The Irregular Brain: Scientists as Racists

02/16/2009 09:16 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With all the anniversary attention to Charles Darwin these days, the usual question pops up: Was Darwin a racist? The answer is an unqualified yes. You won't find his racism in his On the Origin of Species (1859), but you will find plenty of it in his later book The Descent of Man (1871). Plenty of it--and plenty of it dripping with sheer disdain and disgust for all but the white races, with special vitriol for "savage" primitives. There's much in the media at present about how Darwin was against slavery. But I put it to you that Darwin saw his abolitionist ideas merely as an extension of his opposition to cruelty to animals. Had one of his sons wanted to marry a black African woman, Darwin might have slit the young man's throat--or blown his own brains out with a pistol.

Darwin was indeed a racist--but that has absolutely nothing to do with whether evolution by natural selection is a fact. It's a fact, all right. Three times two equals six no matter who says it.

Some people have a tendency to put scientists on a pedestal as objects of admiration. Putting science on a pedestal is one thing; but putting scientists--the people who work at science--on a pedestal is something quite different. The individual human brain is an extremely complex natural system, and the individual human mind, the cognitive manifestation of the dynamics of that system, is at least of an equal order of complexity. Brain and mind are also domains where paradox is commonplace. People tend to think that in any individual all parts of the brain have equal development and are functioning with equal capacity. It's a gross mistake and often leads to confusion about individual behavior.

My favorite story about this concerns Ernst Pascual Jordan (1902-1980), a theoretical physicist. Jordan was one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century, the principal architect of the Born-Heisenberg-Jordan matrix quantum mechanics, the essential inventor of quantum field theory, and a 20th century tour de force in mathematical physics--but he was also an ardent Nazi storm trooper, complete with brown uniform, jackboots, and swastika armband.

In May 1933, Jordan joined the Nazi party. But even before the Nazis came to power in January 1933, Jordan had been a conservative nationalist. Under the pseudonym "Domeier", he published his racist views in the right-wing journal Deutsches Volkstum (German Heritage), arguments about the superiority of Aryans and the subhumanity of Jews. In November 1933, Jordan joined an SA (Sturmabteilung) unit and became a storm trooper. He volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, worked mostly as a meteorologist at airfields, and also at the notorious Peenemunde rocket center.

Jordan's contributions to science are unequivocal. He was the originator of the quantum theory of fields, which most physicists now take to be the basis of all physics. He was the first to realize that all things in the Universe--photons, electrons, protons, atoms, people and elephants--are field quanta. Of the triumvirate Pascual Jordan, Max Born, and Werner Heisenberg that formulated matrix quantum mechanics in 1925, Jordan was the principal architect of the theory. But in spite of his revolutionary contributions, Jordan never achieved the acclaim of his contemporaries and friends Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli, maybe because Jordan was looked down upon by Pauli and Heisenberg as more of a mathematician than a physicist.

Pascual Jordan also made the first formulation of what is now called Fermi-Dirac statistics. The story is that in 1925 Max Born, who was then editor of the Zeitschrift fur Physik, was given a paper by Jordan for publication in the journal. Born put the paper in his briefcase and then left for the US to give lectures at MIT. Born forgot about the paper, and when he returned to Germany six months later, he found the paper at the bottom of the suitcase. According to Max Born: "It contained what came to be known as the Fermi-Dirac statistics. In the meantime, it had been discovered by Enrico Fermi and, independently, by Paul Dirac. But Jordan was the first."

After World War II, thanks to the intercession of Wolfgang Pauli, Jordan was "rehabilitated" and advanced from visiting to full professor at the University of Hamburg.

So there's the story of the physicist Pascual Jordan. If the mathematical part of his brain was obviously highly developed, some other parts of his brain were apparently not so developed.

We should not be surprised that the keen observer and sharp scientist Charles Darwin could produce his theory of evolution by natural selection and his book On the Origin of Species with one part of his brain, while another part of his brain jumped to conclusions about "subhuman" savages--conclusions based on simplistic casual observations and Victorian racist propaganda.

Scientists are people. They have agonies, emotions, inconsistencies, and they can be quite stupid about love, life, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of them have irregular brains. Call them human and nothing more.