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The Passing Of The Great Race

No discussion of the dreamlike years of overt American scientific racism and schooling would be complete without a nod to the ghost of Madison Grant, who has mysteriously vanished from the pages of some standard biographical references, though they still carry his cousins, Grant the portrait painter and Grant the educator. No matter, I shall tell you about him. If you have ever been to the Bronx Zoo6 you have been a guest of Mr. Grant’s beneficent imagination, for he was its founder and the founder of its parent, the New York Zoological Society. The Bronx Zoo, its fame and good works inspire worldwide gratitude. Grant’s legacy to us, as free libraries were Carnegie’s.

Grant was a lifelong bachelor, a childless man. Like many people associated with public schooling on a policy level, Grant came from a patrician family which had graced society from colonial days. No Grant ever held a menial job. Madison Grant was considered a leading scientific naturalist of his time. His monographs on the Rocky Mountain goat, the moose, and the caribou are little classics of their kind, still consulted. Men and women related to Grant have been directors of American society since the Age of the Mathers.

Grant was deeply disgusted by the mixing of European races underway here; he believed the foundation of our national and cultural life lay in racial purity and backed this opinion with action. It is hardly possible to believe some of this attitude didn’t enter into the museum’s presentation of data and even into those hundreds of thousands of school field trips. In Grant’s competent hands, the boldness and sweep of old Anglo-Saxon tradition was fused into a systematic worldview, then broadcast through books and lectures to the entire planet. His magnum opus appeared in 1916 bearing the epic title The Passing of the Great Race, with an introduction by Museum of Natural History luminary Henry Fairfield Osborn—a man who wrote one of the texts I used myself as a junior high school student.

The Passing of the Great Race warns that the ruling race of the Western world is beginning to wane because of a "fatuous belief" that environment can alter heredity.7 The clear connection to the predestination canon of Calvin and to the great Norse tradition of implacable Fate is unmistakable. Grant’s own genealogy came from both these strains in European history. Whatever else he was, Grant was neither dull nor commonplace. Using Darwin and Mendelian genetics to support his argument, Grant said flatly that different races do not blend, that mixing "gives us a race reverting to the more ancient and lower type." A "cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew."

Grant argued that culture is racially determined. Alpines have always been peasants, Mediterraneans, artists and intellectuals; but "the white man par excellence" was the Nordic blonde conqueror of the North: explorers, fighters, rulers, aristocrats, organizers of the world. In early America the stock was purely Nordic, but now swarming hybrids threatened it with destruction except in a few zones of racial purity like Minnesota.

Madison Grant felt democracy as a political system violated scientific facts of heredity the same way Christianity did, by favoring the weak. This led inexorably to biological decadence. Even national consciousness might confuse one’s rational first loyalty, which had to be race. This was the codex of the Bronx Zoo’s founder. Six years after its publication, The Passing of the Great Race was still in print and Grant’s New York Zoological Society more respectable than ever. Eventually Margaret Mead was beneficiary of considerable patronage from Grant’s Museum of Natural History, as indeed the whole shaky new community of anthropological thought became. Although Mead’s work appears to contradict Grant’s, by the time the academic world began to push the relativism of Mead, Ruth Benedict, and other interpreters of primitive culture, a double standard had settled in on intellectual life in the United States and Europe.

For those whose status was secured by birth, theories of inherited quality were available. For the great mass of others, however, the body of theory which paid off in foundation grants, the one driving modern political and economic development, was that corpus of studies exploring the notion of extreme plasticity in human nature, a pliability grading into shapelessness. If mankind were seen to be clay, radical social action justifying continuous intervention could surely bring utopia within reach, while providing expanding opportunities to academics. The academic marketplace eagerly supplied evidence that quality was innate to the powerful, and evidence that human nature was empty to the rest of us.


6As five hundred thousand school trips to date have been.

7Simplified, the belief that human nature could be changed, complicated enormously by a collateral belief
that there are a variety of such natures, correlated with race and other variables. As I warn elsewhere, these men used the concept "race" in a more intimate way than contemporary ears are used to. As Grant would have viewed things, "white" or "Caucasian" is subject to many subdivisions, each of which has a value rank. The "great race" in America is Aryan. One very influential tome of the 1920s, for instance, was Joseph Widney’s two-volume Race Life of the Aryan People. Widney was a founder of the University of Southern California.

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