Spiro, Jonathan P. "Nordic vs. anti-Nordic: the Galton Society and the American Anthropological Association," Patterns of Prejudice 36:1 (2002): 35-48.
ABSTRACT Spiro discusses the creation of the Galton Society in 1918 by American eugenicist Madison Grant as an alternative to the American Anthropological Association. On a theoretical level, Grant hoped the Galton Society would uphold the primacy of biological determinism against ‘the culture idea’. On a more personal level, the purpose of the Galton Society was to provide a refuge for native Protestants who feared that the American Anthropological Association had fallen into the hands of the Jews. While the Galton Society flourished initially, by the early 1930s Franz Boas and his disciples had established cultural determinism as the reigning paradigm in American social science, and the Galton Society quietly dissolved itself in 1935.
KEYWORDS American Anthropological Association, antisemitism, eugenics, Franz Boas, Galton Society, Madison Grant, nature–nurture debate, scientific racism
The lifelong hostility between eugenicist Madison Grant (1865–1937) and anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1942) was the personification if not the core of the nature–nurture debate in the United States. Grant was one of the founders of the conservation movement in America, and worked side-byside with Theodore Roosevelt at the beginning of the twentieth century to preserve the nation’s natural heritage. Among his many accomplishments, Grant preserved the California redwoods, saved the American bison from extinction, founded the Bronx Zoo, helped to create the Glacier and Denali national parks, and worked tirelessly to protect the whales in the ocean, the bald eagles in the sky and the pronghorn antelopes on the prairie. But Grant was also the prophet of scientific racism and—in geographer Ellsworth Huntington’s phrase—the perennial ‘cheerleader of the Nordics in America’.2 Grant first came to the attention of the reading public in 1916, when Scribner’s and Sons published his bestselling opus, The Passing of the Great Race. [. . .] Passionate, erudite and audacious, The Passing of the Great Race was a tour de force that did for scientific racism what The Communist Manifesto did for scientific socialism. Grant’s book was regularly cited in popular and scholarly works, and the success of The Passing of the Great Race—and Grant’s behind-the-scenes machinations—played a major role in convincing Congress to enact the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s. Grant went on to collaborate with Southern white racists to pass antimiscegenation legislation, and he influenced many states to implement coercive sterilization statutes under which thousands of Americans deemed to be unworthy were sterilized in the 1930s. [. . .]
The American Anthropological Association
Among academics, Boas was practically alone in the mid-1910s in his opposition to Grant. [. . .]
For years, however, Boas had been diligently training a cadre of professional anthropologists who shared his revulsion at the theories of Grant, so that by the end of the 1910s Boas was surrounded and supported by a growing group of influential scholars well positioned to use their prestige and expertise to join in the assault upon eugenics. Some of the more important anthropologists who received their Ph.D.s from Boas were A. L. Kroeber (who earned his degree in 1901), Robert Lowie (1908), Edward Sapir (1909), Alexander Goldenweiser (1910), Paul Radin (1911), Leslie Spier (1920), Ruth Benedict (1923), Melville Herskovits (1923), Margaret Mead (1929) and Ashley Montagu (1937). With the exception of Kroeber, Benedict and Mead, all were Jews, many were immigrants and several were both. These students of Boas set about devising the intellectual weapons and amassing the ethnographic data they would need to combat the disciples of Grant. And while on a theoretical level the debate between the Grantians and the Boasians pitted the defenders of heredity and biological determinism against the proponents of environment and the primacy of culture, it was difficult not to notice that it was at heart a confrontation between the ethos of native Protestants and the Zeitgeist of immigrant Jews.
Intellectually, the Grant–Boas split was also a disagreement between adherents of polygenesis, obsessed with the classification of races, and adherents of monogenesis, who were fairly certain that races were socially constructed myths. Ideologically, it was a battle between establishment figures who insisted on loyalty to the nation and pluralistic egalitarians who defended the rights of the minority. And, professionally, it was a conflict between an older generation of physical anthropologists (often gentleman amateurs with no academic affiliation or perhaps an association with a museum) and the newer generation of cultural anthropologists (usually trained professionals with fulltime positions in academia).12
The older amateurs were aristocratic WASPs with the money and leisure time to ponder fossils as an avocation, whereas the younger professionals were often the children of Jewish immigrants who saw higher education as a route to social respectability, and jobs in academia as a means of economic survival. The gap between the two sides was all but insurmountable. When the Grantians looked at the cultural anthropologists, they saw a group of bearded (with the exception of Benedict, Mead and Elsie Clews Parsons), Jewish, socialist aliens who lacked any appreciation of the importance of evolution and the laws of biology. [. . .]
