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Biology as a Technology of Social Justice in Interwar Britain: Arguments From Evolutionary History, Heredity, and Human Diversity

DOI: 10.1177/0162243913520330

Sommer, M. “Biology as a Technology of Social Justice in Interwar Britain: Arguments From Evolutionary History, Heredity, and Human Diversity.” Science, Technology & Human Values 39.4 (2014): 561–586. Web.

p.563: In this article, I am concerned with the public engagements of Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogben, and J. B. S. Haldane. I analyze how they used the new insights into the genetics of heredity to argue against any biological foundations for antidemocratic ideologies, be it Nazism, Stalinism, or the British laissez-faire and class system. The most striking fact—considering the abuse of biological knowledge they contested—is that these biologists presented genetics itself as inherently democratic. Arguing from genetics, they developed an understanding of diversity that cuts across divisions of race, class, or gender. Human diversity rightly understood was advantageous for societal progress. Huxley, Hogben, and Haldane did not hold identical political ideals, but they all argued for democratic reforms and increased planning geared toward greater social equality, and they did so under the label of scientific humanism. Huxley took issue with the notion that evolutionary history does not carry any moral lessons for human societies. Rather than being its antithesis, evolution was the basis of human sociality. In fact, the entire future progress of individuals and communities toward a democratic world order needed to be founded on the cosmic principles of evolution—a process that had to be guided by the biological expert with a strong sense of social responsibility. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.565: Drawing on new concepts of heredity and evolution, figures like Julian Huxley, Lancelot Hogben, and J. B. S. Haldane entered the public sphere to advocate for social reform and against laissez-faire capitalism, nationalism, and fascism. This does not mean that they held identical political ideals. But they all demanded the implementation of social equality through increased social planning. And they argued on the basis of biological knowledge for social justice. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.565: The claim that evolutionary history exhibited trends toward an increase in democracy had also been voiced by Edwin Grant Conklin, through whom Huxley had become aware of a job opening at Rice Institute in the early teens. Both Conklin and Huxley instrumentalized evolutionary history to argue for progress in human societies toward peace and democracy. Furthermore, Conklin asserted that Mendelian genetics revealed principles of heredity that were only in harmony with a democratically organized society. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.565: They built a biology of social justice as a tool against laissez faire ideas and the class system at home that was perceived as supported by classical eugenics, as well as against fascism with its foundation in race science. Their arguments were tightly linked to a reevaluation of variation. Mathematical population genetics had provided the knowledge that genetic variation was not eradicated but that gene ratios remained stable in ideal populations, and the study of natural populations had revealed an amazing genetic diversity. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.566: In the public fight against the evils of their times, especially Huxley and Haldane, but to a lesser extent also Hogben, made cunning use of all kinds of popular text genres, radio talks, and documentary films. In fact, the process of turning evolution and genetics in the more restricted sense of a laboratory and field science into a political weapon strongly relied on these media technologies. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.567: Huxley, Haldane, and Hogben understood the replacement of "wrong" with "right" ideas about evolution and heredity in the mind of the public as a sine qua non for progressive social development. The term technology in my title thus relates to the notion that knowledge and ideas have personality-transforming power. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.567: Huxley thought that to achieve holistic fulfillment, individuals needed what he later captured with the expression "psychosocial technology" (Huxley 1964, 113). Humans depended on a system that facilitated the autonomous channeling of their moral, intellectual, and spiritual maturation. To this purpose, science had among other things to provide psychosocial technologies through "the production of ideological machine-tools like concepts and beliefs for the better processing of experience" (Huxley 1964, 113-14). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.567: Of course, as the adjective psychosocial indicates, ideological machine tools could have very real social effects in the negative as well as positive sense. The concepts and beliefs on which classical eugenics and racial anthropology were based had to be fought and substituted in the public mind. For Conklin and Huxley, this included the promotion of a new image of humankind. The tree structure of human kinship had to be eradicated in favor of an icon more in line with the facts of heredity and evolution, such as a dispensing and reuniting set of streams or a net. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.567: For Huxley, evolutionary history allowed human beings to make sense of the past and to open up vistas into a future in which every human being would have equal means to fulfill his or her personality within a cooperative framework. This biology of a reformed democracy was couched against laissez-faire ideas and the class system at home that was perceived as supported by classical eugenics as well as against totalitarianism and fascism with their foundation in race science. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.568: For Huxley, social services like subsidized housing, free milk, social security legislation, health insurance, and free education were the first insecure steps in the direction of a new democratic world order. In the tumult of a London under attack, he appealed to human tolerance, solidarity, and altruism and declared that "[i]f civilization is to recreate itself after the war, it can only do so on the basis of what, for want of a better word, we must call a social outlook" (Huxley 1941, preface, vii-viii). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.570: For Conklin, this kind of progress was also visible in the evolution of sociability from the one-celled organism, to the united cell structure, the organs of a complex animal, and finally groups of animals within more and more integrated societies. Conklin emphasized that "[t]here is no doubt that evolution of human society has been in this direction, and the entire past history of living things indicates that further progress of society must be along this line" (Conklin 1921, 89). "And all of these lines of social progress are correlated with the growth of democracy" (Conklin 1921, 97). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.570: "Fanatical individualism or socialism," Conklin pronounced, "find no foundation or counterpart in biology, for life and all of its activities consists in compromise, balance, adjustment between opposing principles" (Conklin 1921, 98-9). Therefore, in what Conklin called "the biological basis of democracy," democracy was defined as "[...] a system which, ideally at least, attempts to equalize the opportunities and responsibilities of individuals in society" (Conklin 1921, 100, emphasis in original). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.571: Good and bad hereditary characters were distributed among all classes but also among all nations and races. Concomitantly, he felled the human family tree and planted in its place a biological icon for humankind that was not hierarchical and divisive and thus better suited to the social contract of democracy, "[...] a net in which every individual is represented by a knot formed by the union of two lines which may be traced backward and forward to an everincreasing number of knots and lines until all are united in this vast genealogical net of humanity" (Conklin 1921, 134). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.572: Their approach to these issues was often subsumed under the label scientific humanism. 9 In Dangerous Thoughts of 1939, Hogben declared that "[s]cientific humanism is the creed I profess and the profession I try to practice [...]" (Hogben 1939, 13). It referred to the insight that the pursuit of science was intricately related to the responsibilities of citizenship because science transformed society. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.573: Science was to bring about individual and collective advance by promoting human wellbeing and social justice (e.g., Huxley 1934). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.573: The Inequality of Man (Haldane 1932, vii), he emphasized that "I do not believe that a recognition of the inequality of man would be a blow to democracy (or rather to representative government based on universal suffrage) [...] the recognition of innate inequality should lead not to less, but to greater, equality of opportunity" (Haldane 1932, 34-5). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.573: This was the case, because,

