Confirming the observation that all too often yesterday's science is today's common sense and tomorrow's nonsense, this absorbing study scrutinizes a century of scientific and academic theorizing about race, highlighting the role of South Africans in the fields of physical and social anthropology, medicine, linguistics, psychology, history, and social policy. From the quackery of phrenology, through Raymond Dart's claim to have found the "missing link," to eugenicists' tocsins about human degeneration and the infinitely malleable Hamitic myth, the author follows the dead-end trails of biological determinism and social Darwinism as they wind through laboratories, classrooms, museums, libraries, and scientific institutes, providing ample material for political manipulation along the way. In South Africa, the triumph of apartheid in the 1950s gave a new lease on life to racial ideologies that after the defeat of Nazism were discredited elsewhere. While giving due weight to the material interests underpinning the politics of white supremacy in South Africa, the author argues that historians must also recognize how much the architects of apartheid were intellectually enmeshed in racist traditions of thought and discourse carried over from the earlier half of the century.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.