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