Abstract: The historical relationship among Darwinism, eugenics, and racism is notoriously difficult to unravel. Eugenicists worried about the “survival of the unfit,” a phrase that should, prima facia, be nonsense for those with a Darwinian worldview in the early twentieth century. To be “fit” in a Darwinian sense meant adapted well enough to the environment to out-survive (and out-reproduce) one’s competitors. For eugenicists, the measure for “fit” could not be those best adapted to the environment in this way because they were concerned with the opposite situation: those who thriving and yet were “unfit.” Additionally, historians now reject the idea that eugenics was necessarily founded on racist assumptions. We can address these problems by examining the different forms of Darwinism adopted by early twentieth-century notions of “fitness” and how the term was interpreted in the context of American debates about immigration restriction and race. For some eugenicists, the idea of panmixia allowed them to argue that the unfit were outcompeting the fit. For others, notably Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn the idea of organic selection provided them with a Darwinian mechanism that solved the problem of the “survival of the unfit.”
In this series of blogposts, I discuss three relatively recent papers that, in one way or another, defend the so-called hereditarian hypothesis – the claim that genetic differences between human populations identified as ‘races’ are causally responsible for realized differences in cognitive abilities as measured by I.Q. test-taking ability, in a straightforward way via developmental effects on e.g. neurobiology (rather than through e.g. racism and the legacies of racism associated with racial ascriptions). But my main point in these posts is not to engage directly with the arguments put forward in defense of that hypothesis; these have been confronted many times before, and found seriously wanting. Rather, my goal is to think more about the structure and stated aims of those papers, and the ways in which the papers fail to take seriously their responsibility to honestly present their own arguments, and to honestly engage with the relevant literature.
“Brain measurement and its sister art, head measurement, have no doubt had more to do with our distinctions of races than have their modes of thought or of life” Jacques Finot, 1911. “In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull.” Quillette, 2019.
I have better things to do with my time. I have other writing to do. I have laundry that needs to be folded. The catbox hasn’t been scooped today. There’s a hammer out in the garage I could be hitting my head with. Any of these things would be preferable to responding to this awful Quillette article on race science. Yet here I am.
I’m not the only one to find this article troublesome or to see that it is while it poses as a book review of Angela Saini’s new bookSuperior: The Return of Race Scienceit is really no such thing. Nor am I the first to make the argument that race science is the vampire science. Pronounced dead over and over and over it rises from the grave to shamble a while mumbling incoherently about “open questions” and “IQ scores” and “heritability” and “climate” despite the overwhelming scientific consensus that we have moved beyond race science. The Quillette article notes this consensus: “This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professionalorganizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals” but then dismisses it. The article then trots out a series of tired arguments as if they were new and novel and the professionals and intellectuals had never heard them before and found them wanting. Let’s look at some of these threadbare arguments, shall we?