Dr. Malgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska, a cultural historian who specializes in the 19th and 20th centuries, visited class on Thursday to discuss social Darwinism, eugenics, and scientific racism. An energetic and engaging speaker, Dr. Rymsza-Pawlowska first showed us pictures of Chicago’s waterfront, one from 1820 and one from 1870 to remind us that Darwin’s publications coincided with another huge change: second-wave Industrialization in the U.S. With the widespread use of the steam engine to power trains, boats, and factory machinery, Industrialization created a different social structure. People moved from their family’s farms to seek jobs in the cities. Now, products could be bought instead of made. Now, reputations could be created instead of inherited. Now, individuals could follow personal aspirations. But with these shifts, many of which were liberating, also came anxieties. Who were all these people flocking to the cities from all over the world? How did one find community? How did one express individuality? And how is hierarchy established within all this anonymity?
Questions of hierarchy due to industrialism are compounded by Darwin’s works that suggest nature has far more influence than previously understood. While historians are careful not to suggest causality, Dr. Rymsza-Pawlowska mentioned how fashion, brands, baby books, and photography all became increasingly popular during this time when people were concerned with status and how to quickly communicate it. And unfortunately, some latched onto racist ideas such as proposing that the shape of one’s forehead (phrenology) was an indicator of intelligence. Big surprise, the brow of the Englishman was an indicator of the highest intelligence, which is how we got the term “high-brow.” Other examples of pseudo-science include this misapplied idea of “survival of the fittest” to help rationalize behaviors of aggressive industrialists. All of this makes me think about pseudo-science today—and just how dangerous a poor understanding of science can be as we are currently seeing with climate change.