The modern biological definition of race developed in the 19th century with scientific racist theories. The term scientific racism refers to the use of science to justify and support racist beliefs, which goes back to the early 18th century, though it gained most of its influence in the mid-19th century, during the New Imperialism period. Also known as academic racism, such theories first needed to overcome the Church's resistance to positivist accounts of history and its support of monogenism, the concept that all human beings were originated from the same ancestors, in accordance with creationist accounts of history.
These racist theories put forth on scientific hypothesis were combined with unilineal theories of social progress, which postulated the superiority of the European civilization over the rest of the world. Furthermore, they frequently made use of the idea of "survival of the fittest", a term coined by Herbert Spencer in 1864, associated with ideas of competition, which were named social Darwinism in the 1940s. Charles Darwin himself opposed the idea of rigid racial differences in The Descent of Man (1871), in which he argued that humans were all of one species, sharing common descent. He recognised racial differences as varieties of humanity, and emphasised the close similarities between people of all races in mental faculties, tastes, dispositions and habits, while still contrasting the culture of the "lowest savages" with European civilization.
At the end of the 19th century, proponents of scientific racism intertwined themselves with eugenics discourses of "degeneration of the race" and "blood heredity". Henceforth, scientific racist discourses could be defined as the combination of polygenism, unilinealism, social Darwinism, and eugenism. They found their scientific legitimacy on physical anthropology, anthropometry, craniometry, phrenology, physiognomy, and others now discredited disciplines in order to formulate racist prejudices.
Before being disqualified in the 20th century by the American school of cultural anthropology (Franz Boas, etc.), the British school of social anthropology (Bronisław Malinowski, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, etc.), the French school of ethnology (Claude Lévi-Strauss, etc.), as well as the discovery of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, such sciences, in particular anthropometry, were used to deduce behaviours and psychological characteristics from outward, physical appearances.
The neo-Darwinian synthesis, first developed in the 1930s, eventually led to a gene-centered view of evolution in the 1960s. According to the Human Genome Project, the most complete mapping of human DNA to date indicates that there is no clear genetic basis to racial groups. While some genes are more common in certain populations, there are no genes that exist in all members of one population and no members of any other.
Heredity and eugenics
The first theory of eugenics was developed in 1869 by Francis Galton (1822–1911), who used the then-popular concept of degeneration. He applied statistics to study human differences and the alleged "inheritance of intelligence", foreshadowing future uses of "intelligence testing" by the anthropometry school. Such theories were vividly described by the writer Émile Zola (1840–1902), who started publishing in 1871, a twenty-novel cycle, Les Rougon-Macquart, where he linked heredity to behavior. Thus, Zola described the high-born Rougons as those involved in politics (Son Excellence Eugène Rougon) and medicine (Le Docteur Pascal) and the low-born Macquarts as those fatally falling into alcoholism (L'Assommoir), prostitution (Nana), and homicide (La Bête humaine).
During the rise of Nazism in Germany, some scientists in Western nations worked to debunk the regime's racial theories. A few argued against racist ideologies and discrimination, even if they believed in the alleged existence of biological races. However, in the fields of anthropology and biology, these were minority positions until the mid-20th century. According to the 1950 UNESCO statement, The Race Question, an international project to debunk racist theories had been attempted in the mid-1930s. However, this project had been abandoned. Thus, in 1950, UNESCO declared that it had resumed:
...up again, after a lapse of fifteen years, a project that the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation has wished to carry through but that it had to abandon in deference to the appeasement policy of the pre-war period. The race question had become one of the pivots of Nazi ideology and policy. Masaryk and Beneš took the initiative of calling for a conference to re-establish in the minds and consciences of men everywhere the truth about race ... Nazi propaganda was able to continue its baleful work unopposed by the authority of an international organisation.
The Third Reich's racial policies, its eugenics programs and the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust, as well as the Romani people in the Porrajmos (the Romani Holocaust) and others minorities led to a change in opinions about scientific research into race after the war. Changes within scientific disciplines, such as the rise of the Boasian school of anthropology in the United States contributed to this shift. These theories were strongly denounced in the 1950 UNESCO statement, signed by internationally renowned scholars, and titled The Race Question.
Polygenism and racial typologies
Madison Grant's map, from 1916, charting the "present distribution of European races", with the Nordics
in red, the Alpines
in green, and the Mediterraneans
Works such as Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855) may be considered as one of the first theorizations of this new racism, founded on an essentialist notion of race, which opposed the former racial discourse, of Boulainvilliers for example, which saw in races a fundamentally historical reality, which changed over time. Gobineau, thus, attempted to frame racism within the terms of biological differences among humans, giving it the legitimacy of biology.
Gobineau's theories would be expanded in France by Georges Vacher de Lapouge (1854–1936)'s typology of races, who published in 1899 The Aryan and his Social Role, in which he claimed that the white "Aryan race" "dolichocephalic", was opposed to the "brachycephalic" race, of whom the "Jew" was the archetype. Vacher de Lapouge thus created a hierarchical classification of races, in which he identified the "Homo europaeus (Teutonic, Protestant, etc.), the "Homo alpinus" (Auvergnat, Turkish, etc.), and finally the "Homo mediterraneus" (Neapolitan, Andalus, etc.) He assimilated races and social classes, considering that the French upper class was a representation of the Homo europaeus, while the lower class represented the Homo alpinus. Applying Galton's eugenics to his theory of races, Vacher de Lapouge's "selectionism" aimed first at achieving the annihilation of trade unionists, considered to be a "degenerate"; second, creating types of man each destined to one end, in order to prevent any contestation of labour conditions. His "anthroposociology" thus aimed at blocking social conflict by establishing a fixed, hierarchical social order.
The same year, William Z. Ripley used identical racial classification in The Races of Europe (1899), which would have a great influence in the United States. Other scientific authors include H.S. Chamberlain at the end of the 19th century (a British citizen who naturalized himself as German because of his admiration for the "Aryan race") and Madison Grant, a eugenicist and author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Madison Grant provided statistics for the Immigration Act of 1924, which severely restricted immigration of Jews, Slavs, and southern Europeans, who were subsequently hindered in seeking to escape Nazi Germany.
Human zoos (called "People Shows"), were an important means of bolstering popular racism by connecting it to scientific racism: they were both objects of public curiosity and of anthropology and anthropometry. Joice Heth, an African American slave, was displayed by P.T. Barnum in 1836, a few years after the exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, the "Hottentot Venus", in England. Such exhibitions became common in the New Imperialism period, and remained so until World War II. Carl Hagenbeck, inventor of the modern zoos, exhibited animals beside humans who were considered "savages".
Congolese pygmy Ota Benga was displayed in 1906 by eugenicist Madison Grant, head of the Bronx Zoo, as an attempt to illustrate the "missing link" between humans and orangutans: thus, racism was tied to Darwinism, creating a social Darwinist ideology that tried to ground itself in Darwin's scientific discoveries. The 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition displayed Kanaks from New Caledonia. A "Congolese village" was on display as late as 1958 at the Brussels' World Fair.