24 Pages

‘Savage civil isation’ Race, culture and mind in Britain, 1898–1939

ByMathew Thomson

Within the history of science the nineteenth century has been regarded as a pivotal

period in the development of racial thought, with ‘scientific racism’ reifying race as

biologically fundamental and immutable. Even though the polygenist theory that

races were different species had been largely discredited by the second half of the

century, it was superseded by a model which fixed races on a hierarchical scale of

physical and mental evolution and thus naturalised the cultural gulf between

‘primitive’ and ‘civilised’ societies. The psychological theories of British writers

such as Francis Galton and Herbert Spencer, and techniques to measure the power

and qualities of mind, such as anthropometry and craniology, contributed to the

However, the extent to which ‘scientific racism’ was predominant beyond its own

ideologues is more open to question. Even within the still largely amateur field of

British anthropology, published papers on craniology and anthropometry were a

Moreover, looking at the question from the broader perspective of a historian of

British society and culture, José Harris has suggested that although ideas about

race were ‘omnipresent’ in mid-Victorian Britain, they had ‘only the sketchiest of

roots in biological thought’ and were more likely to be expressed in terms of

constitutional tradition and political culture. And even as biologistic connotations

of ‘race’ came to the fore at the turn of the century, it ‘did not invariably have the

specifically ethnic and exclusionary connotations that a later generation might

suppose’. It could refer to nations, groups within the nation, public health, sex, or the condition of the whole human species. Harris may overstate her case, but she

does cast into doubt the hegemony of ‘scientific racism’ in turn-of-the-century Britain, suggesting instead that we need to think in terms of a series of parallel and overlapping ‘race’ discourses.3