H.P. Lovecraft and the Pseudoscientific Study of Racism

HPLovecraft_by_LeeMoyer_www.strangehorizons.com                                                                                   H.P. Lovecraft by Lee Moyer (www.strangehorizons.com)

I have always been appreciated how H.P. Lovecraft introduced the most up-to-date scientific developments into his fiction and cosmic philosophy. Additionally, he was more than willing to adjust his viewpoint, perspective and even philosophy on science based on the latest scientific findings. Time and again he exhibited this whether it was the confirmation that Antarctica is composed of one, not two land masses or the discovery of Yuggoth (known to many as Pluto). Another example of this is Lovecraft’s changing attitudes toward Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

einstein_360x450_www.laphamsquarterly.orgAlbert Einstein (www.laphamsquarterly.org)

Like many astronomers of the time Lovecraft was very skeptical of the Theory of General Relativity. However, with the accumulation of evidence over the years, by 1923 Lovecraft acknowledged that relativity was a valid and tested theory. As a materialist Lovecraft’s initial attitude was one of dismay, saying the theory “…removes the last hold which reality or the universe can have on the independent mind. All is change, accident, and ephemeral illusion…” Lovecraft went on to say, “All the cosmos is a jest, and one thing is as true as another. I believe everything and nothing—for all is chaos, always had been, and always will be.” However, Lovecraft’s pessimistic attitude on how relativity impacted his philosophy was eventually replaced with a more harmonized perspective, incorporating Einstein’s ideas into his materialistic view of the cosmos (I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft by Joshi, 2014). Again this is another example of how Lovecraft’s perspective, and even philosophy, of reality and the universe would change based on accumulating evidence. However, the one component of science where Lovecraft’s attitude would remain unchanged, even in the light and consideration of accumulating scientific evidence, is that of the study of anthropology and race.

51uoSWjQq3L__AC_UL320_SR214,320_

As cited by Joshi, in spite of all of the accumulating evidence, H.P. Lovecraft still believed in the biological inferiority of certain races of humanity (Joshi, 2014). Indeed, such abhorrent attitudes were by no means unusual in the early 20th century whatever the accumulating scientific data revealed; in the 1920’s many leading scientists warned that interracial mixing of the races could lead to biological abnormalities (Joshi, 2014). However, through the 20th century the “scientific” justification for racism was demonstrated to be false. In spite of this, such concepts would appear in several of Lovecraft’s earlier stories such as “the Lurking Fear.”

As cited by Joshi (2014), Lovecraft held his racist attitudes in spite of the most up-to-date findings on the study of humanity and race in the fields of biology and anthropology. All of the “scientific” studies that provided evidence for a hierarchy of races with Caucasians and the top and Australian aborigines at the bottom, were largely discredited as pseudoscience by the early 20th century. Indeed, as early the 19th century studies that have attempted to correlate “race-based” size and shape of the skull to some type of racial hierarchy were considered highly unscientific and preposterous (Joshi, 2014). By the early 1930’s any scientific justification for such racism was largely discredited by the scientific community; such efforts were led by the anthropologist Franz Boas.

FranzBoas                                                               Frank Boas (www.wikipedia.org)

Born in Germany, Franz Boas had a doctorate in physics and studied geography; however, once he emigrated to the U.S. he became a professor of anthropology at Columbia University. He had a distinguished career at Columbia, being called “the Father of American Anthropology.” One of the key components Boas used in identifying the nonsensical perspective in scientifically justifying racism was to show that the cranial index (the ratio of the maximum width of one’s head multiplied by 100 and then divided by its maximum length of the head from front to back) varies widely both among adults within a single group as well as within the life of an individual (The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, revised and expanded edition, 1996). Even more important Boas identified significant differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children. The fact that such a change can be significantly measured within a single generation indicated that changes in environment (diet, health, surroundings, etc.) is as important or even more so than one’s race (better described as genetics) in dictating the cranial index (Gould, 1996).

theartofseanpillips.blogspot.comH.P. Lovecraft by Sean Phillips (www.theartofseanphillips.com)

While Joshi found no evidence of Lovecraft reading or being familiar with any of Boas’s work, Lovecraft had to frequently defend his racist views to his younger correspondents such as Frank Belknap Long and J. Vernon Shea. Why the augments of these younger acquaintances did not convince Lovecraft to, at least from a scientific basis, examine some of the more modern developments in anthropology and reconsider his thoughts on the pseudoscience of scientific racism is unknown (Joshi, 2014). Lovecraft’s “scientific” racist views were largely based on the writings of some 19th century scientists such as Ernst Haeckel. However, psychologically Lovecraft’s view was firmly rooted in his fear of the “other” or those who did not originate from his beloved New England and/or fit into his world-view. One wonders if Lovecraft lived longer and observed the scientific and cultural changes in attitudes toward race, would his have changed as well, particularly after World War II.

