UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Staffan Müller-Wille

Staffan Müller-Wille is working as senior research fellow for philosophy of biology at the ESRC Research Centre for Genomics in Society (University of Exeter, England).
His research currently focuses on two projects. On the one hand, he is conducting a long-term research project into the cultural; history of heredity in close collaboration with the Hans-Jörg Rheinberger from the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science.
On the other hand, he is preparing a book-length study of the changing relationship of genetics and racial anthropology between 1880 and 1950. Recent publications include the article Gene in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://www.seop.leeds.ac.uk/entries/gene/ and the essay “Heredity – The Production of an Epistemic Space” http://www.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/de/forschung/preprints.html/Preprints/P276.PDF. Both publications were co-authored with Hans-Jörg Rheinberger.
“Race and Ethnicity: Human Diversity and the UNESCO Statement on Race (1950-51)”

The role that scientists played in the issuing of the two statements on Race, published by UNESCO in 1950 and 1951 can hardly be over-stated. The formulation of these statements involved a group of about 120 scientists with diverse disciplinary backgrounds, reaching from social anthropology to human genetics, from economics to physical anthropology, from history of medicine to animal breeding. Some of them were of outstanding prominence -- to name just a few: Teilhard de Chardin, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Leslie C. Dunn, Sir Ronald Fisher, Julian Huxley, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gunnar Myrdal, Herman J. Muller, Joseph Needham, Curt Stern.
The statements derive their importance from the fact, that they clearly outlined some of the main conceptual distinctions and arguments that since have structured our thinking about race and ethnicity. This is true, in the first place, for the distinction of race and ethnicity. The term ‘race,’ in the second statement, was ‘reserved’ for the designation of physically distinct varieties of mankind only, while ‘ethnic group’, in the first statement, was supposed to cover groups distinguished by national, religious, geographic, linguistic and cultural differences as well. One standard argument against racist ideologies connecting these two terms appears in both statements: ‘National, religious, geographical, linguistic and cultural groups do not necessarily coincide with racial groups; and the cultural traits of such groups have no demonstrated [genetic] connexion with racial traits’. Both statements stressed, that this also extends, as far as current knowledge went, to differences in ‘innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development.’

A further conceptual distinction that the statements clearly outlined was that between race as a sub-specific, taxonomic category on the one hand, and species on the other. The unity of mankind as a species was highlighted, in both statements, in the very first sentences. Both statements moved on from this assertion to a portrayal of intra-specific varieties or races as merely temporary results of underlying dynamic processes of mutation, selection, isolation, and hybridization, amounting to constant fluctuations in gene frequencies. A set of arguments, that has since become standard in combating racism, was made plausible against this background: racial differences are of minor significance, because racial groups continuously grade into each other, because the amount of individual variation by far outweighs that of racial variation, and because within-group variation, with respect to particular traits, tends to exceed between-group variation in humans. Moreover, both statements pointed out that there was no evidence for any deleterious effects of ‘race mixture’.

With these distinctions and arguments, as I will argue in my contribution, the involved scientists were not simply acting out common sense. In fact, their intervention went against one of the most notorious conceptual creations of modern science itself. The race concept had played a central, organizing role in the life and the human sciences since the late enlightenment. It is highly significant, in this respect, that the dividing lines that the two initial statements so carefully drew between cultural and physical inheritance as well as specific and individual variation, had precisely not been drawn in the biological and anthropological sciences before. With the statement on race, scientists were publicly staging a conceptual revolution. Race had once been a concept that seemed to be able, through the weight of evolutionary history that it invoked, to bind together the variegated phenomena of life. In the statements on race it was dissolved into an ephemeral entity consisting of elements that were only loosely correlated, if at all, and subject to processes of incessant circulation and fortuitous recombination.

If one considers the enormous political significance which racial distinctions have gained in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is evident, that the UNESCO statements on race, their pre-history, as well as the political and discursive processes they initiated, provide a unique case to study the intricate relationship that science and politics have entered in the course of the twentieth century. I will suggest to undertake such a study from an interdisciplinary perspective that combines historical, sociological, and philosophical concerns. A fresh understanding of “what happened to race?” (as the distinguished historian of anthropology, George W. Stocking, Jr., once put it) in the mid-twentieth century is of high relevance for policies today, as recent developments in genomics and global politics are about to reshape our ideas about human diversity once again.

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