As the bounds of the British Empire expanded beyond all previous imagination, that venture needed a unifying mythology. The Anglo-Saxonism of a prior age, focused on Europe and its Catholic menace, failed to give meaning to the threats and opportunities of global dominion.
A nation whose power grew from a refined understanding of time, energy, electricity and engineering needed a racial mythology cloaked in empirical certainty. Scientists like Thomas Huxley would give a newly invented white race a sheen of natural superiority, helping to forge a “special relationship” with the next rising power in America.
By the 1860’s, as the US was emerging from the Civil War, Britain had assumed direct rule over the Indian subcontinent, South Africa and Burma, vast territories with populations many times larger than Britain itself. This raised new questions, new opportunities, and new threats. The collapse of the slave republic of the US South created pressure to find new sources of cotton for British mills. With US emancipation, slavery was finally eliminated from the Anglophone world, remaining only as a lingering relic in Brazil, Cuba, East Africa and the Ottoman Empire. The British could, without cost, remake themselves as an empire of enlightenment and emancipation.
How does one turn values of education, science and inquiry so central to British power toward the disenfranchisement of much of the world? Scientists like Thomas Huxley would provide the answer, and their answer would resonate in the US up to our time.
Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his vigorous defense of evolution against religious critics, summed up the animating spirit of his age, “a man shall not say he knows or believes that which he has no scientific grounds for professing to know or believe.” Enlightenment values of curiosity, skepticism and investigation had produced an Industrial Revolution. Britain was turning science into steel, and steel into power.
In his great battle with Darwin’s religious detractors, Huxley would lay out a philosophy of inquiry he would describe as Agnosticism.
In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.
Huxley and his generation were converting scientific values into a moral outlook, a mythology. While pastors raged against Origin of Species for its theological implications, Huxley dissected them with extensive use of quantitative examples, thoroughly researched and vetted by peers. Though occasionally assertions are found which would later be invalidated by further research (eg, his use of the term “race” interchangeably with “species”), the conclusions he describes are rigorously researched, easily defensible at the time. In the late 19th century, Huxley was placing Darwin on the side of steam ships, telegraphs and factories, painting his opponents as the backward, superstitious heirs of the hated Inquisition. From one of his 1866 broadsides:
Surely, it is true that our countrymen are less subject to fire, famine, pestilence, and all the evils which result from a want of command over and due anticipation of the course of Nature, than were the countrymen of Milton; and health, wealth, and well-being are more abundant with us than with them? But no less certainly is the difference due to the improvement of our knowledge of Nature, and the extent to which that improved knowledge has been incorporated with the household words of men, and has supplied the springs of their daily actions.
Preachers and mystics might rail at the alleged horrors of this new mythology, but Huxley need only point to its results, leaning as always on material, empirical examples. Darwin’s world of science delivers new wonders every day while the priests and preachers deliver nothing but an imaginary world to come. Science, as a practice, was giving birth to a new and higher morality.
I say that natural knowledge, seeking to satisfy natural wants, has found the ideas which can alone still spiritual cravings. I say that natural knowledge, in desiring to ascertain the laws of comfort, has been driven to discover those of conduct; and to lay the foundations of a new morality.
There was a problem with this emphasis on science. Initiating a shift in values away from tradition and religion opened broad avenues of liberation. If a society was to be organized along rational lines, what rational defense could there be for the unbalanced power of ruling classes, the patriarchy, or imperial viceroys?
Men like Huxley would jettison their critical, empirical values in the time it takes to swat away a fly, when necessary to preserve their privileged position. At the close of the American Civil War, Huxley addressed the emerging question of black equality, a question with dangerous implications for the growing British Empire, concluding “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.”
His speech is interesting not for the repetition of familiar racist tropes, but for the ease with which Huxley abandons his entire system of values, a system he so strenuously worked to spread in other settings. In battles over evolution Huxley is relentlessly empirical, citing example after example of well-researched proofs, many of which still stand after more than a century of review. Meanwhile, in consigning most of humanity to degrading servitude, including all women, “assuredly” is a sufficient standard. Huxley’s dismissal of the fundamental rights of most of humanity has all the scientific rigor of an Easter homily.
Without bothering to reference a single fact, Huxley asserts that emancipation will “convert the slave from a well-fed animal into a pauperized man.”
Whatever the position of stable equilibrium into which the laws of social gravitation may bring the negro, all responsibility for the result will henceforward lie between Nature and him. The white man may wash his hands of it, and the Caucasian conscience be void of reproach for evermore. And this, if we look to the bottom of the matter, is the real justification for the abolition policy.
This formula is very important. Abolition absolves whites of the moral stain of empire. Repurposing scientific language for political purposes, the subjugation of conquered peoples is merely a “stable equilibrium,” an unavoidable natural consequence between capitalized “Nature” and the inferior races (and gender). What experiment demonstrated the physics of “social gravitation?” What review confirmed this research? None is necessary, because the premise of equality is “an illogical delusion,” undeserving of exploration.
Huxley lived under constant rhetorical fire for his promotion of evolution. Yet, no one of any profile or influence levelled an attack on him for this plainly unscientific, unsupported conclusion. Why?
Mythologies follow power. What would have happened to Huxley in the 1870’s if, instead of blithely and without evidence asserting the supremacy of the white race, he had told the truth. In the midst of his decades-long battle to achieve the broader public acceptance of Darwin’s theories, what if he had also stated that there is no basis in evolutionary science for the belief that race exists, or that any blanket “supremacy” between races is even possible? Huxley would have been promptly escorted to the margins of the debate from which, if he persisted, he would have been chased into silence.
Which Royal Society would have funded research aimed to question Huxley’s unsupported conclusion? Which club of gentlemen scientists would have tolerated a member’s work asserting the fact, easily proven, that race is a social construct without basis in biology? None.
