Friday, May 21, 2010

Characteristics of racist pseudoscience

Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau, father of pseudoscientific race theories

I've been doing some research lately on the Frankfurt School, the trend of social and political theory known as "critical theory." In their flagship publication of the 1930s, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, one of the articles in their 1933 editions was by Paul Ludwig Landsberg, "Rassenideologie und Rassenwissenschaft. Zur neuesten Literatur über das Rassenproblem" 3/1933. Landsberg's essay has some excellent general observations about racist ideology of the time, combined with a couple of observations that are suprisingly retrograde even by 1933 standards. But his general characterization of racist ideology is still useful today.

The Deutsches Historisches Museum provides a biographical sketch of Landsberg in Paul Ludwig Landsberg (1901-1944) - ein Exilkrimi. Landsberg fled the Nazi regime early in March of 1933. He was the son of Jewish parents; his father was the first Jew to become the Rector of the University of Bonn. They remained Jewish but had their son Paul baptized as Protestant, and married a Catholic.

He went first to Switzerland, then to Spain, where he secured positions as a university professor, but the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War forced him to flee Spain. He went then to Paris, where after the war with Germany began he eventually took the name Paul Richert. He was interned in one of the detentions centers France established for German nationals after the outbreak of war, and was eventually repatiated to the Germans and he wound up in the concentration camps. He died of tuberculosis in the camp Heinkel-Oranienburg in 1944.

Landsberg discussed six characteristics or tendencies of pseudoscientific race theories, which he traces to Joseph-Arthur, comte de Gobineau (1816-1882) and his Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines [Essay on the Inequality of Human Races](1853-1855), who was followed by characters like Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1928). The six include:
1. Taking the race with which the writer of the race theory identifies as the chief possessor of the highest value. Race theorists sometimes give this preference/identification to a race not their own.

2. A denial of the changeability over time within a single race, including the influence of social environments, which the pseudoscientific race theorist seeks to deny or minimize. This and the first characteristic set up a pretence of the stabilization of the alleged superior race, a claim of enduring qualities over many generations.

3. Discussing "pure" races without bothering much about the question, "Pure since when?"

4. An identification of a biological racial or ethnic groups with a nation and a people. In reality, "No existing people and no nation constitute even in the least bit a racial unity [i.e., a pure race]."

5. Stress on the concept of racial breeding and racial hygene.

6. Assumption of an anthropology (a general definition of humanity) based not on empirical rality but on an assumption of the primary importance of race. Along with it comes an historical concept of the history and development of a race.

Landsberg refutes various aspects of racial theories of the time, dismissing them as unscientific: "to want to tryt to understand the works of Michalangelo or Goethe based on their blood heritage is obviously absurd."


The clear-headedness of most of Landsberg's analysis makes even more surprising a couple of his arguments. In connection with his fifth characteristic of pseudoscientific racial theories, he seems to concede a lot to the eugenic theories of that time when he writes:"The notion of racial hygene is ancient. It goes back at least to Plato; and it is also to a large extent a correct notion."

He elaborates on that by citing the scientific developments like Mendelian genetics in the study of biological inheritance. He doesn't go on to make any explicitly eugenic arguments, such as that of the alleged need to prevent the mentally disabled from having children, one of the most cruel ideas of Anglo-Saxon eugenics. His main point is that the most dangerous ideas are not the purely crazy ones, but the ones that are mixed with a substantial portion of reality. He's arguing that discoveries in biological genetics can add undeserved plausibility to pseudoscientific race theories. But though he clearly argues against the latter, one might have expected that he would have more clearly distanced himself from eugenic-friendly formulation.

The second erroneous notion is one that he far more clearly embraces, that of Lamarckian evolution, the idea of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) argued that acquired physical characteristics, such as muscles built up through exercise, could be passed along to offspring. The link just given to the UC-Berkeley Museum of Paleontolgy explains:

Lamarckian inheritance, at least in the sense Lamarck intended, is in conflict with the findings of genetics and has now been largely abandoned -- but until the rediscovery of Mendel's laws at the beginning of the twentieth century, no one understood the mechanisms of heredity, and Lamarckian inheritance was a perfectly reasonable hypothesis. Several other scientists of the day, including Erasmus Darwin, subscribed to the theory of use and disuse -- in fact, Erasmus Darwin's evolutionary theory is so close to Lamarck's in many respects that it is surprising that, as far as is known now, the two men were unaware of each other's work. ...

His mechanism of evolution remained a popular alternative to Darwinian selection until the beginning of the 20th century.
But by 1933, Lamarckian evolution had been rejected by biology for decades. One of Sigmund Freud's stranger intellectual quirks was that he also held to a version of Lamarckian evolution, arguing that memories could be transmitted by inheritance to future generations. But even with a famous name like Freud's joining him in the error (at least in a limited way), arguing for Lamarckian evolution in 1933 was just not a sound scientific claim.

However, his description of the characteristics of pseudoscientific racial theories is not dependent on accepting the Lamarckian theory of evolution. His article is a reminder of how thoroughly at this time such racial ideologies were discredited by the level of scientific knowledge of the time.

And, speaking of ideology, Landsberg has a good comment about what constitutes and ideology:

Concerning the concept of ideology, far be it from us to equate the ideologue with a deceiver, for instance. That a teaching deserves to be designated as ideology means that not only its origin but also its credibility for its adherents is not attributable essentially to its experiential content, but rather to its social function, an effect in the society and its conflicts, that is expected from it. Of course, these purposes and expectations are in no way necessarily conscious ones.
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