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American Annals of the Deaf

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Genetics, Disability, and Deafness

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At the height of the panic over immigration in the United States, there were several efforts to buck the tide of nativist sentiment and assert the virtues of ethnic pluralism. Some of these texts are read today as brave prolepses of multiculturalism—for example, Horace Kallen’s anti-anti-immigrant essay, “Democracy and the Melting Pot,” which he published in 1915. Kallen’s essay was written as a response to the eugenicist Edward Ross, who had just published a collection of essays opposing immigration. But in fact, Kallen’s science was exactly the same as Ross’s. Kallen was a recovered Jew—that is, he had lapsed from the faith of his father, a German immigrant who had become a Boston rabbi, but had rediscovered his Jewishness as a student at Harvard, under the influence of a professor who persuaded him that the Puritans had Hebrew blood. This reconversion inspired Kallen to his core belief: fulfillment in life is a function of cultural identity; cultural identity is a function of ethnicity; and ethnicity is immutable. The most famous line in Kallen’s essay on “Democracy and the Melting Pot” is this one: “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers.”2 Or as he put it again a few years later: “An Irishman is always an Irishman, a Jew always a Jew. . . . Irishman and Jew are facts in nature; citizen and church-member artefacts in civilization.”3

Kallen thought that racial ancestry was an unalterable constituent of selfhood. This meant, as he put it, that the happiness people pursue in their lives “has its form implied in ancestral endowment.”4 Your hopes and fears, your limitations and your potential, are already there at birth, in your genes. Kallen did not believe that the races (or nationalities, which he defined racially) were equal in natural endowment. He thought that some races were higher than others, and that each race, or ethnic group, had its own inherent characteristics. Nor did he believe in race-mixing, ethnic interbreeding, although he thought that since people generally prefer their own kind, this was not as great a danger as people like Edward Ross feared. Kallen only believed that each ethnic group deserved equal respect—so long as it kept its social place. He espoused a noninvidious form of ethnic and racial segregation: separate but equal, equal as long as separate, higher distinct from lower. Science had let him see no alternative.

There is a great battle going on in our intellectual culture today. It is a battle between people who believe that science opens new possibilities for human life and people who worry that it closes them. I spend most of my time around the second kind of people, people who regard science as more or less an agent of social control disguised as a neutral observer. These people think that scientists are reductive, and that they are too quick to leap from data to prescription. More than this, they think that science refuses to admit the reality of anything that it cannot measure. The great web of metaphor and image that people use to describe and make sense of their experience in the world is dismissed by scientists, who prefer to talk about things like genes and neurotransmitters instead. But to the skeptics, genes and neurotransmitters are just as much imaginary constructs as witches’ curses and the Oedipal complex, and a lot less suggestive. They seem hopelessly underpowered explanatory devices, boxed in by the dogmatics of empiricism.

The type of racial science that informed the thinking of people like Ross and Kallen is now, thankfully, discredited. No one believes that the nonheritability of artificially shortened mouse tails has implications for immigration policy. Contemporary anti-immigrationists rely on different arguments. But there are new developments in science today that, in their popularized form, seem to many people to propose restrictions on human possibility. These are behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology, sometimes referred to as “the new sciences of human nature.”

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