Power in the late 19th century was being consolidated in the hands of men in Britain, and to a lesser though growing extent, the United States. Power rewarded those who congratulated the innate superiority of British and American men. It punished those who might challenge their influence.
Science is a power unto itself. In time those who unleashed it would watch it grow to challenge them, but in the near term power constrains the growth of mythologies. As English-speaking men with light skin aggregated enormous influence they demanded a mythology that could unify the nations under their leadership. Scientists were happy to oblige.
Under an emerging mythology of white supremacy, there was no price to be paid for using the imprimatur of science to promote unfounded, sometimes downright batty assertions, with terrifying implications for real, living people. Similarly, there was virtually no acclaim, funding, infrastructure or other support for high quality research which might have challenged the pillars of white supremacy. A young scientist faced no shortage of potential research topics without having to risk his reputation and career by threatening the ruling order. Myths follow power. While Britain ruled the waves, power almost everywhere on the globe was on the side of white supremacy.
Almost every scientific development of the period between the Civil War and World War II found someone looking to leverage it toward white supremacy. Evolution was distorted into eugenics, the belief that a society could prosper by cultivating its master race – and suppressing the genetically inferior. Advances in gynecology were channeled into forced sterilization of non-whites and those deemed “infirmed.” Research into the nature of intellect was almost immediately repurposed into nakedly racist ‘IQ tests’ in a story emblematic of science’s weakness for racist bunk.
The French government asked psychologist Alfred Binet to help them identify children who needed additional assistance in school. He introduced an intelligence test in 1905 to help. Before the ink could dry on Binet’s test it was exported to the US, reimagined to justify white supremacy. Eugenicist, Henry Goddard translated Binet’s test in 1908 for use in identifying “morons.” By 1913 it was being used at Ellis Island to conclude that 80% of incoming immigrants were “feeble minded,” led by Jews, at 83%.
Typical of the discipline, Goddard had hand-picked his test subjects to prove out his hypotheses. At Ellis Island he had excluded from testing all 1st and 2nd class passengers. He also excluded those who were “obviously normal” and made no attempt to establish a baseline percentage for his category. In short, his “research” was laughable.
For a sample of the intellectual rigor going into early IQ tests in the US, here’s a question administered to school children in Philadelphia. The children were asked to identify “which of these two faces are prettier,” then rated for intelligence on their answers.
Indiana was the first US state to yield to the emerging science of eugenics, passing a mandatory sterilization law in 1907. Phony eugenic science would inspire 32 states to pass forced sterilization laws resulting in more than 70,000 operations. The last recorded case was in North Carolina in 1964. These laws would, of course, disproportionately target Blacks and ethnic minorities.
On the strength of research at Cold Harbor more absurdly negligent than Goddard’s, eugenicist Henry Laughlin persuaded Congress in 1924 to shut off the immigration of “undesirable” immigrants, like Chinese, Africans, Italians and Jews. The Nazis would award Laughlin an honorary degree from the University of Heidelberg in appreciation of his influence on their forced sterilization laws.
The long legacy of white supremacy in science hasn’t ended. Racist concepts cemented into the scientific establishment through research more at home in a Medieval monastery than a laboratory, remain embedded in the scientific establishment.
James Watson earned a place in the scientific pantheon for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, without ever crediting the female researcher, Rosalind Franklin, whose unacknowledged work solved the puzzle. He remains to this day committed to the notion of white racial superiority without pointing to a shred of scientific evidence.
Dr Watson suggested a link between skin color and libido in 2000, suggesting the skin pigment melanin boosts sex drive. Evidence for this? None. He doesn’t feel he needs any. Like many others claiming to promote “unpopular truths,” Watson sees himself as courageous. In another interview he explained that “some anti-Semitism is justified. Just like some anti-Irish feeling is justified. If you can’t be criticised, that’s very dangerous. You lose the concept of a free society,”
In a 2018 documentary, Watson stated, “There’s a difference on the average between blacks and whites on IQ tests. I would say the difference is genetic.” He stands by these statements, complaining that the outrage they inspire is a form of censorship. Yet he never pauses to think that such damaging claims might demand at least the smallest scientific backing.
Why didn’t Watson or Huxley or the generations of scientists in between, feel that they needed convincing evidence before using their scientific credentials to dim the life prospects of most of humanity? Like anyone else, scientists devote serious work to the questions that matter. Mythologies follow power. In this context, those dominant mythologies determine which hypotheses carry enough importance to be worthy of pursuit. Under white supremacy, the fate of most of humanity isn’t a question worthy of scientific endeavor.
Once you cement into a culture a mythology of race, any venture of any kind, medical, commercial, scientific, etc., which fails to align with this mythology, regardless how well attested, will draw more scrutiny than even the most tenuous claims in favor of the dominant assumption. Further, that racism will permeate the foundational assumptions of any scientific inquiry, becoming an unconsidered variable in every equation, skewing outcomes without attracting notice.
What does this mean in practice? To this day, US doctors are measurably less likely to prescribe pain treatments for Black patients influenced by the belief that Blacks feel less pain than whites. Black women today in the US are twice as likely to die in childbirth as white women, and five times as likely in the over-30 age group. Innumerable “scientific” beliefs born out of lazy research in an age of unmitigated white supremacy continue in general circulation today, producing negative, sometimes lethal outcomes.
After continuing racist claims, Watson was recently stripped of his ties to the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, though he remains an honorary Knight Commander of the British Empire. The damage is done. Watson’s unsupported claims have joined Huxley’s original formulation in the foundations of the scientific establishment. Mythologies follow power. A myth of white supremacy crafted and reinforced to serve the needs of a 19th century empire continues to kill people today.