Racial Science and Ideology, 1930s-1950s

Annual Conference of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Guleph, Ontario, Canada (July 2005)

Panel description

This panel will focus on the appropriation of biological concepts of heredity, evolution and race in the 1930s to the 1950s for both conservative (Nazi, nationalist) and progressive (socialist, communist, international) aims. Nazi Germany provides historians and scientists with ample material to examine how science can be used and abused in the service of socio-political programs and ideologies. This panel will explore the range of scientific research on “race” and will examine the ideological and blurred boundaries between “real” science and “pseudo-science.” Because of the need to repudiate the racial concepts associated with the Nazis, historians have posed the research done in the years after the Holocaust as an absolute break from what preceded. However, we will examine the continuity of the intertwining of ideology and science in the historicization of this time period. The degree and nature of Nazi ideological influence over and misuse of scientific research related to inheritance and evolution during the Third Reich is well known. So well known, in fact, that it is often assumed “race science” refers only to the Nazis’ abuse of scientific concepts of heredity rather than to a range of activities that transcended ideological perspectives and spanned the breadth of social, political, cultural and scientific spheres.

Beginning with the years 1934-38, Eliza Slavet will present a paper which will re-evaluate the historicization of neo-Lamarckism in the context of racial science. Specifically, she will focus on Freud’s incorporation of Lamarckian notions of biological heredity and evolution in his theorization of Jewishness. Rather than associating Freud’s theory with Nazi racial science, Slavet will show that Freud’s Lamarckism was more similar to contemporary progressive attempts to improve the social conditions of oppressed and minority peoples. A 1941 paper of the German physician and public health official, Hans Reiter, will be discussed in the presentation by André Mineau and Gilbert Larochelle. Intimately involved in the administration of state supported medicine, Reiter demonstrates the dangers of liberally administering state-sponsored and coercive health measures and the intertwining of the institutions and work of the state and of medicine. In her presentation, Brigid Hains will focus on Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr, both of whom were active scientists in the 1930s but who are more well-known for their work on the evolutionary synthesis in the 1940s. In re-evaluating these two scientists’ work, Hains will question the immediate post-war repudiation of scientific concepts of race and explore the boundaries between “functionalism” and “essentialism.” As theories of heredity and evolution continued to develop in the postwar period, they could not so easily repudiate all categories and concepts which had proved highly problematic in Nazi Germany. From the 1930s to the1950s, racial science was a mercurial field whose rhetoric and research was used to bolster a range of social and political programs, both utopian and dystopian.