[Marxism] RE: Notes on David Brion Davis' review

Rakesh Bhandari bhandari at berkeley.edu
Sat Nov 4 18:19:15 MST 2006


While closing off my participation, I had to qualify some things I have said.

I had written:

"At any rate, I think there is originality in my argument  that 
racism is by definition tied to a naturalistic conception of heredity 
via some postulated germinal essence  and that since such a 
conception of heredity was late in development as Matthew Cobb has 
brilliantly and vividly shown, so must have racism been late in 

But it also seems to me that the naturalistic conception of heredity 
is darkly implicit in the centuries of hereditary racial servitude, 
as I argued in my dissertation. That is, racial slavery provided a 
model of heredity, of some force expressing itself across generations 
perhaps as influential as the models  suggested by animal breeders or 
physicians studying polydactyly."

In the Mendelian Revolution Peter Bowler however does say that "race" 
provided "a model for the subsequent development of hereditarian 
ideologies" (p.162); he points here to Lamarckian ideas as developed 
by Herbert Spencer. The idea here was that 'inferior races' had spent 
so much time in unchallenging environments that there was little 
chance that they would catch up to superior ones through the gradual 
process of transmitting of new culturally higher acquired 

As well known Galton's ideas were quite a bit different

Galton did not begin with the belief that that the inheritance of 
acquired characteristics was unlikely, but he wanted to explain why 
the acquiring of new positive characters was very likely for his 
relatives and very unlikely especially for Africans (and also the 
dangerous classes). From this he reasoned that something must be 
transmitted through, while independent of, the parents' bodies which 
that something puts variable limits on the acquiring of new 
characteristics. He conducted experiments on rabbits to show that 
acquired characteristics were not inherited as implied by his cousin 
Darwin's theory of pangenesis. But the experiments were inconclusive, 
and his own theory of multiple germinal cells was confused.

Science alone does not explain the emergence of a new theory of heredity.

With the Enlightenment attack on Christianity,  there was skepticism 
that God's curses served as an explanation for permanent inferiority 
and cultural stagnation of some peoples. The Lamarkian explanation 
did not rule out the possibility of racial equality or progress 
towards it.  Centuries of racial slavery created more pessimism than 
the Lamarckian theory allowed (though it could be argued that it 
required more pessimism than allowed by the even the more 
conservative Mendelian heredity which over time can also yield 
changes in populations, hence the grand synthesis).

It was  in attempting to make a post theological explanation for 
heritable  inferiority that Galton became fascinated with his cousin 
Darwin's studies of animal breeding and proposed both the separation 
of germinal and somatic cells and the performationist power of the 
germinal cells.

Racism as well as its policy arm of eugenics is borne here, and 
racist sentiment motivated scientific advance in terms of making the 
distinction between germinal and somatic cells and regress in the 
form of both a renewed preformationism (it's all already given in the 
germinal) and the horrific postulation of  deep differences in the 
quality of the all powerful germinal cells  as distributed among 
classes and races.

With great insensitivity Alan Sokal mocked charges of racism against 
Galton by including in his prank spurious proofs of the implicit 
racism in his statistical concepts.***

Centuries of slavery was not only the pivot for the divergence of the 
West from the East, retrospectively imagined to be the result of a 
millenium of Western cultural and political superiority; racial 
slavery was also the progenitor of genetic determinism, a most 
insidious and historically novel ideology which is outliving the old 
forms of racism.

   Galton's work would be most enthusiastically embraced in the United 
States  resulting in racially restrictive immigration laws and a 
hardening of anti black sentiment as shown by Desmond King in his 
book Making Americans.

Genetic determinism reinforces its hold on people today in the form 
of astonishing(ly overhyped) stories of commonalities of long 
separated twins and breathless announcements of a gene for this and 

And The Bell Curve has enjoyed practical success in the halls of 
political power even if fell flat in sociology departments..


***Here is Sokal's joke which is on him if he is actually ignorant of 
just how destructive and pernicious Galton proved to be; at the least 
the joke is in very poor taste.

Francis Galton and the Reverend H.W. Watson wrote (1874):
The decay of the families of men who occupied conspicuous positions 
in past times has been a subject of frequent research, and has given 
rise to various conjectures ...The instances are very numerous in 
which surnames that were once common have since become scarce or have 
wholly disappeared. The tendency is universal, and, in explanation of 
it, the conclusion has hastily been drawn that a rise in physical 
comfort and intellectual capacity is necessarily accompanied by a 
diminution in `fertility' ... Let  be the respective probabilities 
that a man has 0,1,2,... sons of his own, and so on. What is the 
probability that the male line is extinct after r generations, and 
more generally what is the probability for any given number of 
descendants in the male line in any given generation?
One cannot fail to be charmed by the quaint implication that human 
males reproduce asexually; nevertheless, the classism, 
social-Darwinism and sexism in this passage are obvious.

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