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Heredity, Race and Society

(13 January 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 2, 13 January 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Heredity, Race and Society
by L.C. Dunn and Th. Dobzhansky
Penguin Books, Inc., 115 pp., 25 Cents.

Here is a clearly written, simple, yet carefully scientific introduction to the complex and controversial subject of heredity, problems of “race” and the relation of both to society. The authors, professors of zoology at Columbia University – one of them famous for his experiments with the Drosophilia flies – have attempted to give a popular exposition of the mechanism that governs our heredity, the question of individual differences among groups of people and the science of eugenics, or the improvement of the human race by scientifically planned means. In its consideration of these and related problems this small book is successful and readable.

Only in its handling of social problems of race and society, or that overlapping field where theories of race and heredity tend to become social and political problems, does this work fall short of the mark (as, for example, the contention of the authors that “group pride” is the force behind variations in social institutions and systems and the rivalry between them); but, fortunately, these superficialties are few in number.

The book begins with a discussion of the relationship between heredity and environment (“Nature vs. Nurture”) and rapidly disposes of the common fallacies of counterposing each of these factors to the other. Heredity is defined as a factor “determining our general response’s to the environment” about us. “Everything we have learned about heredity,” say the authors, “leads us to think of it not as a blind,’ absolute and inexorable force, but rather as the setting, the particular form of responsiveness with which we meet life.”

Nature and Nurture

But just as we have learned, through an enormous scientific and technical development, how to “control some parts of our environment,” so too, “when we learn to know the potentialities of our inherited constitutions and how to place them in proper relation to a controlled environment, human differences may come to be viewed in a new light.” In general, conclude the authors, “modern biology has strengthened the hands of those who try to improve the minds and bodies of men by improving the conditions in which they live. The normal mental and emotional ‘Natures’ are very responsive to ‘Nurtures’ of education and social influences.”

A lengthy section of the book then deals with the actual laws and methods of heredity and its transmission, with descriptions of the famous Mendelian laws and experiments. This well-written and clear section should give any reader a basic understanding of the methods and factors involved, and the whole question of genes, the unit of heredity transmission. The authors neatly dispose of the popular theory of “blood heredity,” raised to such heights by Nazi ideologists. “The most cherished pride of many people is the supposed fact that some fraction of their ‘blood’ is derived from a noble ancestor, or from a passenger on the Mayflower, or from a real or a trumped-up great man or woman ... in reality one may have either more or fewer, down to no genes at all especially from the more remote ancestors”. (page 48)

Perhaps the most interesting section of this work is the concluding portion on race. Here such questions as race classification, how races are distinguished, the “pure” race theory and an attempted definition of race, are taken up. The authors reject the common, reactionary theories and bolster their rejection with facts and scientific argument. “The hereditary diversity of a group, be it a family, a clan, or a race, persists indefinitely. The heredity of an individual is only partly determined by the race from which he sprang. The diversity, the variation, found in a race is more important than the racial averages.”

Finally, describing the long-time trend toward a clear “race fusion,” the authors conclude with the optimistic remark that “regardless of how the problem of the relations between biological heredity, individual and group psychology and culture may eventually be settled, the variety of human cultures will appear to us an inspiration rather than as a curse if we learn to respect, to understand and to admire them.”

As an objective, intelligent and instructive book, written in the best tradition of liberal scientific spirit on a series of controversial questions, we recommend Heredity, Race and Society to our readers.

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