The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2016-06-14 20:00Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Journal of Social History
Volume 49, Number 3, Spring 2016
pages 740-741

Robert J. Cottrol, Harold Paul Green Research Professor of Law and Professor of History and Sociology
George Washington University

The Myth of Race: The Troubling and Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. By Robert Wald Sussman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014. 374 pp. $35.00).

With The Myth of Race, Robert Sussman gives us a comprehensive history of the idea of race and particularly the rise and not total fall of scientific racism Drawing on the intellectual history of his own discipline, physical anthropology, Sussman takes the reader on a journey from the role of race in the religious persecutions of the fifteenth century Spanish inquisition to an examination of the development of the eugenics movement, that movement’s link to Nazi ideology and practice, and the role of Franz Boaz and his disciples in combating scientific racism and establishing the dominance of culturally based explanations for racial and ethnic differences. The Myth of Race takes us to our uneasy present. The scientific racists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have been vanquished in the minds of the scientific communities and educated public more generally, but there are still holdouts, in some places influential holdouts, asserting the validity of earlier views positing that racial differences are real, inherited and largely immutable.

The introduction provides something of a primer on race from the point of view of physical anthropology for the uninitiated. From the biological perspective, Sussman informs us, even using the term race to discuss the variations in the human species is suspect. But Sussman’s purpose is not to provide a thumbnail sketch of the biology of race, but to explore race as an intellectual construct along with a history of its uses and misuses. Race’s development as a concept was prompted by large scale European contact with new and different peoples in Africa and the Americas, a by-product of European expansion. The Church, however imperfectly, stressed the unity of humanity, the product of a single act of creation. But others, repelled by difference, or attracted by the possibility that those who were different and more vulnerable could be readily exploited, fashioned explanations to both account for differences and to insure the dominance of Europeans. Some theories accounted for difference by attributing human variation to separate creations with Africans and the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere being something other and something less than children of the Biblical Adam and Eve. Others were willing to stipulate to the unity of human origins, but nonetheless asserted that those strange people who were not white, not European and not Christian were the products of a degeneration that also highlighted their inferiority and the need for them to be brought under the control of their betters. Sussman is particularly strong in presenting this history and in reminding readers that moral and political philosophers like Locke and Kant more generally thought of as advocates of political liberty and just governance played a significant role in implanting notions of racial hierarchy in European thought.

But it is in his discussion of the origins and career of eugenics as a concept where Sussman makes his strongest contribution. Sussman links the origins of eugenics to concepts of scarcity and need first articulated by Malthus. These concepts when coupled with the extension of Darwinian thought beyond basic biology would provide a basis for a school of human science that reached its logical conclusions with Nazi racial science. The Myth of Race provides a chilling look at the popularity and power of the American eugenics movement. Sussman’s discussion of the influence that American eugenicist Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race had on Nazi racial policies is particularly instructive.

We all, to some extent, know how the story comes out, at least to date. In the inter-war years, anthropologist Franz Boaz through his meticulous research and the influence of his disciples helped defeat the scientific racists who dominated the debate before the First World War. Boaz’s research played a pivotal role in persuading educated people that culture and not biology accounted for group differences. The horrors of the Nazi holocaust played a significant role in discrediting scientific and not so scientific racism among the public at large after the Second World War

Tags: , , , ,

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Gay & Lesbian, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2015-05-18 16:52Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea by Robert Wald Sussman (review)

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Volume 46, Number 1, Summer 2015
pages 109-111

Ruth Clifford Engs, Professor Emeritus of Applied Health Science
Indiana University, Bloomington

Sussman, Robert Wald, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Sussman’s stated purpose in the introduction to this book is to “describe the history of our myth of race and racism” (3). However, a few pages later, he admits that he has not done archival research himself but instead has “depended upon the published works of many historians, biographers, and philosophers” (9). In other words, he is basing his premises upon secondary sources that may have their own biases. He does not present a hypothesis or even a research question but boldly states what he is trying to find and backs up his thesis with interpretations that support it. This methodology could be considered historiographical research. However, rarely does he compare the interpretation of one historian with that of another in an objective manner or compare interpretations from one time period to those from another, as other historiographical researchers usually do. Researchers in the past, or present, who do not agree with his conclusions are considered “racists” or part of “the eugenic bigot brigade.” The research methods in Sussman’s work cannot be deemed historical precisely because it uses few primary sources.

