The modern world still grapples with a centuries-old problem: hatred based upon race, ethnicity, religion, and, well, the list goes on. But what's less frequently discussed is the science—or lack thereof—that has long fueled strife. To understand this, we must turn back to the days of Charles Darwin and his groundbreaking work on natural selection. As you might recall from biology, the basic idea is that organisms with the most favorable variations for adaptation are “fittest” and more likely to reproduce. For example, a brown moth, which blends in well with bark, is less likely to be eaten than a yellow one, which stands out to its predators. The brown one then passes on the trait to its offspring. (The phrase “survival of the fittest was actually coined by Herbert Spencer (1820—1903), an English philosopher.)
Since the 1800s, this ecological principle has been applied to human societies under the banner of Social Darwinism. The “theory” posits that some groups of people (those of northern European background) are “fitter” than others. The nod to natural laws offers an aura of scholarship and a logical explanation for inequality: Success is due to superior genetic, and conversely, poverty or crime are the result of “bad” genes. Social hierarchy is thus not a problem of unjust systems; it’s simply inevitable.
These biological “theories” helped spawn the eugenics movement—crudely put, selective breeding and sterilization to “improve” the human genetic stock and save society from future problems.A key leader in the movement was Charles Davenport (1886-1944), who spread his ideas in the 1910 publication Eugenics: The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding. Hitler embraced the false science to justify the Holocaust and elevate the supposed superior (but non-existent) Aryan race. Framed as a benefit to society, eugenic sterilization spread in the United States and abroad among many sectors of society, including the medical community, academics, and even religious leaders (although Catholics opposed it). Despite rising criticism, state-level efforts to legalize eugenic sterilization accelerated, leading to the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which upheld the practice on the grounds that the benefits to society outweighed individual rights.
Eugenics and Social Darwinism have a staunch ally in dehumanization, the portrayal of people as not fully human—a practice with a long, ugly history. Hitler compared the Jewish population to rats, and nineteenth-century scientists bolstered the slave trade by comparing African people to apes, a mindset that is still all too prevalent. In Australia, European colonizers declared the land “terra nullius”—empty land, implying it was not inhabited by people.
Interestingly, Darwin was a fervent abolitionist. While he considered “arguments in favor of and opposed to ranking the so-called races” in The Descent of Man (1896), he opposed the use of the then-accepted biological hierarchies as a rationale for slavery. That said, in The Voyage of the Beagle (1909), Darwin marveled at just how similar the “lower” races were to whites once “they” are “improved.” Darwin thus took a paternalistic view that inferior peoples are salvageable through Westernization.
Fast-forward, and the pseudo-science of Social Darwinism has been thoroughly discredited. The best science tells us that while physical traits are genetically determined, there is no “race gene.” Nonetheless, the toxic idea of genetic hierarchies lives on through the ideology of white supremacy. Other attempts to maintain the charade have permeated the mainstream, such as The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure (Hernstein & Murray), a 1994 book that asserted innate racial differences in intelligence. Still other individuals, such as Jordan Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, cloak the falsehood in more palatable language, such as the “hierarchy of competency” Peterson discusses in one of his videos.
Ignorance and ideology, not nature, are the cause of racism. Racism, in turn, spawned the concept of race: something far from natural, but rather a category created to justify oppression based on it.