Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

The 9 Most Influential Works of Scientific Racism, Ranked

Illustration for article titled The 9 Most Influential Works of Scientific Racism, Ranked

Former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade has just published a book about race and genetics that has stirred up debates over scientific racism that go back over 250 years. Where did his ideas come from? Here are nine major works of scientific racism that are still influencing thinkers today.


First, a definition. By "scientific racism," I mean any argument that relies on allegedly scientific ideas — whether genetics or phrenology — to claim that some racial groups are naturally superior to others. Often the scientific ideas of one generation are discovered to be racist dogma by the next. But scientific racism has persisted for almost 200 hundred years in the way we frame debates over race, with terms like "eugenics" replaced by new ones. Here are some major works that have helped create a scientific frame for racist ideas.

1. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade (2014)


Right now, it's undeniable that Wade's work is the most influential work of scientific racism circulating today. His argument is that racial groups have genetic predispositions to certain kinds of mental skills, some of which evolved only over the past few hundred years. As a result, some races are more creative or intelligent than others. The Chinese, he argues, are more prone to obedience, while people from tribal societies in Africa are impulsive and quick to consume everything they have. Meanwhile, Europeans are good at becoming prosperous due to their thoughtful, forward-thinking natures.

Wade's work is a classic example of using the idea of genetics to explain social inequalities. He believes that the citizens of nations share genetic qualities, and that political events such as the rise of centralized banking can be traced to a shift in the European genome. This is a form of scientific racism because it justifies racial inequality as "rational" — after all, Africans are biologically incapable of consolidating their wealth. Meanwhile, Europeans are great at it.

2. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua (2011)


Like Wade, Chua argues that there are certain racial groups who are just plain superior — though she would probably disagree with Wade on the specifics. While Wade thinks that the Chinese are sheeplike followers, Chua believes that her cultural inheritance has filled her with a fire of assertiveness. She's raised her daughters strictly, "the Chinese way," pushing them as hard as possible to succeed in the future. Chua contrasts her parenting with typical American parenting, which she believes is all about nurturing individuality. Though she doesn't explicitly describe the difference between Chinese and Americans in genetic terms, she does a kind of pop sociological analysis that suggests Chinese culture is superior and explains why Asian kids often succeed while their Western counterparts become aimless flakes.

3. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (1994)


In this incredibly influential work of economics and sociology, researchers Herrnstein and Murray argue that class differences between whites and blacks in America can be traced back to differences in IQ. Blacks, they write, are simply not as intelligent as whites (and, to a certain extent, Asians — though mostly they're talking just about blacks and whites). Because many studies show that IQ is a very strong indicator of economic success, they believe that IQ differences are at the root of racial differences. They use "scientific" data about IQ scores to dismiss the idea that political inequalities and the history of slavery in the U.S. are causes of racial inequality.

4. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, by Francis Galton (1883)

Galton was a nineteenth century statistician who is widely credited with popularizing the idea of eugenics. He helped shape our modern understanding of population genetics, and did it partly by looking at the genetic backgrounds of people with what he considered to be good and bad traits. He was related to Charles Darwin and a strong supporter of the idea of evolution, which helped him come up with the idea that human behavior was the result of a conflict between "nature" and "nurture." In Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, he suggests that people need to plan marriages based on eugenics, seeking spouses from prominent or successful families. Like many scientific racists, he believed that some families were more intelligent than others and that they were more economically and politically successful. It just so happened that most of these intelligent families were among Britain's ruling class.


Galton believed that as long as these people were encouraged to have children, the population would undergo a eugenic trend, with humanity becoming smarter and more successful. While many of Galton's followers in the twentieth century applied the theory of eugenics to racial groups, Galton was more interested in proving there were genetic differences between class groups.

