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Meet the Materialists, part 7: Katherine Blackford, M.D., and the “Scientific” Selection of Employees

John G. West

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.

To order Darwin Day in America click here. To find out more information about the book (and watch the trailer), visit the book’s website here.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.



Meet the Materialists