Peter H. Schönemann
Professor Emeritus • Department of Psychological Sciences • Purdue University

Eugenics and Racism in Psychology

Eugenics and Racism in Psychology

The term eugenics was coined by Francis Galton in the 19th century, though the underlying ideas are much older and can be traced back, at least, to Plato's Republic. Nor is racism a predisposition unique to western civilization, as some believe. Rather, it can be found in various disguises all over the globe.

However, while it may be inevitable that ordinary people  exhibit all sorts of irrational beliefs, and occasionally act on them under the "right'' conditions, ideally this should  not apply to social scientists. They are expected (and paid) to sort out facts and pursue the truth. This sets them apart from ordinary human beings, and also from quacks who pretend to know when they don't know. Scientists are supposed to know the difference, and  are expected to admit when they don't know.

Of course, not all social scientists take this noble obligation as serious as one might hope. One problem is that some of them are poorly trained  by teachers who themselves were poorly trained. Another problem is that  it often pays more to pretend one knows when one doesn't,  because

"...clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge ... and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undercuts the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without any impact on the world." (Andreski, 1972, p. 90).

It is sometimes difficult, therefore, to distinguish between quacks and social scientists, especially in test theory, psychometrics, and behavior genetics. These fields can all be traced back to Galton, who  had also introduced the notion of eugenics, the "science" of good breeding. This notion, in particular, has attracted more than its share of selfpromoting  quacks. Some of them made excellent careers for themselves. As Blum (1978) has observed,

An index of psychologists' respect for eugenics is the fact that Hall, Cattell, Yerkes, Terman, Thorndike, and Woodworth all became presidents of the Psychological Association. In England as well, IQ testing was quickly  adopted by eugenics - most notably by the social psychologist William McDougall, by his outstanding student, Cyril Burt, and by Karl Pearson (p. 57)

In view of the now well-known consequences of such eugenic theories, modern psychologists tend to be  reticent about this part of their history. Fortunately,  less charitable political scientists and sociologist have taken up  the challenge and filled in some of the missing details, so that future psychologist may eventually learn from the mistakes of their forefathers:


on this topic worth reading include:

Andreski, S. (1972) Social science as sorcery. New York: St. Martin's press.

Barkan, E. (1992) The Retreat of Scientific Racism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blum, J. M. (1978) Pseudoscience and Mental Ability: The Origins and Fallacies of the IQ Controversy. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Broad, W. and Wade, N. (1982) Betrayers of the Truth. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Chase, A. (1975) The Legacy of Malthus; The Social Cost of the New Scientific Racism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Chubin, D. E. and Hackett, E. J. Peerless Science. Albany: State University of New York.

Crouse, J. and Trusheim: The Case Against the SAT. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dikotter, F. (1992) The Discourse of Race in Modern China. Stanford: Stanford Univeristy Press.

Flynn, J. R. (1991) Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ. Hillsdale: Earlbaum.

Jacobi R. and Glauberman, N. (1995) The Bell Curve Debate. New York: Random House.

Kamin, L. J. (1974) The Science and Politics of IQ. New York: Earlbaum.

Kuhl, S. (1994) The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, Amercian Racism, and German National Socialism. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Minton, H. (1988) Lewis M. Terman: Pioneer in Psychological Testing. New York. University of New York Press.

Owen, D. (1985) None Of The Above. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Tucker, W. H. (1994) The Science and Politics of Racial Research. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.


An informative


that tracks modern racism in all its forms, including its manifestations in psychology, is Barry Mehler's

ISAR (Institute for the Study of Academic Racism).

It contains a wealth of specific information on the history of racism in psychology.