Illustration (detail) from a 1901 article on the scientific study of the measurements and proportions of the human body
The creation and propagation of myths surrounding so-called “human races”—often used as evidence of the innate superiority or inferiority of individuals, groups, or nations—has occurred throughout human history. Philosophers, writers, politicians, educators, and artists have shaped those myths for centuries, and in more recent years Hollywood and social media have also had a hand.
But scientists and physicians have also been complicit, says evolutionary biologist Rui Diogo. Though science is often depicted as the antidote to wrongheaded ideas, he holds that scientific research and scholarship have long played crucial roles in buttressing prejudice and justifying harm to other humans.
Diogo traces the roots of myths surrounding race from ancient Greeks to Darwin to Nazi Germany to today. He examines how the often-incorrect results of studies of racial craniology and anatomical studies were combined with Darwin's evolutionary ideas about the superiority and “higher morality” of Europeans, and how this contributed to the rise of eugenic theories that have inspired Nazi ideology, among others.
In the wake of World War II and the discovery of Nazi horrors, many scientists have focused on emphasizing the unity and continuity among all human groups and between humans and other primates. Unfortunately, that outlook is not universal, and disturbing examples still exist that reflect earlier racist ideologies based on false beliefs.
Though contradicted by a significant amount of contemporary scientific data, they continue to be used by politicians and the broader public—and even by some scientists. Diogo examines how these beliefs might influence scientific and medical research today as well as and how they continue to color political discourse and social media.
Diogo is an associate professor of anatomy at Howard University’s College of Medicine and a resource faculty member at George Washington University’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology.
His book, Meaning of Life, Human Nature, and Delusions: How Tales about Love, Sex, Races, Gods and Progress Affect Our Lives and Earth's Splendor (Springer), is available for purchase.
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