Perhaps the best known document produced by the United Nations is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Not far behind is the Genocide Convention. Much less well-known is that from 1950 to 1967, the UN through Unesco put out four statements on race and, in 1952, a very short book, The Race Concept: The Results of an Inquiry. These statements were framed by a committee of scientists and signed on to by many more. These were the postwar years. The horror of what the Nazis had done had not worn off yet. The concern was to thoroughly repudiate and invalidate the Nazis’ idea of race. Even scientists who thought there were important differences between races wanted to make it clear that the Nazis were an abomination and no scientist should support what they did.
The first statement (1950) disputed the value of the term ‘race’ and suggested that it would be better to talk about ethnic groups. The history of groups is more important than genetic differences. This first statement considered race more a myth than a biological fact. “For all practical purposes ‘race’ is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth. The myth of ‘race’ has created an enormous amount of human and social damage … and caused untold suffering” (§14). The social and biological unity of mankind was stressed.
Unesco got a fair amount of pushback from scientists who argued that race may indeed be a valuable concept and that they should be allowed to study racial differences without any ideological constraints. This resulted in a second statement on race in 1951 (discussed below). Then in 1952, in The Race Concept, they explained why they had made certain changes. Unesco acknowledged the criticisms made of the first statement and quoted at length from various remarks made by scientists who agreed and disagreed with various parts of the first statement. The two biggest criticisms that were made were of the opinion that “there are no mental differences between racial groups,” urging the need to keep an open mind about this, and the opinion that biology supports the idea that “man is born with drives towards co-operation.”
In 1951, Unesco published its second statement on race to accommodate the criticisms it had received. There is some controversy as to whether this second statement caved into scientific racism. In The Race Concept, Unesco acknowledged that this charge had been made and that some people regarded the criticisms of the first statement “as representing a victory for racism and the defeat of a naive humanitarianism.”
I have not studied the first two statements carefully enough to decide whether the second one represented a major break from what they had sought to accomplish in the first. But it is interesting that the second one stressed two points about how terrible racism is, which it had failed to do in the first statement. In order to strike an even greater blow against Nazism, the 1951 statement flatly declared that there is no such thing as a pure race (§7) and that popular ideas of superior and inferior races are not supported by science (§4).
What has Darwin to do with all this? The 1950 statement dragged Darwin in as support for an idea it wished to promote, namely, that “a co-operative spirit is not only natural to men, but more deeply rooted than any self-seeking tendencies” (§14). That is quite a stretch concerning Darwin. The statement quoted the following from The Descent of Man (this is near the end of Chapter 4): “As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
This is one of the worst cases of quoting out of context that I have ever seen. Anyone barely familiar with Darwin’s work would know that he believed the “lower” races of mankind were incapable of achieving this kind of morality. In Descent, he was convinced that savages would never help a stranger. Only civilized human beings do that. He believed in the Spanish maxim, “Never, never trust an Indian.” Even in the paragraph Unesco quoted from, Darwin went on to state that we should extend our sympathies to the lower animals, but offered his opinion that this was an unknown feeling in savages, except towards their pets. Darwin himself extended very little sympathy “to the men of all nations and races.” He insisted that the civilized races would exterminate the lower races and expressed no regrets about it. Nowhere in his system of thought did Darwin make cooperation among all human beings a centerpiece. In one letter, he openly stated his dislike of cooperative schemes and his belief that anything opposed to the principle of competition would be very bad for society.
Interestingly, one scientist implicitly objected to Unesco’s misuse of Darwin by pointing out what Darwin really believed. The Race Concept provides a lengthy quotation from Dr. C.D. Darlington of Britain. In it, Darlington quotes from a more representative part of Descent where Darwin states of human races, “Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties” (near the beginning of Chapter 7 of Descent). Darlington says, “Fortunately genetics has given us every reason to agree with him [Darwin]” and also adds, “By trying to prove that races do not differ in these respects we do no service to mankind.” In another statement in this Unesco book, Dr. A.E. Mirsky from NewYork, addressing an article by Darlington, disparagingly refers to “the guesses and prejudices of Darlington.” I have no doubt that Mirsky was correct about Darlington’s scientific work, but as to quoting Darwin accurately in context, Darlington was right.
The Unesco statements on race were not without controversy. Still, Unesco tried to do the right thing and raised awareness of the dangers of scientific racism. Too bad it took a misstep in misrepresenting what Darwin believed. If we really want to defeat scientific racism, we should be honest about Darwin as one of its proponents.
© 2017 Leon Zitzer