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Racial Science and British Society, 1930–62 (review)

From: Journal of World History
Volume 21, Number 4, December 2010
pp. 783-785 | 10.1353/jwh.2010.0052

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"I regard it as wholly probable that true Negroes have a slightly lower average intelligence than the whites or yellows" (p. 70). If you think you're reading an excerpt from the much-publicized 2007 interview with Nobel laureate James Watson, good. You've been paying attention to the issue of the social role of a scientist. However, your answer is off the mark. This highly insidious speculation is in fact that of Julian Huxley (1887–1975), a leading British progressive biologist and zoologist of the twentieth century and the oft-lauded pioneer of the 1930s antiracial intellectual movement.

In this intriguing monograph, which delineates the lingering tenacity and continuity of race as a concept throughout much of the twentieth century, author Gavin Schaffer reveals the "true colors" of Huxley and like-minded scientists such as John Haldane and Lancelot Hogben, seen through their attitudes on racial issues and crystallized in discussions of immigration policies in the periods of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the Cold War. Schaffer argues that Huxley and his friends were not racial radicals, but rather politically savvy and calculating.

At the center of this reassessment of the progressives' legacy lies the author's dissatisfaction with the so-called post-1945 thesis. In simplified form, the post-1945 thesis claims that with the horrendous crimes perpetrated in the name of racial purification in Nazi Germany, the concept of race through 1945 was discredited, and that the progressive scientists played a pivotal role in this discrediting process through the publication of such pamphlets as We Europeans, Argument of Blood, and the Geneticists' Manifesto. Demystifying this popular understanding of the trajectory of the concept of race and dethroning the progressives from their enshrined position, Schaffer argues that although Huxley and his colleagues vehemently opposed Hitler's attempts to purify European races, they did so not out of a categorical rejection of race as an idea but out of fear of its political misuse. In other words, "Britain's progressives … wanted to help the nation beat Hitler. They did not want to destroy race totally as a biological category" (p. 74).

But why should we care about these progressive biologists and eugenicists, who were politically antiracial but scientifically racial, in the first place? Because, says Schaffer, they had the ear of the government and its scientific counsel in the 1930s, and thus, immediate and tremendous political influence on British society. From Jewish refugees to European Volunteer Workers to internment, Schaffer reveals, "government policy on racial matters during the war mostly mirrored the ideas of progressive racial scholars" (p. 107). This meant that "Britain's scientists, and the society from which they emerged, did not lose long-held racial beliefs" (p. 114). To put it differently, although the progressives might not have been as adamant and explicit as the conservatives who were unequivocally hostile toward racial mixing and therefore had been relegated to a marginal position in the anti-right-wing political atmosphere, the prewar immigration policies formulated under the advice of the progressive scientists were equally racially driven, barring the immigration of Jewish refugees and colored peoples into Britain.

However, the active collaboration between the progressive scientists and the British government came to an end in the 1950s under a totally new domestic and international configuration. In the Cold War context, where the name of science was abused not by rightwing extremists but by left-wing communists, as Schaffer articulates, the British progressive scientists who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union crawled back into the ivory tower, and this retrenchment left the immigration issue in limbo. In the 1950s, British society was torn apart on the issue of black immigration from the Commonwealth. While conservative eugenicists and biologists, resuscitated by funding from U.S. segregationists, cautioned the public about the consequences of racial mixing, social scientists and anthropologists, the true champions of the antiracial movement, emphasized that race is a social construct, not a biological determinant. In this bipolar situation, the British progressive biologists simply "kept their own counsel, unwilling to try to lead the government as they had done so forcefully before and during the Second World War" (p. 157). What would the government do? To...



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