Four Amazingly Racist Scientific Theories
Ever since approximately the time white men took over science, science has been mostly concerned with white men. When it has turned its eye to the less pale, it was usually in the service of proving why they’re bad, or at least worse, leading to some theories that were so wild, they’d be hilarious if they weren’t so horrifying. Such as…
Homo criminalis Was a Whole Separate Species… of Criminals
Cesare Lombroso was an Italian doctor in the 19th century and considered the father of modern criminology, the first guy to study crime scientifically, and like most guys who were the first to do some kind of science, he was impressively wrong about so many things. The turning point in his career came when he examined the skull of a particularly fascinating and conveniently dead criminal and discovered indentations supposedly similar to those of “inferior animals.” Did you just say to yourself, “Hey, wait a minute, that sounds a lot like the debunked racist pseudoscience known as phrenology”? Then you’re on the right track!
Whereas phrenology, which had already become popular, was used to prove that some people were less evolved than others, however, Lombroso decided these supposedly distinguishing characteristics of criminals practically constituted a whole separate species, Homo criminalis, or “criminal man.” By sheer coincidence, of course, these characteristics just so happened to be commonly exhibited by non-white people. Specifically, “the projection of the lower face and jaws (prognathism) found in negroes,” “oblique eyelids, a Mongolian characteristic” and a nose with a “tip rising like an isolated peak from the swollen nostrils, a form found among the Akkas, a tribe of pygmies of Central Africa.” Did you have “pygmies” on your racist bingo card? Because we did not.
For a founder of a branch of science, Lombroso had plenty of unscientific beliefs. In addition to “people I don’t like are a different species,” he also believed in psychics and ghosts, becoming convinced that one particular little girl could not only see the future but also “see, read and smell with other parts of her body.” But it’s those pygmies who are simple.
‘Hybrid Degeneration’ Would Leave Mixed-Race Children Sterile
Species of species, you know how mules are usually sterile because horses and donkeys have different numbers of chromosomes? You know how that’s completely different from humans of different races? They didn’t in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. It was generally accepted in the scientific community that reproduction between people of different races would result in children with “hybrid degeneration,” meaning they would be physically weaker, more susceptible to disease and more likely to be sterile, the odds of which would somehow only go up the more times they were defied. This just so happened to support arguments for laws against interracial marriage, but that was totally a coincidence.
You can say we know now that that’s ridiculous (and to be clear, it is — race is generally unimportant on a genetic level), but after Gregor Mendel’s work on trait heritability became known, things got even sillier. What if, people said, someone from a tall race, like a Scottish guy, reproduced with a member of a small race, like an Italian woman, and the resulting offspring inherited his mother’s tiny body but his father’s enormous internal organs? What then? You’re just going to allow a baby to be exploded by his own spleen? It became clear reasonably quickly (but not nearly fast enough) that that’s not how it worked, but also, it curiously failed to lead to any legal restrictions on Scottish-Italian marriage.
‘Drapetomania” Was a Mental Illness That Made Slaves Run Away
In 1851, Southern plantation owners were having a huge problem with slaves running away, and they just couldn’t understand it. What kind of person wouldn’t want to be kidnapped, forced to work without pay under the threat of violent punishment and be legally controlled as someone’s property? According to Dr. Samuel Cartwright, no one psychologically healthy. That year, he published his theory of “drapetomania,” a disease of “mental alienation” that he believed caused slaves to become “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” and insanely run away from their captors. There was simply no other explanation.
Unlike most scientific racism, Cartwright’s diagnosis might have actually done the tiniest shred of good for the community it targeted because he believed drapetomania was caused by poor working conditions and advocated for treating slaves better to prevent them from succumbing. Then again, he also believed it could be caused by treating slaves too well and any sign of self-respect should be met with swift punishment, so we take it all back.
Black Patients ‘Feel Less Pain’
One of the weirdest things that all these guys have in common is the persistent belief that the Black nervous system is somehow fundamentally different. Lombroso believed Homo criminalis was less sensitive to pain, and at the same time Cartwright published his theory of drapetomania, he also discussed his newly coined diagnosis of “dysaesthesia aethiopica,” basically laziness accompanied by insensitive skin lesions that were probably caused by whipping and coincidentally “cured” by it. This belief goes back to at least the 1700s, when one British doctor wrote in a medical manual that “what would be the cause of insupportable pain to a white man, a Negro would almost disregard,” claiming to “have amputated the legs of many Negroes who have held the upper part of the limb themselves,” because back then you could just say lies in such documents.
The scariest part (and oh, boy, there are stories of experiments that deserve their own horror franchise) is that while claiming people of color are a separate species or mixed-race children will be sterile will get you increasingly less politely ignored at the Thanksgiving dinner table today, a lot of doctors still believe Black patients feel less pain. In 2016, a survey of white medical students and residents — so these are young people, not the Lexus-driving old men — found that half of them expressed false beliefs about physiological differences between races, including pain tolerance differences and a full one-third who thought “Black skin is thicker than white skin.”
We’re not done: Half of surveyees also consistently rated hypothetical Black patients as feeling less pain than hypothetical white ones and more frequently recommended insufficient treatment for them. That’s not to say you should start treating your doctor as a hostile witness and interrogate them on their racial biases at your next Pap smear, but, um, maybe do that.