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Sciences of ‘racial’ difference

Measuring the angles of the face, 1885.

Measuring the angles of the face, 1885.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

In the 1800s anthropologycomparative anatomy and anthropometry examined human difference using ‘race’. However, assumptions of European superiority influenced how data were collected and interpreted. Now discredited, the conclusions of these studies were considered mainstream science at the time. Only a few critics pointed to the racism of the underlying assumptions.

From the 1700s, Europeans encountered different groups through exploration, trade and imperial expansion. They looked to for ways assess and understand human differences. Human origin debates were linked to questions of inherent differences between communities and their potential. In the second half of the 1800s, Charles Darwin’s work on evolution was used to argue that some ‘races’ were at different points on the evolutionary ‘ladder’. They were assumed to have inborn differences in ability. This thinking relied on inheritance and biology to explain difference, and was used to justify European imperialism.

Nazi Germany’s quest for racial purity was the most extreme. Those considered biologically ‘undesirable’, notably Jewish and Roma people, homosexual men and women, and individuals with disabilities, were systematically exterminated.

In the 1950s, UNESCO rejected the idea of ‘races’ with inherent differences between them. Many scientists abandoned the idea of race. There is variation within the human population, however there are more genetic differences between individuals within a population than between different populations.

Increasingly within medical science, especially genetics, differences between ethnic groups are examined. These efforts try to target hereditary diseases which are more common in some populations. However, controversies, such as that over the heredity of IQ in the United States in the 1990s, demonstrate that ideas about racial difference still haunt science.


Related links

External links:


N L Stepan, The Idea of Race in Science: Great Britain 1800-1960 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1982)

E Barkan, The retreat of scientific racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

DJ Kevles, In The Name of Eugenics: genetics and the uses of human hereditary (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995)

W Anderson, Cultivating Whiteness: Science, health and Racial Destiny in Australia (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002)

G Stocking Jr, Race, Culture and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1982)

S Lindqvist, The Skull Measurer's Mistake: And Other Portraits of Men and Women Who Spoke Out Against Racism (New York: New Press, 1997)


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