Scientific Racism & Pseudoscience: Probing the Early Minds of a Dark Past

If an observer were to sit in on a university science course, he or she would fail to find the professor giving an introductory history lesson on the hallmarks in that particular field. Usually, the history lesson comes from the introduction of concepts surrounding the subject, with less emphasis on the minds that shaped the approaches. However, if we probe the minds of the early thinkers who contributed to fields such as anthropology, we find interesting details about how the scientific method was employed to justify racial inferiority, racial superiority, and racial biases. Thus, the term scientific racism is born, whereby the researcher uses supposed scientific techniques to either passively or actively support discrete separation of races and subject such races to a hierarchical order [1].
Scientific RacismHow did such a practice come to be accepted in the scientific community? A multitude of evidence points to specific historical events that took place around the world as early as the 18th century, but some would venture to say that the foundation was laid much earlier – as early as 5th century BC [2].In The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity, Benjamin Isaac points out that in Hippocrates’ Airs, Waters, and Places, the famous Greek physician claims that dark people are borne of cowardice, while light people have inherent courageous attributes. Isaac’s interpretation extends from a Hippocrates quote claiming the invariable climate of these “dark peoples” homes are what prevents “any strong change of the body whereby the temper might be ruffled and they be roused to inconsiderate emotion and passion” [3].  Isaac’s claim is a significant one: refuting the Greeks harbored more than just ethnic and cultural prejudices, but racial prejudices as well. Romans were no strangers to such racially-charged writing either; such is the case when architect Vitruvius wrote of the “poverty of blood” of “races of the most southern half of the axis” [2].

These philosophies, although wrought with instances of racialized thinking, became the basis for a new generation of thinkers because they were conceived in a place free from institutions of religion and tradition. If we fast forward nearly two thousand years to the Enlightenment, a period during the late 17th century and 18th century, we discover that teachers and pupils alike were rediscovering such philosophies and histories of ancient Greece and Rome [4]. As a consequence, the Enlightenment brought about a time where the philosophers and intellectuals of Europe challenged previous ideas, those which were grounded in faith and religious institutions, often using the scientific method as a means of completing such a task [4]. In doing so, the debate between monogenism and polygenism came into view [5]. Monogenism, or the argument that all races have a single origin, is one that aligned with the biblical belief of Adam and Eve as the origin of the human species. On the other hand, polygenism is the argument that each race had separate origins [5]. Many scientists of the Enlightenment began to inquire about these two arguments on race; most notably was Robert Boyle, of “Boyle’s Law” fame. Boyle, a devout Christian, contended that all races came from Adam and Eve, and pioneered early race studies by studying parents who had given birth to albino babies. Boyle reported that such babies were born of different variations of color and thus Adam and Eve, who he assumed were of fair complexions, could give birth to different races: “that a Race of Negroes might be begun though none of the Sons of Adam for many Precendent Generations were of that Complexion [6, 7].

This convergence of ideas, when published and accepted as scientific method, led to the false typification of physical and behavioral traits to certain sets of human beings. From this pseudoscience grew scientific racism, giving impetus to a multiple stains on the annals of scientific thought, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Nazi eugenics, and Social Darwinism, well-known examples of breaches in scientific ethics. Boyle even extended his argument, saying that such characteristics of skin color may be due to “seminal impression,” implying that race had an inseparable, inherent element about it [6, 7]. Boyle’s curiosity surrounding skin color and his subsequent use of the word “race” to describe a subset of a larger species at this time in history brought the idea of race and the scientific determination of race to the forefront. Boyle had surely primed a modern society for racial divisions.

kevin(1)In addition to Boyle’s observations, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus was developing the renowned binomial nomenclature used to classify species of flora and fauna. Through his work in Systema Naturae, published in 1767, Linnaeus distinguished between five human taxa: the Europeanus, the Monstrosus, the Africanus, the Americanus, and the Asiaticus [8]. Linnaeus, similar to Boyle, used skin color as a means of classifying different human taxa; however, Linnaeus also used geographical location as additional criteria of determining taxa. Thus, Linnaeus was one of the first researchers to propose that geography also played a role in racial determination. However, and probably more telling to the development of scientific racism, was the rhetoric Linnaeus used to describe each human taxa. For instance, the Asiaticus were “yellow-skinned, avaricious, and easily distracted,” whereas the Africanus were “black-skinned, relaxed, and of negligent character” while the Europeanus were “white-skinned, of gentle character, inventive mind, and bellicose” [8]. Linnaeus’s prescription of specific character traits to his taxa of humans supported the idea that race had differential behavioral origin, but he argued for similar ancestral origins (i.e., to Adam and Eve) [9]. Such varied behavioral origins led to the belief that these differences made each subset of humans more or less humane than each other, and can be observed in scientists’ work that follows Linnaeus. For instance, Linnaeus later influenced the language of zoologist Georges Cuvier, who extended prescribed character traits to physical attributes and animals who Cuvier felt had similar mannerisms and bone structures, such as describing blacks as of a “monkey-like tribe” [10]).

Cuvier and subsequent scientists would help cultivate the groundwork for controversial fields such as craniometry, but theirs and others’ deeds are interesting to observe in a historical context. The scientific minds fostered during the Enlightenment incidentally converged on an idea that was faith-based, that Adam and Eve were the origin of all races, despite the Enlightenment’s overall movement to challenge biblical notions. This convergence of ideas, when published and accepted as scientific method, led to the false typification of physical and behavioral traits to certain sets of human beings.


  1. Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy. A History of Anthropological Theory. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2008.
  2. Isaac, Benjamin H. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.
  3. Hippocrates. ” On Airs, Waters, and Places The Internet Classics Archive by MIT, 1994. Accessed December 14, 2013.
  4. Jewell, Richard. “Rise of Enlightened Reason.” Experiencing the Humanities. August 24, 2002. Accessed November 20, 2013.
  5. Boyle, Jennifer. Anamorphosis in Early Modern Literature: Mediation and Affect. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2010.
  6. Boyle, Robert, and Marie Boas. Hall. Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours. New York: Johnson, 1964.
  7. Palmeri, Frank. Humans and Other Animals in Eighteenth-century British Culture: Representation, Hybridity, Ethics. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2006.
  8. Linné, Carl Von., and Johann Beckmann. SystemaNaturae. Gottingae: Vandenhoeck, 1772.
  9. Haller, John S. “The Species Problem: Nineteenth-Century Concepts of Racial Inferiority in the Origin of Man Controversy.” American Anthropologist 72, no. 6 (1970): 1319-329. doi:10.1525/aa.1970.72.6.02a00060.
  10. Cuvier, Georges, P. A. Latreille, Henry McMurtrie, and Robert T. Edes. The Animal Kingdom: Arranged in Conformity with Its Organization. New York: Carvill, 1831.

Image credit: Taberandrew. “Hippocrates Statue and Dooley Hospital Door.” Flickr. Date last modified October 9, 2007.
Image credit: Skara kommun. “Robert Boyle.” Flickr. Date last modified December 5, 2011.

Kevin McPherson is a third-year student at Emory University, majoring in biology and interdisciplinary studies, with an emphasis on Native American studies and scientific racism. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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