Even the New York times has noticed that geneticists and anthropologists are having trouble dealing with the current genetically driven revival of classical race theory and the return of its evil offspring, scientific racism. Amy Harmon rightly takes scholars to task for failing to address “the recurring appropriation of the field’s research in the name of white supremacy”.

John Hawks, among others, not mincing his words, expressed his dismay that, as Harmon notes, “Many geneticists at the top of their field say they don’t have the ability to communicate to a general audience on such a complicated and fraught topic… Several declined to speak on the record”. As Jennifer Wagner points out, “sticking your neck out on political issues is difficult”. Jennifer Raff reminds us that some are courageously trying to engage in those public discussions, but we must all admit that the effort is limited in scope and impact.

Talking back

And yet, for better and sometimes for worse, Anthropologists and geneticists used to be leading voices in the debate on the meaning and implications of their work for society. When push came to shove, necks were stuck out. Academics in the 1930s were under strong strong pressure from proponents of immigration restriction on the one hand, and of segregation on the other, to interpret their findings in ways that pointed to specific human groups as inferior or undesirable. Pushing back against this pressure, time and again they used their public positions to correct misappropriations of their work by racists. Even many of those who thought that biological race was a useful concept and that eugenics programs were necessary, vigorously corrected the misconception that different human groups could be ranked on some scale of quality based on their biology.

In 1936, Harvard Professor and leading race theorist EA Hooton wrote that his findings on race “should not be interpreted as a substantiation of any of the ridiculous and pernicious doctrines of racial inequality which have become a menace to the peace of the world and which have brought tragedy upon millions of blameless and worthy individuals. Everyone of our so-called ‘racial’ types in these series is represented by a substantial body of convicted felons at one end of the scale and a group of eminently respectable and intelligent citizens at the other” (: 26). I wonder if he suspected how many millions more individual tragedies would be played out in the following ten years.

Neither can Hooton be accused of having been a bleeding heart race-denialist. In the next two paragraphs, he calls for the “biological extinction” of “the unfit, worthless, degenerate and antisocial proportion of each racial and ethnic strain”. These however, he emphasizes again in closing “would not be selected on the basis of Aryan or Semitic descent, blond hair or black skin, but solely on the score of their individual physical, mental, and moral bankruptcy”.

Even someone with that sort of plan for society, who was convinced that biological race was real, and who was a committed morphologist and eugenicist, was upset that racists were hijacking his ideas. He wasn’t afraid to let everyone know who would listen. He certainly never “declined to speak on the record”, when asked what he thought of how racists were using his ideas and interpreting his data.

The eugenics manifesto

Three years later, in 1939, Science Service, now the Society for Science and the Public and still today the publisher of Science News, asked a group of prominent biologists and anthropologists, including JBS Haldane, Julian Huxley, and Theodosius Dobzhansky, “how could the world’s population be improved most effectively genetically”? Their statement was published in Nature.

Instead of presenting a eugenics program for the improvement of humans, as many would have expected, and instead of specifying which racial or ethnic groups should be encouraged to reproduce and which shouldn’t, as many would have hoped, the group of eminent scholars discussed the conditions that needed to be achieved for the question to even make sense. “In the first place, there can be no valid basis for estimating and comparing the intrinsic worth of different individuals, without economic and social conditions which provide approximately equal opportunities for all members of society instead of stratifying them from birth into classes with widely different privileges”.

If the conditions did not exist to assess properly the value of individuals in society, the situation was even worse for the evaluation of racial groups. This would require “The removal of race prejudices and of the unscientific doctrine that good or bad genes are the monopoly of particular peoples or of persons with features of a given kind…”. Even for these avowed eugenicists, the general improvement of society required something more subtle than deciding whether the influx of eastern Europeans degraded the stock.

They thought it important, before even discussing the implications of their work, to dispel what they saw as it’s most damaging public misconceptions. Before they provided an answer to a clearly politically loaded question, they wanted to stop in its tracks the political harnessing of their research by racists.

How should we conduct ourselves?

It will seem counter-intuitive to many to turn to the anthropology and biology of the 1930s for a guide. Perhaps it was because the stakes were more starkly obvious, with a civilization-ending world war looming on the horizon. Or perhaps it was because the injustice of racism was more visible and palpable in daily experience, at the water fountains and outside the court rooms. Perhaps being able to associate the evil of racism with the flag of a major world power and with the symbol of a global political movement gave people focus. Whatever the reason, scholars spoke up in the 1930s. They didn’t decline to speak on the record. Neither should we.


Crew et al 1939. Social biology and population improvement, Nature 144:521-522.

Hooton EA 1936. What is an American? American Journal of Physical Anthropology XXII: 1-26.

One thought on “Genetics, anthropology, and white supremacy: In the 1930s, anthropologists and geneticists weren’t afraid to speak. We need to follow their example

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