<em>From SUPERman to UNESCOman: A conceptual and historical analysis of the transition from a biological to a cultural view of man in the 20th Century</em>

    Project Details


    In wake of World War II and the Holocaust came the establishment of UNESCO as a specialized agency for education, science and culture under the auspices of the UN. For the next 20 years UNESCO was the core of a dispute in international scientific circles over the correct definition of the concept of race. This was essentially a dispute about whether the natural sciences or the social sciences should take precedence in determining the origin, division and value of man. This dissertation reveals UNESCO's measures to combat biological determinism and analyses their impact on member states from 1945 to 1965, when the UN adopted The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

    A major task for UNESCO was to issue a statement by experts containing a universal definition of race. The organisation expected that such a statement would eliminate racial prejudice and bring people together. The French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has characterized UNESCO's effort as a political project. This dissertation confirms Finkielkraut's claim in the sense that the ethical principles were given in advance, and that the experts were appointed according to their reputation for being critical of the use of race as a scientifically valid concept. On the other hand the initiative was far from being exclusively political, since its presuppositions were based on profound sociological and anthropological research carried out before and during the World War II with UNESCO's future Director-General Julian S. Huxley as a central figure.

    The UNESCO statement on race in 1950 highlighted the unity of mankind as a species and claimed that human groups distinguished by biological traits would be more appropriately referred to as "ethnic groups" rather than "races", a claim which was based on the conviction that subjective feelings of cultural belonging were more important for the choice of a partner and spread of genes than biological belonging. The statement resulted in massive critique. As a consequence UNESCO issued a new statement in 1951 that recognized race as a meaningful category. On the other hand the statement rejected the notion that mental traits could be used in classifying races, and the concept of race lost its potential to legitimise racial discrimination. Before the statement was released anthropologists from all over the world were asked to comment on it in order to strengthen its authority and to evaluate publicly their perception of the concept of race.

    In the years that followed UNESCO launched a publication strategy in order to produce a number of works critical of the concept of race. The organization also requested its member states to improve textbooks and teaching materials, and launched the so-called East-West Major Project in order to promote international understanding. Finally UNESCO issued a third statement in 1964 that was highly sceptical of the concept of race. This statement formulated the UN's definition of race ahead of its convention against racial discrimination.

    The impact of UNESCO's initiatives is evaluated here using Denmark as an example. An analysis of the period prior to 1945 shows that the use of the concept of race was widespread, and was pervasive throughout the educational system. The concept influenced views of Danish-ness, of relations to foreigners and of the treatment of deviants. Nevertheless little attention was devoted to UNESCO's initiatives during the first decade after World War II, since The Danish National Commission for UNESCO conceived of Denmark as an exporter of culture.

    In scientific circles the initiatives faced some resistance but also some degree of good will. Danish anthropologists abandoned mental traits as criteria for racial classification and engaged in human genetics, which emphasized universal problems such as diseases and radiation hazard. In the fields of ethnography, geography and history, UNESCO tried to oblige practitioners to work according to the UN's ethical standards and brought about some element of change. At the same time sociology achieved institutional status, which ultimately meant that the balance between sociology and physical anthropology changed, so that cultural explanations of the divisions existing between men and of human behaviour acquired a dominant role.

    The fact that staff members at the Ministry of Education in the mid-1950s were deeply involved in UNESCO's work was crucial. In 1954 experimental education was initiated in order to promote international understanding, and the official bias of views of Denmark as an exporter of culture was abandoned. In 1960 the promotion of international understanding became an official Danish education policy, and with the economical support from UNESCO, textbooks and teaching methods were improved. UNESCO's initiatives were important for the establishment of a new view of a number of traditional Danish counter-images such as that of Africans, Jews and Greenlanders. The mentally defective also found themselves subject to re-imaging, but that was rather an effect of a distinctive Danish initiative without any interference from UNESCO, since leading employees in the organisation were in favour of eugenic legislation.

    This dissertation shows that a range of events, not least the Holocaust and decolonisation, provided the breeding ground for a general consensus that the political use of the concept of race was ethically reprehensible. But, due to its considerable and coordinated efforts to de-legitimise biological determinism, UNESCO played a major part in imposing a new view of man. The promotion of the now widespread and highly controversial concept of racism, in particular, was in large part an outcome of UNESCO's efforts. This concept has played a major role in maintaining a consensus of what is now perceived to be morally, scientifically and politically correct, namely that humans are to a greater extent cultural beings than they are products of nature.

    Effective start/end date01/04/200315/06/2007


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