The disturbing biological associations of the term ‘race’

From Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, by Mark Mazower (Vintage Books, 1998), pp. 100, 102-3.

In an age of empire and social Darwinism, notions of racial hierarchy were ubiquitous, and few Europeans on Left or Right did not believe in ideas of racial superiority in form or another, or accept their relevance to colonial policy. …

But the sharpest attack of all came in a book called We Europeans, A Survey of “Racial” Problems, which was a best-seller in 1936. Written by the biologist Julian Huxley with the elderly anthropologist A. C. Haddon, We Europeans was a ferocious assault on what its authors described as the “pseudo-science of ‘racial biology.’ ” Huxley himself was a confirmed believer in eugenics, who felt Nazi racism had done the movement much harm. He underlined the vagueness of the term “race” and cast doubt on the existence of such a thing as “racial group sentiment” (a concept beloved not only by the Nazis but by British racial anthropologists such as Sir Arthur Keith). …

In common with other British researchers of the time, Huxley and Haddon insisted that there were no “pure races” in the biological sense in Europe. Environment, they argued, was more important than heredity in shaping the sense of communal identity, and they recommended using the term “ethnic group” rather than “race,” as the former lacked the latter’s misleading biological associations.

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