The culturalists were well aware that their work was viewed as trivial and unscientific. And their response—with Boas leading the way—was to professionalize their discipline. They understood that, by transforming anthropology from an amateur hobby into a professional vocation, they would garner not only respect but also the academic positions (and the funding) that would then be distributed on the basis of merit rather than through the antisemitic old-boy network. [. . .] They therefore worked to reconstitute the American Anthropological Association, heretofore comprised to a large extent by wealthy, untrained amateurs, into an organization of professionally qualified scholars. [. . .] such was the prestige of Boas that within a few years he was elected president of the AAA, his former students began attaining seats on its governing council, and, by the 1910s, the American Anthropological Association had evolved into a respected society of academic anthropologists, with the Boasians in the majority. They then moved to take control of the Association’s journal (American Anthropologist), and by 1915 [. . .] biological determinism was banished from the pages of American Anthropologist, and the culture idea was well on its way to becoming the predominant thesis in the profession. A bewildered Grant could only observe that these developments ‘confirm me in the belief that you must have at the head of any anthropological work a member of the North European race, who has no bias in favor of helots or mongrels’. [. . .]
The Galton Society
By the end of the 1910s the situation within professional anthropology was no longer tenable. The Boasians were in the saddle, and something had to be done. On 6 March 1918, Madison Grant met with Charles Benedict Davenport and the two men agreed to create a new, racially oriented anthropological organization to rival the culture-ridden American Anthropological Association. Grant decided to name it the Galton Society, in honour of Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics.
[. . .] Grant organized the Galton Society at exactly the same time that he organized the Save-the-Redwoods League, and, in the early years, when John C. Merriam was still a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, he and Grant synchronized the meetings of the Galton Society with those of the Save-the-Redwoods League so Merriam would have to make only one trip to New York. In fact, the constitution of the Save-the-Redwoods League was modelled on that of the Galton Society, which in turn was modelled on that of the New York Zoological Society (which ran the Bronx Zoo). And why not? All three associations served a common end: one would save the large mammals of North America, the other would save the largest trees, and the third the most advanced race: the Nordics. [. . .]
And so the Boasian capture of the American Anthropological Association had been countered by the formation of the Galton Society. At a meeting of the Society in 1925, psychologist William McDougall of Harvard University summed up the situation neatly. On one side of the nature–nurture debate were the sentimental sociologists, egalitarian Bolshevists and intellectual Jews, all of whom were ‘biased against racial psychology’ and permitted the emotional appeal of humanitarianism to stand ‘in place of truth’. On the other side were the ‘serious’ students of race, such as Grant, Stoddard and Huntington, who recognized ‘the reality’ of inequality and stood for ‘the importance of preserving racial distinctions in their purity’.26 It was clear to McDougall and his auditors which faction had right—and science—on its side. [. . .]
‘A historical footnote’
By the early 1920s the members of the Galton Society were confident that they had stemmed the environmentalist tide, and that Franz Boas—as Henry Fairfield Osborn put it—had been relegated to ‘a comparatively obscure and uninfluential position’.38 Madison Grant and the eugenicists now turned their attention to the legislative arena, where they led successful campaigns for immigration restriction, sterilization and anti-miscegenation laws.
But, in the meantime, Boas continued to churn out the cohort of Ph.D.s who soon comprised the majority of professional anthropologists in the United States. They rapidly moved into, and took over, all the major anthropology departments in the country, where they in turn trained the succeeding generation of scholars dedicated to the culture idea. As a result, academic anthropologists hostile to the Galton Society soon set editorial policy for the profession’s journals and dominated the membership of its professional organizations.
Beginning in the late 1920s Boas and his disciples published to academic and popular acclaim a body of work—including Boas’s Anthropology and Modern Life (1928), Margaret Mead’s The Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Melville Herskovits’s The American Negro (1928), Robert Lowie’s Are We Civilized? (1929), Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) and Otto Klineberg’s Race Differences (1935)—that cumulatively served to validate cultural anthropology as a viable field and to establish cultural determinism as a legitimate alternative to hereditarianism. ‘There is no doubt’, an alarmed Madison Grant told Osborn upon witnessing all this activity, ‘that there is an organized anti-Nordic conspiracy’.39 To which Osborn could only affirm: ‘There is undoubtedly a conspiracy of the radicals against the whole Nordic and racial theory.’40
Grant and Osborn had every reason to worry. The Boasian point of view, limited to a handful of (primarily Jewish) cultural anthropologists at the end of the First World War, soon began to influence not just other anthropologists but other social scientists as well. And, as a result, by the beginning of the 1930s the culture idea was becoming the reigning paradigm in American social science. [. . .]
Grant admitted that ‘the future looks ominous’, but in his book The Alien in Our Midst (1930) he gamely tried to rally the partisans by insisting that they had on their side ‘the increasing force of science, of eugenics, and of an ever-widening acceptance of the fact that heredity and not environment dominates in the evolution and development of man’.43 Anthropologist (and loyal member of the Galton Society) T. Wingate Todd seconded Grant’s words, and bravely predicted in 1932 that the Grantian form of anthropology ‘is going to be more than ever significant in arranging the affairs of the future, and the Galton Society will have a great mission’.44 Grant and Todd, of course, were deluded. The future belonged to the environmentalists. The Galton Society quietly dissolved in 1935, and ‘the anthropological idea of culture’, writes George Stocking,became in time part of the vernacular of a large portion of the American public. . . . By the middle of the twentieth century, it was a commonplace for educated Americans to refer to human differences in cultural terms, and to say that ‘modern science has shown that all human races are equal’.45