Beardsley (1973). The American Scientist as Social Activist: Franz Boas, Burt G. Wilder, and the Cause of Racial Justice, 1900-1915.

Beardsley, E. H. (1973). The American Scientist as Social Activist: Franz Boas, Burt G. Wilder, and the Cause of Racial Justice, 1900-1915. Isis, 64(1), 50–66.
This article illustrates how principled individuals used science for social good. In the case of Boas, he rehabilitated anthropology from being a pursuit of amateurs into a scientific endeavour. He was able to effectively argue against white supremacy and racism using anthropology, scientific method, and rational argumentation. The article points out how racism came to influence scientific endeavour. Due to widespread racism, the political climate, and tepid cultural and scientific leadership, Boas’ was unable to receive charitable funding from leading philanthropists of the time nor even from organizations such as the Smithsonian. –oki

“Eventually, of course, American science became an active force for racial egalitarianism, but allegedly the shift began only in the late 1920s, reaching its peak in the 1930s, when Nazi brutalities against European Jewry made the inherent dangers of racism more clear. In sum, American scientists were Johnny-come-latelies in advocating racial justice for Negroes.” (p 50)

“While Boas’ and Wilder’s activism was not necessarily typical of that of other scientists sympathetic to the Negro cause, the vigor of their involvement, along with the fact that theirs was a shared outlook, suggests a need for revising the traditional racist image of American scientists of the early twentieth century.” (p 51)

“Boas came from a different background. Born in Germany in 1858, the son of a prosperous and politically conscious middle-class family, he was also a product of the German university tradition. … In 1899, after two museum appointments, a period at Clark University, and a stint as an editor of _Science_, Boas accepted a permanent position as head of anthropology at Columbia University, a post he would hold until 1937.” (p 52)

“… Boas was an activist for what were essentially professional reasons. A cautious and skillful  investigator who deplored hasty and unfounded generalization, Boas took strong exception to American scientists’ readiness to embrace what he regarded as unsupported speculation about the Negro race.” (p 53)

“When Boas assumed his Columbia University post in the late 1890s the concept of evolutionism was still the fashion in anthropology. A doctrine that arranged all the races of man in a sort of evolutionary line-up from the savage at the rear to the most civilized races up front, this theory provided not only a system for rating achievements of contemporary cultures but also a description of the pathway the higher races had [page break] followed in getting to the top. But the way up was clearly not open to all. To the evolutionist the term ‘civilized race’ carried the additional connotations of superior and white (more precisely, Anglo-Saxon), while ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ implied inferior and non-white. Furthermore, certain of the non-white peoples assigned to the lower orders of being (the Negroes, for example) were destined to remain there. The belief was that evolution had simply stopped working for them.” (p 53-54)

“By the mid-1890s Boas strongly rejected such thinking, largely because anthropologists had never put their evolutionary model to the test, had never paused in their zeal for sweeping generalization to make those detailed analyses of specific cultures upon which generalization had to rest.” (p 54)

“Boas’ research led him to quite different conclusions. Willing to study primitive peoples on their own cultural terms, he realized early that the alleged weakness of the savage mind was merely a mirage which owed its existence to anthropologists’ insistence on viewing native mores and actions from the vantage of white cultural values.” (p 54)

“Fundamentally, then, Boas’ public involvement on the issue of race sprang from a scientist’s desire to rid his discipline of prevailing amateurism and to substitute the [page break] rigorous methods of science for facile generalization. … When Boas began work at Columbia, anthropology was still largely the preserve of those he regarded as amateurs in their approach. As an aggressive professional, holding strong views about the need for his discipline to become more truly scientific, he felt obliged to oppose that amateurism wherever he found it. In segregationist America there was no lack of targets.” (p 54-55)

“Finally, their efforts also had significance for the social history of science in the United States in that their fight for racial justice set one of the historic precedents for the recent and widespread social activism of American scientists. Following World War II scholars in a variety of fields came to regard such involvement as a normal professional role: nuclear physicists campaigned publicly for disarmament and control of atomic weapons; biologists fought against pollution and population explosion; psychiatrists and biologists moved in the vanguard of the civil rights movement.” (p 66)

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