Note: This is one of a series of posts adapted from my new book, Darwin Day in America. You can find other posts in the series here.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, Katherine Blackford , M.D., urged America’s businesses to reinvent their employment policies by drawing on the discoveries of modern science, especially Darwinian biology. Employment selection procedures, in short, needed to be based on the facts of natural selection.
According Blackford, this meant first of all that businesses must understand that every person’s mental and physical traits have evolved through a long process of “survival of the fittest.” As a result, “every feature of his body, as well as every little twist and turn of his mental abilities, his morals, and his disposition, are the result of heredity and environment of his ancestors extending back into antiquity… plus his own environment and experiences.” Moreover, “every mental and psychical state and activity is accompanied by its particular physical reaction.” Therefore, to determine a person’s moral and mental characteristics, one merely needed to examine the corresponding physical manifestations of those moral and mental traits. Promoting a system of scientific “character analysis” that might be described as a cross between phrenology and eugenics, Blackford identified nine physical traits she said provided the keys to unlocking a potential employee’s inner secrets, including skin color, form (e.g., the shape of the nose, chin, and mouth), physical size, and the structure of the muscles, the brain, and the digestive system.
Whether or not it was sound science, it was certainly popular. What became known as the “Blackford plan” for employee selection was adopted by companies throughout the country, and books by Blackford went through multiple editions. According to Blackford, skin color was one of the most important traits in understanding someone’s capabilities, and they divided all human beings into “blondes” and “brunettes”–“those with white skins and those with dark skins.” She also insisted that scientific character analysis did not even require personal interviews. Photographs were enough for a trained analyst to draw scientifically justified conclusions about the subjects under study.
But the Blackford plan was just one example of how Darwinian pseudoscience was used to justify racist employee selection in the early part of the twentieth century. As I explain in “The Science of Business,” chapter 8 of my book Darwin Day in America, misusing biology to weed out the presumed unfit from various occupations was rampant in pre-World War II America.
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