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Science and Anti-Semitism

In response to:

Fallen Angels from the June 14, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

R.C. Lewontin in his review of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould [NYR, June 14] states that Charles Doolittle Walcott, the discoverer of the Burgess Shale and a leading American scientist of the time is “revealed” as anti-Semitic.

Gould certainly imputes anti-Semitism to Walcott in one sentence on page 255: “Boas, as German by birth, Jewish by origin, left-leaning in politics, and pro-German in sympathy, inspired wrath from each and every corner of Walcott’s prejudices,” but nowhere gives any evidence to support the charge (Walcott’s quoted attacks on Boas are all because of Boas’s pro-Germanism) and descriptions elsewhere in the book make anti-Semitism by Walcott seem unlikely. On page 254 we are told that “…he rejected the labeling of entire races or social classes as biologically inferior….”

Anti-Semitism is not a light charge, and it should not be lightly made, or repeated, without giving supporting evidence.

Harry G. Parke
Brooklyn, New York

R.C Lewontin replies:

Parke’s complaint against me is just. The word “revealed” denotes a certainty that S.J. Gould’s text does not allow me, and I was only reporting that text. I should better have written “characterized.” I leave it to Steve Gould to amplify the characterization, if he wishes. I cannot resist the opportunity, however, of making a remark about the anti-Semitism of American intellectuals during the early decades of this century. It was pervasive, if in a somewhat genteel form, and few if any of those gentleman anti-Semites could have supported its eventual historical consequences. Indeed, there was an ambivalence about Jews that made “anti-Semitism,” tout court, a slippery ascription. I once had the occasion to examine, in the Harvard archives, the letters and papers of one of the most influential and respected American historians of a previous generation. In a letter recommending a Jewish graduate student for academic employment (so he presumably was not effectively anti-Semitic), he wrote that although Dr. X was undoubtedly a Jew, he was “whiter than the whitest gentile.” In another case from the same era I have seen a letter from a world-renowned scientist recommending a colleague as worthy of a professorship at the University of Chicago, “even though he is a Jew.” The utter moral corruption that present-day anti-Semitism signals cannot so easily be transferred retroactively to those for whom the Inquisition was an extinct evil of the remote past, the Black Hundreds a manifestation of the barbarism of backward Slavs, and a Holocaust perpetrated by a nation of “high culture” unimaginable. The immorality of those respectable anti-Semitic intellectuals was their willingness to ignore historical developments in the interest of pampering their own self-esteem by shallow prejudice. Gnothe seauton!

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