Excerpts from “This Nordic Nonsense,” The Forum

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Excerpts from

This Nordic Nonsense,” The Forum (October, 1925)

By Franz Boas, Columbia University

When the agitation for restriction of immigration set in, it was based entirely on economic considerations. The first laws were passed under the pressure of the labor element, as a means of protecting the wages of the American workman against cheap European competition.
In course of time the point of view has shifted considerably. The idea of racial superiority of the “Nordic,” or in other words of the Northwest European, combined with eugenic propaganda, has brought it about that we are possessed by the fear of being swamped by a people of inferior physical and mental endowment, and that immigration of southern and eastern Europeans will result in the degeneracy of our nation and the development of an inferior stock.
In consequence of this change in attitude, the recent laws regulating immigration discriminate, not in words, but in fact, against all people that are not considered as representatives of the “Nordic” type.
This development is merely a symptom of the world-wide “complex” of race consciousness that has grown up during the past century . . . . Stewart Houston Chamberlain in Austria, Vacher de Lapouge in France, Hans Gunther in Germany, Madison Grant in America, are a few names that indicate the growth in intensity of feeling and the increasing lack of scientific judgment that has accompanied this development.
It is not easy to understand the precise way by which the idea of racial superiority was grafted upon the older concept of nationality which has been dominant since the end of the eighteenth century, and which has received a new impetus from the World War . . . . For the north European a purely esthetic element is undoubtedly important, based on the contrast of bodily traits, and the influence of the current ideals of beauty of the human body.
Probably more important is the development of a biological point of view among the masses of our people, and particularly the influence of modern theories of genetics. We are now familiar with the general principles according to which bodily form is inherited by each individual. This concept, which is based entirely on individual heredity, had been extended without justification to include racial heredity. Furthermore the assumption is made that heredity of bodily form implies necessarily heredity in the manner of functioning of the organism, both physiologically and mentally. Finally the concept of individual heredity determination of the functions of the body was extended to the belief that a certain kind of organism was a hereditary characteristic of racial groups.
The fundamental problems involved in these generalizations have hardly been visualized and are certainly not understood by those writers who are not controlled by critical caution but who are carried away by the ardent wish to establish the superiority of the “Nordic.”
If we wish to examine the justification of the recent immigration law which excludes certain groups of mankind because they are considered to be inferior . . . we ought to know first of all what characterizes various groups of men. We observe their bodily forms, their physiological functions, their individual mentality, and their social behavior. All of these enter into our judgment of racial groups . . . .
From the physical characteristics of a person alone it is impossible to say with certainty that he must belong to one or the other section of the European

continent . . . there is no common characteristic which belongs to all individuals inhabiting any one locality. So-called “Nordics” are found in varying frequency in all parts of Europe.

Diversity in each local group is so great that we may discover differences not only among individuals but also in family lines. We know from our everyday experience that certain traits may belong to one family line and may never occur in another . . . Any people of “Nordic” race includes family lines which have physical characteristics quite different from our ordinary concept of a “Nordic,” and it would be rash to claim that these families do not belong by descent to the Nordics. They are, rather, striking variants of the ancestral stock . . .
However, we are interested in the physiological and mental functions more than in bodily form, and we must examine critically the important assumption that function is primarily dependent upon the form of the organism.
We must never forget that our bodily organs are all subject to what might be called a wide margin of safety, which makes it possible for them to adapt themselves to widely varying conditions. The same individual, provided he is healthy, can adjust himself to very diverse modes of life, to differences in climate and altitude, to sedentary life or hard labor, to meat or vegetable diet. The various organs will adapt themselves to the demands made upon them. Heart, lungs, and intestines will function satisfactorily under widely different conditions. Thus it happens that in any healthy population individuals of very different form will show a great similarity of bodily function, and, on the other hand, individuals of the same bodily form living in different environment may react quite differently. All this shows that within wide limits different races may adapt themselves to the same conditions and also that the same race may adapt itself to quite different conditions . . .
All this does not mean that the functions of an organism are entirely independent of hereditary influences, or, to use a modern expression, that the functioning of the body is not related to its constitution. However, it is quite impossible to show that certain constitutions are confined to definite races.

On the contrary, every constitutional type is found in all races . . . It is therefore not possible to assign a certain individual to a definite race on the basis of his constitution . . . .
It will be claimed against these considerations that the mental functioning of different racial groups examined in the United States has been found to be quite varied, and that particularly in the tests of enlisted soldiers great differences have been found in the responses of various racial groups. Stress has been laid upon Dr. [Carl] Brigham’s findings. He showed by means of intelligence tests that immigrants who came here quite recently do not do as well as those who have been here for a longer period. He concluded from this that a gradual deterioration of the immigrant stock has occurred. The observation is right, but the interpretation is quite arbitrary. When the same groups are investigated in regard to the degree of assimilation to American conditions, and particularly in regard to the acquisition of the English language, the same differences are found. We may therefore conclude that we are not by any means dealing with groups whose hereditary endowment is distinct, but that it takes time to adjust . . . to [the] new environment. Dr. Brigham himself . . . adopted this point of view . . . .
Notwithstanding all the criticisms that may be made against the data we have in hand, the unbiased observer will see that everywhere the process of amalgamation is proceeding rapidly, and that the dangers which are supposed to exist from a biological point of view are purely imaginary.
We should insist at the present time that in order to formulate a sensible policy in regard to immigration we ought to know exactly what becomes of immigrants. Much of the material is available in the individual records of the Census Reports, be we ought to demand that in the next Census those particular inquiries should be made that will answer once and for all the claims that are being made of lack of assimilation and assimilability of immigrants. At the present time this opinion cannot be substantiated . . .
Whatever protective measures may seem commendable from an economic viewpoint, the only restriction of immigration that can be defended from a biological or sociological point of view is one based on the health of the family lines of the immigrants. Nationality is absolutely irrelevant. The fear of continued segregation of European national groups is not founded on facts, but on vague impressions obtained from the massing of immigrants in congested city quarters . . . The social resistance to Americanizing influences is so weak that it may rather be regretted that we profit so little from the cultural heritage of the immigrants than feared lest they exert a modifying influence upon American thought and sentiment.

  1. Briefly summarize the main argument Boas makes regarding the restriction of immigration to the United States.

  2. What does he mean by “This Nordic Nonsense”? Explain.

  3. For Boas what are the respective roles of heredity (i.e., “Nature”) and environment (i.e., “Nurture”)? Explain.

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