Lovecraft’s pseudoscientific understanding of race was certainly explored in many of his tales, particularly in his earlier ones. One of note, “The Lurking Fear”, discusses the evolutionary degeneration of a family due to out-of-class breeding and subsequent incest (Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos by Bobby Dee, 2014). While in this case the “horror” associated with this is based on breeding out-of-class, this can also be associated with the implication that one is also breeding out-of-race, with the result being mammalian degeneration. Again, most of the horror associated with this tale is not based on science but pseudoscience, which will be discussed in detail in an upcoming article.

h_p__lovecraft_s_the_lurking_fear_by_cheesecake_weasel-d624gkrH.P. Lovecraft’s The Lurking Fear by Cheesecake Weasel (www.deviantart.com)

In addition to Lovecraft’s “selective” view of race from a scientific perspective, his review of race also generates an inherent conflict in his cosmic and materialistic philosophy. If we are all just composed of a complex of physical and biochemical reactions, housed within a foundation of honeycombed cells filled with water and associated protoplasm, the color of our skin or hair should be absolutely trivial. While Lovecraft was not familiar with Boas, he did read Modern Science and Materialism by Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot (originally published in 1919), which Joshi clearly documents had a profound influence on the development of Lovecraft’s cosmic / materialist view of the universe (Joshi, 2014). This influence, both on Lovecraft’s philosophy and attitudes toward race, will be the topic of conversation in the next article.

Finally, thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Kickstarter for the “Journal of Lovecraftian Science, Volume 2.” We made our goal and I will add a stretch goal sometime next week. If you are interested in supporting this project, please check the site out at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1081353216/journal-of-lovecraftian-science-volume-two. Again, thank you to all how have contributed! Fred.

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13 thoughts on “H.P. Lovecraft and the Pseudoscientific Study of Racism

    1. Thank you for providing that information. I will look into that. However, please note the two times I have cited Gould’s work it was in direct reference to work conducted by Franz Boas – first for his work documented in 1899 (group and individual study) and second in 1911 (the difference between two generations coming to America). Again, I will look into these articles but does that mean all of the studies cited by Gould are discredited as well?

      1. In my far from extensive readings on physical anthropology and genetics, I would say that both Steven Jay Gould’s general work in evolutionary theory and racial differences are questionable.

        His attack on Morton’s work was, at best, sloppy and at worst fraud.
        Evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers, in the linked article at http://www.unz.com/announcement/robert-trivers-on-gould-lewontin-william-hamilton-and-others/?highlight=%22Mismeasure+of+Man%22, looks at both.

        Geneticist Razib Khan points out the flaws and merits of Gould’s work on race and evolution at http://www.unz.com/gnxp/a-mismeasured-mismeasurement-of-man/?highlight=%22Mismeasure+of+Man%22.

        As for Boas, his career is more complicated than his post-World War II reputation has it. Anthropologist Peter Frost takes a look at Boas at http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-franz-boas-you-never-knew.html and, in a sequel, http://evoandproud.blogspot.com/2015/04/more-on-younger-franz-boas.html. One gets the sense Boas didn’t find physical evidence refuting racial differences, but that, for understandable reasons, the policies of Nazi Germany led to his backing away from the subject.

        I suppose, in Lovecraft’s life, we see a parallel when, late in life, he backed away from his anti-Semitism (or, more accurately, his disdain for Jews he thought unassimilated to the norms he wished) when confronted with the news a neighbor lady brought back from Germany.

        However wrong-headed Lovecraft was in his racial categories and his claims about the group behavior of races and however cringing some of his statements (like wishing he could gas the blacks he saw at a park as per a letter to James Morton), he was right that races exist. They are exactly equivalent to species – a controversial, not-easily-defined concept that biologists find useful in all kinds of ways. (A good, informed primer I found is at https://jaymans.wordpress.com/jaymans-race-inheritance-and-iq-f-a-q-f-r-b/ with plenty of evidence cited.)

