For your leisure reading over the coming week, would like to shamelessly plug Caleb Lack’s new book, Psychology Gone Astray. If you would like to get a sense of how far the psychological sciences have come over the last century or so, both methodologically and morally, then you might should go read this book.
The authors are unflinching in their examination of how good scientific theories can be co-opted for nefarious purposes, such as providing popular racist and sexist concepts with a sort of quasi-scientific air of legitimacy:
The initial use of evolutionary theory for what would currently be considered racist purposes, and thus the emergence of scientific racism, was not by psychologists (because a coherent field of “psychology” did not exist at the time), but rather by physical anthropologists. The belief that overt physical differences reflected innate psychological differences drove anthropologists to measure and describe even the minutest distinctions between Europeans (who were considered the paragon of perfection even before such measurements were made) and other races (see Gould, 1996 for an excellent critique of such research). These anthropologists developed innumerable ranking systems that, according to them, scientifically demonstrated racial and sex differences. Such differences were then interpreted as representing where each race (and the sex within each race) lay on an evolutionary scale, with the results always supporting the evolutionary superiority of the Caucasian male (Richards, 1996). In addition to physical differences among the races, many scientists began to collect information on the obvious inferiority of the other races, especially the “Negro,” in a multitude of aspects, all of which clearly showed those races to be evolutionarily behind those of European descent. This data included information on maturity levels, individual variance, impulsivity, emotionality, sexuality, and a host of other characteristics (Loehlin, Lindzey, & Spuhler, 1975). This idea, that members of different “races” could somehow be measured and classified on an evolutionary continuum, would come to be fully embraced by a number of early and influential psychologists, setting the stage for what would become known as Social Darwinism and psychology’s role in scientific racism.