[t]he ideal societywould enable everyman andwoman tomake the best of his or her inborn possibilities. Hence, it must have two characteristics. First, liberty, which would allow people to develop along their individual lines, and not attempt to force all into onemould [...] Second, equality of opportunity, which would mean that [...] every man and woman would be able to obtain the position in society forwhich he or shewas best suited by nature. (Haldane 1932, 210)

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p.576: Along similar lines, Haldane considered it ridiculous to judge the worth of people according to an unjust society rather than judge the worth of a society according to its degree of injustice:

Many of the ‘unfit’ are unfit for society as it is to-day, but that is often society’s fault. The attempt to prevent them from breeding really involves the appalling assumption that society as at present constituted is perfect, and that our only task is to fit man to it. That is why eugenists (sic) are generally conservative in their political opinions. (Haldane 1932, 91)

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p.576: Practiced in society as it stood and based on a wrong understanding of heredity, eugenics was "an instrument of class war" (Haldane 1932, 227). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.578: In We Europeans, which became one of the most influential antiracist books of the time, Huxley and Haddon showed that anthropology lagged behind other areas of biology that had become statistical. Rather than establishing means for certain characters to produce ideal racial types, Huxley and Haddon explained that the new biology concentrated on actual variation within populations and species. With this method, it was impossible to describe discrete human groups, and the term race should be given up. After their book project had started, it soon became clear that this was necessary not only because of the biological reconceptualization of variation but also because "[e]very time you use the word race, you are playing into Hitler’s hands." -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.580: In We Europeans, one reads that:

[t]he violent racialism to be found in Europe to-day is a symptom of Europe’s exaggerated nationalism [...] Meanwhile, however, science and the scientific spirit can do something by pointing out the biological realities of the ethnic situation, and by refusing to lend her sanction to absurdities and the horrors perpetrated in her name. Racialism is a myth, and a dangerous myth at that. (Huxley and Haddon 1935, 287)

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p.580: The history of science was connected to social and economic history, for example, in the concept of the struggle for survival and laissez-faire capitalism, or in racial anthropology and the colonial system. The influence was mutual, with culture and history also impacting the way the sciences developed, which was, for example, obvious in the European expansion, when new animals and plants had been collected, or in the role industrialization had played in the development of the earth sciences (e.g., 1938, 920-70, 1048-75). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014


[...] modern science offers us a NEW SOCIAL CONTRACT. The social contract of scientific humanism is the recognition that the sufficient basis for rational co-operation between citizens is scientific investigation of the common needs of mankind, a scientific inventory of resources for the satisfaction of fundamental human needs. The new social contract demands a new orientation of educational values and new qualifications for civic responsibility. (Hogben 1938, 1089)

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p.581: Hogben was hopeful in view of the international organization of "scientific workers" in democratic countries and believed to make out a general trend against not only fascism but also capitalism. Constructive democratic statesmanship might yet bring about enough state support for science and the insurance that its technical resources were commonly exploited (Hogben 1938, 1081, 1083). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.581: Salvation lay in the scientific humanist program that was organized around the true needs of man and that opened up the perspective of a worldgovernment by federating nations and simultaneously more local selforganization with the help of expert knowledge (Hogben 1939, 21-24). In its realization, scientific and societal practice and aim would become synchronized. Societal advance would be modeled on scientific practice as the prototype of all common human action, and progress would mean an increase in understanding of and control over nature and humankind. Hogben like Huxley and Haldane kept a space for human engineering in this vision, but made it dependent on more thorough knowledge and a reformed social system (e.g., Hogben 1938, 1005). -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014

p.582: In the utopias of Huxley, Hogben, and Haldane, planned progress had to be organized around exceptionally talented scientists like themselves. Furthermore, the demand for social justice was based on the hope that in a leveled milieu that provided the means for many ways of personal fulfillment, every citizen of the world would find the station in life for which his or her genetic potential, expressed according to this best of environments, would ideally suit him or her. This is a daring conjecture. Despite the reservations the triple-H expressed with regard to seeing biology as destiny, it can be read as attributing great power to heredity. -- Highlighted jun 2, 2014