unbroached theme in this debate: the consequences of scientific racism for dominant groups.

Science has often been used as a justification to propose, project, and enact racist social policies. The philosophical and political underpinnings of ideas associated with racial superiority and inferiority were first given scientific legitimacy and credence with the publication of Charles Darwin's (1859) revolutionary book, The Origin of Species. In more recent times, the controversy surrounding the publication of Herrnstein and Murray's (1994) presumably scientific study, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, and the reintroduction to the national conversation of powerful arguments about race and human abilities, provide yet another opportunity to focus on questions pertinent to the origins, maintenance, and consequences of human abilities and potential. In the main, however, such studies and debates reveal far more about those proposing and advocating racist arguments than about the groups toward whom they are directed. Although much attention has been directed, and justly so, toward considerations of the impact of genetic politics on excluded and oppressed populations, more attention should be placed on the negative effect these policies have on the dominant and powerful groups that enact and implement them.

The present article maintains that the intellectual bases of the arguments presented in works of scientific racism are more than mere abstractions; rather, they are germane-- indeed, they are central--to both the idea of the democratic process and the question of what constitutes a "just" society. Thus, it begins with a review of the philosophy of Social Darwinism and of its assumptions about race and human abilities. It next critiques the social issues and problems addressed or exhumed by this ideology and examines some of the reasons why certain segments of American society have found its tenets so appealing. Third, in discussing the circumstances surrounding the development and introduction of intelligence testing during the early decades of the 20th century, it analyzes a largely unbroached and untapped theme in the race and human abilities debate: the consequences of scientific racism for America's dominant groups.

Before the suppositions of Social Darwinism enshrined the idea of European superiority as a key feature of natural evolution and selection, the association between color (race) and intellectual predisposition had long been a topic for discussion among many European thinkers. Although Rose (1968) notes that the recognition of racial differences is longstanding and traceable through biblical and historical texts, Bernier (see Gossett, 1963), Buffon (1797), and later Gobineau (1853/1915) were to set a pattern in racialist thinking by linking color to behavior and human ability. Notwithstanding, the racist logic of these thinkers, though mostly declarative and deeply rooted in the idea of European supremacy and "colored" inferiority, lacked a grand and global philosophical and political framework within which it could logically operate.

Though Darwin (1859) focused primarily on the biological evolution of animal species and almost never addressed the cultural or social consequences of this evolution for humans, others like Herbert Spencer (1874), who first coined the phrase "survival of the fittest," reasoned that Darwinist principles were intended to buttress the case that biological evolution could be equally applicable to human societies. …

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