One of the ideas that Diamond’s book challenges is scientific racism. The central premise of Diamond’s argument is that there are no inherent biological differences between groups of people that make one race superior and another inferior. Instead, he believes that environmental differences were what gave Eurasians an early advantage in developing plant and animal domestication, infectious diseases, and technology. The advantages he identifies amongst certain people are based purely on circumstance and chance, rather than genetic features. Diamond’s ideas may seem intuitive to contemporary readers. However, when the book was first published in 1997, it was responding to a number of existing theories that did emphasize the supposed importance of genetics. For decades, many scientists invoked racial theories to explain the history of humankind. These theories are now referred to by the general description of “scientific racism,” which describes the ways in which scientist believed empirical evidence could prove that racism was warranted. It is important to understand the broad history of scientific racism in order to grasp the importance of Diamond’s text, which offers competing explanations that discount racist thinking in science.
Scientific racism has been entrenched since Greco-Roman antiquity. Many different societies assumed, from their earliest formation, that other races must be naturally inferior because they looked so different. Later, in the Enlightenment era of the 17th century, these ideas became more entrenched in philosophical thinking. Thinkers such as Voltaire, an influential French historian and philosopher, believed that all races had originated from very separate origins; each was genetically radically different, and some were superior to others. Voltaire’s writing on the topic was pseudo-scientific, meaning it claimed to be using a scientific lens, but its methodology was not actually solid or logical according to modern standards. In regards to the differences between white Europeans and black Africans, Voltaire wrote that, “the Negro race is a species of men different from ours as the breed of spaniels is from that of greyhounds.” This perspective on the genetic differences between different races naturally supported racist assumptions. If black Africans were so different from white Europeans that they were like “spaniels” vs “greyhounds,” then of course it made sense to treat them differently.
The famous scientist Charles Darwin unwittingly contributed to scientific racism with his theory of evolution and natural selection. In its original form, evolution is a theory that explains how new species are formed and how existing ones become extinct. Darwin coined the term “natural selection,” which refers to the fact that individuals who have favorable mutations tend to be the ones who survive and pass on their genes, thus leading to a new generation that has a higher concentration of this favorable mutation. Darwin published his famous text, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. Shortly afterwards, other thinkers used his theory to develop a new view of social, political, and economic organization in society. These thinkers adapted a scientific theory for a nonscientific purpose, which was already a logical flaw. They developed a theory known today as “Social Darwinism.” In general, Social Darwinism explains the distribution of power in society as a natural condition, in which those with power are simply stronger and more deserving than those without it, who must be inherently weaker and inferior. This theory would also be used to justify racism, as it was believed that races that struggled with difficult conditions or mistreatment were simply weaker.
By the 20th century, scientific racism was being used to support nationalist thinking. Some social theorists argued that nations were based on ethnicity, and used this idea to oppose immigration and integration. The German physician Franz Joseph Gall had developed a method called “phrenology” in the 19th century, by which he claimed to be able to determine intelligence based on measurements of human skulls. This became widespread in the 20th century, and was used to “prove” that some races were inferior because of the size and shape of their skulls, which was believed to affect their intelligence. At the beginning of the century, a Pygmy man was displayed in the Bronx Zoo next to apes as an example of the “missing link” between humans and apes. In the United States, this kind of thinking helped to justify slavery; if black people were genetically inferior, as proven by their skull measurements and Social Darwinism, then it must be morally acceptable to enslave them. Toward the middle of the century, this kind of thinking also propelled the rise of Nazism in Germany. Nazis believed that Jews were inherently inferior to Aryan Germans because of their genetic makeup. Of course, the consequences of these theories were horrifying and destructive in both the United States and Germany.
In the 21st century, this kind of thinking had largely been challenged and dismissed as illogical and racist. However, in 1994 the psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray published a book called The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. In this book, they argued that intelligence is influenced by both environmental factors and inherited factors. Their assumption that intelligence has a strong genetic factor led them to claim that there were racial differences in intelligence, as well. On the basis of differences in IQ scores, the authors claimed that black people in America were less intelligent overall than white people. The book met with immediate criticism, and its logic was widely questioned. Jared Diamond’s text responded, in many ways, to this influential work. Diamond seeks to understand why certain social differences exist; he does not deny that there are substantial disparities in the social circumstances of different races. But, unlike Murray and Herrnstein, he investigates how they came about, and concludes that they are primarily due to environmental factors. His book responds to a long history of scientific racism, and works to debunk all of these previously well-established theories.