Nature Vs Nurture and the Unravelling of ‘Scientific Racism’

Racial politics, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

By the mid 1930s the allure of “scientific racism” was on the wane in advanced western countries❈. Although scientists were in the thick of the movement both as eugenicists and as propagandists, significant numbers of scientists and politicians never bought the shonky scientific approach of the eugenics movement. Many in the science community never accepted the methodology for the eugenicists’ grand schemes[1]. Information on heredity was far from comprehensive in that era, the science was misguided and there was a vastly imperfect understanding of genetics, at best rudimentary, at the time. Eugenic hygiene organisations were unable to produce reliable statistics. As John Averell pointed out, “proof’ of research” in the field comprised “primarily statistical correlation within conveniently constructed ‘races’ rather than individual case studies to see if the desirable characteristics were actually inherited”[2].

Mendel's schema
Mendel’s schema
The scientific genesis of the 20th century eugenics movement was located in the rediscovered research of 19th century Austrian monk Gregor Mendel. Mendel experimented in plant hybridisation and his laws of inheritance based on the crossing of garden peas✥ were the foundation for the theories of eugenicists like American Charles Davenport. Davenport et al applied the Mendelian method to human traits such as eye colour which he argued was inherited (as the colour of Mendel’s pea plants were). The eugenicists employed an overly simplified dominant/recessive scheme to account for complex behaviours and mental illnesses, this was a fundamental flaw in their thinking (derived from ‘pedigrees’ based on Mendelian inheritance), a single-gene explanation of human characteristics and conditions. Contemporary science unequivocally accepts that these traits are in fact shaped by (many, many) multiple genes, ie, the existence of polygenic traits[3].

Although eugenics was portrayed by its adherents in the early 20th century as a “mathematical science”, a clinical method of predicting traits and behaviours and controlling human breeding, its drew criticism from scientific quarters on a number of levels. The ‘evidence’ was typically shoddy, such as the research into determining just who was to be classified as being ‘feeble’ and ‘unfit’ in society. The eugenicists relied often on subjectivity, second-hand accounts and hearsay to establish the lineages of the ‘undesirable’ gene pool (see PostScript 1), or on visible observable (physical) features (the resort to phrenology and the like). The theories of eugenics did not seem adequate to explain some traits, such as shyness – rather than being an immutable genetic condition, this could be subject to change over time (ie, some people grow out of shyness!). In addition eugenicists took no account of factors external to a person’s gene makeup in the categorisation of the ‘unfit’, such as his or her contracting a transmissible disease such as syphilis[4].

The scrutiny on eugenics, its growing characterisation as a pseudoscience unable to stand up to academic scientific rigour, prompted some proselytisers of eugenics to claim that eugenics was more than merely science, that it was tantamount to a new religion or moral code[5]. One of the eugenics practitioners who typified this was Alexis Carrel, an American-based French surgeon and Nobel Laurette biologist. Carrel’s eugenics was a strange mix of science, religion, clairvoyance and ultra right-wing politics … his extreme ideas were infused with an anti-materialist, holistic spiritual mysticism. In his 1935 international best-seller, Man, the Unknown, Carrel warned against the degenerative effect of modernity and outlined his notion of an autocratic utopia in which the dysgenic elements were eradicated from society[6].

The eugenics scene in Australasia mirrored Europe and America in questioning the correctness of the ‘science’. The scientific community although entrenched in the vanguard of the eugenic movement threw up its share of dissenters from within its ranks. One such was geographer Griffith Taylor who championed “racial hybridity” and cast serious doubts on the goal of race purity and its assumptions that underpinned eugenics. Moreover there was a lack of cohesion and camaraderie among the individual eugenicists who are often rivals of each other … this of itself did not make for a strong, lasting movement in Australia[7].

