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What can we learn from race science?

Next week, University College Cork will play host to a conference on race science.

19th Century illustration of racial differences
19th Century illustration of racial differences
Image: pbs

SIMPLY THE IDEA of ethnic science is enough to set alarm bells off for many. It conjures up images of outdated colonialism, complete with skull measuring and racial hierarchies.

This coming week, University College Cork will hold a conference entitled: ’National Races: Anthropology, classification and politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’.

Organiser of the conference, Dr. Richard McMahon explains:

You have to be careful how you phrase these things to make it clear we’re not trying to resurrect the practice of dividing people up into different races… it’s not about measuring skulls. It is about looking at the people who were measuring skulls.

Importance today 

For Dr. McMahon, the study of race science is important in protecting the modern scientific world from the ideas of the past. For him, some of the concepts put forward in race science are subconsciously mirrored in modern-day scientific practices.

Ripley_map_of_cephalic_index_in_Europe A 19th century map showing broadness of skulls across Europe. Source: wikicommons

“Going back before the 19th century there was the idea of polygenism. This was the idea that there was more than one Adam, figuratively speaking, and that is how the different races came about. Some geneticists now have the multi-regional theory, and they are making the same argument for modern humanity.

You would look at something like a modern idea of multi-regional theory completely differently if you know a little bit about the race sciences, and that is why it is important that this conference has an impact.

For around a century from the 1830s, race science was considered legitimate scientific practice. In the 1840s, future Prime Minister of Great Britain Benjamin Disraeli stood in the House of Commons and said: “Race implies difference, difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance.”

In his 1871 text, ‘The Descent of Man’, Charles Darwin proposed the idea that the different races most likely have different origins:

As it is improbable that the numerous and unimportant points of resemblance between the several races of man in bodily structure and mental faculties (I do not here refer to similar customs) should all have been independently acquired, they must have been inherited from progenitors who had these same characters.

Race science was brought to a rather abrupt conclusion in the wake of the Second World War due to its proliferation in Nazi Germany. Throughout the Third Reich, the Nazis had engaged physicians, medically trained geneticists, psychiatrists, and anthropologists in the implementation of racial health policies. The campaign resulted in around 400,000 forced sterilisations and over 275,000 euthanasia deaths.

Scientific_racism_irish - image for article An illustration from the late 19th Century showing an alleged similarity between Irish Iberian and Negro features in contrast to the higher Anglo-Teutonic. Source: wiki commons/strickland constable

Importance to the Irish 

The history of race science has a particular importance in the Irish context. The work carried out in the 19th century is still echoed today, according to Dr. McMahon.

Within the branch of racial psychology, the Irish were presented as being, in a way pathetic. They were showed as a group who lost to the English because of their better qualities. They were thinking of more spiritual things rather than the conquering material ideology. We were thought to be a more spiritual people.

“These ideas were later adopted by late 19th century organisations like Sinn Féin and the Gaelic League. This mystical idea of Ireland still exists. You can see it in the Fáilte Ireland literature.”

Recently the idea of the Irish having Iberian and Mediterranean origins has resurfaced and grown in popularity. This idea was examined in the 2009 documentary ‘The Blood of the Irish’. Whilst an intriguing idea, Dr. McMahon points out that it is one that has its roots in race science and is to be approached with caution.

When we hear about these things that the Irish are the most ancient group of people in Europe and we have these Mediterranean roots, we should be able to take that with a certain pinch of salt, because it’s tied back to race science.

The work from the conference will be collated into a book ‘National Races’, which shall examine the history of race sciences in Europe and internationally.

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