Sussman suggests that for a number of years, most researchers in the fields of biology, anthropology, and genetics have agreed that biological “races” do not exist among modern humans and that race is a cultural construct, albeit with phenotypical differences among population groups. In this work, you “can’t tell a book by its cover” or, in this case, its title, since the book’s main emphasis is the evolution of the nineteenth-century hereditarian and early twentieth-century eugenics movements and its leaders and detractors into contemporary times. The book focuses on what Sussman perceives to be “racist” researchers and organizations—those who suggest the possibility of biological differences between human population groups. It glorifies the anthropological school of Franz Boas and discusses the hidden agenda of obscure philanthropic groups to re-institute immigration-restriction reform or rescind voting rights from minorities in contemporary American society.

Chapter I introduces two early concepts of race since the Middle Ages that recur throughout the book—the pre-Adamite (polygenism) and degenerate (monogenism) theories. The pre-Adamites believed that races, other than whites, were created before Adam and Eve and that they were biologically fixed. Degenerate theory suggested that environment influenced “racial” characteristics, and that all humans were created by God, though non-whites were inferiors who needed guidance from whites. The chapter discusses the many early eighteenth-and nineteenth-century scientists and thinkers who embraced these various theories, including John Locke, Carl Linnaeus, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, Arthur de Gobineau, Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, and Francis Galton, among others.

Chapter 2 and 3 detail the early twentieth-century, American eugenics movement with a focus on various leaders, including Madison Grant, Charles Davenport, Henry Osborn, Harry Laughlin, and Henry Goddard, discussing their influence on the immigration-restriction movement, iq tests, and negative eugenics, characterized by sterilization. Sussman also covers such organizations as the Eugenics Records Office and the Galton Society, as well as international eugenic conferences and related issues. In his opinion, the entire eugenics movement amounts to “blatant racism” (85). He is silent about the fact that many aspects of the eugenics movement were intertwined with early twentieth-century public-health measures that sought to improve the health of the American people—regardless of ethnicity—by raising public awareness of tuberculosis, sexually transmitted diseases, and alcohol/drug abuse and by promoting exercise, clean water, good nutrition, personal hygiene, healthy children, immunization, etc.

Chapter 4, in which Sussman shows the interlinking of American with German eugenics, portrays the various leaders of the German eugenics movement, including Ernst Rüdin, Eugen Fischer, Fritz Lenz, Alfred Ploetz, and Otmar von Verschurer, through the end of Nazi Germany and World War II. Chapter 5 treats Boas’ development of the concept of culture and its effect on human populations. Chapter 6 goes into greater detail about cultural anthropology and covers the conflict between various schools of thought, each side accusing the other of not doing true science.

The remainder of the book examines the downfall of the eugenics movement in the United States and the acceptance of culture…

Tags: , , , ,

Racial divide: It’s a social concept, not a scientific one

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive on 2014-11-23 17:43Z by Steven

Racial divide: It’s a social concept, not a scientific one

The Washington Post

Nancy Szokan

Most scientists agree that race is not a biological concept.

As Wikipedia defines it, in an extremely lengthy and extravagantly footnoted entry that surely has been edited and re-edited many times, “Race is a social concept used to categorize humans into large and distinct populations or groups by anatomical, cultural, ethnic, genetic, geographical, historical, linguistic, religious, and/or social affiliation.”

Yet race undoubtedly affects government policies, pervades our social interactions, creates alliances and sets off wars.

We are asked to specify our race (or races) on census forms, medical questionnaires, job applications, college applications, opinion surveys and so on — and the very act of asking the question, sometimes to be answered by just checking a box, can seem to imply that there is a clearly definable, provable answer.