        Essentially, my point is that Lovecraft’s belief in a biological basis for race was, though wrong in details, less far from reality than the “race is a social construct” belief. It is that belief that seems to the foundation of attacks on Lovecraft’s racism.

        Please don’t my words as harsh criticism. I find your blog enjoyable in looking at science and Lovecraft. I’m just trying to correct what I think is a wrong turn in looking at this area.

        And, as I said, Lovecraft’s bed rock belief in race really existing may have been right, but phrenology was also right in postulating localized areas of brain function, but it certainly got the details wrong. And, in science, the details do count obviously.

      2. Thank you for the input – I will take a look at some of these citations. Relative to concept of race I must admit I disagree with many of your comments. From a purely biological point of view the term “race” in plants and animals has been used to recognize genetically based population variation within a species. The modern use of the word “race” for humans was developed by the German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) who divided humans into five groups – Caucasian (white), Mongolian (yellow), Malayan (brown), Negroid (black) and American (red). While initially the intent was to use this term from a strictly biological point of view (again variation within a species in a specific genetic trait), it quickly became a social construction in the 19th and early 20th century, meaning something with cultural rather than biological status (Evolution: The First Four Billion Years, Edited by Michael Ruse & Joseph Travis, 2009).
        More recent genetic studies have revealed that those traits, such as skin, eye or hair color, that have been traditionally used to describe “race” actually represent a very small portion of the entire genome and from a purely biological point of view the term “race” may be better represented by other more genetically significant parameters such as, say, lactose tolerance or relative immunity to a specific disease.
        Attempts to directly link “race” to IQ have failed largely due to the fact that factors such as environmental influences, educational history and socioeconomic status have revealed to have a significant impact on actual IQ / intelligence results (The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan, 1995). Most evolutionary biologists would agree that to some extent the use of race in humans is primarily cultural (Ruse and Travis, 2009). Again, if race is to be used in Homo sapiens, a genotype assessment (instead of a phenotype) should be used. However, ultimately, the prejudices behind racial thinking are culturally founded and thus, they should be “consigned to the dustbin of history.” (Ruse and Travis, 2009).

    1. Thank you for the comment – I guess you could say about that for almost all of the articles on Lovecraftianscience – each one is a repeating iteration of one point or idea I want to convey, supported by data / information. However, in the case of Lovecraft and his scientific justification for racism I think it is a subject worth discussing for several reasons in spite of the subject itself generating criticism and complaints. First, I think it is important to show how the scientific method can bring a subject to task and Franz Boas pioneering work helped to identify the non-scientific means by which attempts were made to justify racism. Second, it provides insight into Lovecraft as a person, given the fact that he was progressive with almost all lines of science but yet stuck in 19th century thought when it came to race.
      Understanding how science works and progresses is particularly important in this day and age.
      Additionally, this subject has led me to some of the sources of Lovecraft’s cosmicism philosophy (Elloit’s work which I will be covering), as well as discussing the definition of pseudoscience.
      So get ready for a lot more iterations at Lovecraftianscience! Thank you – Fred

      1. Sorry if it came off as rude. I enjoy these articles, just thought this one was more a re-hash than most of the others.
        Thanks for writing (articles and replies).
        PS: Have you/will you cover any Asimov? No idea what a topic could be for that, but who knows? I’m sure you could find one.

  1. Race is a fact. Racism is not a fact.
    Comparing races to species is absurd.
    Saying that race traits differences are very little in the genome doesn’t prove races don’t exist.
    There are dog races, it’s very little the genetic difference between them and nobody discuss the fact that German Shepherd is not the same to Chihuahua. No better, no less, just different.
    Said that, Lovecraft feared the unknown. Anything unfamiliar to him seem to him a possible menace. And that’s pretty clear in many of his stories, related to race or not.
    Well, that’s it. Sorry for the nuisance.

    1. Not a nuisance at all. Your points are well taken. However, the use of the term “race” was in humans was more of sociological construct and not one based on science. This is a key point and it should be recognized; again the term “race” is not based on science and genetics. I keep harping on this point because in the past groups attempted to justify racist attitudes based on science.

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