5. Systema Naturae, by Carl Linnaeus (1767)

Illustration for article titled The 9 Most Influential Works of Scientific Racism, Ranked

Linnaeus created the system we still use today for categorizing life forms into species, genus, family, and so forth. His contributions to the life sciences are tremendous. He was a great scientist, and yet he also believed that humans came in five distinct species, which corresponded mainly to racial groups. They were Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus — you can probably figure out the groups he meant. The fifth category he called Monstrosus, and referred mostly to people born with visible disabilities. In many ways, Linnaeus' system of categorizing races as species has never really left us. Many people, like Wade and Chua, still believe that there is a fundamental difference between the humans who are categorized into these racial groups. In the twenty-first century, however, population genetics studies show that these groups don't necessarily share genetic traits, even if they share culture or a phenotype.

6. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, Margaret Mead (1928)


Mead's famous work of anthropology is an example of scientific racism that explores racial differences through the "noble savage" stereotype rather than the "dumb savage" stereotype that haunts the work of everyone from Galton to Wade. As a young anthropologist, Mead went to live among the Ta'u on the Samoan Islands. While there, she became convinced that their "simple" way of life was superior to that of "civilized" people in Europe and the Americas. She described the sexual openness and communal culture of the Ta'u as a kind of beautiful innocence, and argued that American culture had become unhealthy because it had suppressed a more primitive way of life. Though Mead meant her work to champion the Ta'u, she represented their lives in a very biased fashion, molding them to fit her own wishes about what she wished American life could be like. She also suggested there was a cultural uniformity to the Ta'u that didn't exist. Today, Mead's work remains controversial because it is considered foundational to anthropology as well as foundational to anthropological racism.

7. Preface to The Origin of Species, by Clémence Royer (1862)

Royer was an evolutionary scientist who translated Darwin's great work of evolutionary theory into French, while also adding a lot of footnotes and a lengthy preface to advance her own theories about race. Her translation was incredibly popular. Though she was a fierce feminist who believed that women and men were cognitive equals, she didn't have the same beliefs about racial groups. In her Preface, she wrote that the races are "not distinct species" but "quite unequal varieties." She claimed that natural selection made it clear that:

Superior races are destined to supplant inferior ones ... One needs to think carefully before claiming political and civic equality among people composed of an Indo-European minority and a Mongolian or Negro majority.


Amusingly, her detractors claimed that Royer's racist ideas couldn't be taken seriously because as a woman she didn't understand the big picture.

8. Crania Americana, by Samuel Morton (1839)

In this illustrated work, Morton advanced the popular nineteenth century idea that you could use skull shapes to determine personality characteristics. This book became one of the leading examples of then-scientific theory of craniology, especially as applied to racial groups. Morton went all over America, drawing the skulls of people that Linneus would have classified as the species "Americanus." The book became enormously influential in its time, and created a "scientific" foundation for one justification that slave-owners used, which was that some racial groups were naturally passive, obedient, and unintelligent — and thus perfectly content to be slaves. Though craniology (and its sister "science" phrenology) have become completely discredited, their legacy lives on in the work of people like Murray and Wade, who use IQ tests to argue that racial groups are cognitively unlike each other.


9. "Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race," by Samuel Cartwright (1851)

Physician Cartwright used his medical expertise to justify his beliefs about the inferiority of Africans in this pamphlet that was extremely popular among slave-owners. Perhaps Cartwright's most widely-discussed idea was the disease "Drapetomania," which cast as mental illness black slaves' efforts to run away and escape servitude. Because Cartwright believed that Africans were mentally unfit for self-determination, he argued that they only try to escape when they go crazy. Today Cartwright's work has been assigned the status of pseudoscience among medical professionals. But there remains a widely-held stereotype that when blacks are assertive that they are "crazy" or "dangerous," whereas when whites are assertive they are simply "commanding" and "good leaders."


And as you can see from this list, there are still many people who are using science to justify the claim that there are cognitive differences between racial groups. And in the genre of scientific racism, those differences are said to make white people more intelligent, Chinese people more ambitious, islanders more open-minded, and many other things that have nothing to do with actual, verifiable scientific evidence — but have everything to do with racism.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


How many scientific works are listed here? I see some pseudoscientific works...