Overrepresentation and Eugenical ‘Man’

24Oct20

In Sylvia Wynter’s “Unsettling Coloniality…” she suggests that discourses on the progress of the figure of the human (but in the name of Man) remain too eurocentric – that the so-called progress of ‘human’ civilization from Man 1 (theological and social from the Renaissance to the 18th century) to Man 2 (bio-centric and economic begining in the mid to late 18th century). In particular Wynter shows how contact with non-Europeans by the conquistadors (for example) generated a crisis in terms of the relation between humans as rational and humans as god-fearing – a debate over whether the Aztecs were rational or not – whether they could be enslaved or whether they could be saved.

The shift to Man 2 Wynter says is precipated by the economization of the colonial project over and above its empire building (the driving engine shifting to the bourgeoise and industrial order of the late 18th and 19th century). In particular Wynter points to the racist discourse in Darwin’s The Descent of Man in which he spends the first 200 pages or so leveling the distinctions between humans and animals but always suggests that the so-called lesser developed people are closer to animals than Victorian englishmen are.

Wynter argues that such bio-centrism gets in the way of actually having a concept of human which she seems to suggest (though the weight of her conclusion is not completely clear to me) that we need ultimately a normative/narrative definition of the human. If there is some hope in decolonizing biology it seems that it is important to understand how this form of biocentrism happened and what the history of biology can tell us about the choices of certain biological theories for social and political reasons.

Wynter talks about the overrepresentation of man – that ‘man’ as a european category came to stand in for the human. I would say that there is a set of images that dominate how biocentrism is thought namely that of 20th century eugenics in which the most explicit notion of Man 2 (as white european ‘normal’) became wedded to something like biology but not biology itself. In part the problem is that nazi eugenics overdetermines or overrepresents biocentrism in the 20th century till now when it fact the nazi eugenics program was a culmination of speculative anthropology, racist nationalism combined with eugenics programs adapted from the US and the UK.

The problem is that the nazi eugenics program was initially wedded to a more general international movement of defining one’s people in the name of national identity and hygiene (with all its implicit racism). This then morphed into a social-focused sterilization effort (targeting those considered mentally ill or handicapped) that become glued to the speculative anthropology of Aryan history (explicitly racist). For instance, while concepts like struggle for existence were taken from Darwin and Spencer they were rapidly detached from evolution since evolution did not mix well with the intentionally vague qualities of Aryanness. Hitler was not physically Aryan but bore the ‘proper qualities’ of Aryanness for example.

This kind of ambiguity was already present in early eugenics works such as those of Francis Galton who emphasized the admittedly vague nature of breeding when attached to blood as a privileged object of heredity and lineage. ‘Good breeding’ and ‘blood’ were scientific-mythical objects that had a foot in each realm and were maximally politically pliable.

The question of what is the ‘bio’ of biocentrism is linked very much to what is the bio of biopolitics. It is as much a question of why do certain models of biology get championed and why do partial aspects of those get further edited to fit various teleological fantasies that benefit the eurocentrism of the west? Wynter, towards the end of the essay, identies Darwinism with a particular history of biology:

“Nevertheless, while these lay humanist intellectuals had indeed effected a redescriptive statement by means of which they secularized human existence, detaching it from the supernatural agency of the divine realm, they had done so only by opening the pathway that would eventually lead, with Darwin, to a new descriptive statement, itself re-anchored in the no less extrahuman agency of Evolution, thereby reducing the human within the terms of a biocentric “human sciences” paradigm to being a “mere mechanism” driven in its behavior by its genetic programs— and, as such, subject to the processes of natural causation, rather than to the ontogeny/sociogeny or nature-culture modality of causation, which alone could enable (as Fanon brilliantly glimpsed) the reflexively self-aversive behavior of many westernized Black peoples, made into the Other to our present ethnoclass norm of being human, to repress the genetic instinctual narcissism defining of all modes of purely organic life. And what Fanon’s new answer to the question of who/what we are (its revalorizing “descriptive statement” detached now from any form of extrahuman agency or author-ship, theocentric or biocentric) enables us to come to grips with is precisely such a new mode of causation, thereby, with the still-to-be-explained puzzle of (human) consciousness(es), doing so outside the terms of our present “Two Culture” order of knowledge and its adaptive “regime of truth” based on the biocentric disciplinary paradigms in whose terms we at present know our social reality; this, as the indispensable condition of our continuing to assume that the mode of being in which we now are (have socialized/ inscripted ourselves to be) is isomorphic with the being of being human itself, in its multiple self-inscripting, auto-instituting modalities.”

Jessica Riskin’s work (which I discuss here) shows how this particular form of Darwinism (what many still think of as the only form of Darwinism) is a very narrow strand that emphasizes population genetics over and above more historically conscious models of macroevolution. Researchers who emphasized macroevolution (like Stephen Jay Gould) tended also to see past the iron curtain during the cold war (like in Lewontin’s Diaclectical Biologist) which in turn meant recognizing the ideological limits of western biology as it intersected with fantasies of individuals as markets. It is no surprse that when Lynn Margulis worked on symbiosis in early organisms much of her work was based on research down in the soviet union…In her conversation with Katherine McKittrick Wynter further discusses the relation of science and myth via Fanon and Cesaire. Wynter believes that we (humans or yet to be human) have not recognized our own sociogenic capacities.

This also points to a huge set of problems surrounding the oppositions of science and myth and disenchantment and enchantment which are so near to dear to the legacy of cultural theory. Accepting the power of science as only a myth that denies its myth-hood denies or at least severely minimizes the real changes and practices of scientific endeavor. Evolution explains quite a lot but social biology, I think, explains very little. The veneer of authority dragged from the one to the other explains (somewhat) how the differences between this are too often muddled (by both critics and supporters).

This emerges in a diagonal fashion in Wynter’s “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, The Puzzle of Conscious Experience, of “Identity” and What it’s Like to be “Black” in which she investigates how Fanon in Black Skin White Masks describes sociogeny as beyond onto- and phylogenesis.

What is left unclear (at least to me) is the form of inscription or praxis that Wynter advocates ultimately. Her work, and other work in decoloniality, functions as a kind of three arm balance between natural, formal, and historical or we could say scientific, subjective, and narrative discourses.

Next part is here



One Response to “Overrepresentation and Eugenical ‘Man’”


  1. 1 The Sociogenic and Decolonial Biology | Naught Thought

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