Given the numerous recent discussions concerning H.P. Lovecraft’s attitude toward race, I thought I would investigate this from a scientific point of view. A lot has already be written about how his blatant racism has impacted his stories, how we as readers in the 21st century should intpret this and whether his stories should even receive / deserve our attention. For this article I am not going to justify or condemn the stories of HPL or analyze how his racism may have filtered through. For a large number of reasons, including based on science, racism is abhorrent and should not have a place in any civilized society. However, for this article I am only examining scientific sources that HPL may have used to justify or support his racist views. More importantly, I will be sharing some scientific information that clearly indicates there is no justification for racism from an inherently genetic perspective.
Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species explained how through natural selection organisms are constantly evolving to suit their environment. Those individuals best adapted for a particular environment tend to produce more offspring than those less adapted. Additionally, if a group of individuals is separated from its parent population, over time, the separated population will eventually become a different species, particularly if the respective environments are somewhat different. Thus, over time more species evolve and those best adapted to their environments survive and reproduce. Darwin saw this as a branching tree or shrub of life, with each extant species, including humans, being represented as an individual tip.
I prefer the shrub analogy since evolution is simply change over time and does not necessarily mean that organisms get “better and better” over millions of years. Populations are constantly adapting to a constantly changing environment. However, some scientists, like Ernst Haeckel (a German scientist and artist) clearly saw evolution as a progression of complexity over time with “primitive” life in the lower branches of the tree and the most “advanced” forms of life (humans of course) at the top of the tree (see below). However, if a squid or octopus was creating a tree of life, do you think they would put humans on top?
As shown above, Haeckel’s tree of life puts humans on top. Such a presentation can be misleading on two counts. First, it falsely suggests that older forms of life stop evolving once they get into a desirable or stable species state. Second, it also falsely suggests that everything is striving to evolve into humans. Every organism alive today is an “advanced” form of life relative to past forms. Thus, while a horseshoe crab living today may look like one in the fossil record dating back over 400 million years, the fossil form is a primitive version of that species, while the living individual is an advanced form. While they may look alike, they may vary considerably from a genetic point of view.
Examining Haeckel’s tree of life, it is easy to infer that humans are the most “advanced” form of life on Earth. That being the case, many scientists, including Haeckel, thought this could be extended into the races of humans and what better way to rank humanity than by “preferred” morphological traits and/or intelligence. Haeckel actually divided humans into 12 species, placing the northern Europeans and Greeks on top of the tree of human “species” and Africans and Australians on the lower portion of the human tree.
While Haeckel produced two, large and technical volumes on evolution, called Generelle Morphologie, his discussions on human evolution came at the end (The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J. Richards, 2008). But what was particularly shocking, even for the later part of the 19th centaury, were his 12 human “species” and their associated descents (see below). Darwin, as practically every subject of the British Empire, did not question the superiority of Anglo-Saxons and those of northern Europe. However, the idea that humans beings could be divided into a series of species was not creditable to many naturalists at the time. However, such ideas may have appealed to HPL and certainly did appeal to others. Indeed, many of Haeckel’s augments concerning human evolution were used in the early part of the 20th century by the Nazis to attempt to scientifically justify their philosophy, attitudes and horrendous treatment of other people.
Ernst Haeckel’s controversial illustration showing select human “species” and some of their relatives (bevets.com)
Obviously, dividing humans into 12 species is just plain incorrect. A species is a group of similar individuals that are capable of producing interbreeding and producing viable offspring. Homo sapiens fit that definition. The fact that a male and female from any continent or corner of the Earth can successfully reproduce and give birth to viable offspring means all of humanity is one species.
Even the term race, from a biological point of view, is used incorrectly when applied to humans in certain instances. Biologically, races represent genetically based population variation within a species (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, edited by Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009). However, dividing the human species into five groups – Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Negroid (black) and American (red) – which could the be divided into races has been used to justify slavery, genocide, and the oppression of one group over another (Michael Fuse & Joseph Travis, 2009).
In addition to Haeckel’s ideas, another concept that might have appealed to HPL concerning issues of race was biological determinism, which was originally suggested by Plato. Specifically, it states that behavioral norms and social / ecnonomic differences among the races arise from inherited, inborn distinctions and that society is an accurate reflection of biology (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, 1996). Again, such ideas, which flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries must have appealed to HPL.
However, through the 20th and into the 21st century, biological determinism has been largely rejected through our accumulated knowledge on human biology, evolution and genetics. Traits such as intelligence, and even skin color, are not determined by a single gene as once originally thought. Instead, such traits and phenotypes are determined through polygenic (many genes) mechanisms; a host of environmental factors also come into play such as climate, diet, etc. (Gould, 1996). Also, although frequencies of specific genes may vary among the races, no “race genes” have ever been identified (Gould, 1996). Thus, such factors result in the absence of identifying a specific trait to a specific human race. This means there is no scientific validity in ranking races based on a factor such as intelligence. As someone who valued and appreciated the scientific method, one wonders what HPL would have thought of such information on genetics and evolution.
I want to discuss Ernst Haeckel and the scientific origins of HPL’s racist views in more detail in future articles, however, I did want to at least initiate a discussion on these subjects. Next time we go back to our analysis of The Music of Erich Zann. Thank you – Fred.