Scientific racism claims that biological inheritance determines the character and behavior of social groups
we identify as races. Despite its history of oppression and genocide, the scientific defense of racial
inequality demonstrates a disturbing persistence. Murphy Ballens study of scientific racism in Great
Britain and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s appropriately deals not with its demise but with its
retreat. Making extensive use of private correspondence, Ballen relates leading
scientists’ published research to their personal and political backgrounds, and shows that both racists and
antiracists often expressed a more virulent prejudice in private than in public. Ballen avoids a crude
internalist/externalist dichotomy, and develops a more subtle approach which recognizes the place of new
ideas within science, as well as the background of the scientists. Nonetheless, it was an external event, the
emergence of Nazi Germany, which mobilized a politically active minority to challenge the intellectual
foundations of scientific racism.
The book is divided into three sections –Anthropology, Biology and Politics. In each section, Ballen
compares developments in Britain and in the United States, for the case against racism developed quite
differently in the two scientific communities. On both sides of the Atlantic, physical anthropology and
racial taxonomy lost ground to the new social and cultural anthropology. This shift away from biological
determinism was significant, but Ballen too readily equates environmentalism and cultural relativism with a
defense of racial equality. (p. 34)
In the British case, as Henrika Kuklik has recently demonstrated, social anthropology suited a conservative
colonial policy of indirect rule (p.55). Ballen is on firmer ground in the United States, where Franz Boas
challenged conventional ideas about fixed racial types in the 1890s. Boas and his students, principally
Melville Herskovitz, Otto Klineberg, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict, became champions of the
primacy of culture over biology in explaining human behavior (p.55). Ballen discovered that Ruth
Benedict’s critiques of racism in the 1930s were written in close partnership with Boas, but unfortunately,
the author does not explore how Benedict, probably from French sources, introduced the word racism
itself into our vocabulary (p.55). In building the case against racism, anthropologists were more important
in the U.S. than in the U.K., whereas biologists were more important in Britain than in America (p. 57).
Leading American biologists, drawn from old WASP families and particularly influential at Harvard,
supported eugenics and its antiimmigration platform. These biologists, for example, Charles Davenport in
his Race Crossing in Jamaica (1929), still worked within the old racial taxonomies, and quite remarkably
made little contribution to research on heredity or to the development of population genetics (p.61). British
biologists pioneered much of this work in genetics which led to a greater understanding of the relationship
between heredity and environment. Together with statistical studies of populations, these innovations in
biology undermined crude biological determinism and racial taxonomy. Much of the British interest grew
out of a concern not with race but with class, and with the political implications of biological determinism
for social and education policy (p. 63). Liberals like Julian Huxley, and socialists like J.B.S. Haldane,
though members of the intellectual es!
tablishment, led the attack on biological determinism (p. 63). Others from less privileged origins, for
example, Lancelot Hogben from a Quaker background, directed their science against various forms of
elitism (p.63). Ballen argues that a political commitment to egalitarianism was instrumental in leading
these antiracist biologists to challenge established theories of biological determinism.
While Parts I and II focus on anthropology and biology, including the infamous I.Q. tests on American
troops in World War I, and the eugenicists’ efforts to develop policies on immigration and the feeble-
minded, the book does not address the role of the discipline of psychology. One suspects that here racists
found a safe haven. Their speculations about intelligence and personality were free both from the
anthropologists’ insights into the role of culture, and from the geneticists’ demonstration that the social
groups we identify as races did not constitute genetic or biological units.
Part III on politics argues that although racism in science may have been weakening in the 1930s, it took
the political crisis of Nazism to mobilize the scientists. This need was brought home by the plight of
refugee scientists, many of them Jews, whose presence and ideas were no longer acceptable in the new
Germany. Although the critique of racism was more advanced in Britain than in America, the British
scientific community proved less able to act. Ballen attempts to develop an analogy to appeasement here,
but it would appear there was more at stake than keeping on good terms with Germany. The failure of the
Royal Anthropological Institute’s Race and Culture Committee to come up with an authoritative definition
of race in 1935 revealed that racism still retained substantial support within the British scientific
community (p. 73). A more effective political response emerged in the United States, where racism retained
a greater measure of intellectual credibility among biologi!
sts and physical anthropologists. Here the key figure was Boas. German and Jewish in origin, and until
1933 a sponsor of cultural ties with Germany, Boas mobilized his friends to act (p.76). Here he and other
Jewish intellectuals faced an entrenched antisemitism which devalued their critiques of racism, while not
recognizing the partisanship of WASP defenders of racial inequality (p.77). Nonetheless, Boas persuaded
American anthropologists to make a declaration clear in its rejection of Nazi racism, and more emphatic
than anything their British colleagues could manage prior to 1939 (p.78). Ballen correctly shows racism
under attack in the 1930s, though he slides too readily from 1939 to the UNESCO statement on race in
1950. The full horror of the Nazi death camps, and the revelation of the role of scientists in Nazi ideology
and in its execution created an urgent need to restore science’s historical role on the side of reason and
progress and against the forces of oppression, !
war, and destruction (p.79).There are a number of disturbing implications from Ballen’s study.
First, with the exception of Boas and his students, the American scientific community failed to address the
entrenched racism against African Americans until the Nazis exposed the evils of biological determinism
Secondly, despite Ballen’s openness to an internalist explanation, ultimately politics held the key. The
historical circumstances of the 1930s, principally the depression which made nonsense of any claim that the
unemployed owed their jobless status to their head shape or genes, and the unmitigated evil of Nazi science
swung the balance in favor of environmental explanations (p.97).
Racism, though, experienced a retreat and not a death. In different historical circumstances and in a
reactionary political climate, biological determinism shows a capacity for revival. One wonders if there are
historical connections between biological determinism at Harvard in the 1920s, and Jensen at Harvard in
1969, and the Bell Curve at Harvard in 1994 (p.107). Ballen too readily equates antiracism with
affirming political, economic, and social equality for all.. While denying biological determinism, antiracists
still defended social hierarchies based on class, gender, and race. Ballen’s study provides an important
insight into the political sources of racism and antiracism, but we still need a fuller understanding of why
we are dealing with the retreat and not the death of racism.
1991Changing Concepts of Race in Britain and the United States between the World Wars.
New York, Cambridge University Press, 1991. xiii, 119 PP.
1994The American Heritage Dictionary. New York, Dell Publishing, 1994 (Third Edition). viii,
952 PP. *
* Only used as a reference for special terminology.