As Robert Wald Sussman puts it in “The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea,” many if not most people would be surprised to learn that race is a social rather than a scientific construct. In his new book, Sussman, a professor of physical anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, explores how race emerged as a modern social construct, tracing its origins to the Spanish Inquisition and its legacy as a justification for Western imperialism and slavery…

Read the entire review here.

Tags: , , ,

There Is No Such Thing as Race

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2014-11-09 21:12Z by Steven

There Is No Such Thing as Race


Robert Wald Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

In 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) issued a statement asserting that all humans belong to the same species and that “race” is not a biological reality but a myth. This was a summary of the findings of an international panel of anthropologists, geneticists, sociologists, and psychologists.

A great deal of evidence had accumulated by that time to support this conclusion, and the scientists involved were those who were conducting research and were most knowledgeable about the topic of human variation. Since that time similar statements have been published by the American Anthropological Association and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, and an enormous amount of modern scientific data has been gathered to justify this conclusion…

…In my book, The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, I have not dwelt upon all of the scientific information that has been gathered by anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, and other scientists concerning the fact that there are no such things as human biological races. This has been done by many people over the past fifty or so years.

What I do is describe the history of our myth of race and racism. As I describe this history, I think that you will be able to understand why many of our leaders and their followers have deluded us into believing these racist fallacies and how they have been perpetuated from the late Middle Ages to the present.

Many of our basic policies of race and racism have been developed as a way to keep these leaders and their followers in control of the way we live our modern lives. These leaders often see themselves as the best and the brightest. Much of this history helped establish and maintain the Spanish Inquisition, colonial policies, slavery, Nazism, racial separatism and discrimination, and anti-immigration policies.

Although policies related to racism seem to be improving over time, I hope to help clarify why this myth still exists and remains widespread in the United States and throughout Western Europe by describing the history of racism and by exploring how the anthropological concepts of culture and worldview have challenged and disproven the validity of racist views…

Read the entire article here.

Tags: ,

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, Monographs on 2014-10-01 16:04Z by Steven

The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea

Harvard University Press
October 2014
384 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
4 halftones, 2 line illustrations
Hardcover ISBN: 9780674417311

Robert Wald Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology
Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri

Biological races do not exist—and never have. This view is shared by all scientists who study variation in human populations. Yet racial prejudice and intolerance based on the myth of race remain deeply ingrained in Western society. In his powerful examination of a persistent, false, and poisonous idea, Robert Sussman explores how race emerged as a social construct from early biblical justifications to the pseudoscientific studies of today.

The Myth of Race traces the origins of modern racist ideology to the Spanish Inquisition, revealing how sixteenth-century theories of racial degeneration became a crucial justification for Western imperialism and slavery. In the nineteenth century, these theories fused with Darwinism to produce the highly influential and pernicious eugenics movement. Believing that traits from cranial shape to raw intelligence were immutable, eugenicists developed hierarchies that classified certain races, especially fair-skinned “Aryans,” as superior to others. These ideologues proposed programs of intelligence testing, selective breeding, and human sterilization—policies that fed straight into Nazi genocide. Sussman examines how opponents of eugenics, guided by the German-American anthropologist Franz Boas’s new, scientifically supported concept of culture, exposed fallacies in racist thinking.

Although eugenics is now widely discredited, some groups and individuals today claim a new scientific basis for old racist assumptions. Pondering the continuing influence of racist research and thought, despite all evidence to the contrary, Sussman explains why—when it comes to race—too many people still mistake bigotry for science.

Table of Contents

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • 1. Early Racism in Western Europe
  • 2. The Birth of Eugenics
  • 3. The Merging of Polygenics and Eugenics
  • 4. Eugenics and the Nazis
  • 5. The Antidote: Boas and the Anthropological Concept of Culture
  • 6. Physical Anthropology in the Early Twentieth Century
  • 7. The Downfall of Eugenics
  • 8. The Beginnings of Modern Scientific Racism
  • 9. The Pioneer Fund, 1970s–1990s
  • 10. The Pioneer Fund in the Twenty-First Century
  • 11. Modern Racism and Anti-Immigration Policies
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: The Eugenics Movement, 1890s–1940s
  • Appendix B: The Pioneer Fund
  • References
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
Tags: , , ,