J B Watson, Behaviourist
J B Watson, Behaviourist
The Behaviourist counterpoint:
The rise of behaviourism in the West as a valid analytical tool for explaining human nature was a counterweight to the biological determinism of eugenics whose advocates preached that biology was destiny. The behaviourist backlash against the persuasive eugenics ideology was led by pioneering American psychologist John B Watson▣ around the time of the Great War. Watson, rejecting Freudian concepts of the unconscious mind, or that mental states or ‘instincts’ were significant, arguing instead that observable behaviour was the key to explaining human traits and complex mental states. In doing so, Watson was also refuting the view that heredity played a role in this construct. For Watson, and for B F Skinner who later took up his mantle as a radical behaviourist, the environment, modelled behaviour, was the source of human change. The work of Watson and Skinner and other behaviourists undercut the eugenics movement’s singular reliance on nature by shifting the debate to the significance of nurture in the process[8].

PostScript 1: ‘Feeble’ family studies template
The belief of eugenicists that all social ills – poverty, alcoholism, prostitution, criminality, venereal disease, epilepsy – could be traced back to one genetic flaw, and that intelligence was determined by heredity, was shaped by seminal pioneering studies in the field. One of the most influential was by psychologist Henry Goddard (1912) who analysed the genetic pattern of one man’s lineage (known as “Martin Kallikak” – fabricated name derived from the conjunction of ‘kallos’ beauty and ‘kakos’ bad). ‘Kallikak’ produced two widely divergent types of families (one ‘good’, one ‘bad’), which despite being nurtured in two radically different environments, the patterns of which Goddard concluded was solely the result of heredity[9].

PostScript 2: Polygenism debunked
The polygenists accepted that the species had more than one origin (cf. monogenism – deriving from one, common ancestor). Morton (see FN 2 below) believed that races were arranged in order of intelligence … the fairer the skin the more intelligent. DNA evidence, tracing human markers, has disproved the theory by proving that all Eurasians, Americans, Austronesians, Oceanians and Africans, share the same, common ancestor[10].

❈ Scientific racism uses ostensibly scientific or pseudoscientific techniques and hypotheses to support or justify racial inferiority or superiority, Scientific racism’, Wikipedia,
Scientific racism was denounced by UNESCO in a 1950 statement on race
✥ for what Mendel described as ‘factors’ (the “heredity unit”), the early eugenicists substituted the word ‘genes’
▣ Watson’s life reads like some kind of early 20th century Mad Men persona (influential ad man, marital infidelities, monumental falls from grace, self-exile, etc)

[1] for instance in the interwar period, Thomas Hunt Morgan, a Noble Prize winning evolutionary biologist, rejected the eugenicists’ inadequate methodology, ‘Eugenics in the United States’, Wikipedia,
[2] this view prescribed a hierarchical order of races, an Anglo-Saxon ‘race’, a Nordic ‘race’, and so on down the line. Polygenists in the 19th century like Samuel G Morton contended that different races were in fact different species, each with separate origins, ‘Science: 1770s-1850s: One Race or Several Species’, RACE,; J Averell, ‘The End of Eugenics … or is it?’, Melrose Mirror,
[3] ‘Mendelian genetics cannot fully explain human health and behaviour’, DNA from the beginning,; ‘Rocky Road: Charles Davenport’,
[4] Eugenics and scientific racism had been described as “folk knowledge validated by scientific inference”, S A Farber, ‘U.S. Scientists’ Role in the Eugenics Movement (1907-39): A Contemporary Biologist’s Perspective’, Zebrafish, 2008: December; 5(4),
[5] A H Reggiani, ‘Drilling Eugenics into People’s Minds’, in S Currell [Ed.],
Popular Eugenics, National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s
[6] ibid
[7] D H Wyndham, ‘Striving for National Fitness: Eugenics in Australia 1910s to 1930s’ (Unpub. PhD, Dept of History, University of Sydney, July 1996),
[8] ‘Eugenics movement reaches its height 1923’, A Science Odyssey (PBS),; ‘John B. Watson’, Wikipedia,
[9] ‘Kallikak Family’,
[10] ‘Scientific Justifications for Racism’ (Polygenism),